EVENTS: Swingler talks reveal Jolley secrets

In The House of Fiction: Leonard, Susan and Elizabeth Jolley Susan Swingler, author and step-daughter of Elizabeth Jolley, reveals the ‘everything’ that her step-mother once stated, ‘should not be told’. In this interview Susan tells us a little about her book and what audiences can expect from her Australian appearances.

The 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival focuses on the line between the public and the private. How does that relate to your book?
In The House of Fiction I speak out about what I suspect both Elizabeth and my father, Leonard Jolley, would have preferred I keep to myself. I offer my version of events that had a huge impact not just on my life, but on the lives of other family members. If secrecy and deceit have such a devastating effect, then my view is that the secrets should see the light of day.

Characters in my story were silenced, time and again. Leonard ‘made’ my mother, Joyce, keep silent about their separation; for years he refused to see me, thus maintaining silence himself and preventing me from asking my questions; when I finally met him and Elizabeth in Perth, I found myself incapable of voicing my questions. Leonard and Elizabeth kept silent about me to my half-siblings until my sister was about to come to England. My mother too kept silent, not telling me about a half-sister who was the same age as me until finally the beans had been spilled, or had begun to trickle through a hole in the bag of secrets that Elizabeth and Leonard had kept tightly closed.

All this silence was not healthy, not good for any of us. Whether speaking out about it will help or hurt individuals on a personal level I can’t know. However, I feel that it is a story that warrants a public hearing, not least because what I tell might interest Elizabeth’s readers and cast fresh light on her work. It is significant that in leaving her own and my father’s private papers to a public collection (the Mitchell Library), but with the proviso that these would not be available for people to read for many years, Elizabeth acknowledged that certain aspects of her private life will be of interest to researchers and scholars, and that one day the secrets should see the light of day.

How do you hope people will relate to your book and its revelations about one of our most revered Australian authors?
I’m aware of Elizabeth’s standing in Australia, as a national treasure and a revered literary figure. I admire her work. But I would have written this book even if nobody had ever heard of her, and she had worked in a completely different sphere, say as a physicist or a chef. But she was a writer and she, like most writers, mined her own life and experiences in the creation of her fiction. It is no doubt for this reason that my ‘revelations’ about an aspect of her life that only a few people knew about before will be of interest to her readers.

Individuals will have their own memories of Elizabeth, whether friends, colleagues, students, her family or her many readers and those who attended events where she spoke about her work. She was undoubtedly loved and admired for her many attributes. She and I wrote to one another for years; she tried to put things right, she wanted me to be happy and successful. This, I think, comes out in the book and I trust that none of my readers will consider that I am out to denigrate her.

Susan will be at the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane (16 May), Sydney Writers Festival (18-19 May), Beaufort Street Books (30 May), the Fremantle Library (31 May) and The Lane Bookshop (2 June) to talk about her new memoir. She will run a bookmark writing workshop – From Memory to Memoir – in Albany on 1 June. For more information about these events, please contact Fremantle Press: or 08 9430 6331

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