Edwina Preston for The Stella Shortlist
Edwina Preston is a Melbourne-based writer and musician. Preston is the author of a biography of Australian artist Howard Arkley, Not Just a Suburban Boy (2002), the novel The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer (2012), and the novel Bad Art Mother (2022).
Her writing and reviews have appeared in The Age, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Heat, Island, Griffith Review and The Conversation.
ASTRID: It is my great pleasure to be talking to you about Bad Art Mother, and also your shortlisting for the Stella Prize. To kick off, just in case there is anyone who has not yet read Bad Art Mother, can you introduce us to this remarkable work of fiction?
EDWINA: Yes, I really need those sort of potted, pithy one-liners to do this. So Bad Art Mother is essentially the story of a poet in Melbourne, a female poet in the 1960s who is facing literary sexism and trying to get her own work out there. She's also a mother. And the story's told through letters in her voice to her sister about her life and about her struggles with writing and the literary industry, and it's also told through the point of view of her young son growing up, between her and some other female and male influences who were also involved in creative life in the 1960s.
ASTRID: It was a really unexpected read, I have to say. Before we go into how you went about writing and publishing and what your goal was, I'd just like to interrogate why you chose this subject. What drew you in to spend so much time creating this historical fiction novel, and the protagonist Veda and her son Owen?
EDWINA: I mean, I don't start writing with a plan. So originally it was going to be a different book and it was going to be originally much more about migration in sixties Melbourne. And I did a lot of research into that, some of which I used. But then as the book changed, it became more about ideas of selfishness and creativity. And I had been reading the letters of the poet Gwen Harwood, whose voice was incredibly mischievous and alive on the page. And it really made me think about letters and letters as a form in which women have been able to tell stories about their lives, and about all the small and large things that they deal with on a day-to-day basis. And also, I wanted to look a bit at the issue of boys and the way they're brought up, the way that they're gendered into a semblance of masculinity that is not always to their advantage. I was sort of looking at both things, selfishness, selflessness, the gendering of care, the gendering of creative productivity as well.
ASTRID: It So where did the character of Veda come from? Because she's a unique creation, but she draws on parts of Australian literary history as well.
EDWINA: There's an element of Gwen Harwood in her, definitely the sparks, the liveliness, the slang of the time. But I think most characters it also comes partially from me, and there were actually bits of my own diaries that I mined for her letters at some points. But she's not me at the same time, she's not a conglomerate character, she's something that grew out of reading of myself. Sometimes I've had a hard path to publication, so it was cathartic to put my troubles into a fictional space. That way I could vent my own feelings through a character. She was a bit of a mouthpiece in some ways.
ASTRID: It I have questions about your path to publication in terms of Bad Art Mother, but in terms of what you just said, were you referring to this or your previous works in general?
EDWINA: I think definitely this and the previous novel took a very, very long time to come out, and there were lots and lots of rejections and lots of false starts, and it was very disheartening. And there's a lot of fear and anxiety about when a book comes out, is it just going to ... You put so much time into it and then it's got a sort of a two-month shelf life in which it has to prove itself. There's a lot of stress. People think, ‘Great, you're having a launch, your book's published’. But actually, there's a lot of anxiety that comes afterwards. Will it sink? Will anyone even bother to review it? If it doesn't do well, what does that mean for my next book? Is that going to not all go well for me with publishers and booksellers? So all of those things, the lead up to publication and the post publication period, are really quite traumatic. Well, they have been for me.
ASTRID: It I think they are for a lot of writers. You just said a shelf life of two months, I've heard of a shelf life being even less in bookstores pressed for space, etc. It can be quite cutthroat. So we've gone down this rabbit hole a little bit. Can you talk to us about the path to publication for Bad Art Mother, which did involve lots of rejection?
EDWINA: It started very, very well. My agent, Jenny Darling, picked it up very, very early on and was really excited about it. And that was for me ... Because it's as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher, so I felt really supported to have her on my side. And I can't overestimate that, it was really, important to have her there. She thought she was going to send it out, get some great deal.
And of course, she started sending out and it just got rejected and rejected and rejected. All up I counted 25 rejections, and that was Australia and probably a handful in America and a handful in the UK. So basically, I would say probably every publisher in Australia just about rejected it. And then the wonderful Jo Case, who was then working at Wakefield, she was just there for a small window as publisher at Wakefield. Heard of it and got hold of the manuscript and loved it, and her coming on board was the other incredibly important thing. But it did take sort of three or four years, so it was long and slow. And even though you sort of imagine that the more rejections you get, the more thick-skinned you would become. Actually for me it was the opposite, I became more and more thin-skinned and it became more difficult, not less difficult to process those rejections.
ASTRID: It Congratulations on the fortitude ... like keeping going. I mean, 25 rejections is quite a lot. But you know, got an agent quickly at the beginning, and now after publication you've been shortlisted for The Stella Prize, but you've also been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and that's a huge award in the New South Wales Premiers Literary Awards. Bad Art Mother is valuable and has found literary judges who love it. But what does that say to you about the publishing process?
EDWINA: Oh, well, I know it just is this way. I mean, sometimes when I was sort of seething from the last rejection, I'd go online and I'd look. I'd read something about all the great books that were out there that had been rejected, so I could sort of put myself in this club and feel like, ‘No, it's not me’. Sometimes the synchronicities aren't there, or things get overlooked, or it's the wrong time, or the wrong person sees it. All those things that you can't control. That helped me to deal with it. But I think that the worst thing that happens is you start to really ... I started to think I was really deluded about my own work. That was the worst thing, because I thought, ‘This book's good’. And then when it got rejected so many times I really started to feel like I can't judge things, I don't know anymore. Is it good? I don't really know. And that was confusing. So that internal chaos, or loss of self-belief was more difficult in some ways than the physical rejection and moving forward from those.
ASTRID: It Having had that experience, how do you feel about writing and your own creativity now?
EDWINA: I can't help but feel better about it. I know that these things, they make a difference to ... I've always been saying that they make a difference to perhaps how easy a pathway I'm going to find, hopefully for my next book. I really don't want to go through 25 rejections in four years. So on that level, it's a really big relief to me. That doesn't mean that things that are merit-worthy always make it to these lists. And so I feel like there's luck in that. I'm not saying it's just luck, but there's a confluence of things happening.
ASTRID: It That's so true. Not every book can get listed. There is limited space. And I agree with your assessment there. Having taken our little segue into thoughts on publishing and prizes, I would like to go back to Bad Art Mother and really explore your text. I wanted to look at the structure that you created. It is of course the letters from Veda to her sister, and then the point of view of her son Owen, and they're woven together. In terms of you sitting down to write, how did you approach it? Was it a linear structure? Did you write Owen's bit separately?
EDWINA: It was a linear structure. I had written the first two chapters, which are told from Owen's point of view, I actually wrote many years ago, and they sat there without being expanded upon. And then I wrote a master's thesis on correspondence as a female-centric writing practise, so the first 10,000 words of Veda's letters were part of that project. And then I don't think I'd even thought about putting them together, and somehow I did. And then I worked chronologically thereafter, and there was some sort of movement. But I think I always work chronologically in completing the book, but I go backwards and forwards within that chronology as well.
ASTRID: It That's an excellent lesson in everybody keep their draughts, keep the stuff in the bottom of the drawer in case you end up turning it into an award-winning book later on.
EDWINA: Yes. I don't throw things away.
ASTRID: It So talk to me about how you created the time, the feel of the 1960s, because it is a very different time then now, which is not to say now is great. But nevertheless, the 1960s were a certain type.
EDWINA: Well, interestingly enough ... I wasn't born in the 1960s, but my younger childhood was in the seventies, and there aren't huge differences between the seventies and the sixties really. My partner's 10 years older than me and our references are pretty similar when it comes to Melbourne even. So I did appropriate the seventies for the purposes of the sixties a bit. I got my mom to read through and check over little details that might have been anachronistic. Amazingly good that you can just look up, ‘Oh, I'd like to put in Where the Wild Things Are. When was that published?’ I mean, there are lots of stuff that you can actually check so easily online, that was not difficult.
I did sort of immerse myself in the beginning when I thought I was writing a book about migration and Melbourne multiculturalism. I did a lot of research into Italian cultural clubs and political movements and restaurant culture in Melbourne. And that, I guess, put me into a mindset. But the first book that I wrote 20 years ago was a biography of the Melbourne artist Howard Arkley, who was born in I think 1951, and he was picked up by the George and Mirka ... Well, George Mora was his art dealer, and George was of course married to Mirka Mora. So in the process of writing that book, I'd really steeped myself in a lot of reading and thinking about the sixties as a important era in Melbourne artistic culture.
ASTRID: It Do you think that readers of Bad Art Mother will be intrigued and go look up some of the famous figures of that area, like Mirka Mora and Gwen Harwood?
EDWINA: Well, I hope so. I think Gwen Harwood's lesser known, in a way. I mean, she's known in literary circles, so I make sure at the end of the book I explain her story very much in brief. I think that there's a lot of interest. That whole era of the John and Sunday Reed and Heide and Mirka Mora have been mythologized. There's been a play about Sunday Reed that MTC have just put on. I think it's very, very rich for further exploration. The writer, Janine Burke has written a lot about that period and the artist Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sunday Reed. So there's a lot out there. Gwen Harwood is less well known, and I'd like to see her ... I know there's a biography of hers come out this year as well. She's such an interesting character, just an amazingly mischievous, charismatic person.
ASTRID: It I confess, I have read that biography of Gwen Harwood and I found reading that biography and Bad Art Mother in the same rough time period a fascinating experience. It was quite lovely. For our listeners, can you give us the overview of what Gwen Harwood really did and the literary hoax that she perpetuated on editors in journals in Australia, poetry editors, but also how you captured that a little in Bad Art Mother?
EDWINA: Yeah. She was interesting because she was so playful. She certainly had a seed of despair and vitriol in her too. She could really dish it out if she didn't like someone, but she always does so in such a funny, clever, articulate way. She was a musician as well as a writer, and music was as important to her as her poetry. In the sort of fifties, sixties, I think she had four children and she lived in Tasmania and she was very much ... She used to sign off her letters, Gwen Harwood, Taz Housewife. So she sent up her own status as a 1950s housewife. She was having her work rejected, so she began sending her work out under male pseudonyms, often sort of exotic, European male pseudonyms. And suddenly, not only was her work being published, she was being paid twice as much. She was being invited to dinners and literary festivals just merely because she'd changed her gender in her letter and her byline.
Later on she ... and this is going to be a spoiler for the book a bit, but anyway. In 1963 she'd had enough with being paid less, being rejected and she wrote a sonnet, which was published in ... I think it was called The Red Pages in The Bulletin. Some days or weeks later, some Queensland University students realised that if they read the sonnet acrostically, so vertically via the first letter of every line it read out, fuck all editors. And there was a scandal once this was released to the media, and she was on the front pages of the newspapers. And it was 1963, one did not say the F word if one was a Taz housewife, or any respectable woman. But she dealt with the fallout from that and she went on to become extremely successful and a highly esteemed poet.
ASTRID: It The way you put it in Bad Art Mother is such a beautiful read, Edwina. I'd like to go back to some of the main themes in your work, and that is motherhood and the tension between motherhood, or expectations of motherhood, and of course art and creativity and what it takes to be an artist, or to be perceived as a successful artist given misogyny and another gatekeeping and such to an industry. You've explored that through Veda of course, but there are other women in the novel, all of whom take a different approach to their own art and how they choose to exist within, or rebel against the structures of the 1960s. So there's Ornella, there's Rosa, and they all of course interact with Owen, her son as well. I was really fascinated by how you took these women and gave us different types of mothers and mothering, even if a person is not a mother. Can you talk to that?
EDWINA: Well, I've sort of thought about it lately in a different way than I did when I was writing it. When I was writing it I just wanted to show different ways to have success or to explore your artwork in different circumstances. So Mrs. Parish is childless, but she has a strong sense of her own, the merit in what she does that's not knocked around by what other people do. She's got this sort of internal gravitas. And Rosa is another character who's not married, doesn't have children, who finds another way through via mural artwork at first. And then presumably she's sort of gathered up by this post-modern 1980s rediscovery of women artists that Veda is also sort of resuscitated as an artist through. At the time I was just thinking what other stories, or strands can I tell?
But thinking about it more lately, I've sort of thought about the fact that I think it's also a comment on it takes more than one mother and a nuclear family to bring up a child. I got my mothering from my mother, I also got it from my older sister, I also got it from my aunts, I got it from the mothers of my friends. And I think that's important. And I'm not sure that the idea of the nuclear family and the one mother and father are necessarily good for women, or for children.
ASTRID: It Yeah. It places are all the obligation on one person to get it right forever. And that's unfair for both mother and child, and the family unit. When you think about masculinity, which is what you mentioned at the beginning, and I guess in our current discourse we talk about toxic masculinity and different representations of masculinity. How do you feel about Owen? Because I had conflicting opinions on Owen as I read the book.
EDWINA: I'm interested to hear in your conflicting opinions. You tell me.
ASTRID: It Sometimes he irritated me and I was bringing, I guess my experience of ... I don't know, my perceptions of the world and I was feeling for all these women. And sometimes Owen was just taking up their time and not being nice to them, and it was ... I don't know, I wasn't that thrilled with him as a character sometimes.
EDWINA: Okay, that's interesting. I wanted him to be ... I didn't want to paint good men and bad men, I guess in the book. So even the bad male character, which is Mr. Parish, the poet, I hoped that I gave him some sensitivity, and that people found that he was vulnerable too actually. Owen ... I don't know, he is a child, so he needed to be the centre of the universe. There are also times when he cuts his mother slack in ways that nobody else does, which was sort of important that a child will cut their parents' slack because you need to want and like your parents and think they're great and think that your mother is the best, most wonderful person in the world. I remember my dad telling me when he was a little boy his mother was so kind and beautiful and smart, when she went to pick him up at school he was just so proud because that was his mother.
And I sort of remembered some of that and I think I tried to put some of that from my father a little bit into the book too. Yeah, I don't know. It's hard to tell with Owen. I've had different opinions about his character and I'm not sure how I stand except for ultimately he has a relationship which doesn't involve children. And the last words in the book are, my beautiful man. And I wanted a man figure to be able to be beautiful as well within this complex of stuff, in which they're not often allowed to be beautiful.
ASTRID: It Absolutely. We don't move the discussion on, or move change society if everybody is just good, or bad, or stuck in their own silos. Edwina, I started this interview referring to The Stella Prize, and you've also been listed for the New South Wales Premiers Prize. I guess as a creator and a writer, like taking a step back, not referring to the prizes that you were listed for, but what are the highs and lows of our contemporary publishing scene, which you are now right in the middle of?
EDWINA: I think that it was very, very interesting when The Stella long list came out that 10 of the 12 books were from small independent publishers. And the judges commented on that, and I think that speaks for itself, that it's those publishers that are taking the risks that might pay off for them or might not. But clearly they are, because those books were up there.
I try to stay arm's length from these issues when they crop up in the media, because I don't want them to get into my own sense of self, or my writing prowess, or the prospects for my own work. I've been around long enough to see things, the ebbs and troughs of the highs and lows and the changes in publishing. I think it's tough that there are so ... I know mainstream broadsheet media doesn't really exist in the same way, and there are all sorts of other reviewing opportunities. But I've certainly seen things like reviewing pages shrink, and the spaces for books to get reviewed get smaller and smaller, and that whole old-fashioned model of media cross subsidising different aspects of their work so that the money from the cars advertising might feed into the review pages.
That's not happening. And so that worries me, but at the same time, there are other blogs and there are all sorts of online opportunities that weren't there before. I think if you're an entrepreneur, or if you're of that sort of bent, you could really make that work for you. I've never felt particularly entrepreneurial, so if my book hadn't been published and I would've had to self-publish I think I would've found that quite difficult. I think I would've done it, but it's a lot of work. It's really like running a small business.
ASTRID: It Self-publishing is huge. And Edwina, I know I asked you in a leading question and you did very well, so thank you for humouring me. Now we are talking about contemporary publishing, but who are the contemporary writers, if any, that you find yourself influenced by? I'm not talking about Australian literature, I'm talking about who are you reading that feeds into your creativity?
EDWINA: I feel influence. If I read something that excites me it always makes me want to write, and that can be all sorts of different books. I've been teaching a creative non-fiction subject for the last sort of four weeks, so I've been reading a lot of creative non-fiction, and I've found that really inspiring and exciting. Otherwise ... now you've asked me I've drawn a complete blank, Astrid.
ASTRID: It All good. I should give a heads-up for that question. It's surprising how often that draws a blank. So my final question for you, Edwina, is do you have another work in progress? And not that I'm asking for you to tell us about the details, but would you write a novel again?
EDWINA: Yeah, I have another work in progress. It's about two thirds of the way through. And I've got stumped with it, so I'm giving it some time and space to just do its own thing and percolate, hopefully somewhere in the back of my brain, and I'll go back to that. But I've also got another work that is non-fiction, they're both about the subject of sisters. So one's taking a creative non-fiction approach, and the other's much more historical, novel driven.
ASTRID: It I would read non-fiction and fiction about sisters. That sounds beautiful, Edwina.
EDWINA: Good. A lot of them out there. A lot of us.
ASTRID: It Absolutely. Edwina, thank you so much for your time today. It is greatly appreciated.
EDWINA: No worries. Thanks so much, Astrid. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.