Call me Eve.
Of course it’s not my real name … But it’s the name I call myself when I think back to that time when I was a young wife – so very young, so very hungry – and I picked the fruit and ate and drank until I was drunk with freedom and covered in juice and guilt.
This is how I begin my memoir, Fallen (Affirm Press, May 2015), about the last days of an open marriage. There I am, trying to have it both ways with truth and fiction blended into a personal origin myth that may or may not be strictly true. There on the page is my wilful and problematic tendency to try to have my cake and eat it too, a tendency that probably gave rise to the story in the first place, and to the book’s terrible early title, Eating Cake.
On the eve of my book’s release, I was doing publicity and being asked the usual questions about memoir as a writing practice: what are the rules and ethics of memoir? Who are the memoirists I most admire? What responsibilities do we have to those we’re writing about? What right do we have to share the secret lives – especially the secret sexual lives – of others? How do my parents and lovers and friends feel about what I’ve written?
As disingenuous as it sounds, these weren’t questions I properly considered when I first wrote my story. I was writing a novel, dammit. The way Helen Garner wrote Monkey Grip, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, or Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Capricorn. I admired Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and J.M. Coetzee’s Youth. No one called these books memoirs. I studied Andrew McGahan’s Praise and Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded, looking at the ways they wrote their candid first-person narrators into being from a place that was both true and fictional.
In my mind, I was writing autobiographical fiction, inspired by memories, but not answerable to factual history or to real people with skin that bruised or blushed. Nobody was going to be exposed, except for myself (this story came from my imagination, after all, and anyone who knew me would know that it was essentially about my own messy early twenties). But I had the veil of artifice to cover my nakedness. I’d never have to tell anyone which bits were real. Everyone, even the narrator, was a character. She was a bit of a bitch. And some would call her a slut. But she was somewhat made-up. Besides, I’d probably never be published anyway, so why worry? Just write it all down and think about the consequences later, I told myself – my tendency to jump into thin air without a net coming into play.
That was a long time ago. Eight years, in fact.
Now the veils have all been ripped away. You can find my book in the nonfiction section of the bookstore, along with memoirs by cancer sufferers, cricket captains and child abuse survivors. It’s me there on the page. I can’t deny it. It’s even me on the cover, in a photo taken long ago on a Perth beach: a girl in black holding her square-heeled 1990s sandals, her sinister shadow spiking out below.
And it is me, talking on radio and writing in women’s magazines about open marriages, non-monogamy, and how religion can fuck up your sexuality. People are calling me ‘brave’, but I’m not sure it’s a compliment.
I feel so naked. How did this happen?
I finished my ‘novel’ six months after starting it. It was a small story, novella-length, though I kept insisting hopefully, ‘It’s the same length as The Great Gatsby and that’s never called a novella!’ (I knew how arrogant this sounded). My own little story was a lightly sketched sexual and romantic odyssey in which the young narrator strays away from her marriage. There was a religious backdrop – after all, she’d gotten married at the age of twenty, because sex outside of marriage was a sin. But this wasn’t about me, or the Seventh-day Adventist church in which I’d grown up. It was a coming-of-age story with some autobiographical elements.
After a few failed attempts at finding a publisher, I shelved the book and got busy with my day jobs: reviewing films, teaching classes and raising a small child. But the story continued to obsess me, and when I joined a writing group with two memoirists, Jo Case and Rebecca Starford, I began to revisit it, expanding the characters and the themes, drawing more and more from memory, though still insisting that I was writing fiction. Jo and Rebecca ventured timidly that the material would make for a great memoir. I ignored them.
I was lucky that publisher Aviva Tuffield, at Affirm Press, heard about my novel on the grapevine and, at a Big Issue Christmas party, over many glasses of red wine, asked to have a first look at the manuscript. I needed more time to finish it and she gave me six months. A deadline was exactly what I needed, and I submitted in June 2014. Within a few weeks, Aviva called me in for a meeting. She loved the writing. She loved the story. She wanted to work on it. But as a memoir. It already read more like memoir than a novel, she said, but there were things we’d need to include to make it more real and coherent. More detail about my family, and about their religion. An epilogue to bring the book into the present moment.
Was I ready to own my story?
My initial joy at finally finding a publisher was rapidly diluted by fear and a stubborn desire to be a novelist rather than a memoirist. For a month, I didn’t sign the contract. I sat on my feelings of sadness at giving up that dream, and more importantly, the fear of being exposed on the page. But then again, as Aviva reasoned with me, even if we sold this book as fiction, everyone would know it was autobiographical. There were going to be awkward questions for me as a writer and a person either way, so why not be brave and face it like grown-up? And why not trust that this respectable publishing house, with its strong, smart ethics, wasn’t out for a salacious scandal?
Another consideration. Did I actually want to sell books and find readers? As anyone in publishing knows, fiction is hard to sell, even for an established author, let alone for a no-name debut writer like me. It’s far easier to sell and publicise a memoir. There are real-life hooks for the media to latch onto (issues they can talk about, like ‘is monogamy possible?’ and ‘Who are the Seventh-day Adventists?’), and a face and a voice (in this case, my own scared and shaky one) to summarise and sell the story. As I signed the contract for ‘a work of nonfiction’, I thought to myself that if I’d known I’d be there eight years ago, I’d never have had the audacity – or heartlessness – to put down a single word of the story.
I guess there’ll be a kind of relief if nobody reads my book. But of course I’m hoping they will. I’d like the people who’ve helped put it out into the world – the editors, designers, salespeople and publicists – to feel it’s been worth the effort. And I’m a writer, with an ego, after all. I’d like to write another book one day.
So here we are. Deep breath. Eyes shut. Jumping in. And hoping I can find a small, quiet place where modesty and privacy might coexist alongside this naked picture I’ve made of myself.