Good Reading : July 2001
authorprofile DettmanTalking Caroline Baum meets a writer whose dark side remains a mystery, even to herself. the scale, there’s the bleak, intensely moving vision of Thea Astley’s Drylands and the lighter, more whimsical The Idea of Perfection from Kate Grenville. A newcomer to the field is Rosalie Ham with her first novel of sewing and cross-dressing, The Dressmaker. Joy Dettman sits at the more popular end of the scale, with four titles that have earned her a loyal following: Mallawindy, Jacaranda Blue, Goose Girl and now, Yesterday’s Dust, which takes up where Mallawindy left off. Mallawindy is still Dettman’s bestselling book. A family mystery set in an imagined small country town somewhere in south western NSW, it follows Ann, who lost her memory and was struck dumb when her sister disappeared, from childhood till the age of thirty, as she copes with her abusive father Jack. In Yesterday’s Dust, seven years have passed and W Ellie, Jack’s widow, is about to receive the insurance money due to her as a result of his death, when a body is discovered in the river. For the past thirty years, Dettman has lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, within view of the Dandenongs. Her black dog, wickedly named Footrot, barks to announce my arrival. When we meet, she ushers me through the impeccably tidy sitting room, which feels too formal, into the equally spotless kitchen, where she’s more at ease making a cup of tea. On the way through I spot the old Royal typewriter on which she bashed out her first manuscript, sitting like a sporting trophy in pride of place. Which is fair enough, considering that Dettman has achieved her childhood ambition of becoming a writer. The kitchen is more of a family den, with pictures of 16 her children and grandchildren on one wall. On another is a poster from the 1800s advertising for ‘A steady woman and a thorough good cook’, a description e keep hearing about the rural crisis, but fiction set in the bush is flourishing. At the literary end of which might fit Joy Dettman. But while she’s a gracious hostess, she’s distinctly uncomfortable being interviewed. She shakes her head in a fluster at some questions, talks with her eyes closed as if this might help her concentrate, and eventually succumbs to the urge for a smoke, running to her writer’s study, which is strictly off limits to visitors, for a packet of cigarettes. Dettman is simply not used to media attention, which means her answers are unrehearsed and spontaneous. But she is also wary and nervous. When I ask her who some of the more difficult parents in her novels are based on, like the father in Jacaranda Blue and the mother in Goose Girl, she whispers the answer to me, but immediately retracts it, and insists I don’t publish it. So I won’t, but suffice to say that some of these extremely manipulative figures are based on someone that Dettman has had the opportunity to observe at close quarters. There is nothing in her manner that suggests or explains why she writes tales that are full of dark secrets, and often shocking violence, like the rape in ‘Her writing has a sparsity and a directness – it’s uncomfortably fresh, there’s no twee Australiana about it – and although she’s evolving, her common theme is always strong female characters overcoming the odds in dysfunctional family settings.’ Jacaranda Blue. It’s not as if she keeps a file of real life stories clipped from the newspapers. ‘Nothing in my books is based on real life,’ she says firmly. ‘In fact, I don’t like the papers, they’re full of too much crime and I don’t believe what I read in them anymore, nor do I ever watch television. I’ve become quite a cynic.” ?