photograph of Marray Bail

- June 2006 -

Recently I was in a room packed with postgraduate creative writing students who had gathered for a rare audience with the writer Murray Bail. Most of us had been anticipating the event with some pleasure, I know I was keen to hear him speak about his novel Eucalyptus. But almost at once he let us know that discussing his work was the least bearable form the afternoon might take, mumbling something about being there under false pretenses, and something else, self deprecating, that I didn't catch.

From there on in, the atmosphere was strained. The writer appeared weary, and at times it felt as if we had him pinned and wriggling under a microscope. When pushed, he admitted admiration for Proust, Tolstoy, and Patrick White, among others. We learned that he felt uncomfortable with first person narrative and had never felt the slightest desire to 'spill his guts' on the page. From this I gathered that, like Proust, Murray Bail believes it is the books and not the lives of writers that matter. As the session ran on I sat there wondering, was it art or life that mattered most to me?

Life collides with art all the time. Stories drift in from everywhere, narratives more strange and tortuous - their details more delicious - than fiction or even dreams could supply. Magpies that we are, it is tempting to write them. But if we do, our best friend may never speak to us again; we may wound our mother, our lover, our best loved child. We may even be sued.

At an earlier session like the one with Murray Bail - a much more relaxed affair, I must add - Australian author Mandy Sayer explained that she was only able to work on her two volumes of memoir Dreamtime Alice and Velocity, by pretending no one would ever read what she was writing. In this way she was able to shine an unwavering light upon a childhood that at times veered wildly between deprivation and bohemian excess. Art meets life in works like these and demands unflinching honesty. There is no point to writing them otherwise. Or as Mandy Sayer put it, "That's the gig." She was particularly anxious about her mother's feelings, but as her mother died a few weeks before publication she was spared the fallout from that particular collision.

Murray Bail, too, was concerned with truth in writing, although not in the self-revelatory sense of memoir. Almost in passing, he let slip that he wrote slowly, getting each bit right before moving on to the next, that he was always 'looking for the truth in a sentence'. This, for me, was the highlight of the afternoon. I asked him if looking for the truth involved turning sentences inside out many times until they found a form that appeared unalterable, a process akin to that of the sculptor locating the figure held captive in the stone. Mr Bail nodded slowly, yes, yes, and, despite his early disclaimer, I felt that I had learned something, not just about his writing life but also about my own.