AHEAD of the 2012 Sydney Writer’s Festival, author Deborah Forster is doing the rounds promoting her new book, The Meaning of Grace.
She made time for a “phone cuppa” with me; by the end of the conversation I really felt as though I’d been chatting with a friend. Two former journalists trading questions: it’s disconcerting when the interviewee throws the question back to the interviewer (who has no answer prepared).
The question? At 18, you left school and began a career in journalism, despite dreams that you always wanted to be a novelist. What would you say to your 18-year-old self if you were face-to-face?
“That’s a hard question. At 18, I was a very gormless, slightly plump girl trailing around journalists, asking the premier to spell his name,” Forster laughed.
“I’d say, ‘It’ll all be OK mate. Don’t panic. You’ll get there.’ It’d be nice to know you’ll get there in the end. What would you say?”
Now 56, Forster has two books to her credit: award-winning The Book of Emmett and just-released The Meaning of Grace. The Book of Emmett took her four years to write.
“I wrote a massive manuscript that was just crazy, you know. I asked my writing teacher to recommend me an editor. She (the editor) said, ‘You’ve got five novels in here. Settle down and write one.’ She picked it apart. She was really good. She taught me how to write a novel. But it was refused by four publishers and then Random House said yes. They kept it for a year…that was kind of strange.”
By strange, she means the waiting while the publishers did what publishers do.
“Then I started to write Grace. It stopped me having all the nerves,” she said.
Her second novel took just as long to write, but that’s the way Forster likes it.
“I like to leave things for a long time, let them stew and then come back afresh. It’s a ‘composting’ process. I write every day and then I correct what I wrote the day before, put it in a drawer and leave it. I’ll put a chapter away and leave it for a month,” she explained.
“I tend to need that space. When you first write something, you think, ‘I’m in love with this’. Then you re-read it. The second time around, I’m the reader. You realise, ‘I’m not in love after all’.”
The conversation neatly segued into motherhood, which is the underpinning theme of The Meaning of Grace.
“Grace is a bit of a weepy for me. Grace is…it’s not meant to be about how to be a mother; it’s how Grace loves everyone else in the family and the effect on her daughter and sons. It’s about the ripple effect of mothering and love in all different forms,” Forster explained.
“And abandonment, there’s quite a bit of that, sibling rivalry, survival, and how children always want more. Edie, the main character, discovers her mother is forgivable and fallible and that we all are. She realises that her mother is more than that (a mother), she’s a human being, she was a girl, she had dreams.
“It’s a love story for mothers. I know not all mothers are perfect but I think most of them try really, really hard. You feel it (mother’s love) the minute they put your baby in your arms. Your mother has it, this love, for you too.”
Just like Edie, Forster had high expectations of her mother – and herself.
“I wanted more of her. I was one of four. She worked full-time – she did everything. She was adored by all of us. I just wanted more of her. As a mother, I like to give every scrap of myself – I wonder where that comes from – my expectations are high, on myself they certainly are. I’m always trying to fix them (the kids); they just go, ‘Mum, Mum, please?’
“This is mothers the world over. The eternal thing in humanity is a mother’s love. We run on the smell of an oily rag, we really do.”
The Meaning of Grace is out now at good bookshops.