- Sonya Hartnett on the importance of place
Early in the year 2000 I was 32 years old and living in a squat, ugly unit in Cain Avenue, Northcote, a quiet street made rustic by scrubland fringing the Eltham train line. The unit had been built as a granny-flat, but never used for the purpose; when I'd taken the heart-thudding plunge and bought it two and a half years earlier, it was in clean but monstrously original condition. Since then, I had landscaped the garden, and converted the garage into a bedroom to bring the total of rooms up to four; later I would add a carport. Despite the improvements, the unit remained a humble piece of property, and churning in the back of my mind were the words of the builder who'd done the garage conversion: 'This won't be where you'll live forever.' The prediction, when spoken, had been cruelly teasing; but it was gradually becoming less incredible, and would eventually become a mantra of my existence, at least for the next decade or more.
Yet the granny flat had been good to me: it had taught me the pleasure of owning land and the demands of bricks and mortar, and it had introduced me to the quirkish northern suburbs of Melbourne. I had made good friends of neighbours, and I'd discovered Merri Creek, that thread of unfragrant water I would come to depend on as a muse. Importantly, at Cain Avenue I'd written Thursday's child, the goldfields novel that would become cornerstone, career-changing: the unit's dull panelled ceiling and exposed brick had not boxed-in my imagination, but rather encouraged it to fly. Now, in mid-2000, I was working on another novel, Forest, a story of three domestic cats abandoned in a wilderness based on the Toolangi forest north-east of Melbourne. The cats befriend a clowder of ferals, and the novel featured six major feline characters, most of them modelled on cats I'd owned in the past. The exception was a young cat which had taken to hanging around the garden, a dark tabby of no striking appearance but of bold and playful character. He lived four doors along, and he came to my house for company during the day. I didn't know what his real name was, but in the manuscript his name was Marlo, and that's what I called him. Marlo was the only cat of Forest's many cats that I had in front of my eyes: I had my own cat, the gracious Idaho, but she wasn't in the book. In a life throughout which I've decanted every ounce of my experience for public consumption, I have kept my animals out of the hungry pages that, too often, have taken those experiences and claimed them as their own, their distorted versions becoming lasting and true, the truth of the originals fading away. My animals, I determined, were mine and private, and would stay that way. So Idaho was not in the book, and my other pet, my beloved whippet Zak, was in the last months of his life that year. He was failing physically and, more sadly, mentally: every day I watched as he disappeared a little more. Meanwhile I was working part-time at the Hill of Content bookshop, a job I wasn't cut out for and whose small remuneration was feasted up by the mortgage; my books had yet to prove themselves financially or critically worth the writing, and seemed unlikely to ever do so. I was writing a story about talking cats, something I knew would be received with scepticism and yet, in an outrageous rubbing of salt into the wound, was proving fiendishly difficult to write. Every moment spent on it threatened to be, in one way or in lots of ways, a waste of time.
How welcome then, in the midst of this, were the daily visits I received from Marlo. The young cat would romp around the garden, battling invisible enemies, finding every atom of the world curious. He let me stroke his sleek body, examined me with glassy eyes. Each day I looked forward to hearing his claws on the side fence, to seeing his angular bandit's face at the door. In the novel, his doppelganger character took on more importance, speaking more lines, pushing forward into the limelight.
And one morning I went out to check the letterbox and there he was, my Marlo, squashed dead on the road. And not squashed in an elegant way, lying tidily in the gutter: his head had been crushed, and he lay spread-eagle in a scarlet pond of his own gore. A decade later I still feel the shock of it, hear the boom of worlds colliding. My charming visitor was gruesomely killed in such a domestic way – a street, a car, a mis-timed dash – and why shouldn't he have been, for we were surrounded by the suburbs, sunk deep in their embrace, our entire lives had been pinned together by electricity poles, hemmed by nature strips. But this cat was also Marlo, a wild feral living in wilderness, and for months I had been living in the wild with him: how could I go back to the manuscript and finish the story of his life in the forest, when this picture of him, so pitifully reduced on a road, was seering itself into my eyes? It should have taken a gigantic effort, but in all honesty, it didn't. I am so used to existing in one place and time, but inhabiting a complete other. I have written of countless worlds – of Great War skirmishes and battles between seamonsters, of forgotten children, gothic mansions, devils, ghosts, and master criminals. I've written of country towns and the edge of continents and mountains catching on fire. I've revived extinct beasts, pranced through Regency England, dropped bombs on Eastern Europe; my work has taken me to places that no longer exist, that never existed, that would exist if the world were just slightly more bizarre. But I write, often, of the suburbs, and it's the suburbs, that most maligned and mocked of environments, which have sheltered me, and taught me almost all of what the books needed to know about the ways of nature and people. Specifically, it is the eastern and northern suburbs of Melbourne that have been my roof and walls and floor as well as the launching-place of my imagination. Much of my mind, that morning, was occupied by a troupe of ferals eking out a dangerous existence in a dank and towering forest, as part of my mind is permanently occupied by the current or future book; but my body trudged down the driveway to find the spade and perform that most suburban of tasks, the burial of a foolhardy cat on a balmy morning in which the only sound was the squabbling of mynas and the distant cry of the 11.09 express from Clifton Hill to East Richmond.
In 2008 Melbourne was named a UNESCO City of Literature, only the second such city in the world. In attempting to become part of UNESCO's Creative Cities Network program, Melbourne could have applied to become a city of cinema, of music, of craft, design, media art, or gastronomy. But ours has always been a bookish city, with links to almost all of the country's leading writers and to the wider literary industry; Adam Lindsey Gordon himself sits on the edge of the CBD staring morosely at Parliament Station commuters, his back to Brighton where he made his final poetic flourish. Today, a third of Australia's writers live in Melbourne, and a third of its bookstores are here; 43 per cent of national book sales come from Victoria. The state is home to 287 libraries, and hosts literary festivals and book clubs innumerable. In 'acknowledgement of the breadth, depth and vibrancy of the city's literary culture', Melbourne applied for and was granted accreditation as a City of Literature; the Wheeler Centre, here at the State Library, was established to further the art within the city.
I have lived all my life in Melbourne, and I've always been a Melbourne writer: Melbourne is my own personal city of literature, and the Melbourne I know best – the Melbourne of grassy naturestrips and red-tiled roofs, of lawnmowers on Saturday morning and milkbars on street corners – has provided me with the most evocative setting of any I ever use. No one who has grown up in Melbourne's sprawling suburbs is indifferent to their depiction on the page: reading of such places between the covers of a book, we suddenly find ourselves young again, and sometimes we are at our most hopeful and happiest and sometimes we are small and afraid, but always we are somewhere which was once known as home.
I was born on March 23 1968, and brought home to Box Hill North, where I would grow up in a white three-bedroom weatherboard standing across the road from an unusable, neglected parcel of land beneath which water allegedly flowed. The far corner of this land joined the near corner of another such chunk of land, which joined another and another and another until six tracts in total met the wasteland along Koonung Creek. Now, none of that land is waste – it is parkland, planted and prettied up, mapped by the concrete veins of footpaths, stuck with the hypodermics of signs insisting you wear your helmet. Now, the weatherboard house is gone, bulldozed from the ground where my old whippet Zak, and all the cats and rabbits and canaries of our childhood, lies buried. The archipelago of wasteland where horses and goats were tethered, and the house where my siblings and I grew up, exist only in the past now, and even the name of the place has changed, gentrified from stocky Box Hill North to patrician Mont Albert North. But childhood's memories are undying ones, and occasionally I catch myself thinking, on a sunny morning, that I should stop in at home and have a cup of coffee on the veranda where we rolled homemade playdough as kids, and lounged as smoking teens. Sometimes I toy with the idea of writing a novel about places that now exist only in memory, but I think it would be the saddest story to write, and universally heartbreaking to read.
Box Hill North, in the 1970s, was not an outer suburb of Melbourne, but it felt as if it was. In setting up their home, my parents had not travelled far from their own childhood homes in Canterbury, although my mother's family would later move to Stephens Street Balwyn, into a classic cream-brick 1950s home that would become a mainstay of my work. My mother was a maternity nurse, and her job of delivering babies was a great mystery of my childhood: I could not fathom her going from door-to-door with a basketful of babies to drop off to their respective owners. My father was many things, although not the lawyer he had studied to be: he was a fisherman and a second-hand car dealer, and later, when he had six children to support, a proof-reader for the Herald and the Sun. He worked late shift, and on the kitchen table each morning would lie a creaseless edition of the Sun, and once a week there would be the Australasian Post with its bikini girls and Etamoogah Pub, and there would be my favourite, the Weekly Times, with its strangely-coloured pages and photographs of cows. The daily gift of these inky editions gave me a lifelong love of newspapers; but my parents had an unhappy marriage, my father inclined to drinking, my mother disinclined to put up with it, and mornings were often greyly hungover by the titanic, frequently violent, arguments that took place during the night. Children are made of resilient stuff however, and even on the blackest mornings we stumped dutifully off to school. School was Our Holy Redeemer in Surrey Hills: run by Indian-born Carmelites who seemed to despise children utterly, ruled by the unloved ruffians from St Joseph's Home, Holy Redeemer was a terrifying place to spend each day. The nuns spoke an antiquated English straight from the mouths of the Raj, and the children who passed through their witchy fingers picked up traces of these bizarre speech patterns – even my characters speak this odd version of the language. Shy and wretched, fear rendered me unable to read aloud in class without stumbling over the words: consequently deemed a simpleton, I was permitted to borrow from the library only the least demanding of books. Away from school I was free to read whatever I could get my hands on, books I received as presents or saved my pocketmoney to buy or, less preferably, discovered in the silver library bus that stopped up the road each Thursday, in the shade of the Squash Bowl. At home we had a meagre and motley collection of books, most of them my father's. One was Patrick White's Tree of man which I tried repeatedly to read, sure that something with such an easy title must be correspondingly simple to understand. The most fascinating books in the house were my mother's nursing texts, with their foul-smelling shiny pages adorned with the most ghastly photographs ever reproduced. I think back to the authors who passed through my hands during my formative years – Enid Blyton, Ursula Le Guin, SE Hinton, Cormier, Dahl, whoever it was who wrote A guide to obstetrics, so many others whose names I never bothered to learn – and I see their influence in every word I've ever written; and I wonder, do the books we need find us, or do we shape ourselves around the books we find? If my father hadn't given me Frankenstein when I was 15, could I still be the person I am now? I can't help feeling that I could not: that an entire vital piece would be missing.
I started writing stories when I was nine, I'm sure in an effort to create an oasis amid the chaos of five siblings and the grind of school. I wrote of killer bees and kidnappings in the desert, but by thirteen I wanted to read, and write, about something I recognised. All I knew was home, and I remember my doubts about its qualifications as a setting: on the first page of my first published novel Trouble all the way I define home as 'a normal house, in a normal street, in a normal suburb, in a normal city, which happens to be Melbourne.' This more-than-normally mundane description denies the love I felt for the landscape of my childhood, and feel for it still: I am grateful for the physical and mental freedom the suburb allowed me, for the small urban wonders it gave me to witness and from which I draw even now. Box Hill North was a country of old ladies; there were few neighbourhood children beside us Hartnetts, and solitude threw us onto the resource of our imaginations. And there were fabulous places for the imagination to roam: the wasteland and its untidy creek was somewhere to watch horses and explore stormwater drain but never, alas, to discover the dead body I hankered to find. The hilly streets between Box Hill and Balwyn were for riding my red bike. My grandmother's house in Stephens Street Balwyn, with its slippery floorboards and pile of National Geographics, was the place in the world where I was happiest, distanced from but still close to home, in a big house in a motionless junction of roads where you could easily believe yourself the last person alive. Those streets in various guises appear over and over in my work – it is Adrian's neighbourhood, Plum's, Kitten Latch's and Maddy's. Every time I write of neat lawns and blue skies and post-apocalyptically silent streets absent of life but for blackbirds and the snicker of a closing front door, then my corner of the eastern suburbs rises from the oblivion of time. I go there now and it's not the same, but nor should it be: that's the past, and things should be different now. The single thing I've learned for myself is the truth in the old saw-horse that life is change – that what doesn't change is essentially no longer alive.
I was at my desk in my childhood bedroom when my brother brought in the mail. It was October 1991, and the letter from the Literature Board of the Australia Council agreed to give me a $24,000 grant. At 23 years old, it was a huge amount of money, the words we are pleased to advise almost heart-stopping to read. I don't remember feeling what I would certainly make a fictional character feel: a sadness in the knowledge that, with these funds, I would move out of home, never to return. I loved Box Hill, but – although I didn't yet know it had already given me all I'd ever need from it – I was ready to go.
I moved out with my sister's friend Melanie, someone I'd known since childhood; we'd gone to Holy Redeemer together, Melanie having once courted death there by drawing, in blue biro, on Sister Zeberdy's habit. With no background as renters, we had to take what we could get, which was the spacious upstairs floor of an Art Deco duplex at 1375 Burke Road, East Kew. We paid $70 each a week for the flat and its garage and a patch of mossy yard. Melanie bought hardbacks and studied Asian Art: she was a classy housemate. I brought to the house my dog, my kitten and a one-eyed zebra finch, and built in the yard a voodoo barbeque from sticks and cockatoo feathers; I was perhaps the less classy of we two. Kew is a handsome suburb, with sweeping avenues and venerable mansions, a river, a tram, a hospital, its own cemetery, and parkland that was witnessing, in 1992, the rise of the lycra-clad cyclist whose speed and aggression is so disconcerting to other users of the park. The northern end of Burke Road, however, was and remains Kew's fag-end, its hang-nail. 1375 stood mid-way between Belmore and Doncaster Roads, near the high school, near Coles; its loungeroom windows fronted the busy lanes of Burke Road. Living on a main road is deadening to any sense of community, yet the road would become a strange member of our household, like a flatmate that was doltish and disliked, but financially necessary: it was excluded and ignored and its habits complained about, but in the dead of night its dull snoring presence was companionable. You could tell the time, any moment of the day or night, by the noise coming off the road. I had the quieter bedroom, and from it I waged the single life-or-death battle of my career. After publishing The glass house, my third novel and one loosely based on the experience of being a student at RMIT, Pan had turned down an embryo version of Black foxes, leaving me without a publisher; in a do-or-die move, I'd offered Wilful blue to Penguin just before leaving home. Wilful blue was set in a remembered version of Apollo Bay, a town in which I'd holidayed once as a teenager, and centred around the artists of the Heidelberg School, a company for which I'd always felt friendly, given our mutual connection to the eastern suburbs. Penguin liked the manuscript, but felt it had no traditional audience: I thought I spied weakness in this argument, but wriggling through the crack would take eighteen arduous months. When the book was eventually accepted, I don't think I felt any joy, just exhaustion, and relief that, though I wasn't sure I was going to be a writer, I could delay, for another while, the trouble of becoming something else. And sitting on my desk was the newly-finished manuscript of Sleeping dogs, a story set in the green valleys of Gippsland, another place I'd once holidayed as a child: the scrawny novel would unexpectedly anchor my career, pull my name from obscurity, and continues to cast its sulky-eyed shadow even now, fifteen years after publication. When, in late 1995, Melanie got a job at the Brisbane Museum and we were forced to disband the household, I farewelled without regret the gritty road and its noise, the Coles and the high school and the humiliating sign our downstairs neighbour had hammered into the front yard encouraging passers-by to Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How!, but still I knew I was leaving a place of richness.
212 Walsh Street, South Yarra stands at the exact place where two young policemen were ambushed and shot to death, a crime which reverberates through Melbourne still: I moved into number 3, a ground-floor, single bedroom unit past the windows of which the killers had run. Like all Melbournians, I learned in the cradle to hold in suspicion everything that exists on the opposite side of the Yarra from where I was born, and South Yarra and its environs were as foreign to me as a country whose language I could not speak. This was a suburb, a friend had warned me, where you felt guilty if you wore tracksuit pants when you went out to buy the milk – and I have always drunk a lot of milk, and worn a lot of tracksuit pants. I felt banished from the places and people I knew, and the stone's-throw proximity of the Botanic Gardens and the fact that I could ride my bike to work at the bookshop were no consolation. But in the sudden dismantling of the Burke Road household I'd needed a roof quickly, and when a family friend offered use of the flat it felt like rescue, and I was grateful. South Yarra is as poised, as beautiful, as secretive and as expensive as an actress in a 1950s movie: accustomed as I was to eastern-suburb candidness, South Yarra's lush nooks and crannies were exquisite to explore. Yet there was something hard and mean about the suburb too, an edge of inexplicable anger. Riding home past the Tennis Centre, a well-dressed gent took offence to the bike, and punched me in the chest; window shopping in Chapel Street, another well-dressed man took offence to my dog, and kicked him in the chest. Driving home late at night, the headlights would shine on dozens of rats come up from the river and skipping into the gardens. Cramped in a corner of the minuscule flat, I wrote another novel: written in this suburb I've liked least, the novel, Princes, ironically became the one that's always pleased me most. Indigo and Ravel Kesby live in the sort of elegant mansion that could be found in South Yarra: but the house is in a state of decay, the kind of place where a man would kick a dog. When the flat was ransacked while I was singing in the shower, the police said there was little chance I'd see my possessions again: in 1996, classy South Yarra had the second highest crime rate in Melbourne, giving ground only to its neighbour Prahran. I rang my sister Olivia, and put to her the prospect of us moving into a house together: when the animals and I moved out shortly afterwards, we left in South Yarra a year of life, a wallet, and an armload of CDs; but I'd finished my sixth novel, and I'd had a taste of the pleasure that comes with leaving because you don't have to stay.
Harold Street East Hawthorn was an old stomping ground for my sister Olivia and me. We had both done our secondary schooling at Siena College, not far along Riversdale Road. Harold Street is one of the side streets branching off Burke Road at the Junction, on the wet Hawthorn, rather than the dry Camberwell, side of the great intersection; in terms of population Hawthorn is fractionally the more youthful, but certainly no less costly or desirable, of the two suburbs. Number 36 Harold was the run-down half of a 1940s red-brick pair; the house was filthy, as were so many of the properties I saw in my short history as a renter. Scrubbing the walls and hacking paths out of the blackberry, I passed the time cobbling together the plot of All my dangerous friends. Visiting Box Hill from Hawthorn meant traversing the fancy streets of Canterbury and Balwyn: I gave Sasha Johns, the charismatic leader of the novel's gang of petty criminals, a palatial home on Monomeath Avenue, and all his dangerous friends live equally plush suburban lives. It wasn't an unlikely touch: I was friends with old boys from some of the eastern suburb's best private schools, and not one of them could have been mistaken for a saint.
Harold Street isn't an example of East Hawthorn's leafy parades: on one corner is a petrol station, on the opposite a paint shop; at the Camberwell end is a carpark that serves the always-busy shopping strip of the junction. Moving in, I imagined it would be an excellent thing to live a stone's throw from so many shops, from the Rivoli, from the bustle of trams and restaurants. In fact, the shopping strip made for a bloodless neighbour, worse even than Burke Road, which had at least seemed to exist as a dreadful beast might exist. Shops are ungiving, self-serving, and lacking in any character; there was nothing bleaker than the wintry walk home from the station after an evening shift at the Hill of Content, along the deserted grey footpath, past the black glass of the bolted shopfronts. Sasha Johns's band of miscreants could have moved comfortably as cockroaches through that lifeless environment. Yet Camberwell and Hawthorn felt like old friends after the dislocation of South Yarra, and Harold Street was a good place to be. It was rough-around-the-edges, and South Yarra's manicured lines had taught me that rough-around-the-edges suits me, as it suits the situations in my books: I've favoured a down-at-heelness in every neighbourhood I've lived in since. I'd probably have stayed there indefinitely, but before a year had passed Olivia's boyfriend needed somewhere to live, and the plan came to me the way a book occasionally comes: as rational and unremarkable wisps of thought that open a door to a previously unknown world. The boyfriend could have Harold Street, and I would move out: but at 29, I was tired of being tossed around by the dirty breakwater of renting. I'd been saving my paltry royalties for years, with a single purpose. The next roof over my head would belong to me.
In 1997 I was almost completely unfamiliar with Northcote: I'd once worked in the art room at Merri Creek Primary School, and the few blocks of Westgarth Street between Heidelberg Road and the treacherous St George's Road roundabout were the extent of my knowledge of the area. I didn't know that the suburb was standing on the very edge of its boom – that within a few years its property prices would roar away out of my reach, and out of the reach of many. But I knew at a glimpse that the granny unit in Cain Avenue, with its garden and private driveway, was the best my strangled-tight finances would buy – and buy fast, without question, before someone else did. I've heard the wisdom about searching long and researching hard before taking on a property, but the wise way is not my way: for me, house-hunting is a game of instinct and opportunity. Indeed, real estate is the only game I've ever enjoyed playing, and certainly the only one for which I've had a knack. There are lots of reasons why I've moved house so often, but one of them is the sheer love of that nerves-of-steel game. I love property for the creativity it allows me, for the freedom that comes with ownership, for the kingliness of the thing – but I am not a collector, and have no interest in empire-building. I'm a love-em-and-leave-em kind of player, the grass-is-greener kind, always impatient to discover what's coming next, and as a rule I look back on old homes with fondness, but no regret. I love the packing, the regular re-assessing of the worth of those objects which share my life; I love the laborious process of taming a house to my requirements, and the cavalierness in walking away afterwards, and beginning afresh elsewhere. I try to justify my crazed wanderings by claiming I need change in order to keep my work invigorated, and definitely there's truth in this: at every open-for-inspection I attend, I try to feel if it's possible to write a book in the house, if its atmosphere is right; and I never feel as ready to embark on a new novel as I do when everything is unpacked where it should be, and I have unchartered territory to explore. But I know, too, that part of my roaming has its roots in a quest for the fabled Last House, which is less a specific building than some corner of the world which miraculously confers upon me a sense of eternal contentedness. Perhaps in my darkest depths there's envy for those who don't share my restlessness, who know the calm of a lifelong home. The books haven't really needed such rapid changes of scenery as they've endured: indeed, my work has been at its best in those houses and those years when I have known peace.
And I knew peace in that little beast of a house in Cain Avenue: the four years I spent there saw the writing of not only Forest but Stripes of the sidestep wolf, with its setting in the mists of Hanging Rock; Thursday's child, the novel that pulled my reputation out of the novelty act mire in which it had long floundered, and Of a boy, that sad horror story into which I poured everything I could remember about overcast Sunday afternoons in 1970s Balwyn. I won the Guardian Prize at Cain Avenue, the pivotal award of my career. I owned my first garden there, planted my first tree, a white-petalled cherry. I discovered the civilised side of Merri Creek where it trips past the Fairfield beat and the bluestone remains of the old insane asylum, round to where it meets the Yarra beyond the boathouse; I discovered its wilder western side, where a marble shamrock marks the site where a young man was stabbed to death by an escaped inmate of the current, operational asylum. I walked and walked, through the coldest autumn evenings and the most breathless summer mornings, walking as I still do and have done since the days of wandering the wastelands of Box Hill, turning in my mind the giant leaps and gemlike details that together make up a story, pacing the dirt tracks and the concrete footpaths muttering like a loon, testing lines of dialogue, rearranging words, following plot manoeuvres to their logical or illogical conclusion. Apart from the animals, I was living alone at Cain Avenue, an autonomy that suited me and has remained suitable for the 13 years since; but I'm not an absolute loner, and the friendships I made with neighbours, then and since, were vital to my need to regularly escape my own company. I was still working Friday nights and weekends at the Hill of Content: journeying on the high tracks between Dennis Station and East Richmond, I could look down on the rooftops of Clifton Hill, Collingwood and Richmond, and see, in the crammed yards and network of lanes, something of what Melbourne used to be. I had never felt the nearness of history until I moved into the inner suburbs, where much was built to last.
I gave up smoking in Cain Avenue, and got Shilo, the dog whose reputation frequently precedes my own; but my old dog Zak, my travelling companion through so many years, died there, the grief of his loss fuelling the writing of Of a boy. And on the morning Forest was released, I turned on the television to the appalling sight of aeroplanes crashing into two tall buildings in New York. There was discussion, over the coming months, about how writers should address the changed world, and for a time I wondered whether I, like my friend Christos Tsiolkis and the admirable Jonathan Safran Foer, shouldn't be examining important modern issues – the degeneration of social order, the corruption of politics, the encroachment of technology, the degradation of the environment, the rising culture of fear. But I am no social commentator, and it took a long time to understand that it's all right not to be. I'm an examiner of the ancient subjects – friendship, nature, family, trust, courage, loyalty – and in a world where jets fly into buildings and teenagers sew their lips together while politicians justify their inclination to lie, it's right to keep such themes alive. Indeed, it was around this time that I began to consider writing for children: children's literature narrows the focus of those old subjects, distils them into their purest and most noble form.
Meanwhile, the builder who said I wouldn't stay at Cain Avenue forever was proved right: by 2002 I'd outgrown the unit. The boom in Northcote prices meant I could sell for three times what I'd paid, and move up in the property world. I returned to the banks of Koonung creek, to Millicent Avenue Bulleen, a spacious three-bedroom 50s weatherboard with established trees and a large unkempt paddock of a garden. Historically, Bulleen was diary farmland, and the earth here was rich: I planted a field of Chinese Lanterns which grew like triffids, intimidatingly. After five years in Northcote, it was strange to return to the blue-sky absences of the eastern suburbs, although Bulleen certainly met my preference for rough-and-ready neighbourhoods: I remember being struck by the architectural ugliness of the area, the lack of harmony between the houses, the tacky aesthetics of the maze-like streets. Four times a day I crossed the Eastern Freeway footbridge to walk pastures of parkland; arriving home one day I found in my letterbox a note from a neighbour expressing surprise that a writer would choose to live in such a place as Bulleen. But I wrote Surrender there, basing the town of Mulyan on a now-lost version of Marysville, and I wrote The silver donkey there, huddled on my knees before a poorly gas heater. It was at Bulleen that I made the momentous, far-from-confident decision to quit the bookshop and try living off my work. I painted the rooms in different colours, tore up flooring, re-arranged walls, and the home felt happy, seemed to enjoy the attention. I loved that broad-shouldered, good-natured house perhaps more than any other, and, if a hundred things had been different, there's a chance I might have stayed.
But many elements make up a life, and if we are lucky or sometimes unlucky, one of them will be love. Perhaps any strong emotion, felt for an extended period of time, shapes and shadows each decision one comes to make, clouding judgements, confusing issues. Millicent Avenue became the setting for the tumultuous living, and writing, of Landscape with animals, the house itself replicated on the page almost exactly. Every corner of the property became steeped in the excitement and sorrow of the situation I found myself in: I look back on Bulleen as a place where I knew bursts of sheer and brilliant elation, but also that there were many, many times when, out walking with Shilo, I dreaded the prospect of turning for home. I was sorry to forsake the house, but when I shifted out I felt I had no choice but to go: I could never get a fresh and living novel out of a building so saturated by the turmoil of the past. And it seemed completely feasible that a change of scenery could salvage not only my work, but also myself - a foolish hope, for love, as even an idiot should know, has nothing to do with roofs and walls.
I returned to Northcote in the middle of 2005, to a handsomely renovated, two-bedroom miner's cottage in Harper Street, a narrow, pretty, dead-end road just a short walk from where I'd lived in Cain Avenue. Six years earlier I had taken the name of Harper Flute, the narrator of Thursday's child, from this street. I moved in hoping that a return to Northcote, where I'd been happy, could return happiness to me: it could not, of course. I lived in Harper Street for nine months, and wrote nothing beyond the first chapter of The ghost's child and a few forlorn columns for The Age. I walked Merri Creek again, and found it infested with snakes. I befriended none of my neighbours. I pulled up the paving in the courtyard, hankering to get my hands into the dirt; half a dozen natives were enough to fill the pint-sized beds, and then there was nothing to do, and nothing I could do. Although nine months isn't a long time to pass without producing a manuscript, I knew without trying that there were no words in me. The first chapter of Ghost's child sat on the laptop, jaggedly abandoned. When I tried to write more, it was like looking over the edge of an abyss. I was discovering that a novel can rise above an imperfect environment, and that absolute emotional calm is not necessary for writing, either: but a novel cannot live off desolation.
It is tempting to think that Harper Street was a misstep, and a costly one, its purchase and swift sale being the only transaction in which I've lost money, and quite a bit of it. But part of me believes in fate: you have to rest your weight firmly on each stepping stone before you can cross to where you need to go. For a long time I could scarcely drive past Harper Street without shuddering; but Shilo and I walked up from Clifton Hill the other day, and had a look. The once-charming miner's cottage looks neglected and grubby, the garden unhealthy and chill. When you live alone, and particularly when you work from home, you develop a surprisingly real relationship with a house. Seeing it so sadly reduced, I felt pangs of pity for Harper Street. I hadn't loved it, but that didn't make it undeserving of love. It is always best not to return.
I bought in Oakover Road, West Preston on the day the truth behind Landscape with animals's pseudonym broke. My mobile cried like a nestling all day. West Preston, on the banks of the Merri south of Bell Street, is an odd hybrid of Northcote and Balwyn, green and spacious, architecturally interesting and proudly maintained; nonetheless, in May 2006 the area was still something of an undiscovered treasure. I never buy houses with an eye on their likely growth, but it was obvious that the rocketing price of Thornbury would soon get its neighbour West Preston noticed. So I bought the house because it was cute and because it was a good buy, and because I was almost frantic to escape Harper Street's airless walls – but this was Preston, which fit the rough-and-ready criteria rather too well, and my expectations weren't high.
But Preston won my heart like no other, perhaps because it swept its pieces back together. Preston is a chat-over-the-fence suburb, a place of azaleas and hibiscus, and its people are kind. Its people are also inclined to violence: Preston, and its sister Reservoir, are frequently mentioned in connection to some King Street brutality on a Saturday night. I came to take a certain pride in living in a suburb with such a tough reputation, although, in honesty, West Preston is not Preston. The roughest thing I ever saw happen in West Preston was a Council-organised spray painting of the local grandstand by some tame graffiti artists. Living there, I felt far from the places and people I knew, but not in an isolated way: rather, it was like living in a distant country, and anyone who wanted to visit had to make an effort, almost pack a bag: and when they did come, they were surprised to find that people in this land lived an enviable life. Back in the cradle of suburbia, I toiled in the garden, planting natives that grabbed at the clay. I picked up the lonely chapter of Ghost's child, and wrote all that had been missing for months in the space of a few weeks. I wrote Butterfly, turning once more to memories of my grandmother's house in the 80s. Merri Creek flowed at the end of the road, and I walked it twice a day. Rats swam in the water, but there were tawny frogmouths in the trees. One evening I came home from walking, and Sweden rang to say I'd won their prize: the timing was fortuitous, because I'd just signed on for renovations I couldn't afford. I'd published 17 novels, but on the eve of my 40th birthday I was facing the prospect of getting a job. Astrid staved off that particular fate worse than death, but money has always burned holes in my pockets, and there's only one way I spend money. I loved Preston, its scruffy outgoing nature, its disregard for how the world perceived it. I loved lying awake at night and hearing the boys tearing along Bell Street in their pimped-up cars. Preston had let me grow a garden, had given me three more novels and my first picture book; I could stand at my window and name the people who lived in every house I could see. No suburb had ever been more welcoming to me. But I had bought the place never meaning to stay, and Astrid's money inevitably meant I would go.
I'm writing this in Clifton Hill, in the front room of a pale imposing Victorian that has its own name. I came here in March, having bought the place accidentally – I was only practicing my bidding. It's not a bad house, but already I know I'm not staying. Clifton Hill is a chocolate-box suburb – a boutique suburb, in the language of estate agents – its cottages primped to a high pitch. The gutters sport ornate wrought-iron gutter guards, signs on front doors warn that Shh! Baby's sleeping! Bike racks stand on street corners, water bowls sit by the doors of coffee shops. The very English piece of parkland is called Darling Gardens, the beggars on Queens Parade take refusal very sweetly. The suburb bleeds grooviness: there's a stronghold of grotty renters and impoverished eccentrics, which saves the place from being completely sickening, but on the whole this Albert Park of the north is not for me. I'll write a book here, because that will take the edge off having bought so rashly, and because the house does have a book in it – only one, not two. Then I'll go, perhaps to Alphington, a suburb I've had my eye on for a while. Or maybe I'll make the big move and buy a farm: I've always wanted one of them.
TS Elliott measured life in coffee spoons: I've measured mine in kitchens and TV rooms. For twenty years I have traversed Melbourne randomly, dog by my side and threads of make-believe in my mind. This city, which I once believed too ordinary to write about, has in fact been my teacher, informing every scene and sensation that the novels have needed. Its birds and skinks have been the first audience to every book, its hometown readers the ones I've hoped most to please. Melbourne has changed in those 20 years, grown richer and busier and, I think, more charismatic, more certain of its own swaggering appeal. I'm proud for the city, that it's found this confidence; I'm proud to be Melbourne born and bred. I dreamed, once, that I found the corner of it where I'd always be content; but I forgot to write down the address, and in the dream I drove around cursing, searching in vain. I've come to accept that such a place might not exist, or maybe I'm not fated to find it – maybe transience is intrinsic. I won't be staying: but I hope the gardens I've planted will survive, and I hope that two or three of the books do. A few trees, a few houses in better condition than I found them, and handfuls of words composed while tramping the streets of the city that has given me shelter, and much else besides: such things that, I hope, are worthy of being left behind.
This transcript was written by Sonya Hartnett and is reproduced here with her permission.
Copyright © Sonya Hartnett, 2010
'I'd discovered Merri Creek, that thread of unfragrant water I would come to depend on as a muse.'
- Sonya Hartnett
About this video
Melbourne’s suburbs have played a starring role in the novels of local author Sonya Hartnett, including Thursday’s child and Of a boy.
In her Redmond Barry Lecture, Sonya remembers the many suburban homes she’s lived in since she first left home as a 23-year-old – 10 houses in 20 years, to be exact.
From a share flat in East Kew to a mortgaged villa in Clifton Hill, she teases out the attraction of reading and writing about the places we know.
'Sometimes I toy with the idea of writing a novel about places that now exist only in memory,' she says, 'but I think it would be the saddest story to write, and universally heartbreaking to read.'
This Redmond Barry Lecture was held on 7 July 2010.
Sonya Hartnett’s first novel was published when she was a teenager in 1984.
Many of her stories feature very local, suburban settings in Melbourne and the suburbs are a theme of her lecture.
Sonya's award-winning books include Thursday’s child, Ghost’s child and Of a boy. In 2008 she was the recipient of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.