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Yvette Walker on Love Letters, Loss and Writing Her Home Town

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Local lesbian author Yvette Walker is going to be talking about her book ‘Letters to the End of Love’, alongside fellow novelist Amanda Curtin at the Perth Writer’s Festival on Saturday 22nd of February.

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The novel is written as a series of love letters between three different couples spanning different times, places and sexualities: an artist and his wife in Ireland in 1969 (Dmitri & Caithleen), a retired Doctor writing to the love of his life in post-World War Two England (John and David), and a bookseller trying to reconnect with her distant partner in present day Perth (Grace & Lou).

OUTinPerth had a chat to her about writing love, sexuality and your home town.

What made you decide to interweave 3 different love stories from different time periods?
I’m not sure if the initial idea was the three different time periods but as a writer I’m very character driven, so that first character who turned up was John, and I knew that he was some time after the second world war, so that started that stream. And before I started this book I had a larger, crazier idea which involved about 12 main characters, all different time periods and a whole thing about art and death, and art outliving death and what happens if people keep moving along with the art. It was unwieldy and not very good.

So after a couple of years of wrestling with that, Dmitri and Caithleen were characters from that, and the process of going through that book that didn’t work, really made me whittle down what I actually wanted to do. And I didn’t want to make it this kind of fantastical outlandish thing. I thought ‘What do you actually want to talk about?’ and I want to talk about the reality of a long term intimate relationship and three different sexualities, with a bit of art thrown in.

But in the initial book the art as kind of the main thing, and I thought ‘No, I actually want to investigate love. So how am I going to do this?’ So the three stories seem fairly natural and I had these characters anyway so I thought, I’ll go with that. I also had an interest in various historical moments in the 20th century.  So that was something that was generally of interest to me.”

What inspired you to choose those particular time periods and places?
Well, John was interesting because, again I could tell that he was English, and this is that weird thing that writers say, going ‘Oh yes, he just arrived’. He wasn’t exactly fully formed. And I wrestled with how I was going to tell his story and what I was going to do and it was a big decision to look at the gay holocaust issue. That wasn’t the driver, I didn’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a story about gay men in the Holocaust.’ I hope that it’s subtle, anyway, in the book. I hope that it comes across that way.

So again, particularly with John it was about, I know you’re an English doctor, I know it’s post war, where am I going to put you? And I wanted it to be on the coast because part of the initial impetus for the book as about coastal places. Bournemouth is a seaside town, originally I was going to move the Perth narrative down south but that didn’t really work in the end. Cork is southwest of Ireland, basically, so it was a way to try and fit them together a little bit without being too overt. So with John it was like he was there and I had to fit around him.

Dmitri and Caithleen, I knew that I wanted to talk about a Russian émigré and I did some research about that and London was not a very popular place for Russian exiles and I kinda liked that, I thought he could be quite anonymous. And then the whole Irish thing is probably just 1. It gave me an excuse to go to Ireland because I have English roots, and 2. While I was just kind of loitering around that, I found this amazing wealth of modern Irish painting, which I had no idea about, abstract expressionists and other kinds of modernist painting, astounding stuff. And I thought ‘Well that makes sense.’ It was really Dmitri driven, really. I wanted him to be not in New York and not in Paris but perhaps a little isolated. So I don’t know if that really answers the question about why those time periods but again it’s about the characters, trying to find where I feel like they’re most comfortable, and their personalities.

So I had to find a landscape that I felt fit them. And there’s a lot of similarities I think, anyway, between the Irish personality and the Russian personality, you know, there’s great depth of emotion, either great melancholy or great joy or somewhere in between and a lot of capacity for repression so figured he’d fit in well in Ireland. The contemporary story, I just really wanted to do a Perth story. I kind of dabble with the city a little bit and I want to do that again but on a larger scale. I felt like it hadn’t been down and it’s my home town and I wanted to sit it right in the middle of these European stories, that was really important to me. So that was a no-brainer, really.”

How is it writing about the town you’re living in? Do you find it kind of a heavy responsibility, to represent it correctly?
I don’t know if it was a heavy responsibility but the difficulty with it was to find a way to see it. And I grew up here and I never did the great escape to the east although I am from Melbourne originally, I was born in Melbourne and I have a lot of contacts, friends and family over there. So after a while you cease to see a place. So I did a lot of photography and I did a lot of lurking around the city trying to find places of interest, just to try and crack it open a little bit.

When you live somewhere you’re like ‘Oh yeah, I know what it’s like.’ And I actually don’t, you know. Everyone’s experience is mostly from their own mind and it’s a repetition of habit. So on one level that narrative was the most difficult. Considering the challenges of all the other narratives, to actually be satisfied with the way I portrayed it. I think it’s quite a gentle portrayal and I thought about all this stuff like ‘Oh do I comment on the mining boom?’ ‘Do I comment on the gradual kind of refashioning of the place?’ And how the mining boom has an ugly side but also a fantastic side as well.

There’s a whole kind of revitalisation of culture and art and the city has a vibrancy that I don’t think it’s ever had before. So I wanted to talk about that a little bit without kind of adding on these things that maybe didn’t belong. So, yeah it was hard it was difficult. The main thing was to try and get outside of it. And also let the characters again, drive, where they wanted to be, what they wanted to say.”

One of the book’s strengths is all of the domestic details in the different relationships and in those different time periods. How did you get those details?
I kind of wanted those details, in a way to link to the story without being overt about it, I wanted the rhythm of the domestic life to be fairly similar. There’s always tea and there’s always walking. And that came down to characters likes and dislikes. It was mainly organic, except trying to get the particular cigarettes right or the particular tea right, and that was fairly easy research, but, in terms of making it, when you read  a book and you feel comfortable with it, when it’s not jarring and your not questioning it, that’s in the rewriting I think. And also going to those places, so not so much looking in a book and going ‘OK, so in 1969 in Ireland everyone’s favourite tea was Barry’s tea.’ Which in Cork it would’ve been, because Barry’s is a huge family in Cork and they’ve done amazing things in Cork and one of the things is tea. But, I think to walk around the place it was really important for me to go.

So I went and stayed in this little tiny village in the Southwest Cork for two weeks, and I went to Bournemouth as well and talked to a whole heap of people. So that’s kind of how it was done. The nuts and bolts is quite a while ago now, so I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, I did that, I don’t quite know how.’ [laughs]. And there’s also a process of elimination. And because you’re doing historical fiction there’s an anxiety. ‘I need more stuff’ I need to go ‘Hey, reader! Look, I know all this stuff, aren’t I clever?’ and I had to leave out a whole bunch of stuff because at the end of the day you’re going ‘That’s not actually serving either the character or the plot.’ You’re actually just showing off, like ‘I know all this, I know all that blah blah blah.’ So it’s a matter of actually paring down. I’m very unforgiving when a book begins to do that. It kind of overcrowds things. Less than more, really, I would say.”

Given the book is comprised entirely of love letters, how did you manage to get all that historical detail in there while still keeping the tone of people who’ve been together for years and therefore don’t need to tell each other that much?
I wouldn’t recommend it. Ever. I’m never going to do it again, it was a nightmare. [Laughs]
The love letter idea seemed obvious to me in terms of what I wanted to talk about because I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get away with talking about the nuts and bolts of intimacy if it wasn’t a love letter because that’s the purpose of the document. So I thought ‘Good, that lets me go on a bit about love.’ And then I had to create a problem or a difficulty for both couples in order to have the excuse because they’ve been together for so long it’s like ‘Why do this?’.

So obviously with John he loses David, Dmitri’s dying, the girls are having serious issues. There’ was a point where I had to sneak a few things in and kind of go ‘Well, the reader needs to know this’ so I had to be aware of what the reader needed to know, and I had to be aware of these guys would know this anyway, and occasionally I would just let a few things in there because the reader needs to know. But the other thing in the back of my mind was that these letters are actually about memory and reflections, and the fact that everybody’s reality is different. If you sit 2 people down and say ‘tell me about your life together’ you’re going to get completely different stories, so there was that. And there was also the idea that something had been lost and needed to be reconnected. So John was the easiest because he’s trying to save his life, and he can’t speak to anybody about this and it’s almost like this in-between, David’s not quite dead for him, the relationship isn’t dead. That was easy, because it was just ‘I remember that and you remember this’ and that was fine.

For Caithleen and Dmitri, my idea of him was that he carried a lot of secrets, so she’s kind of saying to him ‘Look, you might not be here much longer, I don’t want to push the issue but perhaps we can unpack a few things.’ So that was them. And for the girls it was the physical distance, and the fact that they’ve been unhappy for quite a few years. So it’s that idea of even when you know someone so intimately  you can forget who they are, you can forget the wonderful things, you can forget those moments that seem in that moment like you’ll never forget it, and it’s totally wonderful. And the whole bloody book is an exercise in that, like you can say ‘I love you’ a million times, but what is that experience like? So a love letter’s a way to do that. But it was difficult and I don’t recommend it to anyone.”

So is it important to you to capture a wide range of different relationships in your writing?
Yeah it was because once I worked out what I wanted to do, and this has been a very slow process for me, it took me about a decade to get to write well, and then probably another decade to get to the end of that. I’m not saying it took my twenty years, but the process took me that long. To figure out what I actually wanted to do.

Homophobia really annoys the crap out of me, like it does for most people. I wanted to investigate what it is in terms of internal homophobia which I still feel like bothers me. So I wanted to have a look at it, see what it was like. I also wanted to trace a little bit of the political movements of the 20th century on gay politics and John does a bit of that that’s very interesting. Also I wanted to present a book that was like a level playing field for all three sexualities. Because straight people seem to think they know us, they’re like ‘Oh, you know, we don’t mind’ and that’s sort of a standard answer like ‘I don’t mind that you are the way you are’ and it’s like ‘Well, you don’t actually understand the way I am. And I find them a little dismissive and patronising sometimes. You can actually just talk to me, about my relationship or whatever. And I wanted to present a book that presents all three sexualities as different aspects of the same entity, so, no one is any better or worse than the other, and I wanted them all in the same book.

So it was very important to me. And it was difficult. Particularly writing a lesbian story in my home town and also it means that I have already come out, and the book’s dedicated to my wife, so it’s like, not that I’m in the closet but it’s like I just went ‘Pow! Here I am!’ and that was kind of confronting for me. But it was what I wanted to do. Because as a writer I’m obviously going to write about gay themes at some point, but how? So it’s very important. And I think I’ve been a bit more homophobic about it than other people! [Laughs]. You know, lovely ladies in their book clubs really like the book, all sorts of people like the book, the issue was in my own internal process with it. It was extremely important that the queer content was overt, really.”

You can see Yvette Walker at the Perth Writer’s Festival on Saturday February 22nd at 5.30pm. Book tickets here.

She is also speaking at Perth Writers’ Festival in the Great Southern in Albany. Details are here.

Sophie Joske

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