Michelle Law is a Brisbane writer whose work has appeared in Women of Letters (Penguin, 2011) Growing Up Asian in Australia (Black Inc, 2008), Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have to Change the World (UQP, 2013), and numerous Australian literary journals. She is an AWGIE award winning screenwriter and is currently working on an ABC documentary about suicide in Australia.
You're amongst a handful of emerging Australian writers doing quite a lot whilst still very young. Have you always had a clear idea of what you wanted to do?
Growing up, I never had any ambition to be a writer; I just knew I enjoyed reading, and I viewed writing as a skill that could consolidate my interests in visual art and theatre. It wasn't until I was studying writing at university that I realised telling stories as a form of self-expression suited me and I couldn't see myself doing anything else. In terms of doing a lot while young, I think a big part of that comes with my personality. I'm a fidgety person and, as odd as it sounds, if I'm not working on several projects at once I tend to lose my focus and go a little crazy. Being young in this industry can be challenging, especially during those times when you walk into a room of established writers knowing that you are the most inexperienced person there. It can be quite intimidating and you're always self-conscious about looking like an amateur. So I don't tend to tell people my age until they make a tentative assumption that I'm in my thirties and then I need to come clean!
Just about all the pieces I've read of have fallen into the category of creative nonfiction and memoir. Obviously, that kind of writing involves a certain amount of confession, and a willingness to expose your experiences to strangers. Is that something you've found challenging?
Writing about my experiences comes naturally to me and although I've tried suppressing that in the past (despite how it might look, I don't actually like talking about myself!) it's now a default kind of medium. I suppose it happens because I am still trying to make sense of the big events that have happened in my life, and writing is the most effective way of unpacking that. And for me, one of writing's key functions is to connect with other people. Not that I expect people to come up to me and have a hearty conversation about something that I've written; I'm more interested in those private moments of empathy, or that 'I know exactly how that person feels' moment that makes readers feel less alone. I guess the confessional side of things comes about because I dislike small talk. I find it forced and boring, and feel like there are already so many social barriers preventing us from talking about the unspoken narratives in our lives. So in my writing I want to put it all out there. In a way it's therapeutic.
Both you and your brother (Benjamin Law) write a great deal about your family. How does your family feel about being the subjects of so much writing?
It's been helpful for me that Ben provided a test run with The Family Law. But I also think our family would have had the some open attitude towards my work regardless of whether they'd been written about before. Often I worry about what impact my writing has on my family members, but when I express these concerns to Mum she always dismisses them. Mum loves when we write about her and she's proud that Ben and I choose to. I think for her, it's a way of preserving her own stories, and it's interesting to see the family's shared experiences from the children's perspectives. Dad is quite philosophical in his response to our work. He says that he's happy for us to write whatever we want about him because he understands that everyone has their own truth and if writing ours makes us happy, then we should go ahead and do it. Our siblings are over-sharers themselves and one of our sisters is a documentary photographer so they are open to it too. Ben and I are very lucky in that respect. But that said, we always send drafts to our family members when we write about them, and wait for their feedback before we submit anything.
Your piece in this edition of Griffith REVIEW reminded me a lot of something Rebecca Solnit writes in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost– 'A happy love is a single story, a disintegrating one is two or more competing, conflicting versions, and a disintegrated one lies at your feet like a shattered mirror.' It felt like you demonstrated that structurally in the piece by telling the same story twice – from Jenny's perspective, then Danny's.
I had intended to juxtapose Mum and Dad's perspectives because when they each told stories about their relationship, both tellings were so alarmingly different. Mum is a very romantic person, whereas Dad is very pragmatic. When it comes to shattered stories, I think that happened naturally in the writing process. When you look at any breakup from two different perspectives you are always going to encounter some conflict as to who is right or wrong, or who remembered it most accurately. What I learnt in writing the story from three different viewpoints – Mum's, Dad's, and my own – is that there is no true account of any story, besides the one you tell yourself. There's a documentary called Stories We Tell where the director, Sarah Polley, tells the story of her dead mother from the perspective of each family member and each of her mother's lovers. Throughout the film, archival footage is played that captures her Mum's life in very candid detail. It isn't until the end of the film that it's revealed the footage and home videos were in fact reenactments using actors, and that was the director's mode of trying to construct a narrative that was irrevocably shattered by the countless tellings of it. So in my mind there was no other way of presenting Mum and Dad's stories than sizing them up against each other and seeing how their conflicting perspectives inevitably led to the breakdown of their relationship.
There's a section, towards the end of the essay, when you write about the arguments your parents had at the end of their marriage – 'the children hid in the master bedroom as Danny and Jenny's fight, their most colossal yet, weaved around the house like an angry beast.' That section tends to remind you as a reader that the story you're telling is part of your own experience. I wonder, when you wrote the essay, how much of a choice it was to keep your own memories and experiences of your parents divorce separate from the story?
In one of the first drafts of the story I actually began with that memory of my parents fighting, but as I kept writing, that structure and viewpoint felt almost intrusive, as if it wasn't my story to tell. It also didn't feel very truthful. Experiencing the story from an outsider's perspective felt self-serving and, I believed, gave the impression that the teller was the victim, which wasn't the case. This wasn't going to be a story about how divorce affects children, or anything along those lines. It was simply a love story, or the unraveling of one. So I used my perspective as a bookend to draw focus to my parents' story, which was the real meat of the piece.
You say in the piece that as a child, you never imagined your parents getting back together, 'because the concept was simply inconceivable', but that you still believe in fairytales – mind you, it's more in a 'Choose Your Own Fairytale' kind of way. How much of an impact do you think seeing the dissolution of that fairytale idea of marriage-and-children-happily-ever-after when you were a child has on how you feel now?
When I was a child up until maybe the last few years, I still very much believed in the married-with-children fairytale for myself. I loved the idea of a big wedding and a loving husband and kids and all of that. And it's ironic because my older sister had the completely opposite viewpoint to me growing up and has since gotten married herself – a big church wedding with all of the stops, and now has plans for a family in the future. I probably believed in that fairytale for two reasons: seeing what happened to my parents made me long for something that I hadn't had, or just as likely, I had never seen what a happy marriage was besides what I was seeing in movies and television and the people in those looked completely blissful and who wouldn't want that for themselves? So I think seeing what happened with my parents as a child had relatively little impact on how I viewed marriage. I think what changed, especially in the last four or five years, has been experiencing my own romantic relationships and learning about the relationships of other people. I also saw what relationships my siblings and my close friends were having, and many of them weren't conventional (unmarried, gay, unattached) but were just as and sometimes much more healthy, loving and nurturing than many straight, monogamous couples that I knew. I don't think it's up to other people to decide what a 'fairytale' is for someone else when love and happiness is subjective.