Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sonya Hartnett in Conversation

By Melissa Manning

The room is packed. On stage sit Jo Case, author of Boomer and Me and Sonya Hartnett. Case offers an abridged version of Hartnett’s successes and awards - the complete version would take too long. From here an easy conversation begins; audience members laugh along with those on stage. It's inclusive rather than voyeuristic - the perfect tone for a conversation with the author of Golden Boys.

The conversation begins with a suggestion by Case that Hartnett’s most recent novel, Golden Boys, is a story conducted inside ordinary lives, that much of what happens is internal. Hartnett agrees and confides that it’s because she’s lazy. The room laughs. Here is a woman who has been churning out books since the age of fifteen. It’s true, she insists, she doesn’t like research, and “that background of suburbia lives within.”

The conversation moves to paedophilia. It doesn’t rest there long. This is not, Hartnett says, a book about paedophilia any more than it’s a book about drunkenness and domestic violence. Okay, so there’s a character who is a bit “touchy fiddly” but if you grew up in the seventies, that was part of the fabric of life - there were people you identified as dangerous, people you avoided. And yes, there’s a drunk, a bit of a hopeless drunk, but the book is not about that either. Hartnett wonders out loud whether it’s possible that life was tougher in the seventies, whether parents then simply weren’t brave enough to tackle the difficult issues.

Case and Hartnett talk about the world of children, reminisce about moving through their neighbourhoods in packs. Hartnett remembers it as a time when kids found their own way: “You had your trusty bicycle steed and you rode your way through life.”

A realistic portrayal of a child’s existence, Hartnett says, must be offered through a “misty and slightly cloudy” lens. She goes on to explain that she likes the reader to do some of the work: “A book needs to be more than words on paper….it needs to have tricks and corners.” Case picks up this point and muses about whether the books that stay with you are the ones that have made you work. Work, she suggests, fosters attachment, investment. Hartnett agrees. She leans forward, says that, on the way to the session, she called past her mother’s where her sister presented her with a number of books, asked her what to read. A thin laugh escapes Hartnett’s lips as she admits that she told her to tip them all into the recycling bin - none presented sufficient work for the reader.

So what then, Case asks, is the work of Golden Boys? It is, Hartnett says to ask the question: “What am I okay with in my life? Has that changed?” She goes on to say that this story will have special appeal to people of her era, to those of us who grew up in the seventies and for whom the cultural references are embedded in childhood memory. It is drawn from her own childhood memories. More proof of her laziness she suggests and goes on to talk about the fluidity between memory and story. She admits to having felt resentment, to a sense that her stories have a tendency to rob her of the certainty of which was memory and which the fiction derived from it. “I have written over my memories.”

Case and Hartnett discuss the bonds of family, sibling relationships. Case suggests that Butterfly and Golden Boys both raise the question of whether we really know the people we are close to. Hartnett responds by revealing that she is essentially a shy person but that the business of talking about her writing has forced her to develop a character on the outside, that runs quite deep. It is this she says that makes her question how it is possible to know others well. “Who amongst us knows the people who walk beside us?” she asks.

Hartnett reads an extract from Golden Boys. It’s a scene where the neighbourhood boys are watching as a swimming pool is being filled. Ripe with expectation and rich character, it evokes the suburban seventies setting, kids waiting for something to happen, a slow filling of a pool with a hose. It’s not a scene which gives away plot but it does much to reveal character and atmosphere.

Atmosphere is, Hartnett says a kind of a guide for her writing. She wrote Golden Boys in six weeks. There are raised eyebrows, incredulous murmurs from the audience. She quickly goes on to explain that a year of planning preceded the writing, that there had been time before that for thinking. Case asks whether it was the first draft that took six weeks, if the polished prose came later. In her typically modest fashion Hartnett says that when the atmosphere has been planned, the words must simply meet the atmosphere, as though this is the simplest thing. It is, she admits, something that she’s been doing for long enough that a wrong words stands out. She has learned to recognise “a word that causes static in the atmosphere.” I’m now in my second reading of Golden Boys. It is, I think, an exceptionally fine story utterly devoid of static in the atmosphere.

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