Interview by Annabel
Annabel: Firstly, congratulations on Hope Farm being shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. This young literary prize is starting to get some notice in the UK and it’s wonderful to discover some amazing Australian women authors through it. It must have been an exciting time for you between the longlist and final prize announcements…
Peggy: Thank you! It was such a thrill for me to make that shortlist, alongside such wonderful writers.
Annabel: Turning to your novels, motherhood with its attendant perils is obviously something that fascinates you. Your first novel House of Sticks combined a mother whose family is pushed out of balance with the music business; now Hope Farm looks at a very different style of motherhood in a commune seen from both daughter and mother’s points of view. Is this an underlying theme in your writing or more a coincidence?
Peggy: It’s a theme. A fact I’ve had to reluctantly admit to myself, because when I started Hope Farm all I wanted to do was to write something very different from House of Sticks, which to me had a quite close, almost claustrophobic feeling to it, and was set in an inner-city suburb – so I began a book set in the country. I wanted a sense of openness, of the beauty of nature, and also I wanted to be more lyrical in the actual prose; I felt such a strong need to do something different. And I guess I fooled myself into thinking that because the main character was a teenager that the book couldn’t be about motherhood. But soon enough I realised that, while the atmosphere differed, I was writing about the same old stuff, just from different angles!
Annabel: When Ishtar falls pregnant, it’s the early 1970s. Coming from a religious family, her experience in being pressurised to give the baby up for adoption is reminiscent of stories you hear from Ireland where the Catholic nuns were in charge. One tends to think of Australia as a free and easy country, were young single mothers really similarly stigmatised back then?
Peggy: Yes, it happened here too. Right up until the mid-70s, young unmarried women and girls who were pregnant were generally expected to adopt their babies out. It was considered best for the baby and best for the mother, and the prevailing thinking was that young women and girls were not equipped to decide what was best for themselves. In 2012 there was a government inquiry into the practice of forced adoption, and women came forward with absolutely horrific stories of being made to give up babies they wanted to keep. Women and girls were threatened, lied to, not informed of their rights, tricked into signing documents without understanding what they were signing. They were drugged. They were held or tied down and prevented from seeing their just-born babies. One would imagine that by the ‘70s things would have changed, but in fact it would seem that forced adoption in Australia reached its peak during the early ‘70s, by which time the ‘baby-farming’ market, where couples seeking to adopt were supplied with the babies of young unmarried women, had taken off. It’s been claimed that those who facilitated these adoptions were profiting from the transactions, which would further explain why the practice went on for so long, despite women’s rights gaining recognition more generally in society.
Annabel: What made you want to tell the story of Ishtar and her daughter Silver mainly from Silver’s point of view?
Peggy: From the beginning I always felt Silver was the main character, and that the novel was her story. I still feel that way. I originally wrote the whole thing from Silver’s perspective, but at some point I realised that we needed to hear Ishtar’s story in Ishtar’s own voice. Because she is so closed and incommunicative, if we only ever saw Ishtar through Silver’s eyes we couldn’t find our what her history is, how she’s ended up being the kind of mother she is. And we do need to know that for the book to work – and also, we need it for ourselves as readers, to understand Ishtar better, not necessarily to forgive her, but at least to see how she got where she ends up. But it was always Silver’s story.
Annabel: It was quite a shock when Miller brings his wife back to the commune. Ishtar, who had for so long been his woman, seems rather ambivalent this situation. It made me, like Silver, a bit cross with her. Ishtar is not always easy for the reader to love; could you comment on that?
Peggy: It’s hard for me to comment, because I actually have a lot of compassion for Ishtar. I know not everyone does, though. I see Ishtar as almost pathologically immature – she suffered this terrible trauma at the age of seventeen (her pregnancy and Silver’s birth, and the consequences of this, which for her were completely unforeseen), and she is sort of frozen at that level of emotional maturity, and I don’t know about you but when I was seventeen I was a total flake! So I see her not as someone who chooses to do the damage she does – to Silver, mostly, but to others as well – but someone who just actually can’t be any other way. The sad thing for me is that this doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her daughter. She loves her deeply, and Silver loves her back, but that love is buried underneath a whole pile of seriously rusted-on dysfunction. I guess one of the questions I was asking myself in writing this book, and particularly in looking at the way Ishtar mothers Silver, is: is love enough? (And I think we know what the answer is!)
Annabel: Hope Farm is also about female friendship in a way, yet I never got the feeling that was a priority for Ishtar in the commune, she’s more a lover of men than friend to women. And, she always seems to be dreaming of her next move, doesn’t she?
Peggy: Yes, and again, I put this down to Ishtar’s sort of paralysed state when it comes to maturity. She just never got the opportunity to learn how to have good relationships – so that would explain, for instance, her inability to develop stable friendships with other women. And I think because she has poise and puts on such a good front, seeming so composed and self-possessed, and also because she’s had to learn so many practical, everyday skills in her time living in communes and ashrams, from the outside she seems mature. But underneath she’s not at all. She’s very insecure; she has very little confidence or sense of herself. All she’s had to trade on, since leaving home at seventeen, has been her looks – imagine what that would do to your self-esteem.
Annabel: Could you recommend some Australian authors to our readers that we might not have encountered before?
Peggy: I’d love to. Tegan Bennett Daylight published a wonderful collection of short stories last year, ‘Six Bedrooms’ (also shortlisted for the Stella). Miles Allinson’s ‘Fever of Animals’ is a great book. Anything by Joan London. I don’t know if she’s been published over there but I am a huge fan of a writer called Gillian Mears – her novel ‘The Mint Lawn’ made me want to write.
Annabel: Finally, we always ask this… what are you reading currently? What books are on your bedside table?
Peggy: ‘Between a Dog and a Wolf’ by Georgia Blain. ‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner. ‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones. More Australian women writers!
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors. Read her review of Hope Farm here.
Peggy Frew, Hope Farm (Scribe, 2016) 978-1925228533, 352 pp., hardback.
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