AL Andrew Leigh
MD Michelle de Kretser
MD Short stories are a sprint. A novel is a marathon, and you kind of need to live in the work and with the work. Because I find that when I start out, I have a vague idea of where I’m going, but a lot of things come up in the course of writing, and that’s because I am immersed in the world.
AL Welcome to The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Melbourne at the age of 14. After graduating from her undergraduate degree, she completed a Master’s Degree in French Literature in Paris and began a PhD at the University of Melbourne, where she was one of the founding editors of the postgraduate journal Antithesis and a founding editor of the Australian Women’s Book Review.
Michelle subsequently worked for nearly a decade as an editor for Lonely Planet and set up the company’s office in Paris. She published her first novel at the age of 42 and has since written five more. Michelle has won a slew of awards, including the Miles Franklin Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. She now lives in Sydney, and her latest novel is Scary Monsters. Michelle, welcome to The Good Life podcast.
MD Oh, thank you so much, Andrew. I’m so pleased to be talking to you.
AL So place is incredibly important in your writing, not just, of course, your non-fiction work at Lonely Planet but your fabulous novels. Now, let me ask you about the place where you grew up, Sri Lanka. How did that shape you?
MD I think I’m very grateful to have spent the first 14 years of my life in Sri Lanka. I think one of the things it showed me, gave me an experience of, was the great inequality of the world, how some people have very little in life, but it also taught me that…
I grew up at a time of austerity in Sri Lanka, where there were very few imported goods available and Sri Lanka was yet not manufacturing much itself. So it was a time where even middle-class families, which mine was, had very little in terms of material possessions. I think we didn’t have a record player until I was about 13, and then it was a second-hand one.
AL Wow. Given that your father was a judge, that’s quite striking.
MD This is what people… People in Australia simply don’t have, can’t have a sense of what it was like in Sri Lanka at that time. Yes, my father was a judge, we were among the privileged, but we had very little. We had books in our house, most of them old, inherited. And our furniture was old, second hand, some of it antique. I remember the excitement of getting a transistor radio, which my father got for me when he went to Japan, I think when I was about 12, for his work. And he brought me back this transistor, which was my pride and joy.
But really, you can imagine, if a middle-class family has so little… And I should add that when we got the record player, I think we only had two records to play on it. But you can then imagine what people who were living on much more modest incomes, how they had to get by and did get by with much less.
So one of the things it taught me was that material possessions are nice, they’re lovely, but you don’t have to have them. The whole consumer revolution didn’t really happen in Sri Lanka until the 1980s. Sri Lanka had no television. Television didn’t arrive until the 80s. And I think the avid consumerism of the West and, well, of everywhere these days, for the privileged at least, it’s something that I still find, oh, slightly stomach-turning.
AL Do you think growing up in an environment like that forces children to be a little more creative in coming up with games of their own?
MD Yes, very possibly. I was the youngest in my family by a very large gap, so I actually just spent a lot of my time reading. But yes, I think children with siblings of a similar age, yes, I think just, yes, we invented games. But I think children are naturally creative. I think children find ways to be inventive and amuse themselves, even today, with iPads and everything else at their fingertips in a country like Australia.
I think there’s just a natural curiosity about the world when you’re a child, a delight in, I don’t know, the way the leaves are arranged on a branch of a shrub or the colours of a flower. I remember hearing that one of my sisters, when she was young, seven or so, had gone out into the garden one day with her paintbox and started painting all the flowers different colours. That’s the kind of thing kids do, which is just delightful and charming, I think.
AL So my impression of Sri Lanka, growing up, was very much shaped by the conflicts. And I remember visiting Colombo in the mid-1990s and being struck by the fact that the road blocks had been in place for so long that large corporations had had advertisements up on them. But your experience of Sri Lanka is very much pre-conflict, isn’t it? And so I suppose then, the writing about the conflict is you viewing Sri Lanka from the distance of Australia rather than living through it.
MD Oh, absolutely. We were lucky to leave in 72 and the civil war broke out in 83. There were, before that, incidents of conflict, but nothing… There was ethnic conflict, but the most serious thing was in 1971, when there was an armed uprising of students and various other factions, which was put down very brutally. But there was a curfew. I remember that very vividly, the curfew and the fear.
Yes, it was people… It was a sort of Maoist uprising, and anyone who spoke English as a first language, anyone who had any kind of Western education was targeted. So if that uprising had been successful, my entire family would have been killed. So I do remember that very vividly. Yes, a nationalist uprising, I should say. So it was also targeting other ethnicities.
AL So your latest novel is Scary Monsters and it plays with the form of the novel in a way that I really love. I’m reminded of Tim Winton’s The Turning, which combines a whole lot of overlapping short stories or Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which is written in a wonderful Australian vernacular.
In Scary Monsters, you have a flipbook in which there is two stories, and you can start from whichever end you like. What led you to decide to write a book in that format? What was it about the story that you felt would work, to have a book which was half about the past and half about the future?
MD There were a few reasons, so I’ll just go through them slowly. The first thing is that the novel which has these two halves is concerned with migrant experience. So each half is narrated by an Asian migrant to Australia.
And one of the things I wanted to convey with the flip format was that migration is a process that turns people’s lives upside down, that disorients you, that makes you ask yourself, what is this new story that I’m living in now, when you’ve moved countries. So I wanted the form of the novel to embody that, so that just fleetingly and on a micro level, the reader would experience some of that disorientation.
Another thing was to do with form. And I suppose the conventional understanding of a novel is that it’s a simple, continuous narrative which has coherence of theme, coherence of style, coherence of voice, etc. But I wanted to play with form, which is something that artists often do.
And so I decided I would have two narratives, which, although they’re both told in the first person and they both concern migrant experience so there’s that continuity, but the voices of the characters are very different, and as you mentioned, one narrative is set in the past, one in the future, one is set in France, one is set in Australia. So there’s this sort of radical discontinuity.
In other words, what I was trying to do was to break the form of the novel, but there is maybe a little narrative bridge, so breaking the form of novel and kind of putting it back together again at the same time, which is what migrants have to do.
Once you move countries, you’ve broken something. You’ve broken your life, in a sense, and you have to put it back together again. And many people, most people do, but the break is there. There’s always a before and an after in the life of a migrant. So those were ideas I was planning to… I was aiming to convey with the form of the novel, the flip format.
AL The earlier section is concerned with Lili, who is an Asian Australian living in France, and there’s a lovely notion there where you talk about the energy of conversations between young people as being like shimmer or like spring. How did you go about capturing that sense of the zapping energy of young people’s conversation? How much of that is shaped by your own time, teaching English in Montpelier?
MD Oh, okay. Well, Lili is not me. She is braver and more adventurous and generally is the person I would have liked to have been at her age. But I guess… And I don’t know that I did actually manage to convey the zing of those times, although I hope I conveyed some of it.
But just trying to remember what it was like to be a young person in that kind of limbo between finishing university and then either starting work or going on to further education or whatever, that kind of liminal space where everything seems possible, which is exciting, and at the same time, it’s kind of scary because you’re trying to envisage what your life will be like, and you don’t know. So I guess that was just some of what I tried to convey.
And I think we probably all remember the intensity of friendships we had at that age, when you would sit up all night talking, you would listen to music together, you would party together, you would rearrange the world with your friends. And those friendships don’t necessarily last, but they’re very intensely lived while they do, and that’s something I wanted to convey too. I think there’s a special quality to that time.
And the other thing, the reason I had Lili in France was that in Australian literature, if a character is an Asian migrant to Australia, they’re usually living in Australia or they might be travelling to visit their homeland. They might be back in their homeland or their parents’ homeland. But we don’t often see the migrant, Asian migrants, I should say, as cosmopolitans, travelling in sort of white countries in Europe, for instance.
So I wanted to extend what we might call the image repertoire of Asian characters in Australian fiction. So that was another reason for setting that story in France, as you point out, of course, it was a time and a place I knew well because I too taught English in Montpelier in 1980 to 81.
AL And one of the things I enjoy about Scary Monsters and also about some of your other novels is your emphasis on platonic friendships. I feel like there’s an awful lot in literature about romantic relationships, but perhaps platonic friendships are a little underdone. Is that your sense?
MD Thank you so much, Andrew. You’re such a perceptive reader. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Friendship is… There are some novels. There are some novels, very good novels, about friendship. But mostly, the majority are about romantic relationships, as you point out. And yes, it seems to me to be so important in people’s lives. So, yes, it’s something that really interests me, it’s important to me in my life, friendship, and I have very deliberately set out to write about it.
AL I have to ask you, there’s a little motif that pops up in a couple of your novels, which is that of two friends who have a common word that is their own special word to describe things which are off-colour. So in Questions of Travel, it is cattish, and in Scary Monsters, the girlfriends have a phrase, ne pas intéressant. Does this mean that when you were a child, you had a special friend and shared a word which you used to describe things you didn’t like in the world? And if so, what was the word?
MD You’re such a good reader. I didn’t, or if I did, I don’t remember, it and I had completely forgotten that there’s that link to Questions of Travel, which I wrote now… Gosh, it was published in 2012, so I must have finished writing it in 2011. And I had another novel and another little book of criticism in between, so I had completely forgotten that when I was writing the Scary Monsters. But that’s the reason we have readers, to pick up the things we’re not aware of. So thank you very much.
AL Well, it’s a lovely way of crystallising the bond that they have. And also sitting across it, I guess much more obviously, is David Bowie, from whom the title is drawn, but who, as you point out, gets a little too close to fascism. How do you see the overlay of race and racism running through Scary Monsters?
MD Gosh, that’s a big question. So if I just talk about Lili in France, I would say that there are times when Lili is at a disadvantage because she’s female, because she’s a young women, and other times, she’s at a disadvantage because she’s not white. So those two things, one or the other might have the upper hand, and sometimes she’s not sure which one is working for her and which one is working against her.
But one of the things she observes around her is the treatment handed out to North African immigrants in France, and she feels solidarity with them. But then at other times, when perhaps she’s being harassed by a North African man, she of course reacts as a woman does who just wants to be left alone to enjoy her life in her own way. So I think race, who would deny that race is important?
Another thing about Lili, sorry, I should just… I forgot, is that she is also someone who is not rich. And her best friend, her bestie, in Montpelier is a rich white English girl. So there’s that kind of friction caused by money/no money.
So I think obviously race is incredibly important in determining one’s experience of the world, but so is class, so is gender, so are a whole host of other things. I simply wrote, and I think, I hope I touch on all of that in the course of the novel, but I did want to write a novel that centred migrant experience. And so I guess that, inevitably, race takes pride of place in the novel, is the biggest of the scary monsters that run through the novel.
AL Then we come to Lyle, a novella that is set in the near future. There’s no flying cars. It’s not quite 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale, but I guess it’s 10% in that direction. And suddenly, the issue of ageism seems to loom more, where sexism has been more prominent in Lili’s story. I found Lyle beguilingly interesting. He’s not somebody you’d want as a mate, but geez, a fascinating character.
MD Oh, good, I’m so glad. You have exactly the reaction I’ve hoped that readers would have. Yes, I hope that Lyle has enough complexity to make readers see him as, at once, a kind of… What should I say? Someone who has embraced all the wrong sorts of Australian values, so a fetish for real estate, avid consumerism, ruthless individualism, but at the same time who is doing all of that because he so desperately, as an Asian man, wants to fit in with Australia.
So he’s hoping to pass under the radar by being what he thinks of as the perfect Australian, and he must try extra hard because he’s not white. So he is always clearly identifiable as someone who is from elsewhere.
AL And just interrupting you there, I love, at one point, you say that what all migrants really want is to be Danish because no one ever really looks down their nose at the Danes.
MD Yes. Well, you don’t really know that someone is Danish, but you don’t really know that anyone who is white and might be a migrant is a migrant. I have a friend who is a British migrant, English, to Australia. And she says, at writers’ festivals, there’s often, oh, some kind of panel discussion where people talk about migrant experience. She says she is never asked to appear on those panels, yet she too is a migrant to this country.
But her experience, of course, as someone who spoke English and is white, means that she was able to slot in. And perhaps psychologically difficult for her, but looking at her from the outside, no one would automatically pick on her because she looks different, because she doesn’t. So I think what all migrants really long for is that kind of invisibility at times, to just be able to go about one’s life and not feel that one is conspicuously different.
AL One of the other glimmers, I guess, between the two parts of Scary Monsters is national identity in France and Australia. And as I was reading it, I was thinking about the fact that they have a national day that honours a prison breakout. We have a national day that honours the founding of a prison colony. Are there aspects of the French identity that you’d like to see Australians learn from?
MD Well, I’d certainly like January 26 to be no longer celebrated as our national day. I think France is very far from being an ideal society. I think one of the things I really admire is the value placed on education, which means absolutely free public education.
So there are some private schools in France, but they tend to be church schools or perhaps other religious schools, and are generally considered… If you’ve gone through your life, your schooling in one of those places, it’s looked down on a bit really, because the teaching is not considered to be as good. The education is not considered to be as good, excuse me, and isn’t as good as you receive in a French public school.
So I think that’s something that really Australia could benefit from. It just kills me that we like to think of ourselves as egalitarian and yet we have this deeply, deeply divisive system for everyone from the age of five. That is just wrong, it seems to me.
AL Yes, you can see the benefits to both egality and fraternity of taking on some of those ideas. I’m curious as to the phase in your life when you became a writer. And I’m quite influenced by a University of Chicago scholar, David Galenson, who says there’s two kinds of artists. There’s conceptualists who make radical innovations at a very early age, so think James Joyce or Pablo Picasso, and then there’s experimentalists who develop quite slowly over a long period of refinement. Think Shakespeare or Dickens.
What benefits do you think you had from starting your writing career in your 40s rather than in your 20s? Did that allow you a time to build up a stock of stories? Do you feel as though the characters are richer for having had those couple of extra decades of living in the world before you put pen to paper?
MD Sure. One of the things it allowed me to do was to read much more.
MD I had read much more, I had two decades more of reading by the time I started to write. And writers come from readers really. So that’s an advantage. And I think having something to say is an advantage. And a very practical advantage is having had an extra, oh, 15 years or so of building up a bank balance.
AL Which writers were most influential for you?
MD It changes all the time. You have writers, or I have writers that I read obsessively now that I wasn’t reading ten years ago, and vice versa. Just heaps of people really. I think in some sense, it’s an unsatisfying answer for you but it is the truth, is that everything you read really is like just the mulch that goes into the mulching machine, and then it all comes out all mixed up.
So I read a lot of… Growing up, as I mentioned, there were a lot of older books in my house, including a whole set of Agatha Christies that had belonged to, I think, my older siblings or older relatives of some kind. Well, I read all of them by the time I was ten, I’d say.
And my second novel, The Hamilton Case, is a kind of deconstruction of a classic 1930s whodunnit. So there you go. I read those books just as a child for the pure pleasure of finding out who’d done it. And 30-plus years later, I write a kind of literary whodunnit. So there you go. You never know what is... Everything is of use in some sense. Everything is an influence.
AL And to what extent do you consider yourself an introvert versus an extrovert? Because for somebody who is writing about the world and worlds and travel, there must be a need to get out there and gather material. You write with such rich texture about people and places. How much do you need to be out there, gathering, and how much do you want to just retreat to your book-lined, bird-filled room to write?
MD Well, when I’m writing, I’m not socialising very much. And I’m not someone who can write when I’m travelling, which is annoying. I envy those people who can just set up their laptop in a hotel room and keep going. I don’t seem to be able to do that. So I think that when I’m actually writing, I need to be at it. But I enjoy seeing friends at the same time, or of an evening or on a weekend.
So I think I’m a bit of both. I need time to myself because even when… This again comes from reading. Writers come from readers. And if you read, it’s a solitary activity so you are used to being by yourself. But at the same time, I have a partner. I would be lonely, I think, if I lived on my own. I would have a much greater need to go out and meet people, even when I’m writing.
So at the moment, I’m feeling the pandemic has meant that we’re all staying home more, and I’m certainly feeling the effects of that and that my world has shrunk. Because quite apart from travel, even going out to an art gallery has been so difficult in recent times, or just moving about Australia or… Yes, I think I feel at the moment that my world has shrunk in a way which isn’t good for my work. But, well, one hopes that will change.
AL You’ve had a remarkably productive decade and a bit. Do you have particular writing routines which you’ve found to be useful? Do you start at a particular time? Do you aim to hit a word target? How do you manage to churn out so many high quality passages?
MD Oh, thank you. Look, it’s a very boring routine. It was Flaubert, I think, who said be orderly and regular in your habits so that you can be bold and experimental in your work. And I think the thing about a novel is that it’s the long haul. Short stories are a sprint. A novel is a marathon, and you kind of need to live in the work and with the work.
Because I find that when I start out, I have a vague idea of where I’m going, but a lot of things come up in the course of writing, and that’s because I am immersed in the world of the novel. And it changes shape and it changes direction and is the richer for it, I hope.
So to answer your question, I really work Monday to Friday, mostly in the morning. I start early, as soon as I’ve had breakfast and a shower, and I would be at my desk definitely by 9:00 at the latest. And then when I’m doing the first draft, I will write a minimum of 500 words a day.
There are some days I reach that easily by lunchtime, but other days, I either just make it by the skin of my teeth or go back in the afternoon and finish. But usually just by lunchtime, around 500, definitely 500, but obviously sometimes I go a bit over. And I find that that’s about as much… It doesn’t sound much, does it? You say this to journalists and their jaws drop because they’re just used to having to write great numbers of words and great speed.
But I’m not good at that, and I find, again, it’s about living with the work. I revise as I go along. And about 500 words of thinking, maybe 600, 700 on a very good day, that’s about as much thinking as I can do in the space of that time. Then I’m obviously thinking about it even when I’m not writing, and I can go back to it the next day and do that amount again.
And that doesn’t sound like much, but if you do it every day, just even 500 words a day for four weeks, well, that’s 10,000 words a month. That means you can have the draft of a novel in seven months, first draft. That is only a first draft. I would do usually three or four drafts before I show it to anyone else. But once you have got a first draft in place, then the heavy lifting is done. Then you refine and you refine, you improve, you improve. So that’s my process. There’s nothing very exciting about it. It’s just steady. It’s just steady, I think just steady, keeping at it.
AL Do you have tricks for picking up the theme the next day? Do you employ the strategy of breaking off midsentence and so you know where to restart?
MD Oh, I’m too much of a perfectionist and too much of an editor really still to break off midsentence. But I like to, if possible, know where I’m going in that scene so that I know what I’ll be writing about the next day. I think that’s helpful. Yes, I think… Yes. And I will often start by just reading over what I had written the previous day to get myself into the swing of it.
Yes, there are just… People have different processes. And what I say to writers who are newer writers and ask about that, is I say, just find what works for you and then stick to it. I have friends who don’t work like this at all. They work in bursts. So they might do 3,000 words a day for three days or five days, and then they’ll have a break of four or five or six days. Everyone is so different.
But as I say, this is what works for me and so this is the process I’ve employed. It kind of makes me feel that I’m getting somewhere and that… I suppose, again, not having started writing till I was 40, I like the feeling of sitting down at my desk. It feels like I’m settling down to work, that this is a real job.
And really, writing is. What people call inspiration is, I think, the stuff that just comes out of the writing itself. That’s what I was talking about before, the sticking with the process and ideas come to you just from immersion in the work. But it is really 90% about… 98%? About showing up.
AL Yes, I can’t remember which writer it was but it was in one of those Paris Review, Writers on Writers essays, someone saying that you need to show up every day. Sometimes, the muse shows up with you and they’re great days. Sometimes, the muse doesn’t show up and they’re frustrating days. But the last thing you want is to not be at your desk when the muse turns up, ready to flutter onto your shoulder and give you inspiration.
MD Yes, indeed. Indeed. Yes, showing up. Showing up is where it’s at.
AL So a lot of your work draws on your story, but obviously then builds well beyond your autobiography. As somebody who writes a lot about identity and race and gender and so on, I wanted to ask you about the incident a couple of years ago with author Jeanine Cummins who wrote a novel, called American Dirt, about a Latina woman.
And then it was revealed that she wasn’t Latina and Flatiron Books cancelled the book tour. Have incidents like that made you reflect on the extent to which you can write outside your personal experience, or should write outside your personal experience?
MD Look, that’s an interesting and vast and complex question. There are certain kinds of identities I would be wary of writing about, at least writing from the point of view of certain identities. So for instance, I have a nonbinary character in Scary Monsters, as a secondary character. And there, because it’s Lyle’s point of view, it’s how Lyle sees them, their point of view is never explored because I just don’t think I would be able to do that well, apart from anything else.
So I think that is the important thing of whether, as a fiction writer, you really believe that you can get into the skin of someone whose experience is very, very different from yours by necessity. So I think the answer, boring as it is, it depends. I heard an American writer, not so long ago, a white American writer who was asked this question because she has a novel in which there is a black American character.
And she said, oh, well, I thought I could get away with it. And that was the phrase, get away with it, which is a revealing phrase, I think. Because it was set in… I haven’t read the novel but I think it was in a legal context. And she said, I’ve done a lot of work in that context and I’ve met African Americans in that context who are lawyers or whatever, guards in courtrooms, all kinds of African American people working in that context.
And I was listening to that and thinking, well, sure. But would you feel confident that your experience in that courtroom or that legal context would be the same as that of an African American? I don’t know that… That seems to me to be very questionable.
There have been stories in the media, for instance, about lawyers of colour in Britain, South Asian lawyers or black British lawyers being mistaken for defendants in court just because of their ethnicity. So I imagine that those people go in to work slightly tense, waiting for… Perhaps that moment will arise in their day, which a white person wouldn’t know.
So I guess it’s about feeling confident that you can do it well, which means that if it’s a major character whose point of view you’re representing, and their experience, their identity is far removed from yours, maybe, I think… I don’t want to say people shouldn’t do it, but I think they have to be prepared to have difficult conversations about it afterwards.
MD Having said all of that, I have written from the point of view of men, obviously, and I don’t know. Do I do it well? What do you think, Andrew?
AL I certainly thought you wrote about Lyle as compellingly as a male author would’ve done. But I thought it was interesting when Thomas Keneally said a few years ago that he wouldn’t write The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith from the perspective of an Aboriginal man if he was writing again today.
So as you say, there are certain identities that it seems no longer okay to take on, and the space which seems problematic appears to be growing. And I feel like it could potentially grow so large that the world would lose some of the best of Michelle de Kretser in the future, as somebody who does write a lot about identity and race. So it worries me a little.
MD Yes, it worries me too, but I think, for instance, I really wouldn’t, I don’t… Writing from the point of view of an indigenous character, I would just worry that I would get so many things wrong. Because I think relationships to country, for instance, are something that… I don’t know. I suppose if I went and spent a lot of time with indigenous people living in a traditional way, or even not living in a traditional way but just very connected to country, I might feel confident enough to do it. But I would absolutely expect to have conversations about it afterwards.
It’s a big question for fiction writers in our time, and I think one reason why so many people are writing about the past or about the future. It makes engaging with the present feel scary. Feels fraught, I suppose. Yes. It is a problem. But I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I think writers should be… If they really feel they can do it well, they should take it on and be prepared to talk about it afterwards and be open to conversations about it.
Look, you don’t have to be writing from the point of view of another character. It’s just about getting things wrong. So I remember reading a novel by a white Australian writer. This is a very good writer and someone I know and like very much. And there was a fact about Sri Lanka in her book that was just wrong. It was a date, a historical date. And I just remember feeling a little bit, I suppose, well, deflated but kind of hurt that neither she nor her editor had got that, had done their research on that point, it’s very easily verifiable, and gotten it right.
And that was a tiny thing, a tiny thing, and I wouldn’t say that the novel was not a good novel because of it. It is a good novel. But I bring it up just to tell you how one can feel sensitive about these things, especially if you belong, well, in that instance, to a country or an ethnicity perhaps that isn’t very much represented in Anglophone literature. So I guess that’s the point too, isn’t it?
MD That an indigenous writer might feel… Or, sorry, we’ll go back to your example of the white American pretending to be Latinx, that Latinx readers might feel a bit upset that their culture, their history wasn’t being accurately represented.
AL Michelle, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
MD This too shall pass.
AL That sounds like you suffered a bit too much teenage angst. Were you an uptight teenager?
MD I don’t know that I was uptight, but I came to Australia when I was 14 and it was a time of upheaval. And I think I had just enjoyed… I think at school, I just worked really. I was a good student. I just put my head down. School provides you with a role when you move to a new country. If you are going to school, it’s much easier, in a way, than someone who has to go out and find work.
School provided me with a role. I had always been a good student and I just kept on being a good student. So I just basically had my head down, working. I enjoyed university much, much more. I wasn’t a sporty kid. I wasn’t… I had friends, I had some very good, very nice friends, but yes, university was better.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
MD That Australia is governed by progressive politics.
AL Well, I guess it was when you arrived here in 1972. It was a propitious year to be arriving, after 23 years.
MD I remember the feeling of the excitement, that this was an amazing place.
AL And I felt a little echo of this in Scary Monsters, where you have Mitterrand’s election win in 1981, ushering in the left into the presidency for the first time in the republic.
MD Oh, that’s such a perceptive comment because it was exactly the same kind of thing, wasn’t it? A Labor government hadn’t been in power in Australia for, what, something like 30 years when Whitlam…
AL 23, yes.
MD Sorry, got elected. And in France, it had been longer because I think the last left government had gone in 37/38, so longer still, and that feeling of just rejoicing and hopefulness on the left. And I do say, when I’m talking about this book, that one of the connections… People say the Lyle section is bleak, and it is, but it’s fiction. Lili is… Well, as far as the political events go, they’re fact. And we have an election coming up, a general election, and there is an opportunity, well, with luck and with goodwill, to not turn fiction into fact.
AL Yes. I think anyone who imagines that elections don’t matter need only look at the US Presidential Election of 2016, which just so radically changed the course of the country. Let me move from the high world of public policy to ask you, when are you most happy?
MD Oh, well, I think when I’m walking somewhere, somewhere beautiful, whether it’s in the countryside or along the coast, when I can see a horizon, I think. I think horizons are important.
AL So not when you’re writing? That’s so interesting. I thought you’d say that you loved writing.
MD Oh, Andrew, you’ve talked to so many writers. You should know better. Goodness me. I think finishing a first draft, there’s a feeling of euphoria because… You know. I remember talking to another writer and we were both writing our books and saying, oh, how horrible it is. It’s like bringing up your insides with a hook every day. And I said to her, why do we do it? And she said, because it feels so good when you stop, which I think is a brilliant answer.
But no, I think I love that, a walk, and with my partner, perhaps with a dog, that’s lovely too, walking. I also love, love having a book I can get lost in. So those are different kinds of pleasures. Sitting down to a meal with good friends around the table, that’s another kind.
AL What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?
MD Oh, walking, I would say. So exercise, going out and walking, yes.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
MD Oh, look, it’s a bit embarrassing, but my partner and I watch The Voice every year on television. Do you know what that is, Andrew?
AL I do. I do. It seems possibly the mildest vice that one could possibly have.
MD Oh, really? Whenever I tell anyone I know, they say, really? You watch The Voice? So, yes, we particularly like the blind auditions.
AL Well, as an economist, we love blind auditions and there’s a whole literature there about the benefits of blinding when it comes to gender and race, my favourite story being the moment when the Boston Symphony Orchestra moves to blind auditions, and suddenly, the number of women in the orchestra jumps. Finally, Michelle, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
MD I think probably having grown up in Sri Lanka, because as we were saying before, it shows you the great disparity in wealth and opportunities of all kinds in the world, it shows me that anyway, and also that really, material possessions are nice but they’re not necessary.
AL Michelle de Kretser’s latest book is Scary Monsters. Michelle, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.
MD Thank you so much. You are my ideal reader, Andrew, I would have you know.
AL Well, and you’re my ideal writer, so that works out well.
MD Thank you so much. Thank you very much indeed.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion with Michelle de Kretser, I reckon you’ll love past interviews with Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler, and novelists Alice Pung and Markus Zusak. We appreciate getting feedback on the podcasts, so please leave us a rating or tell a friend about the show. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.