With a couple of published novels under her belt and a father who worked as a proofreader for the Herald and Weekly Times, Sonya Hartnett’s first inclination on leaving school was to apply for a journalism cadetship at the Herald Sun.
“There are probably a thousand reasons why I didn’t get it,” she says almost 30 years later.
“But I got a bad feeling when some large, bluff man behind a desk he made look small asked me which women I admired.”
It was at the height of the long-running mid-’80s nurses’ strike and Hartnett readily cited its tough, militant and effective leader, Irene Bolger. Her mother was a nurse and Bolger was fighting to make her mother’s life better.
“His face clouded over and I knew I’d lost it. I was a 16-year-old girl and it cost me a career,” she says.
It is a scene straight from one of her novels, which she describes as being “for smart people of any age”, though most have been marketed, erroneously she believes, as young adult fiction. While the plots vary widely, the theme is commonly the struggles of children and adolescents to understand and deal not merely with each other but primarily the powerful, confusing and often abusive adult world.
It is a fixation executed with disturbing insight and often humour. The precociously talented and prodigious teenager went on to make writing her life’s work, crowned in 2008 by winning Sweden’s prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, worth $862,000 at the time. Now 46, Hartnett recently published her 23rd book, Golden Boys.
Once more the subject is power, this time centred on the well-off Jenson family whose arrival in an outer lower-middle-class Melbourne suburb, modelled on the Box Hill of Hartnett’s youth, is a mixed blessing for the local children and neighbouring Kiley family.
The father, Rex Jenson, is a good-looking dentist on a mission to become king of the kids. He showers his two sons, Colt and Bastian, with extravagant toys, gadgets and a backyard pool such that the Jenson house becomes party central for the local youth. He listens sympathetically to 13-year-old Freya Kiley, the oldest of the six Kiley children squeezed into a three-bedroom weatherboard with a long-suffering mother and unpredictable father who swings between careless affection and violent abuse depending on how much he’s been drinking.
But all is not quite right with the Jensons either.
“His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied, but on making them – and the word seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait,” Hartnett writes of Colt, who is unnerved and distanced by his father’s behaviour.
There are hints of something shameful, sudden and unplanned about the Jensons’ recent move. In time Rex’s enthusiasm for the local youth extends to some vigorous hands-on action with a towel that is duly noted by the neighbourhood boys. And it is the children who try to put this confusing and manipulative adult world to rights with, at least in Freya’s case, frightful and unintended consequences.
“It’s easier for the adults to do nothing, but then the book is set in 1979 and times were different,” says Hartnett.
“Perhaps I make too many assumptions about my own parents. I remember a neighbour woman having a go at me and complaining to Mum about something I’d done. Mum went, ‘oh well’, and I thought, no, she should just march up there and slap that woman down. But you had to suck things up, that’s just the way it was back then. You had to keep fighting your own battles and your way through life and that’s what those kids do – they don’t ever think to look to their parents. That’s why I like writing about kids, because they are like little animals and animals sort out their own problems.”
But Hartnett has been writing about kids and digging deep into her own experiences for more than three decades, which in the non-literary world, she points out, would qualify her for retirement. “Sometimes I think I’d rather undergo Chinese bamboo torture than write another word,” she says.
Asked to write for a magazine, she considered a piece on horseriding, after admitting that all her life she’s wanted a horse, and undertaking riding lessons.
“But then I think, can’t I just live it? Do I have to write everything down? I’ve written about everything I’ve ever felt, seen, known or heard. All my life has been poured into my books in one way or another. I have this public persona but the person underneath has always been there and I don’t feel I know her very well anymore. Very little I experience remains mine alone and I’m fed up to the back teeth with myself. That’s why, when it boils down to it, the thought of writing another word that draws on me makes me feel ill. I’d almost rather write textbooks than another piece of fiction or personal nonfiction.”
Friends laugh when Hartnett vents similar sentiments about the houses she renovates and “flips” (seven in 13 years) to generate about a third of her annual income.
“But the fact is I’m no spring chicken anymore and I’m running out of time and energy.”
In this frame of mind Hartnett says she needs time to think, to broaden her opinions and add to her store of material before embarking on another novel. In particular, as a weary miner of her own childhood, she feels her age when she no longer recognises her experience as a child in the way young people are brought up today.
Although Hartnett says she finds it difficult to relate to the tough and distant parents in Golden Boys, and in many of her novels, including the Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted Of a Boy, they are typical of her generation’s elders.
“I grew up knowing people like that and maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe there aren’t so many of them around as there were. We live in very different times now where the child is king. But those people who were our parents and grandparents had tough times growing up during the Depression and they left their mark. Being used to tough times themselves, they handed it out.
“I don’t know what changed and how children managed to become victorious. Young animals fight their way to the top and aren’t told they are pretty and clever and equal. There is a hierarchy even though the current trend is to say there isn’t. It’s not true, because underneath we are animals and it will out. My Generation X is really the last one used to losing, so everyone over 40 is sort of standing on the sidelines thinking, this is going to be bloody.”
The products of indulgent modern parenting are unlikely to experience the levels of self-doubt Harnett attributes to her traditional Catholic education and upbringing.
“It’s so instilled in me it’s impossible to know what I’d have been like without it. I’m plagued by feeling a fake, which is why I haven’t always felt my books are as good as I would like them to be – that somehow I’m just faking it. The only time I don’t feel that way is when I’m outside or renovating because there is a basic honesty or truth in building a garden or a wall. It’s very Catholic and the result of being told that nothing you do is any good, you are just a snivelling piece of slime, that everything you say is stupid and you will never achieve anything.”
Besides, as Hartnett sees it, religion is not true to the beast and the natural world, which for this lapsed Catholic turned self-realised pagan is the measure of everything. While animals relate only to what they can touch and smell, religion is all about power and an idea based on a story she says is laughable.
“I guess it’s supposed to teach people to be kind to others and all the other nice things Jesus said, but the scales aren’t even. I do know that from a very young age I regarded all religious teaching as somehow insulting to the truth.”
Indeed she has attributed such insights to at least two of her young female protagonists: Freya in Golden Boys and Plum in Butterfly (also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin). With “bitterly satisfying, black amusement” is how she views the Catholic Church’s current difficulties with investigations into child abuse scandals.
The second oldest of six children, Hartnett is childless and unmarried by choice. Having poured all her emotional energy into her books, she believes the demands of parenthood would have impeded her writing. There was a long affair with a married literary identity she described in Landscape with Animals under the pseudonym Cameron S. Redfern, a subterfuge that survived about two weeks among the gossipy literati post publication. But now Hartnett prefers to remain free.
“I loved him and I always will, but life doesn’t always give you what you want… I certainly don’t believe the animal is meant to be with one partner forever, although I admire and respect people who manage to do so.”
Regrets, she’s had a few, and they are top of mind as she considers the things she might have done but didn’t. Like being a professional house flipper (which she’d like to be in the next life if she believed in such things). Like lacking even half the get up and go of two young bobcat drivers she’s employed, who, “though still covered in bum fluff, own their own business and drive their machines like masters”. Like not moving to the country sooner, with her much-loved husky Shiloh, who died recently.
“When Shiloh died, I could have punched myself in the head. I knew that I wanted to [move] and that he wouldn’t last forever. People said it would be lonely and hard and I believed them. I didn’t have confidence in myself but it turned out to be easy. Now I hate myself for all those wasted years.”
So what, if anything, makes her happy and content? What is this analytical, complex and solitary woman’s idea of a good time?
Beyond the plate-glass windows of Hartnett’s latest house and renovation project on Melbourne’s rural outskirts, which she shares with Coleridge, an animal rescue hound, and Morgan, a Burmese cat, is a hillside ravaged and denuded by the previous owner, who planned to flatten it as storage for heavy equipment. Since moving from the inner suburbs four weeks earlier, Hartnett has worked non-stop surrounded by builders and tradies, amid the sound of chainsaws and trucks removing 14 loads of fill. She set about projects such as building steps and a fancy chicken coop, productive work that she confesses makes her feel incredibly happy.
“I’m happy when I’m improving the environment – or lying on the couch at night watching TV with the cat crushing me. Yes, my happiness is a bit sad. Since Shiloh died suddenly I’m not always happy with my animals because I really just want him. But I’m happy when I’m driving somewhere and when I have something to look forward to. I’ve found that the looking forward is often better than the getting. ”
Leonard Cohen sang, “Let me start again, I want a face that’s fair this time, I want a spirit that is calm”, and Hartnett shares the sentiment.
“I reckon that’s my song,” she says of lines that reflect much of our conversation over a long wintry afternoon of fireside chat in the company of Morgan and Coleridge.
But will this restless and self-confessed grass-is-always-greener soul stay put and see if the happiness continues?
“Do I picture myself here forever? No, and once that’s the answer there is no rest. I’ve already started looking on realestate.com. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to make something better than it was, but once it’s done, it’s done. I’m on a constant search for a place where I’ll be happy at least for as long as the distraction lasts, and when it ends the answer is always no.”
The same goes for her vast output of novels and children’s books.
“I used to get attached to the books but I haven’t for decades – it’s amateurish.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "The pursuit of happiness".
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