Tessa Hadley, Helen Garner & Hilton Als on Capturing Glamour & the Power of Women
A conversation with the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize winners
Last month, the Windham-Campbell Festival at Yale brought together three of our favorite writers — Tessa Hadley, Helen Garner, and Hilton Als — to talk about “girls.” The panel, dubbed “Good Girls, Bad Girls, White Girls, and Clever Girls,” dove into some heady subjects — 1970s feminist theory, maternal artistic influence, and the ineffable glamour of New Yorkers.
We were so gripped by their conversation, we decided to share it with our readers. First, for those not familiar with the panelists, a brief introduction:
— Tessa Hadley’s books include Clever Girl and Master Bedroom.
— Helen Garner’s books include The Spare Room and Monkey Grip.
— Hilton Als is a New Yorker staff writer and the author of White Girls.
All three are winners of a 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize. Professor Amy Hungerford moderated. And with that, here’s their conversation.
(This discussion has been edited and condsensed. A video can be found here.)
Amy Hungerford: Tessa, in Clever Girl there’s a dream of glamour at the edges of the story, especially intellectual glamour, or the glamour of radical ideas. Do you think that post-’70s feminists freed glamour from the model scene, where the term is used to belittle certain categories of the female body. Is glamour more powerful than it was in that moment?
Tessa Hadley: I should think there are a thousand different glamours. The glamour I think you are talking about in my book is, in a way, an invented one. My two teenage characters, my “clever girl” and her first passionate love — who, unbeknownst to her is obviously gay — endow their world with glamour. There’s something about that teenage moment — they see what may in reality be dingy and fill it with power and beauty. When I wrote that section of my book I had Patti Smith’s Just Kids by my side, because that’s exactly what she and Robert Mapplethorpe did. They invented a glamour different from the one that’s sold to us, the one that is often exploitative and ugly.
Helen Garner: The feminists of my generation purged our lives of a lot of things, of what we thought was tyrannical. We also purged ourselves of the male idea of glamour — what we’re supposed to look like — makeup, and the hair, and the nice clothes. Reading Patti Smith’s book reminded me of that time. In my crowd we were actors or musicians, a lot of single mothers trying to raise kids in hippie households. We purged ourselves of what we thought was bourgeois. We were trying to get away from the nuclear family. There was a glamour that we imbued ourselves with. We were flying around on bikes with kids on the back and everything was kind of cheap and you had to dye things interesting colors. When I look back, I think, Yeah, we were pretty cool back then. Glamour is a focus of life energy that’s humming and buzzing. But when I look at photos of us at the time — which, of course, are stripped of that thrilling feeling — we look terrible. We look kind of ugly and stupid.
The feminists of my generation purged our lives of a lot of things, of what we thought was tyrannical. We also purged ourselves of the male idea of glamour
Tessa Hadley: I think that’s so brilliantly true. One of the things I love doing in fiction is trying to recover the glamour of moments like that. It’s like trying to write about the glamour of a piece of music. How can you put into words on a page that extra thing? That sexy thrill of the moment. It’s eros. It just comes zooming in and everything becomes fabulous and wonderful. I was in New York last week, and I’m just thunderstruck by how fabulous people can look in New York without doing anything.
Amy Hungerford: Let’s talk about a kind of messiness: the messiness of bodies and gender. Whether they are bodies at the end of life, or bodies that are not gender conforming. In what ways have you thought about that in your writing? Or bodies that are mangled or somehow destroyed. How have you thought about gender and the body, Hilton?
Hilton Als: It’s funny because I gave a talk here last year…I’ve been invited several times by a professor who is known for his inclusive gay point of view. But, in fact, his behavior toward me is reminiscent of body fascism from New York gay bars in the ’80s. There’s a big divide in current literature, which is this: Why is there still a split between theory and practice? Why do people exercise great unkindness while purporting to write and think in a different way? It’s a basic ethos. You don’t treat people badly not because you don’t want to be treated badly, but because you just don’t. And I find that when it comes to discussions about the body, there are sensitive people like yourself, Amy, whom I’m happy to answer, but if I was in a different situation, with that other professor, I wouldn’t feel free to answer, because really the question would really be about that person’s career, as opposed to the interview. I’m finishing a book now for Yale, and this is one of the things I want to talk about in it: What is it about that professor that allows him to have a forum? Why is he able to do that? I’m robbed of an answer to his cruelty. The body stuff is so intense for people. Still. No matter how beautifully we’ve moved forward in the world.
Amy Hungerford: Helen, I would love for you to talk about The Spare Room. It’s about a woman whose friend is dying of terminal rectal cancer. She comes and visits the protagonist’s apartment, and takes up residence in a spare room. The protagonist is named Helen, as a matter of fact.
Helen Garner: That book is a novel because it contains certain fictional passages, but it’s based very closely on something that actually happened in my life. So, I called the character — the narrator — Helen, partly because I wanted to own the ugliness of the feelings that she had toward her dying friend. I didn’t want anybody to think that I was just making it up. I wanted to confess, in a way. But what happened was…I’m going to just tell the experience rather than the book…I had a friend who was an old hippie. Like a dip dyed, guru-having hippie. A lovely, sweet, batty kind of person, in her late sixties. She’d been very beautiful, but all her life had been alone. She’d never been with a man or a woman. I don’t know what her kind of sexuality was or if she even had much of one. But I loved her and she lived in a different town and I knew she’d gotten cancer. She got in touch with me and said, “I’m coming to Melbourne. Can I stay at your place for 3 weeks while I undergo a course of treatment?” I didn’t know anything about the clinic, but I said, “Of course.” I had this fantasy of myself as this kind, loving, tender, containing person. I thought I could be a maternal figure to her, I suppose.
Anyway, I got to the airport to collect her, and to my astonishment, she staggers off the plane into a state of collapse. I had to get a wheelchair to get her to the car and get her home. It turns out, before she left the other city, she’d had this horrendous treatment, which was a kind of shonky. Anyway, I won’t go there. But she was in a very bad way. So, the first day, I take her to the clinic the clinic is obviously shonky. It’s run by —
Amy Hungerford: I think that’s an Australian term. Can you translate?
Helen Garner: I mean the guy’s a quack. She’d loaded all her hope and fantasy for a possible future onto this doctor. I’d never seen such a horrible looking creep in my life. You know when you read Raymond Chandler, the private detectives, their room has crooked blinds? It was like that. Everything was dirty.
Tessa Hadley: Crooked blinds. That’s a terrible way.
Helen Garner: I saw these crooked blinds and I thought, “She’s doomed.” And indeed she was. But she said to me, “I need you to believe that this treatment is going to work.” I wanted to say, “Let’s get out of here. They’re going to take your money.” They were charging her $3,000 a week, pumping her full of Vitamin C, putting her in tanks of ozone, and other nutty stuff. She was a really beautiful looking old woman with white hair and she said to me, “by the middle of next week, I’ll have this cancer on the run.” I didn’t know what to do, confronted with that degree of delusion. I hardly slept. The nights were terrible.
Eventually I forced her to go to an ordinary doctor and the doctor said, “I’m sending you now to have a scan.” So they did a scan of her neck and they found that one of her vertebrae had been totally replaced by a tumor. At this point, I thought, Well, listen, you can’t go back to these people. They’re not helping you. They’re just robbing you. And for awhile there was this little window where she said to me, “Death’s at the end of this, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, it is.” There were about two hours where she sat with that fact and this great sweetness came between us. We stopped wrestling and fighting and having a power struggle and we just sat quietly. On the back veranda, a little breeze blew, and peace fell on us. And then by the next morning she was back into the fantasy.
Amy Hungerford: There’s a moment in that book when you describe wanting to drive a car into a wall with her in the seat. And to open the door and exit the car. I was so struck that this is exactly the analogue of what the father does in your non-fiction book, This House of Grief.
Helen Garner: Oh my God. I hadn’t ever noticed that. Well spotted. Maybe that’s why I went to the trial. Somebody was asking me today, “Why did you write about that trial?” And I said, “I don’t know. There must be something in me…” And there it is.
Amy Hungerford: We’re doing deep therapy here…Let’s talk about our mothers for a minute. Is a mother, like a girl, a category that can be occupied by a whole range of embodiments and histories and lives?
Hilton Als: I was telling this story yesterday of how I used to hide writing under my bed. I came from a family of women. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, so I wrote responses down. My mother was apparently cleaning one day, and she found the writing and wrote, “Very good,” and put it back. And, so, there’s the mother who gives permission to be an artist. Twyla Tharp says in one of her books, a child is a practicing artist. An artist is a practicing child. I don’t think that any of us who do this work could have done it alone. There had to be one person, whether it was an English teacher who was like a mother, or your mother, or an aunt, someone who looked at you and said, “Yes.”
There had to be one person, whether it was an English teacher who was like a mother, or your mother, or an aunt, someone who looked at you and said, “Yes.”
Tessa Hadley: Isn’t that fascinating? Is there anybody who writes in the face of “no”?
Hilton Als: Not that I’ve ever met. Even people who write about their mothers and complain about their mothers have a memory of bliss at one point with that person.
Helen Garner: Maybe not with the mother, but there’s got to be a memory of blissful permission. A memory of “very good.” “Very good” is what you need.
Amy Hungerford: What are the misuses of gender in your thinking? When do you feel, in your own work, compelled by the cultural manifestations of gender? Or deformed by them, having to answer to them when you don’t want to?
Helen Garner: The only thing I can think to answer is that, in the past, I’ve tried to change the gender of a character once I already started. Brick wall.
Amy Hungerford: That’s fascinating. I’ve actually studied this with a writer I’m interviewing for my latest book. We went back and forth about the meaning of what that act was. She was about six months into writing her novel and changed her protagonist from a woman into a man, and in the conversation with her, she said sort of glibly, “Oh, it was for marketing reasons. I did not believe that this woman doing the things she was doing in the novel could ever be anything but pathetic, but if she became a man, she could do these things without being read as pathetic.” We then had a long conversation over time…So, you’ve felt that in fiction, your characters have a kind of rightness in their gender?
Helen Garner: It’s not something I think about when I’m writing. It’s just that on this one occasion I wanted to conceal the identity of the person it was based on, which was even more ridiculous. As soon as I just changed the gender, in the very first sentence, I thought, This isn’t going to work. The person was coming at everything from the wrong angle and the wrong tone. Everything was wrong.
Tessa Hadley: I can remember a student, a female student, trying to write as a man and writing the sentence “He felt for a tissue in his pocket.” Now, what a discovery that that sentence can’t really work for a man. I can’t really explain it. But, of course, that isn’t really what we think about, maleness and femaleness, anymore.
Hilton Als: It’s in the bones of the —
Tessa Hadley: Culture.
Hilton Als: Well, also of the writer. If you’re imaging the world through a particular character’s eyes, that character tells you who they are, I think. And, so, if you say, “John Williams,” he pops out and he’s the person speaking. And then you say, “Oh, I’m going to change it to Jeanine.” It’s like no, give me my trousers back. It’s like trying to alter the reality of your dreams.
I wanted to ask Helen this question when she was speaking of eros and glamour earlier. I was so interested in whether or not you’ve ever had the experience as a nonfiction writer of being erotically attracted to a subject and being surprised by that. Or finding them glamorous in that way.
I don’t mean, Oh, I want to be with them. Just that they have a kind of aura that surprises you as a writer, that is seductive in some way.
Helen Garner: I can immediately think of one. I wrote a book called Joe Cinque’s Consolation. It’s about a young, rather innocent, mother-dominated Italian guy — I never met him. He was murdered by his girlfriend, an Indian woman. This all happened in Canberra, Australia. She had some kind of psychiatric disorder, well, that was the defense that she ran. When she appeared in the court, a tremendous crackling aura was around her. She was a very good looking girl, I suppose in her mid-twenties. She suffered from various sorts of eating disorders and she had a terribly neurotic relationship with her own being and body. One day, she came into the court and her hair was hanging right down her back. A mess of dark hair. And she sat down — before the judge came in — and put it up as an Indian woman who’s lived with long, straight hair will do. It’s not as if she was kind of brushing it. She just grabbed this mass, twisted it at the back, skillfully bound it up, and then she did this little gesture with her palms. She felt for the strands at the sides and just tucked them in. I was thunderstruck. I looked at her and thought, even though she wasn’t doing it flamboyantly, it was an act of incredibly intense femininity, which radiated erotic power. And that was her relationship with Cinque. She had tremendous erotic power over him. She blamed him for everything that was wrong in her life and she eventually killed him with an injection of heroin. But that moment of her putting her hair up. At the time, I was shocked by it and I felt disapproval. That’s the kind of feeling that I would like to transcend as a writer.
Tessa Hadley: I think older women are such good observers of young women. And young men, actually.
When one reaches a certain age, you have this cool eye for the loveliness of young people.
When one reaches a certain age, you have this cool eye for the loveliness of young people. And, of course, you see so many…they’re all lovely, actually, which you don’t feel when you’re down in it.