The Stella Prize 2019 winner in conversation

Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Stella Prize 2019 winner, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, talk about her memoir, The Erratics.

Vicki was in conversation with Louise Swinn, chair of the 2019 judging panel. They began by discussing the broad themes of the novel – dysfunction and mental health in families, and sibling rivalries. The response from readers was overwhelmingly “This is my story.”

Vicki talked at length about The Erratics being a memoir – fiction was never an option. With memoir, “…you have a contract with your reader. You have to tell the truth, get to the heart of the matter… If you haven’t got that contract, your reader feels it.” She later added, “Why would you write a memoir if you’re going to hold back?”

And so we came to the most interesting part of the discussion – what did her sister think of The Erratics? The answer was threefold. Firstly, Vicki emphasised that she and her sister had very different belief systems and that they had been separated by an ocean for over fifty years. Despite their different beliefs and their different approaches, they managed to come to decisions regarding the care of their parents.

Secondly, “…the page is not the place to settle scores…”. (Which is interesting – see the next point!.)

Lastly, she told her sister about the book when it was with the publisher. Although she expected her sister to hate it, that wasn’t the case. Her sister was ‘gracious’ and although she saw things differently, ‘…she laughed in all the right places.’ Louise asked what Vicki would have done if her sister had disagreed with the content of the book. Vicki promptly replied that she would have said, “I’m not changing it because it’s my truth. You can write your own book.”

Now obviously this author talk was not about me, but this comment prodded my Erratics uneasiness – the emotional ‘opting out’. Memoir is a person’s truth and if it’s not the place to settle scores, then equally it’s not the place to have the last (or loudest) word.

Vicki made an important point toward the end of the evening, regarding her own ‘recovery’ from her childhood trauma – “What happened to me was not because I was who I was but because of who she [her mother] was. It was not personal. It wasn’t because I was the child I was but because I was the child in the position I was.” She noted, “If anyone was unhappy in my story – and we all were – I suspect the person that was the unhappiest was my mother.”

It’s not an author talk without insight into writing process and the books the author loves. Vicki told the audience that she writes by hand – “I think the brain and the heart connect through the pen.” As for the books she loves – “The book I love is the last one I read!” (but she did note Shell by Kristina Olsson and Darke by Rick Gekoski have been recent favourites).

The Erratics is a great choice for book groups (my book group had a very robust discussion about it), and it deserves a wide readership – Stella has done her job, bringing this book to our attention.

9 responses

  1. I don’t see much difference between this is my story and settling old scores (ask any politician!) and I’m afraid there are plenty of people, including writers who sound honest when they’re not. A memoir is one person’s account and without wishing to reflect on Laveau-Harvie can never be the whole truth.

    • I agree re memoir and settling scores. I heard an author say once ‘A memoir doesn’t need to be accurate but it does need to be authentic’ – these words have stuck with me in my reading for work and interest about dementia and neuroplasticity – a memory is not something that is ‘stored’ perfectly, rather it’s a constant rewriting and a revisiting of the same neural pathway. It explains why people remember the same event very differently. Interestingly, when crime witnesses are shown photos of potential suspects, they can only be shown the same photo once in initial sweeps – multiple times can create a ‘false’ memory which would have grave consequences.

      Ultimately I found The Erratics a challenging book. It’s well written and compelling but the things that didn’t quite sit right – which many attribute to Vicki’s excellent self-protection strategies – were only reinforced for me when she said her sister ‘could write her own book’. My instinct says there’s more to that part of the story than she has revealed (particularly as she said one of the themes is sibling rivalry, which I didn’t think it was about at all!). If you get a chance to read it, do – it gives plenty to think about.

      • I will if I can escape from the paperwork black hole that is consuming all my “free'” time. The author’s defence reminded me of Gerald Murnane’s autobiography is “one of the least worthy varieties of fiction”, though I’m sure this author was writing sincerely.

      • Well… I think all reading people should read Murnane, but I wouldn’t start with A Million Windows – it’s a bit like reading a very clever text book. I started with Landscape with Landscape, connected short stories.

  2. I was there too on Wednesday night. Draft – I could have messaged you! I found her so articulate and inspirational. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s sitting waiting for me at the library…

  3. I just didn’t like the sound of this. Of course we all know that mothers can be feral, but it seems very tacky to me to write something like this after she’s dead. To put it another way, if I had a friend who started to tell me all about her feral mother in a similar way, I’d feel very uncomfortable. I’m becoming more and more uncomfortable with the tell-all stories that are hitting the bookshelves today.

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