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Lettres, livres & littérature


An interview with Sallie Muirden in Antipodes December 2012

La république des lettres —
An interview with Sallie Muirden in Antipodes December 2012

Après mon dernier entretien avec Antoni Jach (“‘An intelligent conversation of a structured kind’ with Antoni Jach”, Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature 22: 1, June 2008, 56-62. Entretien réédité dans Etchings 5, Melbourne, août 2008, 30-46.), j'ai décidé d'interroger son épouse SALLIE MUIRDEN. Ce très long entretien sera publié dans quelques jours dans la revue postcoloniale américaine sous cette référence: “Bursting the Seams of Poetic Form: An Interview with Sallie Muirden”, Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature 26: 2 (New York), décembre 2012, 112-117. Ce sera sans doute mon dernier entretien avec les auteurs australiens et ce fut un plaisir de clore ce chapitre en compagnie de Sallie Muirden.

JF Vernay


Melbourne-based Sallie Muirden is the author of three major novels – Revelations of a Spanish Infanta (1996) which won the HarperCollins Fiction Prize, We Too Shall be Mothers (2001), A Woman of Seville: A Novel of Love, Ladders and the Unexpected (2009) – and a fable. She has been teaching creative writing for many years in Melbourne, where she currently lives with her partner Antoni Jach and their daughter, Hayley and son, Oliver. It was on a summer afternoon that Sallie Muirden had chosen to be interviewed in her own backyard in the north-east suburb of Northcote, on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people.

JFV Like a number of other Australian novelists (Patrick White, David Malouf, Christopher Koch, Roger McDonald, Peter Goldsworthy and Randolph Stow for instance) you have started publishing poetry before switching to the novel. What affinities do you see between the two genres?


I think that all my best writing is poetic. The heightened use of language and compressed emotions that I honed writing poetry was transferred to the novel form, when I felt I was bursting the seams of the poetic form and wanted to create scenes and have character interactions and explore a story within using the freer form of prose. At some stage I must have felt I’d outgrown the small frame of the poetic structure but some of the themes and images in the poems, like hazardous birthing, regency, the desire for a crown, the milk hounds, and motherhood of course, continued over into my first two novels. The poems I wrote were mostly autobiographical, many were love poems inspired by my young children, whereas in the novel I was no longer writing about people I knew but about fantasy characters, and I enjoyed cloaking some of these people who lived in historical times with aspects of my own children. So writing about fictional characters gave me much more freedom and latitude. The dwarves are my children, but also the dwarves at the court of Philip IV of Spain. So metaphor continues to play an important part. The novel gave me the freedom to explore these emotions through various characters, rather than through the narratorial ‘I’ who was mainly representing my autobiographical self in the poetry.

JFV In an essay entitled ‘Creating the novel’ you argue that novelists are ‘called upon to address the issue of novelty and find either something new to say or find a new form of expression in their fiction. ’How did you rise to this challenge when devising your novels?


If I’m not saying something new in the writing I don’t feel the fiction’s working. I don’t want to just hold up the mirror to life and present it as it is, I don’t have a talent for doing that well. My narrative voice comes to life when I take a step away from reality to write about it obliquely, and the most natural direction for me to step is away from the present and back into the past. And then I can in some ways reflect back on the present as if through a prism, so you’ve got allusions and echoes to the present coming in and a degree of commentary on the present and also commentary on the distant past of course. I’m talking about the period of European history between the 17th and the 19th century, that I’ve been attracted to. For me the novelty and excitement of writing has been to go back and look at various repressed, marginalized and mostly fantasized individuals, women in particular, and recreate the restricted or silenced lives they have lived. I’ve been inspired to write about the suffering they went through, either natural, through childbirth for example, or manmade through cultural prejudice against them, or the necessity for prostitution, and to rewrite that to show how the women felt. But from the vantagepoint of our contemporary world it is the connection between past and present that creates the novelty. We have things in common still. I’ve also felt at some point in the fiction the need to alleviate the restrictions or suffering through magical indulgence and thus give these historical characters some pleasure and autonomy that perhaps they didn’t have back then. In the case of my most recent novel, A Woman of Seville, what I found I was attracted to, was the idea of the Moors being expelled from Spain in 1610 and I know a lot of novelists have written about that before, but I don’t think anyone’s written a novel about specific case of all the children left behind by the Moors, in this case there were thousands of children who were forcibly left behind in Spain. They weren’t allowed to leave with their families; they were brought up by the church instead.

I have in the novel focused on a small number of Moorish boys to show how they felt and provide them an escape route that they may well not have had. This historical and fictional reality echoes the contemporary idea of the (Australian) stolen generation and the refugees coming and the boats going down, so it gives the past I’ve created a strong connection to the present…

JFV Are you predominantly female protagonists and pervasive feminine concerns proof that you advocate some form of feminism in your writing?


More in : “Bursting the Seams of Poetic Form: An Interview with Sallie Muirden”, Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature 26: 2 (New York), décembre 2012, 112-117.

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