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Liz Byrski is one of Australia's favourite novelists. After 10 years and six well-loved novels, Liz's aim of writing to fill the void in fiction that reflected the lives of women over 50 has proved highly successful. Here she talks to gr about her different careers and her new book Last Chance Cafe.
After spending years as a journalist and broadcaster, what motivated you to begin writing fiction?
I had wanted to write fiction since my teens but began life as a secretary and then a journalist. Later, as a sole supporting parent I still needed the income and expanded into non-fiction books and other forms of professional writing. It was only when my children had grown up and left home that I was able to think seriously about spending a considerable amount of time on something that might not produce any income. It was then too that I recognised the gap in women’s popular fiction - I was looking for books about women my own age and they just weren’t on the shelves, so it seemed the right time to try my hand at fiction in an attempt to fill that gap.
Which style of writing have you enjoyed more, the fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction definitely. It’s more fun and more rewarding. I love the way it reaches out to people in some really unexpected ways. There was a lot I wanted to say about women, about friendship and about ageing and fiction has allowed me to do this in a way that people seem to be enjoying. So I’m very lucky to be doing this now – a whole new career in my sixties.
Which authors or books have been an inspiration to your writing?
The first book that influenced me as a woman wanting to write, was May Sarton’s journal Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), and five years later, Journal of Solitude. Sarton’s journals are passionate accounts of being a woman and a writer, of the joys and challenges of solitude, and about the pleasure and rewards of ageing. As a young woman I found these journals and her poems inspiring and encouraging. Another profoundly important book was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, which I read in 1978. It was hugely successful and it proved to me what I had always thought - that women can connect with each other in ways that transcend the boundaries of class, education and frequently of race and that this is a fascinating topic for fiction.
You cite a lack of fiction for women over 50 as being part of the reason you began writing novels. Do you know if other writers have followed your example?
No, I don’t, and I certainly haven’t seen any evidence of it Australia. There are a few women doing it in the UK and USA but not here. It amazes me because women over 45 are the biggest group of book buyers and book borrowers so why are they so poorly represented in popular fiction? I’m honestly amazed that no one else is doing it.
Do you see yourself branching out to write for a different group or using a different subject?
I’m enjoying what I’m doing now and don’t envisage writing for any other specific group. But I’d like to push out the boundaries a bit; I try to do something different and learn something new in each book. I’m also working on a non-fiction book which I’ve been researching for quite a while now. It’s very different from the sort of non-fiction I’ve written in the past.
The aging process and reactions to it are regular aspects of your novels. What is it about the experience which has captivated your imagination?
Ageing can be a tremendously enjoyable and rewarding stage of life and far too much is written about the negative side of it. It can be a time of incredible self-discovery, opportunity, challenge and fulfilment but it’s hard to experience that fully when the discourse around it is so negative. I want to start conversations that challenge the idea of a ‘fight against ageing’. It’s pointless and destructive and it conditions people to fear and resist age. We’re all going to get old – and the alternative isn’t very attractive, so let’s make the most of it, celebrate it, be in it to the full and experience what it has to offer. I suppose I think ageing is great adventure and that’s what inspires me.
Do you draw aspects of your characters from yourself or friends?
Not consciously, not specifically. I’ve never based a character on myself or anyone I know. Having said that I think that for a writer all life and all the people one meets, reads about and hears about go into a melting pot and emerge in another form. Life is the seed capital really.
What should readers expect from Last Chance Cafe?
Well - I hope they’ll get a challenging, enjoyable and satisfying read that makes them think. It’s a novel about the pleasures and perils of ageing, about love and friendship, some dark secrets, and unfulfilled dreams. The older characters in this book are determined to make the most of whatever time they have and when they bring their experience, passion and concern about the sexualisation of children together with that of much younger women they find themselves on a rollercoaster of personal and political change. It’s about connection between the generations, and the regeneration of the collective spirit that has achieved so much change for women since the seventies.
Will there be continuations or sequels to any of your already published books?
No. But some characters from earlier books may show up in others. For example, in Last Chance Café a character from a previous book makes a sort of ‘cameo’ appearance. I didn’t plan it, it just happened and seemed to work, so if it happened again I’d probably go with it.
What books would you recommend to fans of your work?
I think there would also enjoy novels by Joanna Trollope, Elizabeth Buchan, Rachel Cusk, Sue Miller, Laurie Graham, Patrick Gale and Tim Pears.
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