an in­truder

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

a fea­ture writer made it tough for Duigan to leave jour­nal­ism, even though she knew she was al­ways go­ing to write nov­els. She’d thought it would be pos­si­ble to do it in her spare time but soon re­alised that writ­ing all day didn’t leave suf­fi­cient psy­chic en­ergy for novel- writ­ing.

As Duigan talks about work and life, about am­bi­tions and re­la­tion­ships, we have wound in­evitably back to the ques­tion of writ­ing and sel­f­rev­e­la­tion. ‘‘ You can’t write a ma­jor pro­tag­o­nist with­out draw­ing on your­self, for all your char­ac­ters, to some ex­tent,’’ she says. To cap­ture the de­ci­sive mo­ment when lust leads to love de­scribed in the open­ing pages of The Bi­og­ra­pher , in which Greer, a young wo­man work­ing in a Melbourne com­mer­cial art gallery, meets the about- to- be- fa­mous artist Mis­cha, Duigan mined her his­tory with Beres­ford. ‘‘ The feel­ings are there, but not the de­tails,’’ she says.

Duigan met Beres­ford when he was in Ade­laide film­ing Breaker Mo­rant in 1980, and she had been sent by a news­pa­per to in­ter­view the ac­tor Ed­ward Wood­ward. She is clearly un­com­fort­able talk­ing about her private life, and about the dif­fi­cult pe­riod when she ‘‘ took up with’’ the di­rec­tor.

When they mar­ried in 1985, and moved for some time to live in Los An­ge­les, Duigan be­gan writ­ing the script that many years later be­came the film The Lead­ing Man. The ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing with her brother on that film she de­scribes as ‘‘ con­ge­nial, funny, and with­out any wor­ries’’. Un­der­stand­ably, then, she is at least open to the pos­si­bil­ity that, were The Bi­og­ra­pher to be op­tioned for a film, she might be the writer to turn the book into a script.

On one hand, the book of­fers it­self seem­ingly ready made. It is set partly in Melbourne, where the cou­ple meet with pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity then flee ( for a rea­son that ap­pears to be the se­cret be­ing pur­sued by the bi­og­ra­pher), and partly in Italy, where the cou­ple live, decades later, in glo­ri­ously pic­turesque com­fort and in­ti­macy with an­other painter and his wine- mak­ing part­ner. There’s an im­me­di­ate vis­ual ap­peal. On the other hand, much of the book’s in­ter­est lies in the de­bate about bi­og­ra­phy it­self, which Duigan builds through a se­ries of Greer’s in­ner mono­logues and self- in­ter­ro­ga­tions, as well as din­ner­party dis­cus­sions among the peo­ple whose lives are un­der scru­tiny from the slightly sin­is­ter char­ac­ter of the bi­og­ra­pher.

‘‘ I wanted to leave the ques­tion about bi­og­ra­phy and ethics de­lib­er­ately open,’’ Duigan says. ‘‘ One could say bi­og­ra­phy has reached an in­tru­sive point, and I’m look­ing at one par­tic­u­lar case. In the past, the prob­lem might never have arisen. The thing is this is not Greer’s bi­og­ra­phy that’s be­ing writ­ten, but be­cause of the way it has evolved, her story is as im­por­tant as ( Mis­cha’s).

‘‘ I think we won­der, is this le­git­i­mate, are there still bound­aries, and where are they? The bi­og­ra­pher’s approach is cal­i­brated the whole way through. He knows what he wants to hap­pen in the end and I think a writer might not think about the kinds of in­tru­sions made into peo­ple’s lives, the un­sus­pected ar­eas they might go into.

‘‘ I’m not talk­ing from any per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence,’’ Duigan has­tens to add.

But she is, in a way, be­cause, as a jour­nal­ist, she fre­quently had to make the call about how much in­for­ma­tion, and from what an­gle, she would in­clude in a profile of a fa­mous per­son.

‘‘ I hope not,’’ she says, when asked if she’d use in­for­ma­tion that she had un­cov­ered if she thought that in­for­ma­tion was out of bounds or hurt­ful. ‘‘ But it’s silly to think I couldn’t have hurt peo­ple,’’ Duigan adds. ‘‘ If I did, it cer­tainly wasn’t done in­ten­tion­ally. You need reser­voirs of sen­si­tiv­ity and tact, and em­pa­thy is im­por­tant. I find that in­ter­view­ing even some­one about whom I had an idea that was neg­a­tive, in­vari­ably I came away with a slightly el­e­vated idea.’’

All this ex­pe­ri­ence fed into the con­struc­tion of The Bi­og­ra­pher , with Duigan us­ing her pas­sion for vis­ual art to cre­ate the bi­og­ra­pher’s tar­get sub­ject. Be­cause so much has been writ­ten in the past decade about truth in writ­ing, and the clash be­tween the rights of the in­di­vid­ual and au­di­ences’ greed for in­for­ma­tion, Duigan says she spent the four years it took to write this novel think­ing that some­one would pip her at the post. ‘‘ I kept think­ing, some­one is go­ing to do this, and to use my ex­act ti­tle, be­cause it’s kind of ob­vi­ous.’’ The Bi­og­ra­pher, by Vir­ginia Duigan, will be pub­lished on April 1 ( Vin­tage, $ 32.95).

Telling tales: Au­thor Vir­ginia Duigan

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