Michelle de Kretser says she doesn’t ”feel like someone who has an infinite number of books in them”.MICHELLE de Kretser has made two geographical leaps in her life: at 14 with her family from Sri Lanka to Australia, and three years ago with her partner and dogs from Melbourne to Sydney. Both gave de Kretser new perspectives on the world and both underpin her new novel, Questions of Travel.
Sitting in a cafe in inner-west Newtown, she seems to be a slightly exotic local: her refined accent hints at elsewhere; an atlas fragment of the Pacific Ocean is aptly pinned to her jumper. She says, ”Moving up to Sydney, I was suddenly a stranger. I always had the intention of setting this book in Sydney, the hubris of which now astonishes me.”
De Kretser compares Sydneysiders’ complaining about the city – traffic, public transport, pollution, overcrowding – with Melburnians’ civic pride. ”Yes, there are all those things,” she says, ”but this is also one of the most beautiful places on earth: the vegetation struck me as very lush, so it reminded me of childhood. The diversity of people. It has the buzz of a big, modern city and the problems.”
Walking everywhere, she notices the hills and details, such as the boats under tarpaulins in suburban streets. She loves the dramatic weather, the smell of the harbour, the wild beauty of Waverley Cemetery with its Victorian gravestones perched above the ocean. She gave her impressions to her character Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee in Sydney, who says: ”Tourists see invisible things.”
Questions of Travel, de Kretser’s fourth novel, is a 40-year epic about the global forces that push people around the world, the accelerating changes in daily life and the technology that both connects and isolates us. It is also an intimate portrait of two individuals: Ravi, who is endangered after his wife and son are murdered in Colombo and flees on an Australian tourist visa, and Laura, a loveless young Australian who moves to London, travels compulsively, chooses men badly and returns to work for a guidebook publisher in Sydney.
”Travel connects us to the world and brings us closer to other cultures,” de Kretser says. ”But it’s possible to spend a very pleasant three weeks in another country and come away with no idea of what life is really like for people who live there. The native lives in history and there is no suspension of knowledge, but as a tourist you do have access to wonder.”
She was determined to show ”how much decency Ravi encounters in Australia” and to make him as flawed and human as any other character. ”I wanted Ravi to be an individual because so often we speak of refugees as a mass,” she says. Judging a short-story competition years ago, she read many refugee stories ”written with good intentions but terribly dull as fiction – the refugees were all really good and everyone they dealt with was really racist. You didn’t learn anything, there was no tension in the story. As a novelist you must be true to psychology, not ideology.”
De Kretser came to Australia under circumstances she sums up as ”language politics”. Her family were Dutch burghers – mixed-race, Christian, English speakers – and she attended a Methodist private school. But in the 1970s the Sri Lankan government phased out English schooling in favour of Sinhalese and Tamil. Unhappy with that restriction, de Kretser’s older siblings emigrated to Australia and in 1972, she and her parents followed after her father retired from his career as a judge.
While her father never felt settled in Melbourne, de Kretser says, ”I was lucky I ended up in a cosmopolitan high school in Elwood. Because of the political situation in Sri Lanka, there was an extraordinary diaspora at that time: at least half the girls I started school with left for Australia, Canada, the UK. There was a sense it was the thing to do. It was just an awfully big adventure; you don’t think of what you might be leaving behind.”
They went from a middle-class life to a flat and little money, but books and education remained important. Each came with just one suitcase because of luggage restrictions – ”I have virtually no objects from my childhood,” de Kretser says. Like many first-generation migrants, her house is cluttered with treasures accumulated from places such as her ”sacred site”, Camberwell market.
At first, de Kretser was a bright student headed for an academic career. She did a master’s degree in literature in Paris and started a PhD at Melbourne University on a scholarship. But she realised ”with dismay and an underlying panic” that her ”magpie mind” was not suited to deep research. What she enjoyed more was founding a postgraduate journal, Antithesis, with several others including Chris Andrews, who did become a literature scholar as well as her partner. Her editing skills took her to Lonely Planet (the other publisher in Questions of Travel), where she worked for a decade on guidebooks and founded the company’s Paris office. Years later she saw in her file a note from her interview: ”Better suited to McPhee Gribble” – the kind of literary house for which she had dreamt of working.
De Kretser began writing during a year’s unpaid leave from Lonely Planet. Andrews had read Simon Schama’s history of the French Revolution, Citizens, on a walking trip in France. Its stories nested in her imagination.
”For a long time I didn’t realise I was writing a novel,” she says. ”I thought I was just writing 500 words a day. I think if I had said I am going to sit down and write a novel, I would not have been able to.”
The Rose Grower, her first novel, came out in 1999 and was followed by The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, each of which won many awards and attracted praise such as A.S. Byatt’s for The Lost Dog – ”This is the best novel I have read in a long time” – and Hilary Mantel’s for The Hamilton Case – ”one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in a long while”.
De Kretser’s magpie mind shows in her minute observation of human nature and her striking imagery. ”I love detail in fiction,” she says. ”That’s my sense of the material, the concrete. I like three-dimensional novels that are like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there.”
A lover of poetry, she reads her sentences aloud for rhythm (”Dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah – those are the noises you hear coming from my study”) and likes to mix high and low register, tragedy and humour. ”The novel needs the stench of life,” she says. ”The novel as a form is involved in the hurly-burly of life and novels which are only beautiful or only exquisite are a bit removed. Patrick White understood the need for vulgarity.” There are descriptions in Questions of Travel such as ”Sydney with your giant moon and prawns”, and a sentence that de Kretser carried around seeking the right monosyllabic verb: ”Screams of gaudy terror – the minarets at Luna Park”. Walking the dogs one day, she thought of ”noosed” and knew it was right. ”I couldn’t work out why this sentence and this predetermined rhythm were in my mind and then I realised it comes from Eliot’s Sweeney among the Nightingales, where he says, ‘The nightingales are singing near the Convent of the Sacred Heart’. I had retrieved that rhythm; you have these things in your mind that become a part of you.”
She starts each book by knowing how it ends – in this case a shocking climax in 2004. When she realised this intricate double story was going to be 500 pages long, she wept on the phone to her agent and said, ”I love slim, elegant volumes and this is not one.” Both agent and publisher reassured her that a book is as long as it needs to be and, indeed, Questions of Travel is supremely elegant, if not slender.
At the end of our interview, de Kretser says lightly: ”There will be one more book at most. I don’t want to repeat myself.” What? ”Writing is a gift – there’s sheer hard slog in it but it’s granted and might not be granted any longer. I don’t feel like someone who has an infinite number of books in them.” This is staggering certainty from a writer in full bloom, and her readers will hope she is wrong.
Although each of her books is original, familiar themes return: murder, dislocation, cultural difference – and dogs. ”My dogs are the only beings in my books who are drawn directly from life,” she says. Her ”beautiful and violent” whippet-beagle cross, Minnie, became Fair Play in the new novel.
Minnie and Ollie, a border collie cross, moved north with de Kretser and Andrews when he took a job at the University of Western Sydney. The four share a Federation house in the inner west – ”the Melbourne part of Sydney” – where de Kretser feels at home walking the dogs along the river. But it’s hard to say where she belongs.
”I was back in Melbourne a month ago,” she says, ”and I realised I’d become a Sydneysider because I was walking down Swanston Street and I arrived at Flinders Street and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s so wide’. My eye has changed.”
■ Questions of Travel is published by Allen & Unwin, $39.99.
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