ASTRID: Vicki Laveau-Harvie was awarded The Stella Prize last night for her memoir and debut work, The Erratics. The Erratics also received the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize and is currently shortlisted for the 2019 New South Wales Premier's Non-fiction Prize. This work was almost out of print a few months ago and is now front of mind in the literary world in Australia. It is my great pleasure to welcome Vicki to The Garret.
VICKI: Thank you Astrid. I'm pleased to be here.
ASTRID: You were awarded The Stella Prize less than 18 hours ago. In your acceptance speech you talked about the importance of speaking truth. Is that what you've done in your memoir?
VICKI: That was exactly what I tried to do. I think when you write a memoir you have a contract with anyone who might read you to tell the truth to the best of your ability. But the fascinating thing with memoir is that if my sister were to write a memoir it would be very different. And she did read the manuscript of this book and she said to me, 'I remember those incidents. It's really exact those incidents I can remember them. What's different is the way I felt about them at the time and the way I've processed them afterwards'. So everyone's truth is different in a family situation.
ASTRID: It is indeed. I have so many questions to ask you about the ethics of memoir, including sharing it with your family, sharing it with your sister. If you don't mind, I'd like to just stay on your acceptance speech for a moment. It was wonderful by the way.
VICKI: Thank you.
ASTRID: We're here to talk about your writing and you obviously you did prepare your acceptance speech.
VICKI: I did.
ASTRID: Well done. As a writer, how do you craft an acceptance speech well?
VICKI: Well, I think once you've picked yourself up off the floor and given yourself 48 hours to process things... There were things that I did want to say. And I did want to talk about what it meant to me to write memoir, which was telling truth. And it's something in the front of my mind because of my own preoccupations with politics and things, feeling that truth is a rare commodity and I don't like the idea that you can present as truth just anything. And when I thought about it, I thought well, I'm presenting as truth my way of seeing this. How is that different? And I thought I think the difference is in intent, and that's why I did bring that up.
ASTRID: Did you practice the speech?
VICKI: I did.
ASTRID: You did. In front of people or in front of a mirror?
VICKI: All by myself.
ASTRID: I teach speech writing and so I always love to hear someone - the advice of someone - who has just done a beautiful speech in front of a lot of people to tell my students.
VICKI: Thank you very much.
ASTRID: Now, anyone who hasn't already read The Erratics I imagine now will go out and read it. It is of course a memoir of your mother, your father, and your sister. It's a memoir of your past. But in case anybody is listening and hasn't read it yet, can you briefly introduce us to The Erratics?
VICKI: Y es. I wrote theoretically because there was a six year period starting in 2007, my mother broke her hip and she was hospitalised. And we'd basically been estranged from my parents for over two decades. I'd seen almost nothing of them. And this was the position my mother wanted, she wanted that to be that way. And I had often wanted to write about my family of origin because it was weird, you know.
And I thought I've got too much material here, and it's true, there was too much material. I couldn't find a way to get a grip on it. It was going to be one of those huge things. And I never managed to come to terms with how to do it. When there was this period where I went regularly to Canada two or three times a year, and spent several weeks trying to help my father and, with my sister trying to sort things out - because they had got themselves in a terrible terrible state and my father's health had suffered because of my mother's actions - I had a manageable time period. And between the time when she broke her hip and through the period where we managed to have her, while she was in rehab for her hip, assessed for her mental condition, we managed to work through a lot of things. And it was a contained period. Telling the story of that was to me interesting in itself because ludicrous things happened. I mean there were funny things, but also it allowed me to draw in things from the past. And it seemed to me it was a valid way to tell the story.
ASTRID: How long did it take you to write?
VICKI: It was about 18 or 20 months.
ASTRID: And did you start writing after this period? During this period of six years?
VICKI: I finished writing it just after my mother died. I was almost finished when she passed away, so I was writing for a year and a half before that. And she died in 2013, at the end of 2013. So for about 18 months before that, and I hadn't finished it, I had a few chapters to go, and I was thinking about how to finish it. And as it turned out that's what happened.
ASTRID: Can you tell me the story of how you found a publisher? How you decided to put this very intimate story into the world?
VICKI: Well I don't tend to send anything out. I love the writing process, and I love - I write a lot of poetry and I like to find the best way to put something on the page. And what I love about poetry, just to digress a little bit bring me back when you need to - is that with poetry, it's like a constellation and it opens out on many more things than what you're actually putting on the page. And I thought if you could write a memoir that did that, and that resonated a little bit with themes that were a little bit more relevant to everyone - we all have families, they all have issues, that's the definition of a family. And some are more traumatic than others, we deal with them differently... that that could be a good story to tell.
ASTRID: So when you did decide to tell that story and share it with the world you had to send it out to someone.
VICKI: Well yes. And I went to Varuna, the writers house in New South Wales, on a whim because twenty years ago I met Patti Miller who does writing courses for a memoir and is a prominent figure in that in Sydney and elsewhere, and I had done a 12 week course with Patti in 1998 I believe, twenty years ago, and I had liked that very much. But once again it was too much material. But I was interested in the form. And, on a whim I was looking at the Varuna website a couple of years ago, and she was doing some seminars. There was a focus week on memoir and I thought, I have this in the drawer. And I do believe in putting things in a drawer to marinate for six months or so. It had been in the drawer for two years and I thought, Okay let's get serious about this'. And the deadline for applying to the Varuna focus week was that night at midnight. So I got busy and sent it off at 1 minute to 12:00pm and I got a place and I went up and I saw Patti again. And I had a consultant, a very wonderful writer whose name is Carol Major who was my was my consultant at Varuna and who said to me, 'This needs to be sent somewhere'. And I said, 'Okay, but I sort of don't do that a lot'. And she said, 'Well that's when you do'. And I said well, 'There's the Finch Memoir Prize, and I'll send it there, okay'. And I said to someone after I put it in the mailbox, so I said 'I just won'. And they said, 'What do you mean?'. And I said I put something in the mailbox.
ASTRID: And of course in time you did win.
VICKI: And look what happened. But it was... It doesn't come naturally to me because it's complicated, you know? And I love the writing process.
ASTRID: So after you found out that, you know, you were awarded the Finch Memoir Prize you were published.
VICKI: I was. The book came out on the 1 June last year. It was the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize, and I was so delighted to have that happen. But then at the end of December last year, six months later, that publisher closed down. So basically, I was going to be out of print. And that really hurt me because I thought... I'm happy that book's out there and people are reading it, some people are reading it. And I sort of wanted it to live on a little bit but there seemed to be very little way to do it. But it had been entered in The Stella and also in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. And that's when all of this wonderful stuff happened.
ASTRID: So you found out you were long listed for The Stella.
ASTRID: Is that the first public long listing that came out? It came out before the New South Wales?
VICKI: Yes. That came out, the long listing, and then there was a space of about a month and the shortlist, and then about another month...
ASTRID: And here we are.
VICKI: Here we are.
ASTRID: So, the book has now been reprinted because it's very easy to get now.
VICKI: Yes. It's been taken up by another publisher, and it's come up with a different cover which I think is beautiful and is very much in keeping with the book. I'm delighted with the cover.
And it has a new life. It has a new lease on life. And that's due to a number of amazing women who have helped me. I have an agent whose name is Jeanne Ryckmans, and she's remarkable. And a wonderful publisher called Catherine Milne, and the writer Caroline Baum also was one of the judges of the Finch and has been a very good friend and a champion of the book. So I've had fairy godmothers as I call them.
ASTRID: You have. At what point did you get an agent?
VICKI: Just immediately after the long listing.
VICKI: Yes. Long ago not long ago.
ASTRID: I'd like to take a step back before we dive into the book itself. I'd like you to tell us about the editing process, which can be traumatic for any writer. But I'm interested in how you worked with your editor particularly on subject matter that is so personal.
VICKI: Well, I think I was lucky because I tend to be a very conscious writer. I'm realising that is something people can not relate to too much, especially in a memoir. But when I've got something on the page it's usually - and I do go through different drafts, but I write a lot in my head when I'm out walking and things like that - and when it's on the page and I've been through it, edited myself a bit, that's usually pretty much how I want it. So I'm a conscious sort of writer and it was lucky for me I think that I had the editor that I did who is - can I say her name?
ASTRID: You can.
VICKI: Her name is Pam Hewitt. She's teaches editing in Sydney, I'm sure you know of her. And it was quite remarkable. So I got the amazing software with her comments and I could accept or I could suggest something else - that's wonderful to work with - and that's what we did. And she actually... there were no structural changes she recommended, because it is a straight forward write in some ways. It's this happened and we flashback to that, and it's got kind of a structure in the middle where it's big flashback, but I don't think people get lost in it. And so there was nothing structural. There were few things... she fixed punctuation so it was Australian and not North America.
VICKI: It's perfect for me, I'm good with that. And we had a really good relationship and it went very, very smoothly. But I think if you're a different kind of writer and you're counting on the editing process to do some of the leaf blowing or whatever is going to happen in there, and that's not how I write. But it could be a different experience I'm pretty sure.
ASTRID: So you are a translator. You have worked between the French and English languages for many years. So you are intimately familiar with sentence structure, vocabulary, how other writers work and tell their stories. But as far as I know you haven't studied writing?
VICKI: I did take some courses over the years starting about forty years ago once in a while. I used to think of it as putting a little bit of petrol in the tank. So I would go and do a seminar at the New South Wales Writers Centre, and on something related to writing and I believe I mentioned Patti Miller's memoir writing course twenty years ago which was a good thing. It stimulated my interest in that because obviously I did want to find a way to write something about my family of origin, but it was a case of really too much information. I didn't know how to process it, how to put it in a form. And that's why the book happened when it did.
ASTRID: Now you are also a reader. What books in any language have influenced you at any point during your life?
VICKI: Oh that's a big question!
ASTRID: I don't want to limit it to the English language.
VICKI: No, no, no, that's okay. I do like novels, but I especially like reading poetry in French and in English. I very much like Mary Oliver. I like Philip Larkin. I like Billy Collins. I like accessible poetry that takes you somewhere else, because I like spare writing that opens perspectives, because I think as a reader you want to give a reader something that they can work with.
And it's why I don't write genre fiction for example, which I have great respect for because it's very hard to do. In one of my writing groups many ago we tried to write a romance novel. And we had some of the biggest laughs I've ever had in my life because you think, 'I can do that'. Well, no you can't. I can't.
ASTRID: It is an art.
VICKI: Maybe I'm not very romantic but I like writing that is a bit spare, that opens possibilities for the reader.
ASTRID: Yes. Do you read a lot of non-fiction?
VICKI: I read a lot of books on writing.
ASTRID: What is you favourite?
VICKI: Interviews with writers. Well, I can't come up with one just off the top of my head. Mary Oliver did a book on writing poetry, and I like... There's there are books that talk about what it feels like to write. I'm thinking of Margaret Atwood from many years ago talking about the Canadian literary scene and writing about how it is informed by the wilderness, you know, and the bears, and because she would go out with her parents who were naturalists of some kind I believe who who were biologists or studied the natural world in Canada - which is very very dangerous thing to do, there is stuff out there - and I enjoy reading books by writers who are showing you a little bit how their minds work.
ASTRID: I asked about non-fiction because firstly I love it but also because you are now the third writer to win The Stella Prize for a work of non-fiction, following in the footsteps last year of Alexis Wright who wrote Tracker and previously Dr Clare Wright who wrote 'The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka'. I think it's brilliant The Stella Prize goes between fiction and non-fiction.
VICKI: I do too.
ASTRID: Now, you are fluent in French and English. Your book The Erratics is set predominantly in Canada, those landscapes that you were just referring to. Will you ever translate your own work?
VICKI: I would love to translate my own work. I did mention that to the first publisher who published the book after it won The Finch Prize, and nothing came of it because unfortunately that publisher was about to shut down. However, I've been told that it's not necessarily how it works, and that it was maybe unlikely that I would be the person who would translate my own book. But I would very much like to do it, and I am, I do have the diplomas to do it. Somebody wanted to look at it and say you think you can translate! I have... I can show you the diplomas I could do it but I would love to.
ASTRID: I think that your work would would find an audience in both Canada and the United States. And I ask because it's one thing to have someone else translate your work because they do have the skills, they do have the technical ability to to work between languages, but there are only, well I can't think off the top of my head, any other writers who are published in multiple language markets that could potentially translate their own work because they don't have the language ability in the first place.
VICKI: Yes. T he only one I can think of is maybe Kundera, because I think he did do that, but it's true that may be why that doesn't happen because it just may not be possible. But I would very much like to.
ASTRID: It's fascinating.
VICKI: Fingers crossed.
ASTRID: Now, I'd also like to explore with you how you navigated the ethics of writing memoir. We have mentioned your sister, and you did say that you've shown her the manuscript and discussed it. Tell us how that worked.
VICKI: Well that was quite interesting. She came down to visit me for ten days, and I had finished the manuscript and it had been in a drawer for quite some time as I mentioned, a couple of years, and I had just submitted it to the Finch Memoir Prize when she came to visit. And I decided that what I would do... I would say to her when we talked about the period that was quite intense when we were looking after my parents or trying to help them, I would say to her, 'I have written a book about that'. And if she said, 'I'd like to read it', I was happy to let her. I thought she'd hate it, but I had to show it to her. I wasn't expecting to ever get published or win anything, but I thought on the very outside chance I don't want to have to phone her up and say, 'Oh by the way, you know, people are reading about us, the two of us, and how that went'. So I thought OK, and if she said, 'No, I'm not interested in reading it', that would have been fine too. So she did want to read it. She sat on my living room sofa and she read part of it and she laughed at the right places. And she said to me, 'It's interesting because I remember these episodes. I remember the different things that happened. But what is very different is the way you saw them and the way you've written them which is not my perception of them'. And I think that's always going to be true of memoir.
ASTRID: Oh definitely. And it's also a topic that you actually address in The Erratics, the the absence of your memory and even in the work itself your sister filling in gaps for you, having the memories.
VICKI: Yes. And I think we each did that for the other in some way, although I do have relative amnesia about a number of things in my childhood. My sister seems to carry more precise memories, and I think that has made it more difficult for her. I think there's a kind of grief in her that she didn't block it out, that she still as an adult feels those things keenly in a way that it's difficult to deal with.
ASTRID: And she stayed closer as well of course.
VICKI: Yes. She was closer, and she did continue to feel for a long time, and we would occasionally speak about it, that my parents actually wanted to be closer to us. And we used to speak on the phone and those calls would end badly because she'd say to me, 'I'm going to drive over the mountains and go see our parents'. And I'd say, 'Well did they want you to come to see them?' This was before we were absolutely excluded from talking to them. And she said, 'No, but you know, in them in their inner most beings they really want to be a nuclear family'. And the first time she said that to me I laughed out loud, because she's quite a funny woman sometimes my sister, and I thought that's a really good joke. And she was very upset because I said, 'Well, give me an instance where you see that'. And I think there was a kind of longing for family, which I also have, because there were things that were not there. And I miss them. I see other families and they have their problems, but there was more connection than we managed to have with someone who was basically... had very little natural empathy.
ASTRID: So that's how you approached sharing your memoir of those intense six years with your sister, who of course was was there and experiencing. Did you share with the rest of your family in Australia your children and family friends?
VICKI: Well, my daughter read the manuscript at some point, a bit further on or perhaps before my sister did actually. And that was wonderful because I respect her judgment, and I always think somebody might hate what I wrote but she didn't, she was very supportive. And I had shared chapter by chapter with my writing group, this group of writers who are my friends and we've been together twenty years and whose judgment I trust. I trust to a certain extent because they would say, 'This is good'. And I thought you're my friends you're really lovely. And no it's not.
ASTRID: Well, I think now more people are telling you that it is good, Vicki.
VICKI: It's wonderful.
ASTRID: Now also when you write memoir, what do you leave out? I mean this is a raw memoir, an honest memoir, it feels as a reader who has never met you before that you've included everything on the page, but I can't know that.
VICKI: I did not consciously exclude anything. And I think there are passages in the book where I come out very badly, and passages where my sister somewhat does. I didn't want to blacken my mother. I didn't want to settle any scores on the page. I was careful about that. And I have done my very best to deal with my demons outside of the writing process, because I believe if you're going to write what they call creative non-fiction you want to use the techniques of fiction. You want imagery, you want some flights of poetry in there somehow if that's your bent, but you need to respect the truth, and you need to do it in an even-handed way if it's going to be readable by anybody else. So that's what I tried to do.
ASTRID: Thank you. That actually segues into another question I would like to ask. You said you dealt with your demons outside of this writing process. Did you find this therapeutic?
VICKI: That's a good question. No, basically no. I found it... People say it must have been so painful to write. No it wasn't, because I was looking at it as a block of time where something happened, where a number of things got unravelled, and there were insights that I didn't have before from getting back in touch with my parents. But my basic difficulties, the rage I had in me when I was younger, the kind of grief, the resentment, the fear - because my mother was... she could inspire a lot of fear - I only experienced that once during what I talk about in the book, which was at a thing called a patient conference, when my mother was in the process of being assessed.
And we went to the hospital and the family had to attend. It was part of the assessment process for basically getting assessed when you had mental illness. And my mother was not going to be there, theoretically, because there had been a previous one that my sister had attended - I was in Sydney - where my mother had hijacked the whole thing and basically just it was a terrible chaos. This one we were told she wouldn't be there - and I thought she had a right to be there but apparently she wasn't going to be. There was a cast of thousands. There were doctors and therapists and the chaplain and I don't know who else... And the gentleman who had the personal care directive, me and my sister.
And suddenly as we're about to go into this room the head nurse wheeled my mother in a wheelchair around the corner. And she was in full battle gear. She had on a black dress she had a big organza hat that would have gone to a state funeral. And she had thunder on her face, and she was not talking to anybody. She got wheeled by all of us, no recognition, we were lower than low. And I felt dread. I did and that was the one time when I felt the kind of feeling I had when I was a child.
But basically I had tried very hard to deal with my own reactions to the trauma I had as a child on other fora, so that I wasn't doing it on the page. And I have nothing against therapeutic writing or cathartic writing, because when you have cancer which I did twenty years ago, they offer you workshops where you go and write about cancer. I didn't take them up on it because I was already doing that by myself. I wrote a lot of essays when I had cancer. But there is also a point in your life where you may want to write that way. I don't think it's something you necessarily want to share with the world, not because it's too personal - because my memoir is personal I don't mind I'm putting it out there people can ask me exactly what they want about it because it's there - but when you write that sort of thing, you're writing from your own need. You're not writing to produce a work that will satisfy you in the first instance but also will satisfy an eventual reader.
ASTRID: That is fascinating insight. Thank you for that, Vicki. Are you aware that the judges report describes your writing your narrative style as 'detached' and 'slightly numb' although 'darkly humorous'.
VICKI: Well I like the 'darkly humorous'. It's my best defence mechanism, I'm really really good at that. Numb? I understand what they're saying. I wouldn't have chosen that... because the detached, yes. And I think that comes from having had to deal with the trauma of this childhood over the years and having done it a certain way. And basically I used to say to my sister 25 or 30 years ago, 'You should find a way to get the monkey off your back, because if you can put it on the table and look at it it's a really small monkey. You'll be fine as long as it's on your back it's much bigger than you think it is, or you think it's much bigger than it is, rather'. So. I think that's where that comes from. I wouldn't say 'numb' but the detached, yes I definitely agree with.
ASTRID: Early on in The Erratics you actually refer to your own writing on page 20. I'm going to quote this for you. You state, 'I write but nobody knows me. I am totally unknown even among my friends. Actually I don't even write all that much anymore.'
VICKI: Well, that was when my mother set me up in the hospital. This was when I first arrived and she had broken her hip and she was she just had an operation on her hip, and I was going to see her for the first time in the hospital where she had... It was not a question of assessing her mental state, that all came later when we realised she would be in rehab and we had a window of time to try to make that happen in a proper way. And she had told the staff - because she told the hospital staff strange things about us, including that we did not exist a number of times - but she had said oh my wonderful daughter who is a famous writer is coming to visit me and she's flown from Australia. And so I come down the hall with my father in a wheelchair being pushed by his friend who has the personal care directive of my mother, and I'm with my sister, and there is a line of hospital personnel, there a couple of doctors and some nurses and I don't know a number of people five or six people, and they're just standing along the wall outside my mother's room. And I come down the hall and it's like two miles of linoleum, you know, coming down this long stretch and I'm wondering has she died? I mean why are they standing there? And the nurse steps forward as we approach and she says to me - and I have a lot of this dialogue that's in the book I can still hear it in my head, it was just so vivid it's etched in there - and this nurse stepped forward and said, 'Which one of you' - because I look very much like my sister - 'which one of you is the famous author?' And I thought, 'Damn, she's boxed me in again, it's just, you know, I can't get out of this'. And that's when I said I write but I'm not famous even my friends don't know me. You know it's... no. And she looked around and she looked at the others and she said, 'Isn't that something?' And I thought 'What is this?' And she said to me, 'Your mum said you would react like that, you're so modest you would deny it all'. And I thought, 'She's boxed me and I can't get out of this. There's no way to deal with this'. And she was so good at that sort of thing. It was very clever and it was often very vindictive. There I was, boxed in, and I said to the nurse, there was a silence and everybody's looking at me and I said, 'I could sign your uniform if you'd like'. And I was waiting for someone to say, 'What have you written that I might know?' And the answer was nothing. I never sent anything anywhere, nobody knows me!
ASTRID: The answer has now changed though, Vicki. You are now a famous author.
VICKI: There is a book.
ASTRID: There is a book. And I believe there are more books to come.
VICKI: I hope so. I hope I'll have time to write a number more. I have a number of projects.
ASTRID: Last night you... I t's too soon to ask you what does The Stella Prize mean to you? That doesn't mean anything yet. But what do you want it to mean to you?
VICKI: I think it's going to spur me on. I'm, I'm not... I'm a senior citizen. You become... You can kind of see the curve of the Earth over there, you know, this is you need to make your time count. And I have at least two books I would like to write. It was a wonderful experience. And now that I know a little bit about how to go about making my book accessible to people who might like it, I think that's wonderful.
And there is the story of... My mother's father, who was someone that I didn't know he was. He presented as something and he was actually someone else. And I would like to travel to the U.S. and Canada to visit those communities that he came from to try to figure out exactly what he did. And it involved changing his identity, and I believe it was because he's part of one of the... He was part and his family was part of one of the three Indigenous groups of Canadians. They're called the Métis, and their... Métis means mixed in French. And these people descended... and they're still actually a culture which is quite separate and lovely. They descended from French fruit traders who were sent by the French king - and some Scots also who came from Scotland - to Canada in the 17th century to bring back furs. And some of the guys just got off the boat and thought this isn't so bad, and they stayed, they didn't go back.
And apparently - and my daughter has done a lot of research in this area - because they all have the same first name and the same family name we can actually trace back... But they were a group of mixed blood people and this was not something you admitted if you wanted to get ahead in business. The prejudice when I grew up was very virulent and I believe to a certain extent it still is. My grandfather was a wheeler dealer. He wanted to get ahead. I believe what happened - and I've heard similar stories from other people my age who have parents who did the same thing - just turned their back on what they were, took a route around the edge and came back as someone else. And I think what a remarkable thing to decide, you are now going to be someone different.
ASTRID: It's almost incomprehensible.
VICKI: I think if you want something else badly enough maybe you do that. But how do you do it, you know? And who knew? And unfortunately there aren't any people now still alive who can tell me who knew, but I'm going to see what I can find out. I think it's a wonderful question to ask yourself, where do I actually come from and does it matter? And does this change how I feel about myself? Does it change..
And I know, just knowing that I have a fourth grandmother called Marguerite Clear Sky who was a full blood Ojibwa woman. I mean there's a title for you. I just think... I've always been a little bit ill at ease living in settler cultures because of all the issues and one can imagine. But suddenly I think well I am actually of this place in a... You know, it's a quarter of my heritage so it's a minor part, perhaps, and it's one I've never known about, but I think isn't that fascinating. I had a sense of being able to just give a little sigh of relief and think there is actually a reason why I was there. And I think that's... It says a lot about the mentality of the culture you live in too, that I had that reaction. And I think that's something I'd really like to look at. And I can go travel now, and not worry too much about that. I can go to places talk to people and see what I can find out.
ASTRID: I cannot wait to read that.
VICKI: Who knows what I'll find. And I don't know what form it will take, but I suspect it might be more memoir.
ASTRID: I have to say I've never met you before today Vicki but you've been very gracious with your time today.
VICKI: It's been a great pleasure.
ASTRID: As you've spoken about this next potential project your body language and face has lit up.
VICKI: Good, good.
ASTRID: You look very excited.
VICKI: I'm excited, I'm very excited.
ASTRID: I cannot wait to read it. Thank you so much.
VICKI: Thank you. It's been my pleasure. Thank you.