When Amanda Lohrey was working on her novel about a woman who creates a labyrinth behind her shack in a NSW coastal hamlet, she thought it was a strange little book that would find a small readership interested in something mildly esoteric.
But the Tasmanian author has been surprised by the response - which included plenty of unexpected readers and the Miles Franklin Prize. The very ancient idea of the labyrinth - a form which spirals through human history, one of those seemingly pointless construction projects people keep coming back to - still resonated in a secular world. Readers were perhaps getting something more spiritual than they realised.
"I think people get something from it that they can't quite articulate in those terms, but I think that's what they're getting," Lohrey says.
The Labyrinth is the story of Erica Marsden, who moves to Garra Nalla, a hamlet on the NSW south coast to be near her son, an artist incarcerated nearby in a private prison, sentenced after a horrible crime. There Erica works to shape her own labyrinth.
Lohrey says: "In a sense a reader co-creates a novel with a writer, so each person, in a sense, reads a different novel, and so some people see The Labyrinth being primarily about the difficulty of being a parent. Other people see it as about art and how art plays a role in our lives and creating things.
"And if you see it about the difficulty of being a parent, you'll find it rather a sad book. If you see it about the redemptive power of art, you'll find it uplifting. And so I'm fascinated by the way in which readers get a completely different take from it."
Lohrey doesn't know how she got onto labyrinths, which she concedes is an embarrassing answer to a question she has been asked frequently.
"It's weird. One of the things about writing fiction is that when you write non-fiction you know exactly why you do something and how you did it, but when you write fiction, your unconscious throws up these clues that you kind of just go with, and often you don't know where the thing came from," she says on the phone from Tasmania.
"And so, I don't know how I got interested - and I did. ... I noticed that these were being built a lot around the world in all sorts of places. And in Australia. That suddenly people were interested in them again and they were building them in new hospitals or new churches or parks, or in private gardens.
"There's a beautiful one in Canberra, at the theological college there in Barton. When I was in Canberra visiting my daughter, I used to go and walk that. It is just in a superb position. I kind of thought why are people, you know, why are these popping up now? They're more than 5000 years old, this pattern. I think that's how I started to get interested, but why I decided to write a novel about one, I really couldn't tell you."
It was in a room just of the classics museum at the Australian National University that Lohrey made the novel work. She was in Canberra helping look after her daughter's young children and while there was no tutoring work to keep her busy ("They're always stretched for money, you know how it is with universities"), the H.C. Coombs fellowship offered her a place to write.
"So I had this lovely room in the classics department, right near the museum and completely empty. Like, not a thing in it, except a desk and a chair. And I went in there every day and I unblocked. I got going again. Finished the novel. So yes, I owe the ANU," she says.
Lohrey was due to return to Canberra and the university where the novel took shape to deliver a lecture to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. There will also be a two-day symposium on Lohrey's work. The events will now take place on Zoom, and Lohrey will give the lecture - on the theme of writing the domestic dwelling in the novel, and the Australian fascination with renovation - virtually on November 18.
"I was thinking, in a way, when you get to a certain age, it can be less tiring to Zoom, because you don't have to travel and do all the stuff that goes with travel. Having said that, I really love Canberra and I was looking forward to a week there, so I'm a bit disappointed," she says.
Lohrey says it is slightly amazing to have a seminar-level of critical attention on her work, adding that different writers catch waves at different times.
"I don't think I've ever caught a wave. No, I've just kind of sort of slogged away. I'm 74, and I've just slogged away for years. I've done all right, I'm not saying this is a total surprise. Most of my books have been at least shortlisted for awards and a couple of them have won awards. What bothers me most, to be honest, is the degree to which Australian literature is not taught in universities," she says.
The issue of what gets studied by students in universities is important to Lohrey, who for many years taught in universities. It says it all that Sydney University recently abolished its chair in Australian literature, while the Australian National University does not have one, she says. "This downgrading of the humanities is occurring right across the board. Fascinating, isn't it?"
Studying literature is not airy-fairy nonsense either, Lohrey says. One of her former students was praised on joining the NSW Premiers' Department for the uncanny ability to read the subtext in memos. The skills are vital in all manner of places.
"If you want to study nationhood, you study Australian literature. Australian literature is the story of how we've changed our notions as a nation. That's one aspect of it. No better way to study the concept of nation than to study Australian literature, for example," Lohrey says.
Will Australian universities ever break free of that provincial attitude - the ever present cringe - that diminishes the study of the country's own literature?
"No, because one of the influences is that it's a very small market, it's very hard for writers to make a living and I notice young writers increasingly are setting their novels overseas, often they have Australian characters but they're living in Paris or the US or somewhere, because that way they're more likely to get published overseas," Lohrey says.
"And if I reproached them with that, they'd quite genuinely and honestly say, 'That's not what I intended.' I think a lot of this motivation is unconscious."
The Labyrinth is the second in a planned trilogy of pastorals. It returned to a landscape first described in Vertigo, a 2009 novella about a couple who move to Garra Nalla in an escape from Sydney and plan to work remotely. But they come up against a bushfire that threatens their Arcadia.
"It's true that the pastoral's a genre in all cultures, but particularly in Australia. And, you know, we watch it all the time. We watch the tree change, the sea change, then the pandemic comes, a lot of people move out into regional areas, because they've got the internet and they can work from there and they feel safe. There's always the signs of movement going on," Lohrey says.
Lohrey clearly has no qualms about revealing some detail of her next book. It will be someone who works to convert a church into a home, forced from the city after the global financial crisis.
"I don't write historical novels. I don't know why anyone does. I mean, contemporary life is so fascinating. And I just noticed a couple of years ago that people were buying up churches and turning them into homes, and I thought, how bizarre. So I'm now writing a novel about someone who does exactly that," she says.
Lohrey says she worked out she was a writer when she was a teenager rewriting novels in her head, but she tried to put off the inevitable.
"I thought that's very self indulgent to write, I should get a proper job and be socially useful. So I put off writing until I was 30 while I tried to be socially useful and then I realised I was socially useless. No, seriously. I mean, I had jobs where I just saw other people who were much better at doing what they did than I was," she says.
"And I thought, stop resisting this and just get on with it, get on with the writing."
- Amanda Lohrey will deliver the Association for the Study of Australian Literature's patron's lecture at 5.30pm on Thursday, November 18. Online event via Zoom.