A conversation with Tegan Bennett Daylight
Q: Your website describes you as a writer, teacher and a critic, which do you identify most as?
A: It’s definitely become all three…I did start teaching just to make enough money, but now I really love it and it’s become…well, I think I would go on doing it occasionally even if I didn’t need the money.
Q: I suppose that teaching is the sort of thing that exposes you to different sorts of people and different ideas so as a writer has it become another source of inspiration for you?
A: Yes, it’s a very interesting and charged atmosphere; a classroom. A way in which ideas can be transferred to young people and I'm really interested in young people...there's something very awake and fresh about them, I just find it very stimulating.
Q: You have been shortlisted for prizes before haven't you?
A: Yes there was the Vogel and something called the Kathleen Mitchell Award which is for a first book and then I was Best Young Novelist in 2002, but I tend to write quite quiet fiction.
Q: People have described you as a 'writer's writer'...
A: Yeah, it's kinda a backhanded compliment, but I'm happy with it and I think it's true as well.
Q: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Stella Prize this year, how did you feel about that?
A: Well, it's been interesting, I think a lot of people were suspicious of a prize just for women and I definitely fell into that camp as well. I think the reason that we, especially women, think that is we want to feel that our work is as competitive as any mans work, and of course it is. But the truth is there are reasons why women's work isn't as widely bought or respected (in some cases) as men's work. So I actually now think it is a really great thing and is bringing some women writers into the spotlight who wouldn't otherwise get there. I'm also interested in the way it has a variety of forms, which makes the judges’ job pretty difficult, but on the other hand my book wouldn't have been eligible for the Miles Franklin.
Q: Have you found that your public profile has changed because of it?
A: I think it does change the public perception of you because people who haven't been in touch with you for a while suddenly get in touch, that's how you know it has such a wide reach. I've found that it is particularly well administered. The second you get onto the merry-go-round you realise it's being run by really fantastic people, from the very bottom of the organisation to the top. It's really well publicised, really generously and thoughtfully administered...you are treated with enormous respect. For example when you are shortlisted (this is very important) you are told that you haven't won before the evening so that you don't have to stand around getting your face ready and they (the shortlistees) are not meant to know who the winner is, so you just turn up and feel good about your achievement, but not feel anxious or disappointed.
Q: I know Charlotte Wood is a good friend of yours, was it wonderful that if you didn't win it was your dear friend?
A: Well yes, two of the other shortlistees are also good friends of mine, Peggy Frew and Mireielle Juchau, it was a tight knit group. I read an early draft of Peggy's novel and an early draft of Charlotte's novel, the prize fosters a sense of sisterhood, genuine sisterhood and that sisterhood already existed between me and those authors but I certainly feel it for Elizabeth (Harrower) and Fiona (Wright) as well. That's the really good feeling about, you don't think 'that b*#%h' but that we really are in this together.
Q: It's been nine years since Safety came out, do you think Six Bedrooms was 'brewing' all that time?
A: That's a really interesting question and I've never been asked it. What was happening in those years was that I was looking for something that would wake me up again. So I was writing a lot and I did try to write a novel but there was nothing in any voice that was making me keep going. So what actually happened was that Charlotte was putting together an anthology of short stories Brothers and Sisters and she asked me if I would contribute something. It was the first time that somebody said 'please write me a short story', I had been reading a lot of Alice Munro, I was also teaching a short story and I'd come to the realisation that I didn't actually know how to do it. That a short story really is a different form to a novel, it's not just a shorter novel, it's something of it's own. So I set myself the challenge and I couldn't let her down because she's my friend...it was really tough. The story for that was Trouble and I thought 'oh my god, something is happening here'. It was the first time I'd written in the first person and something was happening to the voice. That was the thing that really took off for me.
Q: You said that you have tried to write a novel during that time - were the seeds for Six Bedrooms planted then?
A: Well, once I'd written one short story I thought, ok, I'll try another because first person is working really well for me and the way I write, you look back on your life and you see these glowing stones on the landscape of change. Often they aren't good moments, they are ones of humiliation and difficulty, those things where you learn something or something happens but it's not really pleasant. So I found myself looking back over the landscape of my life and I'd think 'what can I write about? Aha! there was that party, I can write about that.' I'm still doing that. That is the way I'm writing short stories at the moment, I look around and think 'there's that thing that still bothers me...' and you take it and it's a seed and you sort of plant it and see what grows. It takes practice to learn how much importance a short biographical story can have and I realise I've been waiting to write about this my whole life. I'm going to bring out every single weapon I've got and I'm going to aim it all at this moment and it's all going to go off at once. Sometimes the really big important is just a tiny feature of the story - it takes ages to learn the balance.
Q: Collections of short stories are often just that, a collection of unrelated tales by one author, but Six Bedrooms felt more like an anthology. The stories felt connected, like they belonged together. Was that intentional?
A: Not at the start. All I had really was this first person voice and a whole lot of unfinished business about my adolescence (as every single person does), because really adolescence is a door you close as quickly as you can. Most people's approach is 'why look back?' To be fair, why would you? I was writing by the seat of my pants, I was just concentrating on writing and about four stories in I realised 'this is happening!' and I just kept writing. I noticed that I was returning to Tasha over and over again and her particular set of circumstances which are entirely unfamiliar to me and entirely invented. She just seemed especially fertile, that character, so as time went on I thought ‘I can make something out of this.’ I was also completely terrified that I'd written a bunch of stories about teenagers, and who wants to read that? But it turns out lots of people do.
Q: Did you consider writing it as a novel for young adults?
A: Never, not even once.
Q: Has exploring young adults in this way made you think about writing for young adults? I know you have written for children and young adults before.
A: No, actually the voice would be really different, this is not a collection for teenagers. If you look at each one of them (except the one from the point of view of the boy) these are all from an adult perspective; it's all memory so it's been filtered in that sense. So the realisations that come to the young people in the stories are always informed by later experience.
Q: The chapter They F#*k You Up, is the only chapter from a male point of view and it's very much first person and present tense. It also includes a Middle-Eastern character - you're not a teenage boy or Middle-Eastern, so given that you were writing from your 'glowing stones' was this story more challenging?
A: It was really hard. It is much harder for me to write from the perspective of a boy. Many years ago I worked with a young man and there is just something in that young man, he was just so oblivious. He did have a difficult life and was running it as efficiently as he could, but he had no idea. In fact, that's the only story where the protagonist has no idea about the damage he's causing or who he is. He also has no idea that he is committing the crimes that he feels his father is committing against him, although he's not going to turn into his dad because he's a thoughtful kid. What I was trying to say is that there are two fathers in that story and one is a good father and one is a bad father, but the kid thinks they are both bad fathers because he can only perceive fathers through his father filter.
Q: Was there any point where that story didn't make it because it's so different and the others really do feel like a connected collection?
A: It was always going to go in but it was impossible to sell (to publishers). However, it's the one that most people respond to. It reverberates for people. There is a whole lot in there that is unspoken and that I'm hoping is politically vital.
Q: I know you have a long standing friendship with Tim Winton, how did that come about?
A: That came about because I was teaching Tim's work The Turning alongside David Foster Wallace's book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (which is one of my favourite short story collections) and I was struck over and over again by the hilarious contrast between these two men, who were both white and the same age. It just staggered me that they have such different approaches to fiction. I had Tim's address because I'd just interviewed him for something and thought, I really want to know what he thinks of really cerebral fiction like this. So I bought him a copy and sent it to him and said 'look I'm teaching this, what do you think?' About two days later David Foster Wallace killed himself and Tim wrote me back a letter saying 'can you believe, what a bizarre thing to happen just as we've opened up this conversation'. It sparked a dialogue, this big literary conversation between us that is still going on.
Q: You are moderating for the Sydney Writers' Festival this year, as you have many times before. Are there any notable moments you would like to share?
A: Well it's always terrifying! The interview with David Malouf was really interesting; I did a great one with Kate Grenville, a great one with Helen Garner. They were all magnificent and I've got one with Jonathan Franzen coming up. James Wood, the critic, is one of my heroes and I got to do a panel with him and two other literary friends and we were so nervous and excited. What is magnificent about him is he's a really wonderful human being and puts you at ease straight away. It's hard to live up to a person's adoration of your work but he was smart, generous, warm and genuinely humble despite being so learned. He held our 'fandom' at great grace. One of my favourite moments was when he looked out at the audience and said 'My goodness, what a lot of people have turned up' and I said 'Well, I don't know if you know but James Wood is here'. That's the reason you do it. If you can get it right you're really just having a fantastic conversation with wonderful, thoughtful people.
Six Bedrooms is now available from Megalong Books RRP $29.99
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