The guy in the hat talks about his bike like it’s his best friend. The older couple by the window are worried about one of their children. I can’t hear a word they say, but check out the synchronized eye rolls. The sneaky loner looking over his laptop? Definitely a novelist. Research and development phase.
“I never do it consciously. I think I do it subconsciously, ”says Peggy Frew as the Brunswick cafe hits the lunch peak. “I notice that I borrow from things that I have observed. Strangers as well as “real” people. But it’s not like I’m sitting here with a notebook writing down what the guy in the beanie just said.
We do, by the way, sometimes. Studying cafe characters was a fun exercise when I was in writing college — the same one Frew went to, in this instance. Except that she has since published four novels. His last, Wild flowerslives in the deeply observed head of a woman who sees, feels and thinks perhaps a little too much.
“It reminds me of that fantastic play I read by Jenny Offill,” she says, outsourcing her train of thought to another writer, as writers do. “She wrote a book called Time. And another called Speculation Department. A very empathetic writer…”
“When I was living in New York,” Ofill’s story in turn tells, from a conversation at a bookstore in 2020, “I found it almost impossible not to get sucked into all the little drama around of me. There is such emotion in a single subway car. Sometimes it was overwhelming. There’s this line in a Gary Lutz story that I love. Someone asked a guy if he was “involved with anyone” and he said “everyone”.
“That’s kind of how I feel myself,” Frew says. “I think maybe that’s the writer part of me. I can’t turn it off, which can actually get exhausting…I had coffee with a friend this morning and she was talking about the difficulties her child was having. And I feel like those struggles are inside me now.
Of course, empathy is not strictly speaking the writer’s problem. It strikes a chord in this conversation because of Nina, the main character of Wild flowers, which has so many that it gets lost in the weeds. It’s in her tangled head that we live as she deals with a sister, Amber, whose unknowable headspace sucks the lives of everyone into her orbit.
I’ve only read three Peggy Frew novels. But I also remember Silver, the daughter of a reckless seeker of an alternative lifestyle to farm of hopeand Bonnie, a suburban wife, mother and former musician juggling it all in house of sticks. I feel like every time I’ve been deep inside a woman’s head with too much going on.
“Yeah. he is that’s how it is too,” she says. “I feel like these are characters who can’t help but try to figure out who they are. That’s also my process. I try to figure out who they are and answer the questions for myself- same.
Novels have always had answers, she says. “Oh my God, everyone…When I was a kid, I remember we would go to some kind of social event and my sister and I would stay in the car with our books.”
They grew up in East St Kilda’s ‘bagel belt’, in a home where words mattered. She imagines Mom getting up in the middle of dinner to pull out the dictionary. Dad is still at the puzzle crossword every weekend. Peggy was always going to be a writer, though she forgot about it until relatively recently.
“My sister found this exercise book in which we had written when we were very young. I might have been seven years old. He said: “Peggy wants to be an author and Claudia wants to be an acrobat”. So one of us realized his dream.
And this despite a rock’n’roll diversion of 10 years or more. “To my shame, I started playing in Art of Fighting because my boyfriend wanted to start a band and he already knew how to play drums and guitar, so I took the bass. It was never my idea. It’s something I accepted.
“Music came as an opportunity. I didn’t go looking for it. I had some of these really wonderful teachers who encouraged my creative writing, but towards the end of year 12, I lost all my confidence.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO PEGGY FREW
- Worst habit? Overthinking.
- Biggest fear? That my children will suffer.
- The line that stayed with you? “Good writing takes a long time and… it tangles before it smooths out.” (Brenda Walker, interviewed by Rachel Power in The Divided Heart).
- Biggest regret? That I wasn’t more independent as a young woman. I would have liked to travel more, play in more bands, be braver.
- Favorite room? My child’s room. It was an attic room, painted blue, with casement windows, and I fell in love with so many books in it.
- The song you wish was yours? Any song written and performed by Adrianne Lenker.
- If I could solve one thing… Inaction on climate change.
Bonnie, the retired musician who became a mother in house of sticks, comes to mind here. She’s an excellent guitarist, but strictly a parallel player to the main personality of the band. “Certainly drawn from life,” Frew says. “I’ve taken so much from those years of playing music with these people and collaborating. It’s so different from writing. It’s this wonderful experience of something bigger than all of you…I felt like really invested in it, and I forgot my childhood dream of being an author.
The art of combat is still a thing. A dreamy fourth rock album, Luna lowbroke a long silence in 2019. On the 21st anniversary of their award-winning ARIA debut, Son, sends them back on the road at the end of this month. “We should have made more albums, but we are very slow.” She writes one song per album, she adds with a laugh.
“When I was 17, I really felt like music was more important, but I was still writing. When I look back…I wrote a lot of letters…and I was writing stories. I I didn’t know it at the time. And I was always writing short stories. Or trying.
One of them, Home visitwon age Short Story Award in 2008. Then house of sticks won the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award. farm of hope and he is were both shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, among other accolades. Price or not, four novels in just over 10 years surely make up for any perceived lost time.
tilting Wild flowers, I wonder if this description of Nina’s college years reminds her of anyone: “She wasn’t like them, the talkers, the wormers… There was something holding her back. And maybe it was that she was just taking her time, preparing for a late entry, and when she was ready, she would sport that expression that she had practiced in the world…”
“Yes, that was me,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be the first writer in the world to be able to identify the fact that I’ve always felt on the edge of things; outside by looking inside. I think it’s a very common experience. I’ve felt that all my life. »
The seed of Wild flowers′ The central drama came from a newspaper article read aloud by Frew’s husband, musician and painter, Mick Turner, about 15 years ago. It was about a drug addict from a northern suburb of Melbourne who asked his father to chain him to his bed for three days, “and whatever he does or says, not to unleash him”.
She opens her eyes wide. “It just stuck in me, somewhere. When I was finishing he is … that kind of float. Something about this bald little summary of these unfolding events. And yet, it opened up so many questions. What happened? Did the father do it? Did it work?
“Joan Didion says that when you’re a parent, you often write about your worst fears,” she explains in a roundabout explanation. “I wonder why. Why is this useful? What do you get by doing this?”
Frew and Turner met at a gig at the Rob Roy in Fitzroy in the early 2000s. beautiful songs.”) His band, the Dirty Three, were already global underground rock heroes. His new band Mess Esque is currently touring Europe. Over the years, they’ve learned to keep their creative processes pretty separate, Frew says.
“We are very careful. Because he’s busy with three kids. And we’ve both had the experience of asking the other person to watch something or listen to something at the wrong time and feel devastated that we didn’t show interest.
“You’re really vulnerable when you show someone your creative work. We know each other so well, but there is a certain timidity in this area. We are therefore very careful and choose our times carefully.
Yet another telescoping well of writers’ wisdom for the road…
“I heard Helen Garner once quote someone – I can’t remember who – saying they felt like going back to writing a book was like going back to a period of illness. I kinda feel like that, about Wild flowers above all. What an era! I would never want to be back there.
Wild flowers (Allen & Unwin) by Peggy Frew is available now.
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from book editor Jason Steger. Get delivered every Friday.