AUTHOR & JOURNALIST
After my memoir, A Better Woman, was published a few years ago, people began to ask whether I had thought about my children eventually reading it. I suppose this was because of the memoir's frankness, and more specifically those sections which exposed the rage I felt towards my sons. "How do you think your son will feel knowing you once wished to smash his head against a rock?"
This set me thinking. Obviously it was an area I had examined before, both during the writing of the memoir and especially in the run-up to its publication. Then a friend started to run into trouble with a friend of hers, about the question of ownership of some material she wanted to use in a piece of fiction. What were the moral implications of writing exactly? Was there a sort of inherent imperialism involved in the act of writing? Did a writer have the right to use everything, or anything, that happened to her in her life when every life involves friends, lovers, family? While always convinced that I had the right to my own life, to my own "material" as it were, I started to ask myself some hard questions about what happened when my life was closely intertwined with someone else's. I began to read books by the relatives and children of writers: Margaret Salinger on growing up with J.D.Salinger, the daughters of the poet Anne Sexton writing about their mother's life and death, a memoir by the Canadian Alice Munro's daughter. Margaret Salinger wrote that her father had spent his life busy "writing his heart out" and that she was not convinced that the way he lived his life was well-balanced, or kind.
I went to the British Library and began reading about mothers and daughters, about infanticide, about rage. Whenever I begin a new book I read everything in a wild, haphazard way, sometimes only vaguely concerned with my emerging story. I knew I wanted to write about the relationship between writers and the world and, in particular, writers and family. Around the same time I was re-reading My Brother Jack (for no other reason than I often re-read my favourite novels just before I am beginning a new novel myself: it revs me up, raises the bar, shows me how far I have to go. The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, these are my images of perfection).
Who knows how novels arrive? Mine arrived, whole and at once, and I suddenly understood that I was going to re-write My Brother Jack and its sequel Clean Straw For Nothing from the female character Cressida Morley's point of view. In the Australian novelist George Johnston's famous trilogy, his fellow novelist (and fellow Australian and wife) Charmian Clift, is tranformed into the Cressida Morley character, all green-eyed beauty and subterranean silences. What if I wrote her version of the story? What would any story by Cressida Morley herself be like?
In the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald transformed his wife Zelda into the shining Daisy Buchanan character in Gatsby and into crazy, beautiful Nicole in Tender Is The Night, Johnston transformed Clift, a serious writer, into a beautiful, betraying housewife.
The truth was more complex: Clift was dedicated to her work and always wanted to write her great book. She died without completing it but right up to the end her unfinished novel was there "like a owl on my shoulder". With two writers in the family, who owned the joint material? Who got to write the book? Here was a perfect way to write around my subject: the moral duty to one's family versus the moral duty towards one's work, the fall-out for children. Could I write Clift's broken book for her?
Like Sylvia Plath, Clift died by her own hand but, unlike Plath, suicide was not a leitmotiv throughout her life. Clift's strength, both as a writer and as a person, was her vitality, her great muscular joy in feeling the sun on her skin, the breath in her lungs, the transcendent beauty in a poem or a piece of music. She was for life, the way Plath was married to death, and even Clift's suicide at the age of forty-six fails to cast too long a shadow over her luminous prose. Soon, I was up and away. But soon, too, I realized that I didn't want my emerging book to be a literal translation of Charmian Clift's life ("She wasn't like that"; "She didn't do that"). Wasn't there more murky moral territory here too, stealing from the dead? And how could I possibly hope to emulate such luminosity? Co-incidentally, a biography of Clift appeared (Nadia Wheatley, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift) which made me even more determined to create something new. (I didn't read the biography at the time but have read it since and can recommend it).
Eventually, I found myself developing an entirely new character altogether: the writer Katherine Anne Elgin. While she shares many biographical details with Clift, Elgin emerged as a character in her own right. She freed me up, allowed my imagination a wilder flight. Cressida Morley is still there, but she has always lived only as an invention.
Of course, much of Charmian Clift's background, and many of her preoccupations, happen to be strikingly similar to my own: journalism, expatriation, the on-going struggle between creativity and motherhood, the push-pull relationship with Australia. Greece, too, where Clift spent many years, also happened to be the place where I first started writing, where I began to unstitch myself, as it were, from my past. It was also the place where I got married for the second time, a country which has long exerted a pull over my imagination. I lived in Greece for a year when I was twenty: one of those periods in a life which stand out, still, and which I see now as acting as a kind of crucible in which my adult self was formed.
So, there you have it: life and art, art and life. After two years, the book was finally done and I was free.
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Once there was a girl in a country at the far end of the earth who thought she was not very good. In fact, she believed she was stupid, bad on the inside, and everybody in the whole world would guess. Sometimes she wasn't even sure she existed and could not have said what her truest feelings were, or indeed where she ended or began. The girl felt she had no proper shape, no sides, as it were, and she dreamed of being more fixed, more clever, of winning the admiration of brilliant unknown people. In the future, when she grew up, her life would be as beautiful as a book, peopled by interesting and fascinating things, sweeter than music or love. Everybody would love her and life would be like a flower pressed between paper, perfect in outline, every line careful as if etched. In this book of life no one would get old or sick or scarred, no-one would be found cruel or wanting, and every husband would be perfect. The not-very-good girl was called something plain like Kath or Mary or Joan. When she grew up to live in a book she promised to call herself Cressida, a name rich and strong in allusion, belonging to a different kind of girl altogether. A girl called Cressida might be fatally alluring, full of life and wit, a repository for a thousand men's dreams.
So it came to pass that the not-very-good girl grew up and became a writer and lived her truest life in a book. She lived her best life on the page, deep between the beginning and the end. Inside the book she was her own God and she made everyone do exactly as she liked. In the book she had everyone's attention, everybody listened, everybody had to pause to hear what it was she had to say. The not-very-good girl called herself Cressida just as she had promised and as Cressida she put all the glamour and excitement and adventure onto the page, all those flowers, all that life, compressed into a clear and final shape. In the book even pain could be said to have a meaning.
Cressida had colour in everything, cheer in adversity, passion, love. She travelled to exotic lands with reckless men, and imagined her life as one big risk that paid off. She had the children she wanted, a life other people envied, achievements of which other people only dreamed. She even became a character in other people's books and in other people's imaginations, for her reach was legendary and lasting. And so it was that the not-very-good girl left behind her ordinary, more shabby self. In the book she perfected herself, and its pages proved the safest place to hide. She buried herself so deep in the book no harm could ever find her.
It happened then that Cressida became the girl in the story who woke up one day and said, "Every morning is the same. I place my feet upon the floor. I walk to the bathroom, wash my face, look at myself in the glass.
"I want to be the girl who sees the world, who marries the right man, who wakes each morning to something new and exciting. I want to be the girl who dared to dream, who flew so high she felt the breath of angels.'
Let Cressida say, "I know! My book will be my boat, my wings. My book will be the engine of my hopes."
So the newly created Cressida Morley, who was no longer ordinary, stupid or not worth listening to, went to her notebook. She took up her pen and wrote, "Where to begin?"
Look upon the cloudless dome above our heads, the unblemished sweep of Australian sky. I am ten years old, invincible, standing on the bottom curve of the earth, the downward sphere of the world, already straining towards the blue feast of the sky.
Here are the things I love:
Peeling off the wisps of transparent skin from my sister Hebe's sun-burned shoulders. The ocean.
Picking my nose.
The scent of jasmine.
Doing a really big poo.
The smell of seaweed drying along the waveline.
That delicious moment just before I fall asleep.
Stroking that bright button between my secret lips down below.
Here are some things I hate:
Being laughed at.
Not being taken seriously.
Steak and kidney pudding.
The smell in the dunny when the can is too full because the dunny man hasn't been.
Singing in the school assembly. Peggy Gordon.
My big, slobbery lips.
Having to say, "Very well, thank you," when someone inquires after my health.
Going to bed with my hair in onions.
Fat white maggots on the wooden floor of the dunny.
The blowhole in the rocks next to the ocean shoots out a plume of furious water as if Neptune himself was spitting it out. Whoosh! Up it comes, over and over, a railing, contemptuous, frothing spume of sea, spat right in our faces. I am the only girl in the whole school to run through it: I took one great triumphant leap straight through its angry spout, getting pulverised, soaking wet, stranded. It almost knocked me over with the force of its hate, but I am a girl who went fishing on the rocks with her foolish father, was swept out to sea by a freak wave and came back, alive.
I am a girl who will gladly fight any boy who calls me names. It was me who kicked Stephen Asmus in the guts for calling me Brains; me who rolled with him in the dirt because he tried to put gluey red sap from a gum tree in my freshly cut hair.
Throw me the ball!
Hit me with sticks!
Come on, I dare you!
I am the second daughter of Percy and Dorothy Morley and I am living in a seaside town with a blowhole because my father hates the ubiquity of sport. More exactly, he hates the way in which sport in Australia is exalted, ranked high above every other human accomplishment. He believes sport in Australia is regarded as the greatest, most noble of human achievements, greater than any painting, any book, any piece of music you might think of. My father sees the worshipping of the accomplishments of the body as a sign of a culture dead to everything he most believes in, representing a world stripped of intellectual striving, where the only thing that truly matters is the curve of a human wrist in the act of swinging a bat, the line of a hand in the water as the hero gracefully digs his way to the end of the pool.
Before we moved here, my parents lived in a tiny terrace house beneath the mighty shade of the Sydney Cricket Ground. The roar of the sports-loving crowd offended my father's ears every Saturday during the cricket season; my mother told me that during Donald Bradman's famous record-breaking run in 1930 he stood on the buckled square of concrete outside the front door, yelling abuse at passing sports enthusiasts.
"You're a bunch of nongs!" he shouted. "Mindless, the bloody lot of you! Why don't you go home and read Dickens? You might learn the sweet craft of humanity!"
My mother wondered whether a good game of cricket mightn't teach them the same thing, but she never said. My father's usual preference was for the English poets, Wordsworth and Milton and Marlowe, but perhaps he plumped for Dickens fearing the passing crowd might never have heard of them. This practice of hurling abuse at innocent sports lovers ceased abruptly when Len Hatterstone, the local policeman, arrived to break up a scuffle. Someone had jumped the fence to give Dad a deserved walloping.
"Perce, it's a bit rich, mate, giving everyone a piece of your mind when they're only minding their own bloody business. Lay off, will ya?" My father laid off by moving hundreds of miles away, as far as possible from the Sydney Cricket Ground. It obviously did not occur to him to move to another suburb, or perhaps another street.
It simply disgusts him, the way Australians lie down before the perfectly sculpted athletic form like Ancient Greeks, like Spartans, seeing God in the hard triangle of muscle in a back or a thigh. He predicts that when the Don finally pops his clogs he will swing his bat endlessly in Australian heaven; he says it's odds on that Bradman will be the first Australian saint. My father goes on and on about how Australians see something heroic in sport, as if a pure act of the body contains nothing murky or ambiguous, and is unsullied by the dirt of an idea. Sport allows Australians to reduce life to all its banality and glory, he spews, the human body at the peak of its perfection, removed from all other mundane or weighty burdens. Raw life for idiots!
This is the kind of thing my father says when he is in full rant, for before anything he is a speaker fatally lost to hyperbole. He is a disastrous mixture of oaf and cultural fanatic; Australian colloquialism is his vehicle of speech yet he delivers it with religious fervor, sturm und drang, peppered with an odd literary flourish, frequently resulting in a kind of accidental poetry. In short bursts he can be a brilliant, charismatic speaker, words falling emphatically from his mouth as if ready made with exclamation marks.
He is a secret Englishman. That is, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent, an only child, moving to Australia with his shopkeeping parents at the age of six. For ever after my father has been one of life's exiles, forever yearning for a better place. He keeps his Englishness hidden though, as is only wise, for like the Irish, Australians do not like the whiff of supposed superiority and are quick to take offence at any slight. Yet all his life my father has exalted anything English: we eat cream teas and learn Shakespeare and when he converted to communism he had the most difficult time trying to reconcile a classless society with the monarchy. "I suppose it must go but, by jings, there's beauty in it."
The four of us then - Hebe, Mum, Dad and me - unbroken still, all piled in together in our tiny wooden house by the sea. If we walk out the back door, through the tough buffalo grass growing in the back garden, past the clothes line (one end of wire tacked to the back wall of the house, the other held by nails hammered into the mulberry tree; an old broomstick with a v-shape cut into its top holding up the wire in the centre), we reach the sand dunes and then the boundless sea.
There is no back fence, we walk up and over the sand dunes straight onto the beach. When we go to the beach for the day Hebe and I carry the woven beach bag between us, swinging it, but not so high that we disturb the contents of our picnic. Dad strides up ahead carrying the family beach umbrella, dressed only in swimming trunks - spindly legs on skinny body, broad shoulders, very tanned. Mum rushes up to catch him, takes his hand; she is plumper than him, dressed in a patterned sundress over her swimming costume. It is always a red-letter day for us if Mum joins us for a swim. Hebe and I are plunged into happiness by the fact that our mother is coming with us into the sea.
The beach is untrodden sand, white, silky, the sea a glinting, splashing spew of colour. Greens, blues, silver, the hat of the sky. No wind, no-one else about, a school of dolphins rising and diving.
We walk far up the beach, right up past the point, near two fishermen. "Fish running?" asks Mum, bending over to look in the bucket. The bucket is full of silver twisting bream, the effortful pulse of gills, glassy eyes not yet clouded.
We pick a site miles from anyone. Once, memorably, Dad danced around the beach umbrella, pretending to do a Red Indian war dance as he pierced the pointed end of the umbrella into the ground. "Humma, humma, humma, humma," he chanted in mock Red Indian. "Come on girls, join in!"
And we stamped around in a circle with him. "Humma, humma, humma, humma," said Mum, joining in, the four of us in an impromptu family war dance around a twisting umbrella. Round and round we went, laughing, the mad Morleys: brown, tossed, worshipping the sun, the beach, the glory of the untarnished moment.
Dad loves scaring us and we love to be scared. Sometimes he sneaks into our room at night with a candle held under this chin, pushing out his lower jaw and exposing his bottom teeth. "I am the Vampire of the Blowhole," he whispers and we scream.
"I've come to drink your blood," he cries, rushing towards us.
We long for him to drink it.
Sometimes Dad pretends to sew his upper lip with an imaginary needle. He threads the invisible needle, miming the whole thing - tongue in one corner of his mouth, eye squeezed up in concentration, invisible needle held up between his fingers while he tries to thread the cotton - then he mimes putting the needle up through his upper lip. When the lip is supposedly caught by the knot at the bottom of the thread he pulls the needle up and his lip comes with it - one half of his upper lip, a curl, a funny sneer, a lip being dragged up by a thread.
We laugh until our stomachs hurt.
Our dad is a nong! A prize idiot!
Our dad is the funniest man in the world!
Once the four of us went up the Hawkesbury, to Dangar Island, to stay with Uncle Terry, and all four of us got bitten by bull ants on the same day. There was a sand toilet - a hole in the ground and a plank to sit on - and a beach house shackled together with fibro, slabs of corrugated iron which leaked when it rained, windows without glass. Dad was out the back on our first day, out near the pile of wood kept for winter fires, looking for the giant frilled-necked lizard called Shorty who lived beneath the wood pile. A bull ant bit him on the toe - you would think it was a shark from the racket he made. Then Hebe got bitten later that morning when she poked a long stick down a nest and an army of bull ants attacked her: all up her legs, and one finally bit her near her wee hole. Mum got bitten when she was hanging out the washing and an ant crawled into her shoe; as for myself, I was quietly reading David Copperfield under a tree after lunch when I got bitten on the bum.
How we laughed, the jokes we made, which we told again and again, year after year. The Bull Ant Family: firm friends to ants the world over!
I will be madly in love with my father for a long, long time, forever trying to capture his kind opinion or even his momentary attention but I will hate him too, for the great stain he spreads over my life, for the abrasive, harassing sound of his endless booming voice which follows me from room to sea.
He is always talking, talking at me, talking over me, and never, never listening. I am so used to going unheard that surely words would be stillborn in my mouth. I am so used to being told what I am supposed to think and feel that I am no longer certain who I am. My father is always telling me what to do, always issuing instructions or laying down the law, or else talking endlessly on and on about himself. He is a bully with a bully's sentimental streak; a crude thick streak of self-indulgent bullshit runs straight down his middle. His eyes invariably fill with tears when he speaks of his dead, saintly mother (pure Dickens), or when he tells of finding his dear old father dead on the floor, the sad egg he was cooking for his tea still on the stove, cracked and waterless in the burned pot.
But my father never cried when my adored cat Mordechai was bitten by a snake and died. Nor did he comfort me, being too busy heading off to some meeting about the world-wide Depression, all fired up with fresh ideas about communism. He doesn't care that my mother loves my sister Hebe more than me, for he doesn't seem to notice me at all. His nickname for me is Dopes, after Dopey in Snow White. "Here she comes, old Dopes, old Dreamy Drawers," he usually says when I came in the door.
My father didn't notice the day I came home from school crying because Peggy Gordon accused me yet again of being stuck up. "You love yourself, Cressida Morley! Cressida Morley loves herself! Cressida Morley loves herself!" He only noticed when Miss Petersen came to see him the time I wagged school for a whole week because Peggy Gordon always sat behind me, laughing. He asked my mother to get the strap and took me into the bathroom. "Please, Daddy, not the strap! I promise I'll be good!" My arm has instinctively begun to rise up to cover my face whenever I pass him.
My father will only begin to pay attention when I bring scandal down upon the family head, ruining everything.
When I am older, at the beginning of the war, before I wreak my personal destruction, all my friends will laugh at him, he is so strange: the worker's friend spouting Wordsworth! The worker's friend able to remember every single verse of Tennyson's In Memoriam! Everyone will think he is a loveable, funny old goat.
I know he is not. I know my father to be the whetted knife, sheathed.
Hey, Peggy Gordon: I love myself!
I am delivered, walking fast along the sand. Look, my handsome brown feet, square at the toe, leaving hardly any prints as I walk. I am Cressida Morley and I love myself, I am Cressida Morley walking close to the shoreline, where the sand is hard as a road.
I am lifting off, into eternity. Soaring!
I am ten years old, unbuckled from the house of my father, the bully. I am free of the house of my mother, the clever sulker. I cannot hear his voice, or hers; the only thing I hear is the suck and crash of the ocean, that endless dance of sea and moon.
My body is waking up. I am alive, stretched and rustling to the very tips of my fingers.
I am a girlish triumph.
Sometimes in my father's house at night I creep out when I am supposed to be in bed. This is because my hair is tied up in onions, five perfectly spaced rags around which my hair is curled, causing the onions to bob like corks whenever I move my head. Without onions my hair is long and straight and the fashion is for curly hair like Peggy Gordon's. Onions are all right when I am sitting or standing but sleeping on them is like sleeping on a pillow filled with walnuts. Every night my head does a dance upon the pillow in its quest for lumpless space.
In the dark I feel my way along walls and doorways till I can safely crouch behind the chair in the living room and watch my parents around the radio in the kitchen. My father is quiet for once, listening with the full force of his ears. What ears he has, live creatures on his head, big as my hand! My own ears are friendly at my temples, coyly composed. I fear, though, that I have inherited like a family curse my father's large and sensual mouth: to me his lips look ugly, squalid, as if they don't quite fit his face. My own lips are slobbery suckers, the bane of my life, the subject of teasing by Peggy Gordon, who has recently taken to calling me Lubra Lips.
I do not yet know that these very same lips will prove to be my face's most sublime invitation.
Hey, Peggy Gordon: I am going to grow up to be beautiful.
Hey, Peggy Gordon: I am going to grow up to command the eyes of every fucking man on the planet.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
INTERVIEWS & APPEARANCES
Susan Johnson is available for book signings and interviews. Please contact Susan’s agent, Benython Oldfield, Zeitgeist Media Group.
AWARDS & ACHIEVEMENTS
With a career spanning almost 30 years, Susan’s work has received wide acclaim. See some of Susan's achievements here.
Susan currently works as a senior journalist on Qweekend, the Saturday colour magazine of The Courier-Mail, Brisbane. Here are some examples of her work.