Date: July 22 2012
I grew up in a family full of strong women. A great aunt on my mother's side had been a matron on a hospital ship in World War II and one on my father's side had served in the Women's Royal Naval Service. Vera, the Wren, smoked cigars, sat with her knees apart and had a deep jolly laugh.
When my sister and I were young, there was a particular sherbet lolly that we liked, but the only place to buy it in Northern Ireland seemed to be a shop in the ''wrong'' part of Belfast. Once my mother discovered that Auntie Vera had twice been caught in crossfire on the way to the shop and had had to hide behind parked cars, she tried to talk her out of going, but Vera wouldn't hear of it. She said something like, ''But the children like them'', and she kept going back.
A generation further back, my great great Aunt Edith lived in Holland during the war and had two Gestapo officers billeted with her, since she had a big house. One of the first things they did was hang a picture of Hitler on the wall. She told them in no uncertain terms to take it down. They explained to her that regulations required them to hang it, so she immediately turned it around and for the rest of their stay Hitler faced the wall.
My maternal grandmother was the longest-lived of my grandparents. She migrated to Australia in her 80s and lived into her 90s. It was great that she got to be part of my adult life. She was born in Yorkshire and I don't think her accent shifted an inch, despite living in Paris, Northern Ireland and Brisbane. She lived in Paris during the 1920s, working for a British company that sold some kind of pre-computer adding machine to businesses. By the time she was 90, I was old enough to realise that was pretty unusual, and I got her to tell me about her time there. She talked about going to clubs with Maurice Chevalier, and how her Yorkshire-accented French kept getting her in trouble.
When she was back in the London head office, she went on a business trip with the owner of the company to Vienna over Christmas 1927. He took her along because he had bought a fur coat to take to his mistress there, and the only way he could take it without his wife being suspicious was if my grandmother went too and wore it as if it was hers.
I've been with my partner, Sarah, since I was a part-time suburban GP who wrote advertising jingles on the side. She's a big part of making sure my life makes sense and stays on some kind of track. She also believed I'd make it as an author long before I was prepared to think that. Without her, I would be a lonely man in a shed with even fewer social skills than I now have.
My mother's medical career outlasted mine. I remember the day when I worked out that not all the other kids at child care had mothers who were doctors and I thought it seemed crazily risky to be from a family without at least one parent who could handle the medical stuff. She also told great bedtime stories. From very early in my life, I think that blurred the distinction between professional writers and people who made up stories and told them. So I always told stories. When I was about eight, I learned you could actually make money from it, and I couldn't believe something that was so much fun could also be a job.
One of the most interesting female characters I've written about was Meg Riddoch, the lead character in The Thompson Gunner. She's an Australian comedian in her late 30s with a somewhat messed-up personal life and a childhood affected by terrorism in Northern Ireland. All that has to have the makings of an interesting character, doesn't it?
I hope there are a few interesting women in my new book, Welcome to Normal, from Jennifer in the title story, trying to find a place for herself in a town not of her choosing; to faded high-school prom queen Laura Marconi in Grass Valley; and finally Gillian in The Magnificent Amberson. She's the quiet hero of that story. I've kept a tweet or two about it from fellow author Margo Lanagan: ''Gillian is the wonderfullest character I've met in a long time. She's just so strong and cheerful. I realised how rarely I see a happy, intelligent woman on the page, and what a pity that is!'' It was so good to see a writer of really fine short stories noticing Gillian.
Having to think so much about fictitious relationships that work or don't work, and with each relationship between characters managing to do one or other of those in its own peculiar way, I spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, real and imagined. That leaves me trying, wherever possible, to push my own relationships out from under the microscope so that I can live them instead.
■ Nick Earls's latest book, Welcome to Normal (Vintage Australia, $29.95) is out now.
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