People have strong thoughts and feelings about memoir, and how old you need to be to write it. In this monthly interview series, Bri Lee talks to five memoir writers at different stages of life, discussing their experiences with the craft and with publishing in the controversial genre.
Most people know Richard Fidler from his ABC Conversations radio program, but Fidler also published his first book, Ghost Empire (ABC Books) last year. It’s a large book that combines a retelling of the rise and fall of the Byzantine empire with the story of Fidler and his son Joe’s travels through the area, in modern-day Turkey. It’s history-mixed-with-memoir, and I thought it was fantastic. I wanted to ask Fidler why he waited so long to write a book, and why, after all this time, the one he wrote was a memoir of him and his son. Fidler’s second book, Saga Land (ABC Books), was co-written with Kári Gíslason, published just last month, and similarly combines history with travel memoir.
Bri Lee: Why Ghost Empire and why in 2016?
Richard Fidler: Well, that’s a very big and long question with a big and long answer. Why write a book like that? It came out of my wanting to do a coming-of-age story with my son, who had just turned 14. He loves history as much as I do, and from a very young age was asking me questions about history like I did with my dad. And like my dad, I always tried to give him my best answer, rather than just treat it as childish enquiry. Of course, childish questions are often the best ones, they’re always about the bigger things in life. Really the book was born out of an idea in Joe’s mind, of how did we get here? What is it to be human? Where did we come from? I also wanted to enjoy the last of his boyhood, and to see these places, and see if there was a book in that.
So I wanted to mix the two things together – to write a kind of history about everything I’d learned about the Roman Empire, and I thought if I have to understand it well enough to explain it to a 14-year-old boy, then it would help to distil the ideas in my mind.
BL: They say that, right? That if you can’t explain something simply then you don’t understand it enough?
RF: Yeah that’s right, and that’s a skill I’ve always tried to bring to radio. To be able to say, ‘well, what is this really about?’ I like to write the same way I like to be a broadcaster, which is to be hospitable – to invite people from everywhere to be able to engage with the topics and ideas, rather than having a closed conversation.
On my return I had planned to write quite a different book. It was a very complicated idea originally, and then I was talking to my friend, the writer Kári Gíslason, and he said, ‘It seems to me what you really want to write about is your son.’ [Laughs.] And the real emotional energy behind it was the travel story of father and son, and the history of Byzantium.
The other factor that was there was the story of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. When I first encountered that story, I mean, I think it’s the most enthralling and moving and dramatic story I’ve encountered in my life of reading about history. And then, this is the thing I found writing this book – and this sounds a bit silly, but if you’re writing non-fiction and you ask for stories in the right way, they just come right up to you. It felt like serendipity. The stories in Ghost Empire just presented themselves to me.
‘If you’re writing non-fiction and you ask for stories in the right way, they just come right up to you. It felt like serendipity.’
BL: Fiona Wright mentioned a strange shift that happened for her, which resonated with me – that at first you live your life then write about it, but then sometimes you think of what you want to write and live your life accordingly; that sometimes the order is reversed for a memoirist.
RF: Ah, how interesting. I don’t know what I’d say about that. In the past I’ve been very careful to keep my family out of my public life, to keep it aside. So the decision to write a memoir was undertaken very carefully by me. I think it was something I was feeling my way towards, to be honest, there wasn’t much architecture to it. And I thought, ‘If I do write this I will run every single word past my son,’ and I did, I read him every single section as I wrote it.
BL: I listened to the Penmanship podcast you did with Andrew McMillen and remembered you saying something about that – about reading it to him while he was painting a fence?
RF: I read the whole bit about Belisarius’ campaigns in Italy while he was doing that.
BL: It’s a good bit! [Laughs]
RF: To see if he was engaged in it as well, to be honest. I do it for radio as well – I read it aloud to my two producers here, just to see if I’m engaging people. I can always tell straight away if it’s a bit boring, or nothing, or just missing the point. I felt that if I could engage Joe then it would work. Reading him bits of our interactions was really interesting too, he’d say, ‘oh, don’t you remember, you said this’, or, ‘don’t you remember when we were doing that?’. And I just made sure he was comfortable with everything I was writing about him. He was pretty brave to consent to be in the book in the first place.
BL: Especially at a coming-of-age time in someone’s life, that’s – well, we all flinch when we think back to puberty.
RF: Sure is. But he’s such a great guy, and he made such a wonderful travel companion.
BL: It comes across! It reads like you were just having so much fun.
RF: Just a couple of guys.
BL: So I suppose in terms of you writing a memoir at the age you are, it was almost more about the fact that Joe was the age he was, because you wanted to capture your relationship with him at that point in his life, rather than yours.
RF: Yes, I think that’s very true. That’s a nice observation. When I was in Adelaide this year for Adelaide Writer’s Week, one of my colleagues was chatting to me on the way and she asked me, ‘Why is this the first proper book you’ve written?’ and I went, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know whether I was ready to write so personally about myself. I think I’d been too shy in the past. That’s the best answer I have to that. I think you have to be really ready for those things.
‘I don’t know whether I was ready to write so personally about myself…I think you have to be really ready for those things.’
BL: Would you ever have considered writing about this history without the memoir aspect?
RF: No, because other people have written histories of Byzantium. I’m not a professional historian, just a history enthusiast. I thought it would be some way – having us there physically in that ghost empire was a way of placing it in a context and a great big field that’s been allowed to go fallow; a layer underneath us.
BL: The tone, or the voice, whatever we want to call it, in the book, is quite casual. As you mentioned, you’re not writing pure facts as a historian, and I’m quite sure that people who pick up this book would want to read about this history from you, and your perspective, and to hear your voice. Was that something you were shaping?
RF: Oh my word, absolutely, yes. I didn’t want to adopt the sixty-thousand-foot-view. I didn’t want to write from a perch, I prefer to incline towards my subjects, to lean into them. I think deep within humans is a longing for the sacred and I was trying to understand that about the Byzantines. I wanted to feel that beautiful sense of the world and of heaven and earth that they had. I’m someone who doesn’t kneel at that altar, but wanted to understand that altar nonetheless.
BL: I’m also interested in not only the voice you chose to speak with, but who you imagined you were speaking to. Because I got this feeling, this vibe, that I was Joe. That you were telling this story as a conversation with me. It felt to me like I was there travelling with you while you were turning around pointing at things saying ‘this is where that happened’.
RF: I’m so glad to hear you say that. That’s really nice to know. I always operate in broadcasting and writing on the principle that the person engaging as a listener or a reader is an intelligent person who knows nothing about the subject. Assume that the reader is insightful, then just show them the stuff they haven’t heard of.
‘I didn’t want to write from a perch, I prefer to incline towards my subjects, to lean into them.’
BL: Would you write more memoir in the future?
RF: Yes. Kári Gíslason [co-author of the recently-published Saga Land] is one of my best friends, he lives around the corner from me, I read his memoir The Promise of Iceland and loved it, and he’s an incredible writer. And we’d talked about this shared project we might do, about the Sagas of Iceland, and this is another unknown treasure of history. Borges said the Icelandic writers in the 13th century, writing about the Sagas, created the novel, before Flaubert. Auden went to Iceland twice. And, of course, Tolkien, you don’t get The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings without the Sagas.
RF: Yeah. Kári wrote his doctorate on the Sagas, and he lives and breathes them, and tells them so beautifully. We made a radio project together and have now turned it into a book called Saga Land, which is his telling of the Sagas, but also his family history. And our journey around Iceland, having fun, hanging out, telling stories to each other.
BL: What do you think makes good memoir, and is that any different from what makes good storytelling generally?
RF: I think with memoir the author has to have a good sense of – a discernment between the personal and the private. You need to put your personal life in there, of course, because it’s a memoir, but there are things that also probably ought to remain private. I think you ought to have a generosity of spirit most of the time – towards yourself, but also to the other people around you. I don’t think a memoir needs to lay it all out there. There’s plenty of my life that I didn’t write about in Ghost Empire, because it’s nobody’s business. I wrote a bit about the birth of our son but I was careful to check with Khym, my wife, about that, and she cut out a fair bit of it, and she was right to. Not that there were any horrible secrets, but it was just a bit too granular and it didn’t need to be.
BL: You’re serious about privacy.
RF: Yes, and about not having too much collateral damage.
BL: Would that stop you from writing a memoir that was somehow more broad-reaching in the future?
RF: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m always mindful to ask, Whose story am I telling? I’ve been asking Kári, which stories do we have the right to tell? I’m trying to be honorable, I suppose.
BL: Do you think it’s risky for young people to attempt memoir?
RF: Oh yeah, don’t you think? Writing some kind of hair-raising journal about an adventure you’ve had, sure, sounds great. But there’s a reason we don’t have so many young people as guests on my radio show. They haven’t lived enough, and haven’t had the sheer, kind of, frequent flyer miles in life in order to have insight. Having said that, of course there are some absolutely amazing, incredible, brilliant exceptions to that – people in their 20s who can tell extraordinary stories about their lives, but it’s a little harder, if you haven’t had that life experience, to reflect on what you’ve seen and done in a way that is not still trapped in pain or self-aggrandisement.
‘It’s a little harder, if you haven’t had that life experience, to reflect on what you’ve seen and done in a way that is not still trapped in pain or self-aggrandisement.’
BL: And why is that detachment so important?
RF: To talk about it in a way that isn’t just a ball of pain. Or to extract some meaning or understanding from it. To find a point of view where you have a broader perspective, rather than just shaking your fist at something. I mean, when I was in my 20s I had a whole lot of stuff I hadn’t dealt with, and a lot of stuff I hadn’t come to terms with, and maybe that’s why I waited until I was in my 50s to even start writing a book. And a lot of stuff that really gets to you in your 20s, you think about in your 60s, and you go, ‘Oh God, why did I have so much angst over that?’
BL: Mary Karr says people shouldn’t really write memoir before 35 because you’re still too close to it all, and it’s still too fresh, basically.
RF: I agree. And you still feel the need to make yourself look good. It’s hard to avoid the humblebrag in your 20s. And I’m not trying to be hard on young people, God knows young people in this country are being fucked over by their elders so thoroughly. [Laughs.] I don’t want to be down on young people at all, but I don’t think I could have written as honestly when I was younger.
On the flipside, a lot of people are never as original in later life as they are in their 20s. You’re much more likely to be passionate, and to have a different take on things, and to be original and troubling and awkward. I mean, isn’t all the world’s best poetry written by people in their 20s? And the best music as well, don’t you think?
BL: I do think there is some sort of trade-off. When you read memoir by young people mostly you don’t get that higher level of ability to reflect and find broader meaning, but you do get a whole lot more excitement. A feeling of reckless abandon.
RF: That’s true.
BL: Even the difference between a 25 and a 35 memoir is so different. At 35 people seem to have so much more to protect.
RF: A startlingly original novel from someone in their 20s is no surprise to me at all. A mature and deeply insightful memoir is not unheard of, but certainly more rare. I suppose this is a broader conversation about creativity and age, isn’t it. I know a lot of people who were brilliantly creative in their 20s who kind of turned into extinct volcanoes once they hit their 40s.
BL: That’s terrifying.
RF: It is. On the other hand there are those people who just get better and better and better. I suppose the lesson is to try to keep some of that child-like curiosity with you later in life.
BL: And to not have done too much collateral damage to the people around you when you were younger by being overzealous.
RF: Maybe I’ve been too prescriptive about that. I don’t know.