Author: Guest blogger
By Liz Byrski
Ten years ago, after almost four decades of writing non-fiction, I took the plunge into fiction. As a reader I was increasingly frustrated by the absence of realistic images of older women in Australian popular culture generally and novels in particular. I set out to see if I could write the books I wanted to read. The transition was a terrific challenge; considerably harder than I had imagined but six novels later it’s proved to be well worth the struggle.
I am one of the millions of women around the world who were drawn into the women’s movement of the seventies by the consciousness-raising fiction of feminist writers. I left school in 1960, began work in a typing pool, became a secretary and was married and expecting my first child when I read Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife and Dorothy Bryant’s Ella Price’s Journal. All my unease and resentment about the treatment of women was captured and expressed in those books. The realities were laid bare through the voices of the characters and the insights into their inner lives which resonated with my own. So when I began my first attempt at fiction almost three decades later I went back to those books and others, including The Women’s Room. I wanted to identify what had made them so powerful, and how I could develop a form of feminist fiction that would speak to women of my age in a new century.
Since the eighties I had been writing about women’s issues in a range of non-fiction genres, now I needed to let go of that and learn new ways to communicate with readers. But the desire to control the reader’s experience – to make her ‘get it’ in exactly the way I wanted – constantly tripped me up. I produced pages of boring rhetoric which would have made any reader throw the book out of the nearest window. I constantly created new characters but didn’t listen to their voices; spreading my own voice over the top, I smothered them. After months of frustration and failure I eventually managed to let go of old habits and embrace the uncertainty of the narrative and the autonomy of the characters. It still haunts me from time to time and my editor reminds me gently that there are better, more subtle and far more effective ways of saying what I want to say. But it happens less often now and I aim to learn more about the art and craft of fiction each time I write a novel.
The joy of fiction lies in the connection between the inner lives of the characters and those of readers. As characters wrestle with contradictory emotions and reach back into the past for solutions for the future, I can speak as though to a friend. Women tell me that recognising themselves in my characters helps to counter their sense of invisibility in a culture that rejects age and celebrates only youth and beauty. That’s what I wanted to do, what I still want to do, and what I’m always trying to do better each time I start a book.
Liz Byrski’s latest novel is called Last Chance Cafe, it’s published by Macmillan.