Photo: Stefan Tell
Australian author and 2008 ALMA laureate Sonya Harnett is in the limelight now with a new novel for adults, The Golden Boys, (Penguin), “an urban gothic tale”. The Australian’s Literary Editor Stephen Romei met her to talk about the new book, and the result of the interview was published last week. First part the interview here:
‘CHILDREN live in a very animal world, one that’s constantly on the verge of war,’’ says Sonya Hartnett. “You look at childhood and think, how do any of us survive that sort of shit? They are constantly on the edge of peril, particularly from each other. They attack each other mercilessly and I find that so…’’ She pauses to locate the right word. “Endearing.’’
In that single word choice, we have the enigma of Sonya Hartnett. She’s an award-winning writer for children and young adults who has no offspring of her own and doesn’t come across as particularly fond of kids, or people in general for that matter. Her YA and adult novels are spot-on in their empathetic depiction of the mind-clouding confusion, embarrassment and latent violence of childhood, yet she says she remembers little of her own childhood and nothing at all of her school years.
She creates vulnerable, volatile characters — 14-year-old Plum in the Miles Franklin-shortlisted Butterfly (2009), to take a recent example — and is a bit surprised when readers take them to heart and are upset by their (fictional) fates. “They do. In a way you think is very insane.’’
She published her first novel at 15 and in the three decades since has written acclaimed books for readers of all ages but says she’d much rather be a “flip woman”, buying, renovating and selling houses, an enterprise for which she has discovered a passion and a talent.
She laments, only half-jokingly, that she has not won enough literary awards, then skewers the newish Stella Prize for Australian women’s literature, adding: “If this means I’ll never win their prize, so be it.’’
She laughs a lot throughout our interview in an outer Melbourne pub — on a couple of occasions literally rolling over on the couch with mirth — but later, on playing back the tape, I realise her words are full of existential angst. “I feel we live in a world where nothing matters any more,’’ she says at one point.
Hartnett loves animal similes. In her new novel, Golden Boys, which will be published later this month, there’s a wonderful scene early on when two 10-year-old boys, one fragile, one resilient, meet for the first time: “It’s like a jack russell being introduced to a budgerigar: in theory they could be friends, but in practice sooner or later there will be bright feathers on the floor.’’ Elsewhere in the novel children are likened to birds, fish, possums and giraffes, and adults to tigers, lions, wolves, sharks, monsters.
“I’ve always been aware of the fact that humans are animals,’’ she says, “and it puzzles me why we don’t rejoice more in that, why in this day and age we still quietly don’t like the idea that we are just animals. There is a beautiful logic in the way an animal operates.’’
It’s only logical, therefore, to wonder what sort of animal Hartnett might be. A Cheshire cat, perhaps, grinning and grinning and expounding an uneasy philosophy. But when the question is put, she doesn’t have an easy answer. “I am not sure what animal I would associate myself with … something stubborn and solitary, squat and easily annoyed. A badger?’’
HARNETT, 46, is the eldest of six children (four girls, two boys). Her mother was a maternity nurse and her father had a series of jobs, including as a proofreader with Melbourne newspapers. The family grew up in Mont Albert, in Melbourne’s east, and unlike her adult experience, they stayed put. Indeed, her mother still lives in the home in which Hartnett grew up. ‘‘Well, she still lives in it in the sense she lives on the same block of land, but they knocked down the house and built a new one,’’ she says.
“I actually found that a hard thing to forgive, that she knocked down our family home, and I don’t know that I ever will really resolve myself to that situation. Often when I think about going to see Mum I still visualise that house.’’
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