Portrait

Free-diver Kathryn Heyman, author of Storm and Grace. By Sarah Price.

Kathryn Heyman, author

Before she started writing her latest novel, Storm and Grace, Kathryn Heyman was woken by her dreams. She dreamt of rippling light on the ocean’s surface, a brilliant mosaic of gold and blue. She dreamt of free diving, of being submerged deep under water where blue turns to black and dazzling colour to darkness. In her dreams Heyman was weightless, sliding towards the shadows where everything was quiet and still.

The water is a place where she’s always felt free, Heyman says. “To be able to jump off a boat or a cliff into deep water is an image of freedom. It kind of fixes everything. In that environment, what else do you need?” She extends her bare arms, laughing. “You feel a kind of oneness with the ocean. But it’s also about immediacy – being present. It’s like your skin is off.” As a writer, she says, she’s in her head a lot. “One of the only times I’m not is when I’m beneath the water. You are in the moment, like an animal. That suspended sort of state is incredibly replenishing.”

This is the first time Heyman can trace the precise genesis of one of her novels. Following the death of diver Nicholas Mevoli she became “obsessed” with free diving. “Mevoli went down, came up again because something wasn’t right, then went down again and died.” It haunted her, that sense that Mevoli didn’t listen to his instinct.

 At the same time, she was feeling alert to dangers for women, closely following the trial of Simon Gittany. After Gittany was convicted of throwing his girlfriend from a balcony, it was the loyalty of his subsequent girlfriend that fascinated Heyman. “For some reason that particular case really got me. It was because of his second girlfriend. I just kept looking at her and thinking: What would it take for instinct to kick in, the instinct that this man was not a good choice? What’s going on there? That kind of got under my skin.”

Fusing the ideas of free diving and violence against women, Heyman began writing the novel. She took lessons in free diving, practised her breathing and learnt to extend her breath hold. “It is so much about being still and relaxed and listening to your body. When I started going a bit deeper I noticed the physical changes, the way time shifts as you go down.” Scuba diving is very noisy, yet free diving is silent, she explains. “It’s the difference between taking a bushwalk and driving in a four-wheel-drive.” There is a certain depth when the temperature drops and light wanes, that you no longer push against the water. Instead, the ocean begins to pull you down. As the body shuts down it packs blood around the heart, and “an extraordinary tingling can be felt in your arms and legs. It is compelling in a frightening way. There’s a physical feeling of flying the deeper you go.”

Free diving is dangerous, says Heyman, in the same way that love can be dangerous. When she first came across free diving it felt to her like a consuming romance, with all the hallmarks of a dangerous relationship. “It was this sort of ‘Bam! I’m done for.’ I could think of nothing else. It felt like this extraordinary metaphor for the sudden, obsessive falling into kind of love.”

The other part of her book, the violence, was already there. It had infected her writing for more than 20 years. “My father was violent so I have a kind of core visceral memory of what that means. When I was younger my sense of safety in the world was very impacted by that.”

Patriarchy still hasn’t changed, she says. “In fact, right now it feels like a push-back, like it’s worse. During the American election it became okay to speak about women in ownership terms, in terms of property, like the ’70s.” Heyman pauses. Her brown eyes begin to gloss and tear. Shaking her head, she sites the well-known statistic: every week one or two women in Australia are killed by their partners or former partners. “As Anne Summers said, ‘It took two boys to be killed by a certain kind of punch and they changed the laws. What are women worth?’ ”

There’s a chorus in the novel, a voice of warning. It’s a voice women generally get better at listening to as they get older, Heyman believes. “The free diving connection felt so profound in terms of that world. Free diving: yes, it’s dangerous but it’s also about listening to your own instinct, going to your own edges.” Women learn to listen to their instinct with experience, she says. “You figure out the difference between being suffocated and swallowed, and being in an equal, exciting romance.”

Fuelled by fury and a desperate sense of urgency, she admits the novel was distressing to write. “I shed a lot of tears over this book. I’ve never felt so focused and organised. I felt more physically present in the writing of this book than I have since I first started writing. There was a sort of compulsion. It felt like that moment of getting to 18 metres under the water’s surface. It wasn’t a question of what was possible; it was like breathing.”

Free diving has incredible similarities to writing, Heyman says. You see the world in a new way. “There’s the physical thing, the oneness, but there’s also pleasure in seeing what was there waiting for you.” With diving, like with writing, there is a moment when you are on the surface, then the next moment when the world looks different, when you are suddenly in a whole other world that’s been discovered by you. “That other world is a gift to a fiction writer. Maybe you just didn’t see it, but it’s there all along, and on some level it seems more true.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "The big blue". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is writer-in-residence at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney.

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