Author Debra Adelaide’s next challenge has been set by her teenage son, Callan. Photo: James AlcockAs every author knows, books are protean creatures that change in the writing, and the best result from the alchemy of ideas, hard work and magic. Debra Adelaide’s fourth novel began with her passion for Wuthering Heights and evolved into the story within a story of a contemporary woman writing a novel about an older woman forging an independent life. A short story before it became a novel, it is about a web of births, deaths, marriages and separations, as well as the creative process itself.
Adelaide can’t remember when she first read Emily Bronte’s only novel, published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell a year before she died aged 30. “It might have been when I was at school, but it wouldn’t have been a school text because we didn’t read anything interesting like that. “It’s one of those novels you can endlessly reread but not feel you’ve got your head around,” she says. “It has such an intriguing structure and what has always interested me is not the novel itself so much but how it’s been received by the reading community in the century and a half since it was published in 1848.
“People have an idea it’s about Cathy and Heathcliff and their wild, passionate romance that commences in childhood when they escape from home each day and run across the moors. But in fact when they’re older they almost never see each other.”
The misconception comes partly from the many “awful” films of the book, including the most famous with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, which focus on the love story and ignore all the other narrators. There have also been innumerable spin-off novels, mostly bad romances. Obsessed by the subculture, Adelaide has seen them all.
She picks up from her desk a favourite edition of Wuthering Heights repackaged as pulp fiction with Humphrey Bogart saying, “Here’s looking at you, Cathy”. We are in her orderly, book-crowded office at the University of Technology, Sydney, where Adelaide is an associate professor in the creative writing program.
Her career has been a disciplined balancing act between academia and writing, since she did her masters (her thesis was on Wuthering Heights) and a PhD on Australian women writers and began to write fiction, essays and literary criticism. She writes instinctively, without a plan, and when she’s possessed by a book, she works in the early mornings and late nights.
“It’s not as if you have to set the alarm clock and drag yourself to the desk. I don’t sleep much anyway when I’m deeply into something.”
Her third novel The Household Guide to Dying, published in 2008, was critically and commercially successful around the world. Adelaide was able to take two years off from UTS and write full time, a luxury that produced a novel neither she nor her agent liked. “You just get a feeling in your innards,” she says.
Back at work, she began writing short stories. One of her doctoral students, a single working mother like Adelaide, had published five or six stories in a year. “I thought, ‘Right, I’m not going to whinge about having no time’, and it inspired me to finish a story every month until I had enough for a collection.”
One of the stories in the 2013 collection Letter to George Clooney was The Sleepers in that Quiet Earth (the final words of Wuthering Heights), originally published in Best Australian Stories 2011, edited by Cate Kennedy.
It tells the story of Dove, a young woman who reads Wuthering Heights to her dying mother while also feverishly beginning to write her own fiction about Ellis, a young mother in 1960s Sydney, who visits her father to clean and cook for him.
“When I’d finished writing the story I couldn’t stop thinking about the character I’d invented, Ellis. In the back of my mind was the question of her mother. I didn’t know why she didn’t have a mother; I had to write a novel to find out.
Motherhood is a frequent preoccupation of Adelaide’s work, starting when she had young children 20 years ago and edited the bestselling Motherlove anthologies of personal essays. The Household Guide to Dying was about a practical, wry-humoured woman preparing herself and her children for her death from cancer. In The Women’s Pages, Dove writes her novel to absorb her grief after her mother’s death. So dying and absent mothers are an Adelaide specialty, another reference to Wuthering Heights, in which Catherine dies giving birth; the young Brontes lost their mother too.
“These are very powerful absences that fuel the story and I was interested in looking at what these big holes in your life do to you,” Adelaide says. “What this novel is ultimately about is how much you’ve got to have that connection with your mother, or someone, and how it’s a primal urge.
“I don’t think I have any mother issues, and I’m not trying to write out my problems with my own mother or my children,” she adds. Her own mother and father live in the Shire in southern Sydney, where she grew up hoping to make a living from reading – “the only thing I could do well”.
Two of her children have left home, the third is finishing the Higher School Certificate, and four dogs help fill the rambling suburban house. Divorced years ago, she has a new partner, Antony, an electrical engineer who won her heart when he said, “Reading is my life’s blood”.
At university she sets her students books she loves: short novels such as Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, Kate Jennings’ Snake, Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
“When I read I’m old enough to know the characters have been invented, they’re not out there walking and talking,” she says. “But to me it’s a reality not an escape, because my imagination is real and books are as real as what we’re doing here. So [the novel] was a way of getting my head around trying to defend that odd position. I was trying in a fictional manner to interrogate the relationship between the reader and the book, so what Dove is writing becomes real.”
On her office wall hangs a poster showing different typefaces, another of Adelaide’s passions. After giving her character the unusual name Dove (“I find names very problematic”) she read the story of a London printer who designed the type for his company, Doves Press, but fell out with his business partner and in 1913 dumped all the metal letters in the Thames. Doves Type was not seen again until a century later, when another Englishman created a digital facsimile. At Adelaide’s request her publisher has used it for the first line of each chapter in her novel.
Her care for the physical life of books also made her fight against a suggested cover image that showed a woman’s body but not her head – a cliche often used to represent “everywoman”. As Adelaide argues, “I’m a feminist, this is a feminist novel, the headless woman is a nobody, a woman with no identity who is just objectified.” The final cover shows a woman’s face.
The Women’s Pages follows Ellis as she leaves her husband and son to enter a bigger world and become the editor of a successful women’s magazine.
“It became apparent to me that I could use this story to reflect on the way things have and haven’t changed for women over the years. Ellis’ story is not my story because I am a bit younger and didn’t have to fight for certain things. But I was interested in trying to understand for myself that transition period where women fairly quickly saw doors opening in all sorts of places. Ellis represents a woman on the cusp.”
Adelaide dedicated The Women’s Pages to her 23-year-old daughter, Ellen. Her next mission may be to write a book for her younger son, Callan, who looked at the opening pages of this one and asked, “Why are you always writing domestic stuff? Why don’t you write something I can read?” A Game of Thrones devotee, he is waiting for the next book by George R.R. Martin.
“This could be a useful challenge,” Adelaide says. “It wouldn’t be fantasy but it could be speculative or dystopian. I have a few ideas.”
The Women’s Pages is published by Picador Australia at $29.99.
And Another Thing
Adelaide always dresses in green, her favourite colour (and the colour of hope and new life), since she was inspired in the 1980s by the feminist writer Dale Spender, who wears purple, a colour of the women’s movement.
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