Rail trips across Australia’s vast state borders had always held all the elements of narrative for Astley: human beings in a small space forging strange alliances, all with a rueful acceptance of their own banality. In a railway carriage anyone could be “people freak” – Astley’s favourite term for herself – could listen in on the frank conversations which were natural theatre to her ear.
That’s why I was obsessed with the work of Thea Astley in my mid-teens. You know how you have phases as a reader when your gorge on a writer’s work?
I loved them. I read them over and over again, in fact, the reason I bought them was that I kept taking them out of the library and getting withdrawal symptoms if someone had got there first, till my mother said, “For heaven’s sake, have the things,” rather as if she was giving me the money to go out and get stoned …
That’s Bridget in Jan Mark’s short story ‘The Travelling Settee’ (from her collection A Can of Worms). Bridget devours the books to shreds, then moves on to someone else – the way we all do – until she discovers them again.
Recently, following a house move, I unpacked all my books after years of shrouding them in storage and this is how I rediscovered my love for the Australian writer Thea Astley.
You don’t know her? She’d toss her head and say ‘Well, who does?’ But she’d be wrong. In a nutshell: Thea Astley (1925-2004) published 16 works of fiction over a 40-year-period. She won the Miles Franklin Award for the best novel depicting Australian life three times – a record equalled only by Tim Winton. She won a host of other awards, had books set as curriculum texts and, towards the end of her career but by no means at the end, achieved great success in Australia and in the US.
By the time she died, pretty much all her books were back in print and enjoying reprints. But she believed she was overlooked, and misunderstood, and missold.
She couldn’t have thought I misunderstood her, though. I wrote to her and went to see her at events. I think she liked the fact that I was a student – she’d been a teacher, just like Jan Mark and, come to think of it, probably responded infinitely more warmly to students than to those who guided them. Anyway.
Fast forward 20 years or so …
I reread Karen Lamb’s biography of Astley, from which the quote at the head of this piece is taken. I remembered an interview with Astley where she claimed to be ‘the cyclops eye at the end of the carriage’ – eavesdropping, noticing.
Of writing she said: ‘Incidents happen – you see things – you want to record them because somehow they mean something to you.’
These incidents might mean little to other people. ‘You had to be there’, someone might respond dismissively. But isn’t that the challenge fiction writers face?
We’re encouraged to explore the universal through the lens of the personal. But it’s really the other way around, don’t you think? ‘How can I present something that tickled me to as wide an audience as I can achieve – and get them to appreciate it, too, and feel enriched by it … and so I don’t end up feeling trivial?’
Suddenly, for a while, at least, Thea Astley is my favourite author all over again. I reread It’s Raining in Mango and The Acolyte and Reaching Tin River. I’ve order up books I used to own but have somehow de-accessioned from my library. It’s a great feeling.
And still I think of her. I thought of her just last week, when I was out and about. Not really watching, but not exactly turning a blind eye, either. I saw this:
The gentleman stacked his empty Coke can on the recyclable plastic bucket and stood up. ‘There are some people in this world who are evil,’ he said. ‘Your mother happens to be one of them.’
I nearly choked on my burrito. I’d only gone into Chipotle for something to line my stomach before an evening in the pub.
The man and his wife – her ring finger was freighted with gold, so she was someone’s wife – departed immediately after, leaving me reeling.
Five minutes later a woman came in and asked how could she reserve a table. In Chipotle. I ask you! I reeled some more. What are people like? Who are they?
I didn’t linger – there was a pint with my name on it a hundred yards down the road – but I kind of wish I had, to see what happened next.
I love overhearing encounters like this. There’s a column in Time Out each week which contains sound bites of outlandish things overheard in public – Word on the Street, it’s called. I used to wonder if half of them were made up. Not any more.
It’s these small moments I love to put into fiction. They sound unlikely out of context but the people who say them are deadly serious. All of us are misunderstood some of the time. That’s an unfairness in life that fiction can help us redress, don’t you think?
It’s why I write. It’s why I read.