Friday 27 November 2020

Writers on Writers: Josephine Rowe on Beverley Farmer #AWW

Writers on Writers

In the Writers on Writers series, leading authors reflect on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them. Provocative and crisp, these books start a fresh conversation between past and present, shed new light on the craft of writing, and introduce some intriguing and talented authors and their work.

Published by Black Inc. in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria.

Josephine Rowe on Beverley Farmer was my first foray into the Writers on Writers series. It was a very literary affair. A non-fiction novella if you like (and I do, which means this can also be part of Novellas in November!)

I confess that I did not know very much about Farmer prior to reading this book, and I'm not sure I know a whole lot more now. But I suspect, she was that kind of person. Very private. Extremely shy. But I am curious to know more.

"This far, and no further. A familiar refrain of Farmer's throughout her writing life."

As Rowe explains, 'her characters are outsiders, foreigners, fringe dwellers. Expats and exiles, those returning home after long absences...' much like Farmer (and Rowe) themselves. It certainly seemed that part of Rowe's fascination for Farmer, was for what Farmer's life and work could tell her about herself as well. 

Most of the essay consists of Rowe discussing the nature of writing (her own and Farmer's) and what it means to be a reader (especially of Farmer's work). She notes that the 'conditions from which we enter, and to which we return when we lift our attention from the page, have bearing on wherever we are taken from the time in between.’ 

Rowe reveals Farmer's habit of notebook journaling and her ability for close, sustained observation as well as her belief in the age-old advice about keep on writing until something poetic pops out. 
every encounter with a text is influenced by the circumstances in which we read.

Like Farmer and Rowe, I am drawn to wondering about the life not lived. The shadows in our past and our 'reckonings with the past' that can produce a longing for elsewhere that we have all, no doubt, felt at times. This longing, though, seemed to drive Farmer constantly - as a source of creativity and a way to fend off loneliness.
Across Farmer's works there has always been an attraction to those beings who occupy two worlds...Once one has lived elsewhere, lived differently, it doesn't matter whether she stays to forge a new life or turns back towards the old, or moves on once again; there will always be the shadow, the after-image, of the life not lived.

Farmer was also on a mission for authenticity, with a 'fastidious concern for accuracy... for the evolutions of language in all its slipperiness.' She concerned herself with the all the opportunities we have to misunderstand each other and for being misunderstood ourselves. The power she has given to words, makes me feel a little nervous about reading her work. What if I don't understand? Or misunderstand? How would I even know?

Rowe was finishing this book as coronavirus escalated from epidemic to pandemic. 'We speak of this time as an intermission, a hiatus.' It made me wonder if that is a position that those of us in Australia are privileged to hold. We have had some lockdowns and spikes over the past nine months, but we basically have the virus under control for now. Being an island state has given us the ability to quarantine any and all incoming visitors. Since we cannot travel overseas easily or safely, the Australian tourism industry is, subsequently, booming, simply because we're all holidaying at home. It's easy to feel that any suffering we have had has been 'an intermission, a hiatus', a time in which we could be creative, recharge our batteries and declutter our homes! But I'm sure there are many here and abroad who feel very differently. Maybe what we're both trying to say here, though, is that solitude, or hiatus, and the reason for that intermission, is just another one of the circumstances that can play on a reader and a writer in different ways.

I am curious to see what kind of Covid-Lit emerges from this time. At the moment it seems to mostly be a little aside at the end of the book, where the author reveals how far through the editing process they were when the virus changed all our lives. It's like a place marker. 

I'm sure, though, that as part of the hiatus, many writers are penning their next book, that may or may not be set in a Covid-normal world. Whatever choice they make, their future readers will also bring their own understandings - to compare experiences or to wonder why the author chose to ignore it completely. Interesting times makes for interesting reading, we hope.

Rowe is the author of the novel A Faithful, Loving Animal (longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin) and three short story collections including Here Until August (shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize & QLD Literary Award).

Favourite Quote:
Our relationship with the past and those who populate it is constantly shifting, as is our awareness of the ways in which it has shaped us....In returning to our first stories, those most deeply etched, are we seeking the comfort of...the familiar arrangements and foretokenings a means of retelling the story ourselves so that we might reconcile ourselves to an ending? 

  • Beverley Farmer - born in Melbourne 7 February 1941 
  • Died 16 April 2018
  • Short story anthologies:
    • Snake (1982)
    • Milk (1983)
    • Home Time (1985)
    • Collected Stories (1987)
    • This Water: Five Tales (2017)
    • Alone (1980)
    • The Seal Woman (1992)
    • The House in the Light (1995)
    • A Body of Water: A Year's Notebook (1990)
    • The Bone House (2005)
  • A Body of Water has just been republished by Giramondo Publishing.
  • 1984 – NSW Premier's Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction for Milk
  • 1996 – Miles Franklin Award shortlist for The House in the Light
  • 2009 – Patrick White Award
  • 2018 – The Stella Prize longlist for This Water
  • Stan Grant on Thomas Keneally due May 2021.



  1. I absorbed this review, there's a lot of things to think about.
    The advice that I will keep when I feel reviewing/blogging is in a rut: "...keep on writing until something poetic pops out."
    Covid: Your 'intermission' is feeling like our eternity! Living in an 'island country' is looking pretty good these days! We, unfortunately, are at the crossroads of Europe (largest harbor, Rotterdam...aeronautical hub Schiphol finance and The Hague Inter Criminal Court. Oh, and of course everybody wants to see Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh and Anne Frank's house! Covid will certainly be reflected in future literature, all we can say is " I was there! Great appreciated and all the hosting for #AusReadingMonth2020....still my favorite challenge!

    1. I was thinking of you when I read Rowe's comments about hiatus just as you were all heading into various states of lockdown again in Europe and the UK. As you say, more like an eternity than an intermission.

      I have very fond memories of my three nights/two days in Amsterdam - Anne Frank's House and the Van Gogh Museum in particular. Maybe one day, I will return, but it feels like an impossible dream right now.


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