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