A journalist of 35 years standing, who has worked for a number of publications, Helen Trinca is currently the Managing Editor of The Australian.
A well-regarded author of a number of non-fiction books, she has previously co-authored Waterfront: The Battle That Changed Australia (2000) with Anne Davies, which has been made into a telemovie, Bastard Boys, and Better Than Sex: How A Whole Generation Got Hooked On Work (2004) with Catherine Fox.
Her latest book, Madeleine, is a biography of little known expatriate author, Madeleine St. John, who was the first Australian nominated for the Mann Booker Prize.
We sat down to talk to her about the art of writing memoirs and why she chose Madeleine St John as the object of her newest book.
Click play to listen. Running time: 23.14
* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us, Helen.
Tell us a bit about this book, Madeleline.
Well, this is a biography, as you said. And, it really is the life of a writer who’s an Australian writer, a quite underrated writer. I know a lot of people have probably not heard of her, but I have put her story down, it’s a story worth telling. She died in 2006, she was born in 1941, she died quite young. She was a very cotemporary writer, really. But, even in those five or six years since she died, I suppose her books have been – were out of print by the time she died, but then they have been republished. And, now my biography comes along and I hope a whole lot of Australians will rediscover her.
Why now? And why Madeleline?
I read Madeleline St John’s book for the first time about two years ago. What happened was Text Publishing republished her books in 2009 and 2010. So, I was sitting at my house one day, one Sunday morning at the end of 2010, and I read in my own newspaper, The Australian, a lovely review of one of Madeleline’s books, by Peter Craven. And I thought – he really sort of talked a lot about her writing style, and what a great writer she was, and I thought, “I might be interested in that.” So, I looked at that book, absolutely loved it, stayed up all night reading it.
And, then thought, “Oh, she’s kind of intriguing, who is she?” And, I googled her and discovered far from being English, as I thought she might have been, she was Australian, she was an ex-pat, basically. There is a little bit known about her, she had been nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997. And the bare bones of her life were available in a sense through her obituary and a little bit of biographical material, but it was quite intriguing because there was a lot of gaps, and I thought, “I might write a story for The Australian,” because I sometimes would write features, or whatever. And started researching it a little bit, and within a couple of weeks thought, “No, I could actually do a biography of her, and that’s where it started.
Why do you think Australia has neglected her?
Well, it’s not just Australia in a way, she was published in the UK, and she’s better known, and was a little bit better known in London, when she was publishing in the 1990s.
Look, I think what happened was she wrote four books, they were all published in the 1990s, but by 1999, when her final book was published, she was very, very ill with emphysema. So effectively she stopped writing, she struggled in writing another book, which we’ve looked at since then, and her agent has looked at, and it’s probably not really worth publishing. But, she sort of dropped out of sight, I suppose in the 2000s, and it’s not surprising that she did. She didn’t have a big public profile when she was a writer, and she’d had a small devoted little coterie of people reading her, I suppose.
And as far as Australia’s concerned, I mean she really left Australia in 1965 and never came back. We reclaimed her, we recolonized her a little bit in 1997, when she was short-listed for the Booker, but even so she was not a major figure. I think what’s interesting about her is she was a part of a group of people who went to the UK, she went to the US first and then to the UK in the ‘60s, that amazing sort of cohort, you know of Clyde James, Bruce Beresford, Richard Neville, lots and lots of people, her contemporaries, I feel as if everyone who went in this 1960s, was born in 1941 like Madeleline was, and they’re very mid 20s by the time they left. So, she was part of a very incredibly important group culturally, I guess, during her lifetime was quite a small player in that group.
Surprisingly, in a way, her contribution could actually be more profound, because I think you can’t take away four novels, you know you can forget commentary sometimes, you know, you can forget the incredible, the excellent things that were done by people like Richard Neville with Oz magazine, and things like that. I’m not suggesting they are going to fade, but in a funny way a novel has a kind of longevity and she really was the only Australian of that generation who wrote fiction. Clive James did write some fiction, but I think he’d be the last person to claim that’s his major contribution.
So how did you go about researching this? Because, obviously, Madeleline died in 2006. A lot of her family had already passed away. How did you bring together all of this information and all of these interviews and get it into that condensed form?
Well, it was quite challenging. The first challenge was that I had been a journalist for a long time, decades and decades, but I’ve never written a biography before. I had an idea about how to write books, because I had coauthored a couple of books before, so I knew about the process, which was a start, and you keep going, and eventually it’s finished.
But, with Madeleline it was interesting because I had starting announcing to my friends and colleagues that I was going to write this biography, and some of them just immediately said, “Where are the papers?” “Where are her diaries?” “Where’s the archive?” “What material are you going to use?” I said, “Yeah, that’s right, there isn’t any,” because she really died giving the impression that she had torn up all of her papers, in the end it turned out that she had kept some, but we didn’t know where those were.
So, I decided that I had to talk to her contemporaries, so I started with the people who bobbed up at times, you know, in the press as contemporaries of her at universities. I spoke to Bruce Beresford, he suggested a few other people, and I spoke to a couple of other people. And suddenly I had a little group of people living in Sydney, wonderful women, mainly, how had been at university with her, who were all about 70 or 71 – great memories. I talked to them a lot. Some of them had some correspondence, graciously the network goes out.
But, it took quite a lot. There was quite a lot of detective work. I actually loved it, because it was a tremendous research, primary research activity and I just bored my friends and family witless, every time I’d see them I say, “Well, guess what I found out, you know, you’ll never guess I found out something else…” And of course people have letters, and gradually these emerged, and when you read a letter from someone it mentions other people, you can usually find them on the internet. You know, you ring them up, they’re in the States, they won’t talk to you, they will talk to you… and on it goes.
And, of course, there are a few key people who I needed to talk to, her former husband, she was married for three or four years, in the 60s. He was in Sydney, and eventually he agreed to talk to me. Her sister, she has a younger sister who’s about three years younger than Madeleline, Colette St John, and she eventually agreed to talk to me, they were key people.
The biggest help, I suppose, or one of the really large helps, was the discover of some tapes that Madeleline had made, because all of her friends and her literary agents said to me in early 2011 when I began, “You know, of course she would absolutely hate to be having this biography done, because she was so private. She was reclusive.” I said, “Yes, I know, it’s terrible…” blah, blah, blah.
And then I discovered, of course, that she had specifically made about nine hours of tape in 2004 about her early life. So what had happened was she called a friend of hers who lived in America, Judith McCue, over to London and said, “I’m going to dictate this material to you,” and Judith was an old friend, and she sort of knew the stories, but she went. And, so Judith had those tapes.
And the precise – the specific idea of Madeleline was that Judith would write the autobiography. And when I discovered the tapes and spoke to Judith, she eventually gave me access to them. She sort of didn’t really want to do a biography herself.
And those tapes were great. They didn’t solve all of the problems that I had in patching her life together, because Madeleline starts talking about her grandparents, and she documents that in her stories, she goes through her life, her mother’s illnesses, her father’s, you know, she had white-hot hatred towards her father. And then she goes a little bit about America, when she was there with her husband in the mid-60s, but then by 1968, when she sort of hits London, the tapes stop. And, I think what happened was she was – they ran out of time on one level, but it was also that she didn’t really care about documenting the rest of her life, what was really important to Madeleline at that particular stage was to make sure that the world knew what a terrible early life she’d had. She wanted her view of her father, particularly, and all of the events that sort of transpired around that childhood to be there, set down.
And, so it was fascinating to hear those tapes, and then for them to end, you know, sort of really when she goes to London.
Obviously, I had to find other ways of finding out what happened in the next 40 years of her life.
Yeah. So, those tapes must have helped you build a picture of what she was like as a person as well, because you do quite matter-of-factly present her as a difficult person to live with. She had an awful relationship with her father. How do you write about somebody like that and maintain enough distance to prevent any judgment?
It was very interesting because I started off being very enthusiastic about her, and remained enthusiastic. So, I was – it wasn’t hard for me to sort of like her, but I know a lot of people who have read the books, and whenever I talked about her to friends they said, “I don’t think we like Madeleline very much.”
And I said, “Well, no, she was complex, but don’t write her off.”
I didn’t find it too hard. The hardest thing I found, to be honest, was to juggle her view of reality against, I suppose, the view of reality that other people who defended Ted had, because obviously Ted died in 1994, he wasn’t there to defend himself. I sort of felt, not so much I needed to defend him, but I needed to try to see – I heard judgments, other comments that she makes on the tapes, you know, reasonable, I suppose. But, look, it’s difficult, because they were reasonable to her. I think it’s very, very hard when you have someone who says, “This was my reality, my father abandoned me emotionally.” Well, I look at it and think, “Could that be true?” You know? He wasn’t a bad man, he was a man of hard principle that had a dreadful time because her mother had suicided.
So, yeah, I think the only way that you could do it is probably the way that I did do it, which was in a sense set it out. But, of course you’re selecting. I mean I can’t run all of the tapes, you know, there were things that were in there and other things that I had to jettison. So, you know, I found it a very interesting experience, and quite a challenging one, particularly early on, because when I first heard the tapes I thought, “She’s – these are too extreme.”
But, one of the things that was good was to listen to Colette’s version of reality as well, when I finally spoke to her about 18 months later. Colette, in a sense confirmed, I suppose – again, she was three years younger, she was a little girl when all of this was happening, but she confirmed many of the comments, I suppose, about Ted. That doesn’t mean that her view of the world is correct either – you know, where is the truth? But, it just meant, I suppose – it was interesting because if, for example, Colette had spoken to me and had said, “Well, no. He was wonderful,” and other things, then it might have been a different situation. But, in a sense there was some sense of confirmation about Madeleline’s view of the world.
You mentioned that you hadn’t really heard about Madeleline yourself until you read that first book a few years ago. What do you hope Australian readers will gain from knowing more about her and being introduced to her work?
I think – well, at the basic level, I suppose it’s really these four books that I really like. I think what’s interesting is she actually has quite a lot of things to say, but she says them in a way that’s quite deceptively simple. I talk about the first book first, The Women in Black, that’s the only book that she wrote set in Australia. So, what I found fascinating was she went to London, she had a lot of struggles in her 20s and 30s with depression, really. And she lived in a bit of poverty, she lived in a council house, things like that. She had to have little jobs. I mean she was a very, very bright, sparkling woman, and she could have had a big career, but it wasn’t happening to her.
She spent a lot of time trying to write a biography of a woman called Helena Obolensky, who was founder of the Osophical Society. That didn’t work, and eventually she tore it up. So, she turned to fiction when she was about 48 or 49, and she felt like she needed to do something or she would starve, because she knew that the money that she had, the welfare state in the UK was collapsing, all of those things. So, anyway, she starts to write, and it came easily to her. I think perhaps, because she was such a great observer, and she had a fantastic ear for language. Her dialogue is wonderful.
So she wrote these books, and the first book – but, anyhow, the point is that as soon as she starts writing, she’d sort of turned her back on Australia years before, and yet she turns back to Australia, and her first novel is set in Sydney in the ‘60s – late ‘50s, early ‘60s, I suppose, it’s kind of the city that she, herself, experienced. And that’s a lovely book, because at one level it’s very popular because there’s a certain sense of nostalgia about it, it’s set in a big department store, it’s a coming of age story about a young girl who goes to work in a big department store for the Christmas rush. It’s lovely.
But, what’s fascinating to me about that book is there’s another whole layer of it, which is about really Australia at a particular moment in history, and a real turning point between the sort of – if you want to say the white bred Anglo-Saxon Australia and a more multi-cultural Australia. That word ‘multi-cultural’ hadn’t been invented in 1960. But, it was one – it’s a book about the clash of cultures, and yet about what each side can gain and learn from it. So, it’s a very hopeful book, but it’s a quite a deep book. It’s an important – you can, if you want to read in it, quite a historical sense, it has a lot of context to it. So, I think that’s a book worth reading and worth remembering.
And then she had that out of the way, that was great. Then she wrote three novels, and they are novels set in the 1990s, or late ‘80s, early ‘90s, whatever, in London, in the Notting Hill area where she lived, not only in Notting Hill, but sort of in a London professional – people having their own houses, people going to work in, like, journalism, or lawyers, people with children, young children, and people who are striking trouble in their marriages, for example, in their relationships. And, it’s about affairs, one or two of them have affairs, one or two of them about broken relationships, so they’re very tiny books in that sense, they’re tiny, little pieces, really, of life and of relationships, but within them there’s an enormous sort of authenticity I suppose, and truth about the way people operate, and I just think they’re very, very readable.
Bruce Beresford, who is a fan of hers, the film director, had also knew her at university, and knew her later on, and is, in fact, her literary executor. But, he said to me in a conversation not long ago, how great those books are, because he said you can read and reread them, there’s always something there. And I thought, “That’s absolutely right,” because I’ve read them many times now, obviously, for the purposes of the biography, but when I do I think, “Oh, that’s –” They’re very fresh, and it’s partly her capacity to write very good dialogue, and to sort of reveal plot and character through the dialogue.
Yeah. Just on your history as a writer, and also editor, you’re a founding editor of Boss magazine, you’re a managing editor now at The Australian, how are the challenges of editing big publications different to the challenges of, say, writing a biography?
I think they are enormously different, and I’ll tell you what I learnt doing this biography was that 40 years of journalism actually doesn’t prepare you particularly for the biography.
It prepares you in the sense of knowing where to get information, and how to research and also a sort of certain doggedness and deadline commitment that is sort of very important, so I always knew that I would get it finished. I never had any doubt that I wouldn’t do it.
What it doesn’t really prepare you for is the start of writing, because when you’re writing or editing any – sort of even a long feature in a newspaper, it’s a totally different exercise. A biography, and a book, I suppose, is slow revelation, you’re telling a story, you actually don’t sum it up very much, and in fiction writing, of course you do. So, the style is quite different.
I actually wanted to learn a lot from the process, and I went into it thrilled that Text Publishing had agreed to publish it, mainly for the reason that felt their reputation as a publishing house is one that they make something of a book, they can actually turn books around into – they’re just very good at their job. I felt and wanted to be edited, I thought, “I’m going to learn from this process of editing,” and I did. I had a great editor in Jane Peterson.
Of course, the editors in books come in quite late in the piece, so in a sense you’re left to your own devices, and I found that quite challenging at times, because I thought, “Am I on the right track? Is this the way to go?” It’s been a lovely experience. I just feel that I’ve learnt a great deal, and it’s fascinating because a lot of journalists write books, and I had co-authored two books before and they were both quite different because they’re non-fiction, one was about the big border-front dispute of 1997 or 1998 – that’s right. And, published in 2000. And another one was about – it came out of my work at Boss magazine, which was really about work and management. But, both of those were quite different, they were more like journalism, and this is different again.
How did you fit this in? Did you have a routine that you stuck to with the researching the writing of the day?
I had a big routine. I sort of used every spare moment outside of my job, and I can often work reasonably long hours, but I still was quite committed to it, so I would come home at night and sit down for three or four hours at night, get up early in the morning, a lot of weekend work.
Actually, just very quickly, a little story… years ago I was at a journalism conference in the States, which was a conference about long-form journalism and writing of books. And, I’ll always remember an American journalist got up and he said, “Journalists always think if they could just give up their day job and have enough time off they’d write all of these books.” He said, “That’s never going to happen, because none of us can really afford to do that.” He said, “You just have to use every moment.” He said, “Don’t think you need three hours to do any work, you can use 20 minutes, or half an hour, or less, more amounts of time.” I’ve always remembered that, and in a way that’s what I did. So, if I had any time at all I’d address an issue, like if I needed to send an email to someone, if I needed to follow up on something, or make a phone call, I used the time. So, anyway, I’m not saying that one would want to do it all the time, but it was good for a couple of years.
Having said that, do you think you’ll do another one anytime soon?
Yes. Actually, I really would like to do another biography, to be honest. I think it’s something that I can do, I don’t think I’m a writer of fiction, for example. I don’t think I’m a writer, really, of major historical books. But, I think in a biography it’s the best of both worlds, because you get the person, you get history, and you get a moment. And, I’m very interested in Australia, sort of in sense almost recent Australian history and recent Australians, because I think the last 50-60, or 70 years there have been so many wonderful people and events, and we are able now, in a sense, to think of them historically. So, I’m very interested in recovering some of those ideas. But, I don’t know exactly who or what yet.
Just one final question, what’s your advice to people who are interested in writing biography?
Well, I think the advice is in sense almost what I have said before about using the time available. But, I think you really do need to find a subject that you’re interested in, because a lot of people have suggested to me other people to do now, and I often think, “Oh no, I don’t think I’m that interested,” or, “I know too much about that person,” often more well-known people, sort of famous people, and you think, “Would I sustain interest because so much of their life is known?” So, for someone like me, the curiosity factor of finding out new materials is good. And, I think you do have to love – or not love the person, but be very, very interested in the person, because at some point in the two, or three, or four years that you spend doing a biography, you’re going to get tiredly sick of it.
Yes. OK. That’s excellent advice. Thanks so much, Helen.
Good luck with the book.