An Interview with Australian writer Beth Spencer author of
How to Conceive of a Girl and Things in a Glass Box
Note: this is a mirrored copy of the interview for easier access.
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Beth Spencer is one of Australia's most promising up and coming writers. Her first book of fiction, How to Conceive of a Girl, was published in Australia in 1996 by Vintage (Random House). A book of poetry, Things in a Glass Box, had earlier been published in 1994 as part of the SCARP/Five Islands New Poets series. She has also written many essays and pieces she classifies as "ficto-criticism" or "cultural criticism". Beth has been an occasional contributor to ABC audio-arts programs such as Radio Eye and The Listening Room. Recently she has been the recipient of several major literary awards here in Australia, including The Age Short Story Award (1993) and the inaugaral Dinny O'Hearn Fellowship (1995). How to Conceive of a Girl was runner-up in this year's Steele Rudd Award. We thank Beth for having taken the time to answer a few questions for The Animist.
The Animist: Do you remember any particular moment when you realised that you were a writer?
Beth: Reading Little Women (by Lousia M Alcott) when I was seven was the first time I realised there was this thing called "a writer" that it was possible to "be". For a few years I took Jo's career as a kind of blueprint , even to the point of ringing up Penguin Books one day when I was about nine and saying "a friend of mine" had written a story, and what should she do…Then around eleven or twelve I earnt quite a bit of pocket money writing "Mere Male" anecdotes and "Handy Hints" for Women's Day. I even got the Pick of the Week once. But that was about it for the "early years".
After this the desire went underground. And then when it did emerge again it was a closet desire for a long time. Getting my first story accepted (in 1982) was a big step in coming out of that closet, and then the second and the third, and the first poem… I think there are a lot of moments along the way that kind of "give permission" or validate what you are doing. Writing takes an awful lot of time and energy and life away from all the much more accepted things that a person (especially a girl or a woman) should be doing -- "real" work, or relationships, or family. And my class background (my father was a farrier and I grew up on a dairy farm) meant that sitting on your bum all day wasn't working. I had a lot of guilt about this for a long time. It seemed such an indulgence. Something that just about everyone wanted to do, so why should I be allowed to do it?
Perhaps I only really started to think of myself (maybe) as a "writer" (rather than someone who "wanted to be a writer") when I began to be asked to read or contribute my work. I guess it marked the difference between having particular pieces of work "accepted" and having my work actively desired. The difference between being allowed to fill a space now and then, and having a space set aside for you.
Readers and their feedback are crucial to what I do. I don't mean that I write simply to please others, but that this relationship is what it's all about for me. Writing may have begun for me as an internal pressure, but I doubt if I would have been able to keep going if there hadn't been a corresponding pull, a desire on the part of others to read what I write. A lot of it is done by sitting alone in a room, but in another sense, none of it is ever done alone. It's my way of being involved in the world.
The Animist: You've been described as a "literary anarchist". Would you like to give us a rough character sketch of how you would envisage such a figure?
Beth: Fiona Capp used this phrase in a profile in The Age a few years ago when I was awarded the Dinny O'Hearn Memorial Fellowship (in 1995). She was referring, I guess, to a habit of flouting rules or conventions, not sticking within the bounds of any one genre, that sort of thing. Border-crossing. And the way I've never felt comfortable drawing on the usual models of authority , especially in non-fiction writing - such as the "objective" knowing voice of the reviewer, for instance, who speaks on behalf of "the Reader"; or the chummy but elegant dinner-table tones of the columnist tossing off an opinion; or the inherited academic conventions that authorize another kind of knowledge. But in fiction, too, I find myself constantly asking: where does this story speak from, and where to, and why? And yet ironically it's also about a love of delving into all the little formulas and rules and knots and links and connections that make up language and communication. It's an attitude, I guess, that authority - wherever it is - doesn't necessarily have to be abandoned, but it does have to be constantly earned, and constantly challenged.
"I doubt if there is such a thing as 'pure fiction'. Or any way to represent 'reality' that doesn't involve fictionalising ..." The Animist: Many of your characters are wonderfully quirky, warm and human. I particularly liked Barbara in 'The Stories of Barbara Boulevard'. Do you base many of your characters on people you know or are they pure fictions? Perhaps a bit of both?
Beth: I doubt if there is such a thing as "pure fiction". Or any way to represent "reality" that doesn't involve some kind of fictionalising (selection and tailoring and patterning and use of metaphors and symbols and so on).
Certainly most of my stories have a strong personal component of some sort, but there's only been two occasions (one was for a piece for a book called Family Pictures edited by Beth Yahp) when I've actually set out to tell "my story" or my version of a particular episode or time or pattern of events.
Mostly my characters in How to Conceive of a Girl exist as vehicles for exploring the kinds of things I wanted to explore (for instance: the mother-daughter relationship and how this might affect ideas about space and intimacy in "A Lover of Space"; girls and ways of learning, in "The Education of Deirdre Johnston"; religion in "The Dear John, Dear God Letter"; being childless in "The Faeries at Anakie Park", and so on). They are there to attract things into the mix - concrete things, desires, impressions, ideas etc.
The strange thing is that I usually only start to feel the kind of distance from a character that I need (so that I can feel free to manipulate and work with the story) once I've given her quite a lot of my own traits or experiences. If I try to "invent" (deliberately make her different from me) I just can't get back, there's no solidity to it, I don't believe it or trust it so why bother exploring it? But once I bite the bullet and start plundering my own life, then things usually start to take off a bit, and invention becomes a natural part of it.
Often it's taking a button and sewing a vest on it (as Della Street, Perry Mason's secretary, would say). But because what I'm doing is a form of social history and cultural analysis, it's important to me that there is a factual integrity somewhere there, a coherence of some sort. It's still very much fiction, but fiction that is grounded strategically and repeatedly in experience. Which is to say that both the button and the vest are equally important. Or to put it another way: I have a great respect for history in my writing, especially when I'm deliberately rewriting and reinventing it.
It's interesting you mention Barbara Boulevard because she's almost a laboratory for this kind of process. Barbara is the ultimate fantasy of escape (or "pure fiction"), an almost mythical figure who, one day when it all becomes too much, just ups and changes her name and flies to Perth. But part of the difficulty in writing that novella was the recognition that you can never really escape, you always have to take some kind of baggage with you. That even in the heart of your most secret and flamboyant fantasy, you're still part of the world, and part of your own history.
The Animist: I like your metaphor of 'bashing a hole in the fence' if they won't let you in the gate. How difficult was it for you to break into the publishing world?
Beth: It took 14 years from getting my first story accepted to having my first book of fiction published. But with my first story I learnt a really valuable lesson. I'd sent it out to two magazines at once (a big no-no, but I was new at it, and not very hopeful). One of the magazines was very small and local, with a tiny circulation, and after a while they sent me a rejection letter. So I figured, ah well, that's it then. If even this tiny magazine doesn't like it, then it must be really bad. And then about a week later it was accepted by Westerly.
So I learnt very early on that editors are just readers; they all have different tastes, and different likes and dislikes, and what appeals to one mightn't necessarily appeal to another. In the end, rejection and acceptance are just forms of feedback. You have to work out how you're going to respond to that. And if what you are doing is flouting the rules and conventions a bit, or trying to change things, or playing around with established power relationships, then you have to expect a bit of resistance.
Not that it was easy: for many years I averaged nine knock-backs for every one acceptance; and I chalked up seven Literature Board rejections from 1987-1994 before I got my first grant in 1995.
But I was getting strong feedback from a whole range of other sources. I was getting things published regularly, because I was persistent, and even the rejections often came in the form of "this is great, but not the kind of thing we publish, please send something else". And at readings people would come up and ask where they could read more, and of course my friends - over the years I developed a support structure of friends who believed in me and were eager to read what I wrote and give honest feedback, and that was a lifeline. They were essential.
It was important to have people who understood what I was doing, but I was also really encouraged when I got enthusiastic responses from people who didn't normally read much, or who weren't fans of experimental work. I figured if I could entertain and interest them and keep them reading till the end, then I must be doing ok.
So it evolved over a long period of time into a situation where I felt I did have a definite audience - a strong sense of a mix of people saying, Yeah, we'd like to read a book like that. But the frustrating thing was that instead of helping me get to them, publishers and editors, more often than not, seemed to be standing in the way: saying, Uh-uh, back you go, this won't sell; no-one's going to want to read this; it's not literature; try again. And I guess that's what the gate-keeper metaphor is all about.
The fact that How to Conceive of a Girl (Vintage Random House 1996) was made up of pieces of varying length - that it wasn't a "novel" in the traditional sense (although it's more often been reviewed as a novel than as "short stories", and I'd certainly prefer it read as a unit) - also made it really hard. "Short stories don't sell, come back when you have a novel" was another thing was I often told.
I think it's sad that short fiction tends to be regarded in Australia as the apprentice work or a sideline, inevitably inferior to a novel and not taken seriously. You can do things with shorter forms that you just can't do with a novel - and the structure of The Girl (the way it is a montage of stories) is, to me, essential to what the book is on about.
So, anyway, I was out of luck for a long time and then finally, and fortunately, it landed at Random House at a time when they were taking on some younger and more unusual writers and were prepared to work at tapping into new or different audiences.
Interestingly, once it was published, after years of getting all sorts of widely differing reactions from editors and publishers' readers and so on, the reviews were almost all consistently positive. Which I think says a lot about the kind of trust and authority that is conferred by the process of publishing and which is often essential to reading pleasure. When it's just in manuscript form and it's an unknown writer it can often be "marked" or "assessed" rather than just read. And then when it does flout conventions or doesn't "look" like traditional experimental work, it can easily get read as failed realism or just "wrong" or unfinished somehow.
Once there's an attractive glossy cover, a reputable publisher's imprint, and some supportive comments by some well-known people, it's easier to relax and go with it, to trust that all the strange bits thrown up on the page so far are going to connect up in some way, and that being actively involved is part of the fun. A few reviewers described it as exhilarating, and that's what I want it to be. But maybe there has to be some kind of trust before that can happen.
"My writing is deeply informed by post-structural critiques of knowledge and methods of representation, by ideas of the relationship between language, the body, and power and so on, but it's not as if I then just go and use these ideas in a mechanistic way, or use the fiction to illustrate them ..." The Animist: You seem to have an affinity with Post-Modern Feminism particularlywriters such as Luce Irigaray. What changes do you see as having occurred from the feminism of the sixties and seventies to the more recent strains of feminism? Why do you think this change of emphasis/direction has occurred?
Beth: Well, I guess the most obvious change is from "equality" feminism (women wanting to be treated as equals with men) to "difference" feminism - questioning the value of the goal of equality, based as it is on repressive notions of sameness and identity, and which always takes the male sex as the norm. And thus it meant a shift of emphasis from demanding the opportunity to participate in patriarchal culture, to looking more at the means to change it. And from arguing that women are oppressed, to exploring the way "feminine" values are repressed or given a less important meaning and power in deep structural ways in patriarchal (or "phallocratic") culture. I find this a much more expansive and exciting way of looking at things, because it's not just about women, but taps into a whole range of ways that phallocratic power operates to repress or exclude or devalue difference, and offers a lot more possibilities for resistance and change.
The Animist: What influence do you think writers such as Irigaray and Foucault have had on your writing generally?
Beth: Our society has a deep investment in picturing or representing the world in a particular way; and reading the work of various theorists and critics (and not just French writers, but local ones too) helps me to question this. It gives me the confidence to explore, and the tools to analyse things, including my own textual strategies.
So, yes, my writing is deeply informed by post-structural critiques of knowledge and methods of representation, by ideas of the relationship between language, the body, and power and so on, but it's not as if I then just go and use these ideas in a mechanistic way, or use the fiction to illustrate them. If anything, the fiction (or the essay) is a kind of laboratory in which the theories get tested and explored, checked out and worked on.
But mostly it's about reading and working with theories until they become a part of your habitual mind-set, second nature; not something you impose on yourself or your fiction (or your readers). It's a much more subtle, back and forth process. Often it's just evidenced in tiny little shifts here and there; a filtering down effect.
And when you think about it, all writing is a way of theorising how the world works and what it is, and what's possible; and all writing and thinking and picturing utilises theory. Some of us just do it a bit more actively and consciously.
"Power these days is diffuse, everywhere, and subjectivity or identity is something constantly in production ..." The Animist: You often seem to have quite 'fragmented narratives' in your work, bringing together snatches of dialogue, images, encounters, memories, poetry and quotes to create your stories. Barbara Boulevard begins with a series of 'goldfish bowls', or chunks of seemingly random information to introduce us to the story (the meanings of which become clearer later). Do you feel this 'fragmentation' reflects the chaos of the modern condition, and modern life generally, or do you use this technique for entirely different reasons?
Beth: Chaos, sure, but not in the sense of "meaninglessness" or "futility" I hope. Preferably more in the ideas given to the term within Chaos Theory. A different kind of order and disorder from the old view which posited a central or top-down kind of authority.
Power these days is diffuse, everywhere, and subjectivity or identity is something constantly in production. So I wanted a text that didn't speak from one single stable place, but was able to operate in a way that more closely matched the way we are constantly forming a whole range of links with ourselves, our histories, with each other and the culture.
I was always very struck by a line from a book by the Italian structuralist, Maria Corti, when she says: "a person's life does not unwind like a ball of string." There are so many ways to order and pattern things, and chronological order is just one way. Maybe it's the easiest because it's a very familiar narrative device (it's so safe and comfortable: God's in His heaven, and the writer's taking us nicely from here to there - I love it when I'm looking for escape). But it's not the only way, and I don't really think it's all that useful for trying to make sense of our present situation.
I heard someone once refer to montage as "the politics of 'and'". "And" contains so many more possibilities (especially in terms of the sideways links) than "but" or "then" or "because" or "therefore" which are the staples of a linear narrative.
And it's these kinds of possibilities I'm interested in. History (personal and social) still tends to be represented on the page as chronological, but I think memories, and thus personal and historical meanings, more often move thematically and linguistically. So I might have a chronological frame in my stories, but within this there are a whole lot of thematic and linguistic plots too. And these are the most important ones.
It's about exploring the gaps, slippages, contradictions, and patterns -- the texture or fabric, and the "humor" of the culture within which we live and work, out of which we make meanings and, through all this, help to produce.
The Animist: You write in a number of different styles, including poetry, short stories, essays, reviews and hybrids of all of these. 'Fatal Attraction in Newtown,' from How to Conceive of a Girl for example, is as much an essay on gender representation in film as it is a great short story. Do you think standard literary forms are too restrictive?
Beth: Yes, "standard" literary forms (although I'm not sure how many of them there are left these days) are very good at telling certain kinds of stories and reproducing certain kinds of ideas and ways of feeling and thinking about the world. Which is maybe why a lot of people no longer read books. I didn't set out to be an "experimental writer"; my style and the cross-genre aspects just developed out of what I wanted to explore and the stories I wanted to write about, and the kind of life-experience or perspective I wanted to give voice to. And I like fiction because it allows you to write from within a very specific sexed, historical, class-linked and ethnic-based body, and to speak to others too as embodied subjects (rather than speaking from some kind of mythical neutral objective place) and I find this more difficult in essays. But then essays allow you to throw up ideas in a way that you can only do obliquely in fiction, so it's nice when you get to mix them.
The Animist: In your story, 'Fatal Attraction in Newtown', the celluloid realities of Hollywood leave the big screen and enter the 'real' world. This is quite an unnerving and paranoid (if also amusing) story. How much do you think we conceive/rely upon and measure ourselves by Hollywood images of what it is to be human?
Beth: Well, stories have enormous power, and Hollywood has incredible distribution potential for its stories and can spend such vast amounts making them. But one of the reasons Fatal Attraction was so effective was that it was drawing on a whole range of previous or pre-existing stories and images and mythologies (the witch, the scapegoat, the vampyre, the deadly invading force/virus/alien/Other Vs the myth of the safe wholesome family, etc). Its power was in its ability to recirculate them and connect them up with contemporary issues, such as sexual disease and the Aids panic. And I thought: well, why not join in the process too?
The Animist: In 'The Faeries at Anakie Park' your female characters explore feelings of ambivalence about having children. I found the story very moving in this aspect as it seemed to reveal a vulnerability and uncertainty felt by many women when making the decision about whether to become a parent or not. Why do you suppose this ambivalence exists?
Beth: It's certainly not something you can go and try for a few years and then return to your old way of life if you don't like it. And yet having children is (still) pretty much the approved way of "growing up" for women; it's the socially acceptable way for women to have some kind of power or cultural authority as women.
So what I wanted to explore in that novella was what about the women who (for one reason or another) remain childless. What of the Peta Pans? And just as the original Peter Pan was incredibly threatening to the parents and their authority and order - stealing the children away from the nursery - I think single women too are quite threatening to the patriarchal symbolic order, which is why they can only be represented in it as dependant (daughter) or threat (the other woman, the seducer). There are lots of issues around the relationship between femininity, childhood (or children) and authority; lots of questions about how women might be able to relate to (and be important to) the culture of nurturance without actually being mothers (what might single women have to offer children that mothers can't?), that I wanted to explore in this novella. And I felt that the generation my characters all belong to (the ones who reached adolescence in the 70s, and who are heading up towards forty in the 90s), was a particularly interesting one in this respect.
The Animist: A number of your stories deal with growing up as a teenage girl in Australia. How do you think it's different for teenagers today compared to the period you describe in your stories?
Television age, computer age, digital age? These are all very different ways of looking at and interacting with the world, but my feeling is that what they have in common, compared to the generations preceding, is the sense that reality is non-linear and essentially manipulatable (if that's a word). But maybe that's just my perspective and today's teenagers might see me as being a dinosaur from another universe. I guess you'd have to ask them.
"As long as they [Reviewers] see their role (and we appoint them) as gatekeepers, this manufactures "the reading public" as some vast homogenous herd locked up inside a paddock, who presumably must only be fed the very "best" hay or they might get sick … or, worse, go on strike!" The Animist: Do you think there is a division between the new generation of young Australian writers and the current literary establishment? If so, why do you think that this rift has developed and what issues are at stake?
Beth: I think there are so many divisions and permutations and groupings, and they all overlap and intersect and bisect or whatever. There are probably only a tiny few writers out there, if any, who don't feel overlooked or left out or excluded or rejected by some group or faction or power sector or another. Some of the younger authors might get panned by reviewers and fail to make it onto shortlists for prizes, and then go on to outsell and last longer than the ones that do get praised, and draw the biggest crowds at festivals..
So getting approved by the "literary establishment" is only one way to get your work out there and having an effect. There's other ways. And while there are generational aspects to all this, it's far too simplistic to reduce it to age difference. After all, the literary establishment (if such a beast exists) adores young writers, as long as they write the kinds of books older people enjoy reading.
The problem for me isn't the age of the current group of critics and publishers, so much as the dominant idea of what their role should be. As long as they see their role (and we appoint them) as gatekeepers, this manufactures "the reading public" as some vast homogenous herd locked up inside a paddock, who presumably must only be fed the very "best" hay or they might get sick … or, worse, go on strike! (that is, stop buying books; as if heaps of them haven't already). Gatekeeping is bound up with all those notions of "timeless" or "universal" literary value, which are just not applicable any more.
There are lots and lots of reading publics (or potential reading publics), and lots and lots of different ideas about what makes a book pleasurable or useful or stimulating or enriching. And lots of different ways of reading things.
Bashing a hole in the fence is no great shakes if all that happens is a new lot of (maybe younger) gatekeepers race up to control that hole or to take advantage of it (turn it into a new gate). In the long term what you want to do is weaken the fence itself -- change the metaphor.
The role of criticism is changing, and it has to change. In the past it might have been about judging texts, ranking them in some single universal system of supposed value, exposing the "correct" way to read them - but we live in such a very different world now to the one in which this system evolved. What's needed now are critical methods and reviewing styles that are about unlocking texts, breaking them open at strategic points, creating meta-texts that help books to circulate more freely and more effectively.
There is such a huge variety of texts and ideas and needs and tastes these days, and the generational wars are just a symptom of this. And this is why there is so much resistance, because there is much more at stake here than just a change of guard.
The Animist: Australia is going through something of a crisis of identity at the moment. The darker side of our collective psyche seems to be 'rearing its ugly head'. What do you suppose is the source of the recent outbreaks of racism and scapegoating?
Beth: Well it's always been there - ugly pockets of it, as well as an underlying milder form that is more widespread and subtle. And if national political leaders are going to say it's ok, even admirably honest, to express racist sentiments (as John Howard did in 1996), then this type of racism will naturally gain more power and momentum. I feel, with many others, that the Howard Government and the interests and values it represents, instead of nipping this in the bud have used Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party to push Australian attitudes to the right, so they can then come in and seem a more moderate and respectable alternative. Yet the Howard Government's Wik legislation, and many other of their policies, are deeply and fundamentally racist in much more coldly calculated and institutionalised ways; which is why so many Aboriginal leaders have been unable to work with them.
It's heartbreaking to see what is an incredible opportunity for coming to terms with our past history and working out a more just and respectful and enlightened way of sharing the continent being trampled in this way.
Maybe the whole scapegoating thing occurs because the more you deny and repress guilt, the more power you give it. You can never move beyond it. And when you feel guilty about someone and don't want to face this, you often counteract this by hating them and trying to destroy them - especially when you wish they would just go away so you don't have to face your past or what your present is built on, and yet they won't go away (look at Dan's reaction to Alex in 'Fatal Attraction').
I wish the Keating government had spent $10million educating Australians about the benefits of the Mabo legislation (which overturned the Terra Nullius myth and recognised Aboriginal people's common law property rights). This was legislation based on a landmark High Court decision, so such an expenditure would have been legitimate (unlike the current Government's $10million advertising campaign regarding their proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST). Land Rights and overturning Terra Nullius (the idea that Australia was uninhabited when Europeans arrived) is far more earth shattering for most Australians than tax reform, and yet unfortunately it was put into place without any education program.
The Animist: Have you got any new work in the pipeline?
Beth: Yes, a novel, which is taking a very very long time, and has the working title A Short (Personal) History of the Bra and its Contents: from Maidenform to Madonna. When I began it was going to end somewhere around the mid-90s, hence Madonna in the sub-title. But it's just kept on growing. There really doesn't seem to be very much in recent times that can't be related to bras and breasts in some way.
So maybe it will be something more like "from Maidenform to Millenium". I just hope it's this millenium, and not the one after.
The Animist: Thank you Beth, for your time and patience.
*All c photographs courtesy of the author and her publishers.
*Cover art How to Conceive of a Girl by Linda Dement.
Why not check out Beth's web-pages at:
Or e-mail her at:
beth at bethspencer dot com
Email Interview for The Animist,September 1998
c. Beth Spencer & Sue King-Smith, 1998
photo by Paul Brick
photograph at top by Peter Steele
Any comments? Suggestions? Just want to say Hi ...
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