Bernadette Brennan on the ‘enigmatic’ Gillian Mears
2018 Stella Prize-listed author, Bernadette Brennan, speaks about her new biography, Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears
In your 2018 Stella Prize-listed book, you wrote about the life and work of Helen Garner. Now, in your new book – Leaping Into Waterfalls – you’ve turned to the enigmatic Gillian Mears. What drew you to these writers, and do you see a relationship between them?
I have spent decades reading, analysing and teaching Australian literature, with a particular interest in Australian women writers. In 2014, I resigned from my academic position at the University of Sydney and set about researching and writing a book about Helen Garner’s life and work. The First Stone (1995) had caused deep ructions in the academy and among general readers; once ardent fans vowed never again to read or teach Garner’s work. Garner had a substantial, although embargoed, archive in the National Library. I thought, with both terror and excitement, that if she gave me permission to access it, I could write something important which would contribute to understanding her complexity and honesty. I wanted to immerse myself in her life and work to offer readers a deeper understanding of both.
With A Writing Life completed, I was keen to do it all over again. I respected Gillian Mears’ talent although I knew only a little about her brave and adventurous life. I had no idea of the resonances I would discover between the two writers – diary keeping, tumultuous romances, loving yet fraught relationships and betrayals between sisters, porous boundaries between their life and art. Mears considered Garner to be a mentor. The two became friendly and shared some fascinating correspondence.
You say Mears was a ‘self-proclaimed archivist’, with a staggering 27 metres of material left to the State Library of NSW. What was it like approaching such a body of archival material?
Initially it was exciting. Here was an enormous archive of intensely personal material – diaries extending over decades, thousands of letters and photographs, hours of recordings from the time when Mears was close to death. In many respects, it was a phenomenal gift for a biographer although there were also times when it threatened to become overwhelming. For example, she recorded her darkest moods and fantasies in excruciating, laborious detail. So too, the devastating bodily assault of what would years later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. I confess to only skimming the reams and reams of printed text messages.
Much of Mears’ fiction drew on autobiographical material. As her biographer, what were the challenges and pleasures of navigating the porous divide between her life and art?
The challenges were many. All of Mears’ past lovers were still alive when I began the project. So too were her closest friends and family. Two of her sisters and their families continued to live and work in the Grafton area. Through her writing Mears caused considerable pain; she betrayed family confidences and some friendships and she created (sometimes highly unlikable) characters who often bore a striking resemblance to identifiable lovers. I had no desire to add to any embarrassment or harm, yet it was essential that I explore some very difficult terrain. Also, Mears’ friends and family feel her loss acutely, and there is ongoing estrangement between some family members. Revisiting distressing events, negotiating her loved ones’ grief and pain and accommodating conflicting narratives was very draining.
The pleasures of my research far outweighed the difficulties. Being immersed in Mears’ writing while having access to her voice and version of her life was a privilege. Leaping Into Waterfalls strives to illuminate and amplify the extraordinary connections between Mears’ life and art to offer deeper insights into both. As I mention in my ‘Acknowledgements’, one of the great joys of researching biography is meeting people one might otherwise never know. Meeting Mears’ family, friends and lovers in real life, after having read her sketches of them on the page, was both a revelation and a delight. Spending time where she did – Grafton and the Northern Rivers region of NSW, Bithry Inlet in the Mimosa National Park, Mount Barker – was fantastic.
What would you say are the central or recurring features that characterise Mears’ body of work?
In Mears’ words, one of her preoccupations was ‘the notion and the power of mothers who metaphorically, psychologically or physically abandon their family. And the way the memory of that absence splinters through generations and countries leaving a trail of unease.’ But there are also many other key preoccupations, including country-town dynamics and the limited opportunities afforded to girls, environmental degradation, migrant belonging, white privilege, power and gender relationships, betrayal, sensuality, sexual identity, the body in disarray and, always, death.
For readers coming to Mears’ writing for the first time, where would you recommend they start?
A difficult question. One option would be to begin with her astonishing essay ‘Alive in Ant and Bee’ which is available in print or, even better, narrated by Mears and accessible online. Then, perhaps, move onto her last novel, Foal’s Bread. My favourite novel is The Grass Sister, but I know many people who continue to say Mears’ first novel, The Mint Lawn remains a touchstone for them. Those readers speak of The Mint Lawn is a way reminiscent to the way earlier readers speak of Garner’s Monkey Grip; both books are said to have revolutionised young women’s understanding of themselves and their sexual desires.
What legacy has Mears left on Australian women’s writing?
Mears was fearless in writing about female desire and sensuality. She was also courageous in exploring difficult and painful relationships in families and between lovers. Responses from a younger generation of women writers such as Alice Bishop, Jennifer Down, Eliza Henry-Jones, Peggy Frew and Mandy Beaumont suggest Mears’ positive influence on their imaginative processes. Mears, like Garner before her, seems to have been able to articulate something specific to female experience. And she was prepared, as a writer, to strip herself bare. I think her legacy can best be summarised by one of her favourite passages from May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973) which I use as an epigraph to my book:
My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life – all of it – flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear or alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.
Much like Garner, Mears is someone whose journals seem to be endlessly quotable. Can you share a favourite extract?
My favourite extract, which I quote in my ‘Epilogue’, is taken from her diary in January 2006:
I want to touch life like the green twig touches the river. I want to touch life like the small spiders building their webs at dusk – lightly into the water and out to anchor their thread. I want to touch life the way my feet do the earth when I am cold and dancing. I want to touch life like my tiny teapot singing. I want to touch life forever aware of the huge river of God in me, whose headwaters are my heart
Bernadette Brennan is a critic and researcher of contemporary Australian writing. In 2017 Bernadette’s award-winning book, A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, was published and offers a fascinating literary portrait of one of Australia’s best-loved authors. Her most recent work is Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears. It explores the rich, tumultuous life of Gillian Mears, one of Australia’s most significant writers of the last forty years. Bernadette’s literary criticism has been widely published in Australia and abroad. She is the recipient of the Copyright Agency’s inaugural Fellowship for Non-Fiction writing and is currently one of five judges for the Miles Franklin Award.