VICTORIA LAURIE meets JOAN LONDON NOVELIST
ADARK- HAIRED child is playing alone in a post- war Perth back yard. Fruit trees, a big woodpile and a drying line of washing act as buffers from prying eyes. In the spaces between, the girl conjures an imagined world. ‘‘ That back yard was very important to me because I had privacy,’’ says novelist Joan London, who — approaching 60 — still bears a strong resemblance to the pretty child she clearly was. ‘‘ I loved making up stories and acting them out. I was the youngest of four girls, the others much older, so there was a lot to watch and listen to.’’
London is ‘‘ a noticer’’, the term she uses to describe the character of runaway daughter Maya de Jong in her latest novel, The Good Parents. There are also ‘‘ vanishers’’ in the book, people who love each other but need to escape: Maya’s mother, Toni, from her sinister first marriage; her father, Jacob, from thwarted literary ambitions; and grown- up Maya from her mum and dad.
That’s just how it is, the subtext of London’s novel seems to say: you must flee even the safest back yard, even the most caring parent. ‘‘ I think it’s a universal thing that we all go through,’’ says London, whose cosy Fremantle kitchen is inviting on an unseasonably blustery day. ‘‘ Maybe there are some people who grow up effortlessly alongside their parents,’’ she says, sounding unconvinced.
When, Maya wonders in the novel, do you stop being haunted by your parents? ‘‘ For Maya, there is a kind of sleepiness or inauthenticity about her parents’ lives, a staleness that she rebels against,’’ London says. ‘‘ She wants real experimentation; she feels they’ve made everything too safe. As well, she’s a young person in a country town. She’s too alone.’’
A youthful urge to improve on old models is another force propelling generations apart, London says. ‘‘ I think every generation in some way strives for wholeness and what they think has gone amiss. Each generation wants to make itself anew. Where there is a lack, they want to make it better.’’
In her novel, London re- creates that vivid sense of what drove her away from kind but overly strict parents in the 1960s. She longed to carve out her own generational niche: have rebellious sex, join a collective and leave it, rally for free education, raise kids.
‘‘ I do remember that intoxicating moment when I thought, ‘ we can change things’,’’ London says animatedly. ‘‘ We literally dropped out in a moment of pure utopianism that must have happened to generation after generation.’’
Like Toni and Jacob’s abortive pursuit of peace, love and occasional drugs in a rural idyll, London and her partner, Geoff, set up house in an isolated southwest town until they realised they weren’t handy enough to fix anything. ‘‘ It was very short- lived and reality cut through but it was serious. Even in the hedonism we wanted things to be different, we thought we could make everyone happier. It was beyond just the self.’’
London’s rift with her parents was short- lived. ‘‘ In the end, all was well. They became old, I had children they loved, we got through it,’’ she told one interviewer, neatly summing up the cycle of life. During the years spent raising kids, taking creative- writing classes and working part time in a book shop, the noticer stored every experience like a secret stash. Then came painstaking years, several for each of her two novels, piecing together ideas and words. ‘‘ And then endless rewriting,’’ she says, grimacing. ‘‘ I don’t write well quickly. I always hope I’m going to write faster, but I have to think and rethink, draft and redraft to find what it is I really want to say.’’
Such craftsmanship may explain why London’s writing, while sparse in terms of output, has been relished by the literary prize- givers. Her first short- story collection, Sister Ships, was selected as The Age Book of the Year in 1986. Her second collection, Letter to Constantine, won the Steele Rudd Award in 1994 and a West Australian Premier’s Award.
In 2001 her first novel, Gilgamesh, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, and longlisted for the Orange Prize and the Dublin Impac award. In 2002, it won The Age Book of the Year fiction prize. It was listed as a New York Times Notable Book in 2003.
She began writing The Good Parents around the time her children, now in their 30s, were leaving home. ‘‘ It was just about over, like ( with) Toni and Jacob. They have to then prepare themselves for the next stage in their lives.’’
One day, London glimpsed a scene in David Lynch’s film Lost Highway and settled in that split second on the title for her new book. Lynch’s film was a dark, surreal story of a young man who found himself taking the place of another man in prison, but it was his stoic parents who intrigued her. ‘‘ They are shown sitting on a couch, just watching and waiting, the way parents have to do with older children. I thought: ‘ They’re the good parents.’
‘‘ It’s an honourable role and I think most of us try to be good parents. It becomes the hinge of your happiness because if something goes wrong with your children, nothing else matters.
‘‘ I wanted to write about parenthood because it’s so much a part of our life, our time and our thoughts. It’s a huge portmanteau and in the book everyone is a child, or has children. It’s just one of the great topics of the world, I suppose.’’
Why write at all? London doesn’t hesitate to answer. ‘‘ When I get an idea and all my thoughts are flowing into that idea, it feels like psychic health. It’s beyond myself. It’s a meditation, an inquiry into why we are human. It makes me feel alive and purposeful and less neurotic.
‘‘ I read precociously as a child and I always wanted to be a writer,’’ she adds. ‘‘ That ( decisiveness) fascinates me. Young children say, ‘ I’m going to play the violin’ and they do it. But how do they know?’’ These days, a small child plays in London’s back yard, which is less capacious than the one in which she grew up. Two- year- old Francesca is her daughter’s daughter, and another grandchild is on the way.
Like the messy, unresolved but intriguingly intertwining lives of Maya and her mum and dad, London finds it reassuring that events unfold and lead one in unpredictable directions.
‘‘ I think life endlessly teaches you what’s next for you,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s about adjustment, and what you think is going to be unbearable is actually quite welcome.’’
Becoming a grandparent has brought immense, unforeseen pleasure. ‘‘ One falls into cliches,’’ London says, shrugging and smiling broadly. ‘‘ Everyone my age says it’s wonderful. It’s like the reward for being a parent.’’