THE FACE

VIC­TO­RIA LAU­RIE meets JOAN LON­DON NOV­EL­IST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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.’’

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