March 18, 2009 / 11:12 AM / in 8 years

Author Helen Garner returns to fiction after 16 year gap

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - For Australian writer Helen Garner, it took the end of a marriage and the death of a close friend to lead her back to fiction after a 16-year hiatus.

Garner, 66, published her first novel, "Monkey Grip," in 1977 after her dismissal as a high school teacher forced her to find a new career and she tried writing, firstly in newspapers.

But after two more novels she was drawn to non-fiction writing, exploring a sexual harassment case at a Melbourne university in "The First Stone" and the manslaughter death of a Canberra man by his girlfriend in "Joe Cinque's Consolation."

With a new novel, "The Spare Room," Garner has returned to fiction and found herself again enjoying the freedom.

"The Spare Room" is about two friends, one dying of cancer and one caring for the other.

She spoke to Reuters about her latest book and writing:

Q: Why did you return to fiction?

A: "Well, two reasons really. I was married to another novelist for 12 years or so and during that time I stopped writing fiction and concentrated on non-fiction. The marriage ended and I look back and I think I was unconsciously getting off the turf where we could be rivals. I thought I had gone to non-fiction as it suited me and I felt at ease there. I was not aware of having made a sacrifice."

Q: And the second reason?

A: "I had a very good friend who died of cancer and was ripped off by an alternative clinic. After she died I knew I wanted to write about it so I sat down to see which way the story wanted to go and within two paragraphs it went in the way I recognized as the way of fiction."

Q: Did you enjoy going back to fiction?

A: "I found when I started to write that I needed more freedom and need to be able to invent characters and compress some things. I remembered that freedom from fiction and I loved it. Now I am wanting to stay in fiction if I can."

Q: Is your next book fiction?

A: "No. I had already followed a murder trial that I wanted to write about. There is material that I could not fictionalize. I just have to bite the bullet and get on with it now."

Q: You've said all your books need to come from real events?

A: "I've never really been any good at making things up from scratch. I don't feel the urge to pull things out of thin air but I work on something that has touched me in a deep or painful way or made me laugh. I am not good with ideas. I don't have them on the whole."

Q: Do you write every day?

A: "I have been keeping a diary for about 30 years that I write in every day. It keeps me in practice. Unless I am working on a project, I can have months when I am staggering around wondering what to do but a lot of unconscious mental activity goes on during those periods. As I have got older I have realized that periods of not producing anything are often the periods when tectonic shifts occur in your unconscious mind and then one day something flashes out and you grab it."

Q: So you can enjoy those periods of inactivity now?

A: "No. I have them and they make me very guilt-stricken. I am a terrible puritan really. I am one of a family of six and I think that has something to do with it. You feel there is always something you should be doing."

Q: Would you ever publish your diaries?

A: "Not while I am alive, no way. I actually burned them up until 1980. I've never regretted it for a moment. They were so embarrassing -- pathetically narcissistic and tedious... but in 1978 I went away to live in France and was away for two years and something happened to me then. The diaries became more interesting and I started to write about more than about what was going on in my mind."

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A: "Read enormously. I have been a writer-in-residence at universities and I have been flabbergasted to find how little the students read. There are people who have fantasies of becoming a writer but they are not actually interested in reading. If you don't read how can you learn?"

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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