Marian Halligan: world into words

MARION Halligan once tried to have a short story published in the popular Australian Women’s Weekly magazine. Actually, she made three attempts after learning that Sylvia Plath had tried the same avenue in London.

‘‘Richard Walsh was the editor then and he rejected the stories I sent, suggesting I try a literary magazine,’’ remembers Halligan. ‘‘So I sent him another story and said, ‘I’ve been published in literary magazines, I want to get published in the Women’s Weekly’. He came back with quite a nice letter saying, ‘There is too much unease in your stories for us’. I stopped trying then because I thought, I’m not going to give up on unease because I think that’s the thing that the short story does well.’’

We are seated upstairs in The Lock-Up Cultural Centre, which is hosting the Newcastle born and raised writer for a week as part of its artist-in-residence program in association with the Hunter Writers Centre. Halligan, who has lived in Canberra for more than 40 years, is relishing the opportunity to ‘‘potter around and re-acquaint myself with the city’’. She has returned many times, but usually for hectic weekend visits.

‘‘I love the architecture of Newcastle,’’ she enthuses. ‘‘I love the fact that it was never rich enough to tear itself down and put up skyscrapers. The city has kept a lot of handsome buildings that should have been kept.’’

Halligan’s parents were Novocastrians – her father was a clerk at the state dockyard and her mother grew up in a ‘‘handsome house, Victorian, on a rise, with a view over the valley of Merewether’’. She wrote about her family and childhood in her 2004 memoir The Taste of Memory, in which she described Newcastle as ‘‘that well-kept secret of a place’’. She also wrote of her student days at the University of Newcastle, which she attended on a teacher’s scholarship, as well as the happy 35-year marriage that ended with her husband, Graham’s, death from cancer in 1998. (Her grief also shaped her elegiac and acclaimed 2001 novel, The Fog Garden). 

Her most recent book, her 21st, is Shooting the Fox, a robust collection of short stories that explores common themes of love and loss. There is an undertone of menace in her glimpses of everyday life, which are often charged with tension and eroticism.

 Halligan has an understated style with a penchant for sardonic humour and she is nothing if not diverse – and prolific.

A self-described late-starter who didn’t get serious about writing until she was 39, Halligan has received many honours for her work including an AM in 2006 for services to literature. She has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Miles Franklin Award, and has won the $10,000 ACT Book of the Year three times.

While regretful that she started writing so late, the 72-year-old also believes that being older at the beginning of her writing career meant she had time to accumulate ideas and life experience. ‘‘I was writing stories but not really doing anything with them and I made a resolution that by the time I was 40, I’d get something published. You can go on thinking you’re going to be a writer one day, but one day has to happen and I decided if one day didn’t happen pretty soon, I was doomed, I wasn’t going to get anywhere.’’

Halligan sent three stories to Australian literary publications and all were accepted – ‘‘then the next 25 were refused, so it was lucky it happened that way around’’, she says, chuckling. Even now, she is not immune from rejection. An essay she submitted last year to Black Inc for their annual collection was not accepted, though a short story was. ‘‘One out of two; you have to be happy with that,’’ she offers.

Halligan writes to ‘‘put the world into words’’ and collects ideas in a ‘‘magpie-like process’’. For some time she has been writing snippets about her daughter, Lucy, who died in 2004 aged 38 from a congenital heart condition. ‘‘I’ve got a file on the computer called ‘Words for a dead daughter’, which I keep meaning to sort out. They’re a series of little reflections on things I remember about her, or things that she did or said. That’s my next project – to sort these memoir pieces and put them in order. I’ll get James [Halligan’s son] to read it and see what he thinks.’’

The arrival of her granddaughter,  Bianca, has helped assuage Halligan’s grief. ‘‘I’m totally besotted,’’ she says, brightly. ‘‘At four, she thinks I’m a bit of a dill; she’s always trying to correct me. She’s a blessing and very like Lucy in a lot of ways. She knows that Lucy is dead, but she’s in our hearts,’’ says Halligan, pressing her right hand to her chest.

Marion Halligan will speak at The Lock-Up Cultural Centre, 90 Hunter Street, tomorrow at 2.30pm. Tickets are $8 and are available at the door.

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