Crushing On… Heather Rose

I’m incredibly proud of my Tasmanian heritage. Like many places, it has its issues and a dark past, but the closure of Tasmanian borders made me homesick, nonetheless. Tasmania has a history of being “just that little bit different” but I love it because it is this non-conforming gem. As cliché as it may sound, I yearn for the crisp Tasmanian air, the splendour of the Huon Pine forests and the feeling of being free from the emotional starvation of metropolitan life. Why? Well, the irony of life is that you truly only know the value of what we have until it’s gone… and that’s 2020 in a sentence. 

So, amidst the nostalgia I was feeling for home, and the pandemic-induced isolation, I reached out to author Heather Rose. Heather Rose gave a speech on Why Reading Great Literature Matters to my cohort at The Friends’ School in Hobart in which she spoke about reading as a cure for loneliness and isolation. Heather is the author of eight books and the recipient of the Stella Prize, a major literary award for writing by Australian women and someone I have deeply admired for quite some time. 

Heather is exceptionally generous with her time and wisdom and this week’s Crushing On is pure joy – we spoke about her hilarious encounter with Marina Abramović at MONA, the Tasmanian wilderness, and how it really feels to have people analyse her writing. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m Heather Rose and I live in Tasmania. I am the author of eight novels, three of which are for children (they’re a series). 

All of them, except for one, are set in Tasmania. Tasmania is my heartland and I have lived here for 80% of my life. I was born here, and my family is a sixth-generation family in Tasmania. Tasmania is very much the wellspring of my creativity. 

I have three children. They’re 31, 25 and 20. And, I have a black cat! Her name is Monkey. 

Aww! So, fill in the blanks. Right now I’m…

in___, hearing___, eating___, drinking____, loving___.

Right now I’m here in Tasmania, on the edge of the river Derwent. 

I’m hearing the waves. 

I’m eating lots of greens out of my garden. 

I’m drinking a good cup of tea. I like mixing my own tea blends.

I’m loving the sense of spring arriving, the warm weather returning, and coming to the end of this very big year.

On a typical day as a writer, what are the first three things you do when you wake up and what are the last three things you do before you go to bed?

When I wake up, I meditate every morning, I have a big cup of water, and then I read something inspiring. At the moment, I’m reading River Flow, which is an anthology of David Whyte’s poems. Every day I read one or two of those because for me it’s important to nourish my mind in the morning in order to create the day I want.

Then at night, it’s the other way around. I take a cup of tea to bed, I read, and then I meditate. Those are the three things. Perfectly in reverse!

Your career has been impressive and typified by many successes, but what do you see as your biggest career highlight?

The Museum of Modern Love was the first novel ever launched at the Museum of Modern Art in New York! We had 28 people come from Australia for that launch which was remarkable.  

That whole trip was really extraordinary! 

What was it like meeting Marina Abramović?

[Editorial note, for context: the rice counting referred to here was a part of Abramović’s respective. In this public installation, Marina asks guests (clothed in lab coats and noise cancelling headphones) to sit down, and count grains of rice.]

I have only met her briefly at the launch of her retrospective at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania in 2014. I knew she was coming to the state, but I really didn’t have any interest in meeting her. I’d just spent nine years writing the book (it wasn’t published till 2016). The book had been rejected by publishers a number of times but, the very day Marina flew into Tasmania, I got a publishing deal for the book – with the publisher I really wanted to be with! That whole book was just an extraordinary lesson in serendipity – there were so many confluences. 

I was going out to see the show after I got a publishing deal for the book and, most out of character for me, I had about six champagnes! I was wandering through the retrospective, feeling at home amidst the world of Marina Abramović’s art, and there she was…

A friend of mine was with her, who knew I hadn’t met her, and he introduced us. He said, “This is Heather, who’s writing the novel.” Marina clearly hadn’t expected this. I hadn’t made any effort to connect with her before she came to Tasmania. I didn’t deal with Marina directly when I was sending drafts of the book over the years of writing it – I dealt with her director. I’m sure she had forgotten that there was this woman at the end of the world writing a novel about her. 

But she was lovely – warm and inviting. She asked me on a tour of the gallery but all I could think was… I’m drunk. Well, I was definitely very merry. She must have seen my hesitation, because she leaned in close and said, “Have you counted the rice?”. When I told her “no”, she replied “you must count the rice!” 

Marina left and I walked past the opening to the rice room and then I kept walking fast to the other end of the gallery. (I was in no state of mind to count rice!). 

That’s the only time we’ve ever met. Since then, she has sent me some lovely emails. She’s such a fan of the book and has been beautiful about the whole thing. 

What a hilarious story! 

I’ve never had a chance to apologise and explain why I didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about spending time with her!! 

In ​The Museum of Modern Love ​you wrote: “This is where I watch artists stumble, as they oscillate between force and submission. You would be amazed how rare it is for artists to feel moments of true satisfaction. When they’re inside their craft, inside colour or movement or sound, words or clay or pictures or dance, when they submit to the art, that is when they know two things — the void that is life and the pull that is death. The grand and the hollow. The best reflects that. To be such harbingers of truth is not without its cost. It’s no easy task to balance a sense of irrelevance with the longing for glory, the abyss with the applause. Artists run their fingers over the fabric of eternity.”

There is something quite reflexive about this quote. How do you, also as an artist, navigate running your “fingers over the fabric of eternity”?

I was first paid to be a writer at age seventeen. Since then, I’ve received every kind of criticism but I continue to work closely with editors to push me to write better. My focus is always on how can I learn this craft and better communicate the ideas. This keeps me out of that egoistic state of thinking that what I’m doing is going to have a big effect in the world. Instead, it keeps me in the smaller, but more important, task of communicating with clarity. My job is to bring to light aspects of the human condition. I’m a servant of the English language. While I maintain that position, it’s much easier than worrying about if something is going to be publishable, well-received or, if my readers are going to think that I did better or worse than the last book. All those things, they’re like the crowd in the arena. My job is to work the craft and silence that  internal audience.

It’s not an easy thing to do but I think that the creative life does deeply humble us. I’ve had a slow burn career, and there have been a lot of disappointments and rejections. I still get rejections regularly for grants and applications. It’s good for the ego and it brings you back to the basic job, which is to just sit down and write. It’s unglamorous, requires enormous discipline and involves a whole lot of uncertainty.

There is something about Tasmanian writers and their capacity for describing their surroundings. I suspect it’s something incredibly humbling about the Tasmanian landscape. 

Living here, it’s easy to be completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. People have often reflected on how beautifully I’ve described Tasmania in the novel Bruny, but when I hear those comments, I think “Well, I just looked out the window.” I think I would be a very different writer if I was based in Sydney or New York, and maybe I’d be more concerned about my career. But you’re right, the landscape does diminish our significance. We’re just creatures that happen to live on this extraordinary island for a brief span of years. 

It’s humbling living in Tasmania and, let’s face it, historically we’ve had a lot of flak.

I always say that only a Tasmanian can make Tasmanian jokes.

Exactly! When I was working in advertising in Melbourne, I got so sick of the Tasmanian jokes that I just typed out a whole lot of them and then taped them on the outside of my office door.  All these two-headed and incest jokes. It was a way of saying, “I’ve heard them all, you can stop now!” It worked!

Four years ago, you spoke to The Friends’ School Year 12 cohort about “Why reading great literature matters.”

You described one of the many benefits that reading brings, which is that it allows your imagination to flourish. Why do you still believe creativity and imagination is one of the most important benefits of reading?

I think that that imagination is at the heart of our humanity. To foster imagination in children gives them the potential to realize the enormous possibilities of their intellect. In any profession that you pursue, imagination is a huge asset. It doesn’t matter if you’re in commerce, economics, visual arts, mathematics, or some obscure branch of science or medicine, all of those pursuits are hugely improved by a sense of imagination. This is because imagination is linked to innovation.

It’s only by achieving a sense of muscularity with your imagination that the confidence to be innovative, and to pursue original thinking, arises. We need to teach our children imagination because we are living in a world that is now without any certainty. Our ecology and biosphere are radically changing and our oceans are acidifying. We’re going to have major problems with agriculture and water security, to say nothing of oxygen levels on a planet with dwindling forests and increasing carbon levels.

All pursuits are hugely improved by a sense of imagination, because imagination is linked to innovation.

There are many challenges that will meet the coming generations that imagination, innovation, optimism and creativity are not going to be just good to have, but essential. 

I’ve thought for a long time that we should have a school of imagination. To both cross-pollinate the silos that exist in the academic sector, and teach imagination and creativity. Each school has its own version of creativity, and we can learn so much from the different ways that we all think creatively. It’s so good to have a wide group of friends, because we all think differently. If we could just replicate that on a larger scale in universities, that would be awesome. 

In 2019, you described Tasmania as a “prized jewel” because “it is a way to escape from the craziness of this world”. In what ways does the seclusion and beauty of Tasmania influence your writing, both in terms of the process, and the output?

It is a very peaceful place to live and that in itself is helpful for the creative life. A dramatic and demanding life doesn’t really go hand-in-hand with deepening your creative process. 

I can live very reclusively here. I also have an amazing community of highly interesting thinkers and creative people, and many friends who are also writers. This has been really nourishing. 

As we said before, it’s the landscape, the environment, the rare ability to live so close to nature in what has been a very pristine environment. With that said, it is certainly been hammered by industry over the last 200 years and it really worries me to see the Derwent River as polluted as it is and getting more so every day.

There are challenges here but, nevertheless, compared to most places in the world, Tasmania is extraordinarily beautiful. With half an hour’s drive, I can be walking in a wild forest. All those experiences as a child gave me a deep understanding of nature, my connections with nature, and my insignificant place in the world. That’s a good place to write from.

How can we all be better readers? 

Put down our devices. 

That said, I do love audiobooks. I gravitate towards audiobooks because I can multitask and, as a woman, that seems to have been quite essential. I can be driving, in the garden, cooking a meal, walking on the beach, and I can take a book with me, which is fantastic.

Secondly, read widely. Even if you think that you’re not really a fantasy reader, or you’re not a political thriller reader, go and have a look at the great writers. I recommend my students to go back to the classics. That might be right back to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was written in the 1850s, or Madame Bovary, which was also published in the 1850s. But also to come forward to the modern classics such as Catcher in the Rye, the Old Man and the Sea and The Hobbit. Look at the top 100 classic novels and see which ones you haven’t read. What’s exciting about that is that they’re classics for a reason – it’s a classic because it’s touched millions of people. Unfortunately these days (and this is one of the things that most frustrates me) literature is now taught in Years 10, 11 and 12 with movies instead of students actually reading the book. Teachers say that the students will be unable to concentrate or read the whole book in time. I’ve had students come to university and who, despite being in a creative writing class expecting to become writers, have never read a novel. 

So number one, put down your devices. Number two, read widely and across diverse themes and times, and read non-fiction, poetry, plays and movie scripts. There are so many ways to interact with language.

What would you advise young, budding authors?

Go and live a big life. I know it’s hard to travel right now but, in time, I’m sure we will be able to travel again. Even if we can’t, travel in your own environment, meet people from other cultures, have conversations with strangers, be open to human experience, talk to taxi drivers and learn to ask the good, unusual and brave questions. 

Delve into the stories of your lineage, because that helps us to ground ourselves. 

Be open to what life offers you and be willing to leap.

That’s so true, life isn’t your career. Life is what happens outside of work and that is such a great reminder to go pursue your passions and the things that bring you joy. 

What is so beautiful about living a creative life is that there is no separation between work and yourself. I had to do that a lot in advertising. There was the part of me that turned up each day to be my glamorous advertising self. Then the other part of me was the writer and the spiritual person and I always felt that I couldn’t be both at work. It just wouldn’t have been accepted. So it’s been beautiful in the last five years, since I’ve been able to become a writer full-time, to feel that there is no separation anymore. I can be my whole self because I’m living the truthfulness of my creativity. 

I’m grateful for all those years where I learned the many skills of being a professional writer in the world of business, but also everything I learned about leadership, running teams and contributing in the community. But now, to be totally aligned in who I am and what I do, that’s pure joy.

I suppose a lot of your background would help you with the marketing and advertising of your novels. 

That has been interesting. I certainly do have skills that many other writers wouldn’t have about fonts, cover designs and marketing strategies. My publishers have always been happy for me to have opinions and to discuss those things.

Coming back to that point about being edited, I’m not at all attached to my work at the editing level. If someone who’s very experienced and wise says it’s not working, it’s not working. I don’t think of my writing as some perfect thing that no one can touch. I’m always trying to learn how to do things better and how to do things differently. 

I didn’t set out to write across so many different genres. I suspect Margaret Atwood has been quite an influence in my life like that, because she also has a wide array of novels, poetry and non-fiction. It’s not that common for a writer to try lots of different genres but, when the characters arrived, I tried to tell their story honestly. The story came through as it did, and then when it got to the publishing world, they called it something. I didn’t say “I’m writing crime fiction” when I was writing The Butterfly Man, or ‘I’m writing magical realism” when I was writing The River Wife. And I didn’t say I was writing a political thriller when I was writing Bruny. I was writing about the Colemans, or Lord Lucan, or about this woman who’s a fish by night and a woman by day. Those labels were put on later as part of the marketing effort.

But I do know that I’m writing a historical fiction novel next!  

Actually, that raises an interesting question. Throughout when I was studying English in school, I would always wonder what writers actually think about people inferring meaning from their writing. How do you really feel about that?

It’s the funniest thing! The things that I’ve read that people thought I was so clever about – no, I did not intend at all! When you read that piece from the Museum of Modern Love, I thought “Wow, I agree!” but I don’t remember writing that at all! 

The person saying that was the character of the Muse in The Museum of Modern Love. It was amazing the way she came through because those passages were almost completely unedited. The Muse arrived early on in the writing, but I removed her out for a number of later drafts. I showed the second last draft to my dear friend, Danielle Wood, whom I write the children’s novels with, and she said, “It’s fine, but there’s a character missing”. I knew exactly who was missing so I went back, got the sections that I had written from the perspective of the Muse and put them in again. Then it was whole.

What are your plans for the next year? 

I have a memoir to finish and I have a new novel to work on. I’m hoping to finish a draft of the memoir to go to the publishers by the end of this year. It will be a big year to pull those two projects off – a memoir in production and the next novel to a developed draft- but not having to travel has created a lot of extra writing time. 

I like this quieter life. I like it a lot. For those of us who don’t need a lot of external stimulus, in fact love more stillness and solitude, it’s been bliss. I know there’s been a lot of pain and trauma out there in the world but here, in Tasmania, it’s been a privilege to have felt so safe. I think it’s also been good for the planet for us humans to slow down and reflect on our values. 

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