Four people sat together at the first inaugural NSW Writers’ Centre event honouring Australian writers, on 23 August 2014. They were keen to discuss one woman, Thea Astley, who has impacted each of their lives. Author Felicity Castagna, Small Indiscretions, Literary critic Susan Sheridan, Author Debra Adelaide, The Household Guide to Dying, and Mark MacLeod, editor, critic and long-time family friend, talked about the person behind the writer and what she has contributed to Australian literature.
Astley’s son, Ed Gregson, attended and opened the event with, ‘I’ll leave the analysis to the experts and I’ll stay in psychoanalysis.’ Karen Lam, Astley’s biographer, also attended and during question time many of the audience members shared their own experiences of Astley from attending her classes, meeting her at events and reading her work.
Professor Susan Sheridan never met Astley, but she feels close to her through reading and having written about her novels.
Sheridan spoke about how Astley really only had one fictional world, and that was North Queensland. Astley was in love with the landscape, a land of extremes. She uses the landscape as a metaphor throughout her novels, especially Hunting the Wild Pineapple, her eighth novel and a turning point in her career. Astley grew up in Brisbane and spent 30 years of her married life in Sydney, but Sheridan believes her heartland was North Queensland.
Astley won the Miles Franklin Award four times, two times shared with other, male, writers, and Sheridan discussed how the shared prize indicated a big division between the committees. Astley won her first two prizes in 1962 and 1965 and it would be 20 years before she won the Miles Franklin Award again.
Sheridan talked about how this pattern is interesting because Astley’s mid-career novels mostly didn’t fit the criteria for the Miles Franklin Award and indicated that she thought Astley might have otherwise been considered for the award within those years.
Astley’s novels moved from the suburban to the political, experimenting with new subjects, new form and structure. She moved into using genre in a new way and Sheridan spoke about how everything came together brilliantly in Drylands, the last of Astley’s books to win the Miles Franklin in 2000.
Australia is haunted by its violent past and it was through reading Astley’s work that Felicity Castagna began to understand Australian history. Astley didn’t tell the reader what to think but Castagna has always thought of novels as being places where you learn.
Astley’s work was criticised for its complicated syntax, but it taught Castagna a lot as an author. ‘There is no end to the difficulties of playing with sentences,’ Castagna said. She argued that Astley’s work became more experimental over time. One gem of advice of Astley’s, which resonated with Castagna, is, ‘you start with a metaphor and keep extending it until you’ve got a novel’.
Although the two women never met, Astley had a direct impact on Debra Adelaide’s life when she was not accepted for an ARC grant which was based on Astley. The panel questioned Astley’s importance, even though she had won three Miles Franklin awards at the time. Adelaide said this filled her with despondency and she took it as a rejection of Astley and her work.
Adelaide used this rejection to decide to continue writing fiction, she had written one book at this point. So not being funded to study Astley was instrumental in pushing her to be a writer.
The panel discussed how Astley herself thought that she wasn’t taken as seriously as she should have been, and that this could have been linked to both her subject matter, her being satirical and to her being a woman, a mix that Australian culture still struggles to accept.
Castagna said, ‘It’s the same in the present day. Male writers can get away with being funny and often at women’s expense. Astley was about holding a lens up to women and showing them — look what these women’s magazines have done to you.’
It wasn’t until the 80s, when there was a climate of feminism, that Astley started to get into her groove.
Astley’s satirical humour bonded the panel and they agreed that her work is still incredibly funny. One of Adelaide’s favourite quotes, and something that she hopes to one day have the courage to say herself at a writers’ festival, is when Astley, at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, asked the audience, ‘Who here wants to write a book?’ Most people raised their hands. ‘Well piss off and go home and write one,’ she said.
Adelaide spoke about how Astley was endlessly generous to new and young writers and Mark MacLeod, former student of hers and family friend, recalled how when his marriage collapsed Astley put a plane ticket to Queensland in the post. It was clear to the audience the strength of their relationship as MacLeod spoke about her, ‘Hardly a day goes past where I don’t think about her in some way.’
‘If there’s one thing I’d like to clear up, it’s that Thea was unkind, more acerbic,’ MacLeod said. ‘She would have been embarrassed [about this event] because she didn’t like [being commemorated] but she would have loved that people loved her work.’
MacLeod spoke about how Astley didn’t have many female friends at the university. He told the story of how just after she won the Miles Franklin their class was using the fire stairs because the lift was broken, and a female colleague walked past them. She called back a taunt to Astley about the recently award winning book, ‘I think there’s a grammar error on one of the pages’. MacLeod could feel the emotion as Astley and her class walked the rest of the stairs in furious silence at the slight.
‘I don’t have time to hang out in the Balmain ghetto.’ Astley famously said. Castagna thinks she would have liked to be a part of that scene, but she had other priorities, namely her family.
As Adelaide said, ‘Thea has done more for the down and out than the Salvation Army, Centrelink and Saint Vincent De Paul all put together.’
Astley was hurt by reviews that were dismissive of her work, or lumped her in with a group of other writers. Adelaide quoted Helen Garner’s infamous quote, ‘This kind of writing drives me berserk’. But her style was the polar opposite of Garner’s subject/verb/object structure, and where Garner found weakness, Adelaide found appeal and strength.
‘Trying to carve out a good sentence. There’s little else to do. I might as well give myself up to that,’ Astley famously said.
Two things stand out, one, that Astley’s humour and sharpness, her truthful prose, had gone so far as to change the course of the panel’s individual lives and that, as Sheridan said, Astley was brilliant to the last and uncompromising in her work and life.
Thea Astley reminds us to get up, go home and write that book and that ‘a page a day amounts to 365 pages a year’.
The next in our Honouring Australian Writers Series will feature novelist and poet, Randolph Stow, in 2015. Stow won the Miles Franklin Award in 1958 and the Patrick White Award in 1979. His writing had metaphysical and existential qualities and Robert Adamson said of him: ‘The light of his vision could be blinding as well as illuminating. He became a long-distance role model and over the years his work stood up and because stronger. Stow’s craft, sparse and strong, held his visionary concepts and images in a translucent cage of language that floated on the pages of his books…’
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Amelia Cox is the NSW Writers’ Centre Intern. She has a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from UTS and a voracious need to experience everything life has to offer.