It takes two

On creativity, coupledom and craft

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  • Published 20240507
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-95-5
  • Extent: 203pp
  • Paperback, ePub, PDF, Kindle compatible

Across nearly five decades, Richard Glover and Debra Oswald have been spinning the stuff of everyday life – family dynamics, growing pains, relationships, the ever-­amusing escapades of kids, pets, grandchildren and in-­laws – into stories for page, stage, screen and airwaves. For Debra, those stories take the form of incisive and sharply observed drama and fiction, from novels and award-­winning plays to her smash-­hit TV show Offspring, which lured more than a million viewers for its 2013 finale. For Richard, it’s real life that delivers the entertainment goods: his long-­running humour column, daily radio show and non-­fiction books such as the bestselling The Land Before Avocado find levity and insight in seemingly ordinary moments.

These two seasoned storytellers also happen to be a couple, and each has been there for the creative triumphs and tribulations of the other. In this conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed, Debra and Richard talk to Griffith Review Editor Carody Culver about the emotional acrobatics of writing for a living – and living with a writer.

CARODY CULVER: I’m interested in who you were before you met one another and the forces in your early lives that shaped your creative impulses. Richard, you had pretty eccentric and emotionally absent parents, whom you wrote about in your memoir Flesh Wounds: your mother had delusions of grandeur and ran away with your English teacher; your father was an alcoholic. Do you think your unusual childhood played a part in your becoming a writer?

RICHARD GLOVER: I’ve spent forty years writing about the seemingly mundane matters of suburban life with kids and dogs and grandchildren and soccer fundraisers. And throughout that time people have always said, ‘Why don’t you write about something more serious?’ and I think the obvious thing is if you didn’t have an ordinary childhood you start to value those sorts of things. You value ordinary life and you think these things are worth polishing and putting up on a shelf and admiring in a way that other people probably don’t need to. I sometimes go and see those really grim plays where all of humanity is terrible and evil and the world is this poisonous place, and I always leave the theatre and think, The person who wrote that play must have had a really happy childhood.

One of the problems with the way we talk about maternal and paternal love is we always talk about it as if it’s axiomatic, as if everybody gets it. But that’s just not true, and it leaves you in this place where you feel that if you didn’t get that parental love then you should be especially aggrieved and feel especially terrible about it. And yet there’s this amazing resilience to human beings – sometimes childhood is so terrible you can’t recover from it, but most of the time people do recover and they find the love elsewhere.

DEBRA OSWALD: I grew up in the suburbs with parents from working-­class backgrounds who were encouraging and ambitious for us in terms of education. My mother was quite critical and her love was knotty and conditional, but my father was very devoted. There’s an alchemy in that – it means I’m riddled with self-­doubt but also have these bursts of optimism. I loved stories – I loved reading stories, so I’d write stories. Nobody told me that little kids didn’t write novels when they were ten. And my parents were supportive when I told them that I wanted to be a playwright – they said, ‘Well, you’ll need a typewriter’, and they gave me a typewriter for my twelfth birthday.

RG: Don’t you think that all good writers have that combination of enough self-­confidence to believe that it’s worth putting a word on a page and enough self-­doubt to keep on coming back to that word and trying to make it better?

DO: Maybe. I think there are some people who have more natural confidence and I wish I had a bit more. Then again, the urge to fill the vast psychic hole inside with validation is probably the reason why a lot of people pursue any form of creativity, isn’t it? Saying to the world, ‘Please love me because my mother didn’t love me enough.’ Ha!

I made my first professional income [from writing] at seventeen. I wrote radio plays while I was at uni, and since then I’ve made a full-­time living as a writer. So my whole identity is bound up with being a writer. Sometimes that’s helpful – because I consider it my job, I just have to get on with it. But at other times it means that the fate of my work in the world…goes deep into my sense of who I am and my value on the planet in a way that’s not always healthy.

There’s a difference between me the writer who’s doing the creative work, who’s excited about the story that I’m telling, thinking about the audience or the reader who’s going to receive it, and me the writer who’s worried about how the book will sell or whether someone snubbed me in a foyer at a festival. They’re two different people and you have to try to keep them separate.

CC: Does being in a relationship with someone in the same industry help keep in check some of those more self-­doubting tendencies? Or can it amplify them?

RG: I think it’s helpful because we both understand the perils of writing and the requirements to be delicate with yourself at certain moments and to challenge yourself at other moments.

DO: We can give each other a read on something – I can be stewing about a comment or a note and I’ll run it by Richard and he’ll help me [work out] how seriously I should take it, whether I’m over­reacting or whether I should act on it. That’s very helpful.

There are some tricky things. Because Richard has a busy career – he’s on the radio, publishes books, does speaking gigs and writes a column in the newspaper; his life is very full – he gets daily feedback. He’s reaching an audience every day. Over a long career like mine there have been lots of glorious times – you know, when Offspring was on, for example. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because I think I’ve been enormously blessed in my career! But there have been difficult times when I couldn’t get anything made, when I’d be constantly waiting to hear back on projects, working on my own writing without feeling the work was reaching an audience. During times like that, it’s tricky to share the house with a partner whose flywheel is spinning fast, whose work is landing with an audience, getting feedback every day. But that’s a minor problem in the end – the truth is, I wouldn’t have lasted as a full-time writer for more than forty years, I don’t think I would have kept going, without somebody as supportive as Richard.

CC: Would you say that you’re one another’s biggest cheerleaders?

RG: Oh yes, absolutely. I adore everything she writes. I find I’m totally in awe not only of Debra but of all fiction writers. I’m not trying to put down the sort of writing I do, or non-­fiction writing generally, or humour writing – I think it’s all important. But I still have a sense of awe for the ability to create characters out of nowhere. All my characters are really growing out of life to some extent, and I just find it phenomenal the way that Debra can go into her tiny office and create this imagined world full of events and people, and then when she gives me the script it leaves me howling in tears. I don’t know how you do that.

DO: And I am a huge fan of his. I mean, to write a funny, wise column every week – it seems an act of wizardry to me. I don’t understand how he does it. There’ll be weeks when he hasn’t got an idea and then hours later out will come this fantastic piece of writing. Then with books like Flesh Wounds and The Land Before Avocado – but I suppose I’m thinking particularly about Flesh Wounds – there’s a control of tone, an ability to be tender but also funny. He can connect with people even though he’s telling this specific and very eccentric story, connecting that with most people’s experience of the confusions and relationships in their lives. I think that’s extraordinary. I couldn’t do that.

CC: What about when you first met – what were your first impressions of one another?

DO: I was nineteen. I’d been a couple of years at university and Richard had been off gallivanting around the world. When he arrived at ANU, he marched into the refectory as if he thought he was a bit special because he’d been living in London. I turned to my friend and said, ‘Look at that wanker.’ If you’d told me that I’d then spend the next forty-­four years of my life living with that wanker, I would not have believed you. But I was running a little theatre company on campus and Richard came and painted my sets – that’s not a euphemism. He literally put on lime-­green overalls with Richard on the back that he’d worn when he was a young actor with Queensland Theatre Company in their theatre-­in-­education team. And can I say, he was a very bad actor – that’s just fact, that’s not an opinion. Anyway, we became friends, and maybe that was a good way to start. We got together properly sort of mid-1980. I was twenty and Richard was twenty-­one.

RO: I mainly remember going in and offering to paint her sets. We were doing Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, so I think it was great that we met on the set of a sex farce. I remember her being a forceful person and a smart person, and they were two qualities that attracted me a lot.

CC: And there was a period, wasn’t there, when you were still just friends and living in different cities, writing letters to one another. Do you think that played a role in your burgeoning romantic feelings, being able to express yourself on the page?

RO: Absolutely, and I’ve still got the letters – they’re amazing letters that Debra wrote. There’s one fantastic one where she really spells out the plot of what became, maybe ten or twenty years later, one of her plays, Mr Bailey’s Minder. She’d met my father, who had various problems, and she was studying King Lear at the same time, and she wrote this eight-­ or ten-­page letter all about how she wanted to write something about my father and how much love we deserve in life and whether you can expect love if you behave poorly. And then I think we both forgot about the letter entirely and she went on, years later, to write Mr Bailey’s Minder, and then we found the letter and we went, ‘Oh my God, this is the plot of the play.’

DO: There’s something very nourishing about having somebody to write to who will receive those thoughts. I think you can play out an idea in your mind more fully because you’ve got somebody to say it to. I think that’s precious. I was lucky to have that.

We also wrote an appalling radio comedy show called Pete and Ron Join the Communist Party – we wrote it and both performed in it on community radio. So we had a lot to do with each other before we were together.

RO: And I’ve still got the reel-­to-­reel tape, so if she ever crosses me I’ll release it to the public and destroy her career.

CC: One of the things that struck me about both of you when I first met you is that you’re both very curious people. What role do you think that plays in your writing, and in your relationship?

DO: I love that you say that because I really like being curious and I hope that I don’t ever stop. That’s a big thing in my new book, which is a whole-­of-­life novel about a character who lives to be a hundred: one of the things that stops her losing her way when she’s facing difficulties is that she’s curious, so even when something bad is happening she’s thinking, ‘This is interesting, this is happening. What does this feel like?’ And if you’re curious about what’s happening within you then you’re observing it, and I think that reduces suffering. Being curious about other people can reduce suffering too – if you pay attention, you can see that everybody’s suffering and that their dealings with you spring from whatever’s churning away inside them, so you don’t take things as personally and you can feel compassion for them. You’re more likely to then feel compassion for yourself.

Wow, this is getting psychotherapeutic.

Curiosity is a habit of mine that I’ve had since I was a little kid. I used to watch people on trains, listen to their conversations and write them down in my notebook. It’s a wonder I didn’t get bashed up when you think about it – this ten-­year-­old writing down your conversation on the train from Parramatta to the city. People are tremendously fascinating, aren’t they?

RG: An interesting thing about Debra’s stage show, her one-­woman show [Is There Something Wrong with That Lady?, which ran in Sydney in 2021 and 2023], is that very few people could have done it, because you need to have enough success that you’ve got a calling card: she’s won the [New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards for a play and a script] and has done at least one very successful television show. But you also need sufficient failure and sufficient courage about admitting that failure that you can describe to an audience what most artists’ lives are like. Most actors and painters and writers have got this strange combination where the public looks at them and thinks, Oh, I see that person on film all the time; they must be doing so well, and then if you get to know them you know that the last time they worked was four years ago. That’s a writer’s life, and so the glory of that show was that Debra was able to say to a general public audience: this is what it’s actually like, it’s about these moments of great success followed by these absolute body blows of having theatre companies just not return your calls and taking four years to read your plays even though you’ve won the premier’s prize.

DO: I’m wary of the curiosity getting attached too much to self-­absorption. I really like stickybeaking as a way to enjoy the world by looking outwards. Every human’s interesting and most people love talking about themselves, so you can get a fascinating story out of everybody.

One of my favourite things about writing is when I need to do research. For my novel Useful, I enrolled in a TAFE course in asbestos removal, and I have a certificate now – I can remove non-­friable asbestos. I followed an asbestos removal crew around for several days and talked to all the guys about what it was like to remove asbestos. For another book I followed a peach farmer around for several days and the farmer said, ‘You’re really interested in peach farming, aren’t you?’ and I thought, Yeah, I am. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a freelancer and a solo worker – except when I’m in rehearsal or working with other writers on the plotting of a show – but most of the time I’m home on my own, so to get out into the world and be a nosy parker about other people’s lives, it’s fun.

RG: Isn’t it the starting point of insight? The great example is Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, when Anna’s having an affair with Vronsky and her husband says that he’ll send away her young son if she wants to keep seeing her lover, and she’s heartbroken and decides she’ll have to share this information with Vronsky, how heartbroken she is. And as she has this idea she understands instantly the look of dismissal that will come across Vronsky’s face when she tells him, and in that moment she realises that he’s really a cad and that the affair has cost her so much and given her so little. And it’s four or five lines of the book, and you think, how does Tolstoy know that, how does he know so much about human beings? How has he structured the scene so beautifully that we feel such a wave of sympathy for a woman who’s a Russian aristocrat from a century and a half ago who we don’t even like that much? And yet he does it. And it all starts with curiosity. It starts with looking at human beings and thinking about human beings and trying to understand how they tick. And I think that sometimes when I’m reading Debra’s work – I think, How did she know that? And she knows that because she listens.

CC: Alongside your relationship with one another, there’s also your relationship with your readership. Deb, I know you’ve talked in previous interviews about not really understanding writers who say, ‘I just write for myself.’ Could you talk about how you keep the reader or viewer front of mind and why that’s important to you?

DO: It’s hard for me to talk about because I don’t understand any other way that you could do it. When I’m writing something I’m always thinking about how it’ll land in somebody’s head, what will be clear, what will be moving, what will be confusing, what will make people laugh. And probably it’s partly formed by my early work in the theatre – especially in small theatres, you can see people’s faces, and that’s one of the joys of writing for the stage, that you get to observe people laugh or gasp or lean forward with concern for the character.

TV writing doesn’t offer that. You can’t creep around at somebody’s house and watch them watch your TV show – that behaviour is frowned upon legally. But I’m still always imagining people watching the episode. When Twitter was first really active, you could watch the audience response to an episode of television in real time. That’s gone now because we don’t have appointment television anymore, but gee it was fun watching people respond and seeing which moment they grabbed on to or which line of dialogue they’d tweet.

With novels I have a few friends who are the sample readers in my mind – I imagine them reading it and sometimes I ask them to read it if they have time.

RG: I really agree with that – I don’t understand people who say they write for themselves because it seems to me that you’re all the time trying to write a sentence that discloses its meanings easily, that doesn’t trip the reader up somehow, that doesn’t have a false rhyme in the words or a moment where you don’t know where you are. And with humour in particular you’re often trying to lead the reader gently down one path so you can suddenly pull the rug from underneath them with laughter as the hopeful result. So you’re all the time thinking about how to create these reactions in a reader. The most annoying review, when you look at sites like Goodreads, is when people say ‘it was an easy read’; it’s a slight criticism, and [when I see it] I think, Mate, it’s an easy read because I’ve worked so hard to make it easy. In really great books, you always know where you are in the sentence. There are no infelicities that can distract your eye or attention. You can’t stop reading it. And that’s hard to achieve, but you can only achieve it if you’re constantly thinking about this person who’s going to read it.

With [my new book] Best Wishes, there are 365 wishes, and I don’t think I’ve entirely achieved this but my aim was that each one should do something to you almost physically. Each one should make you either laugh out loud or it should make you teary or it should make you have a whoosh of hope. If you’re not thinking about the reader, then how can you possibly do that? The other thing that I do sometimes is I’ve got a couple of writing heroes – Bill Bryson is one, Matthew Parris is another – and sometimes I think it’s quite useful to re-­read a piece through their eyes. I imagine that I’ve sent this to Bill and then I read it back and I think, Oh, I’m embarrassed I sent that to Bill. I haven’t actually sent it to Bill, but I figuratively sent it to Bill, and then I read it back and think, I could make this better.

DO: One of my favourite things in drama and in fiction is to flip a moment from funny to sad or the other way because I think that’s a truth about life. And another thing I love to do is to have a character that a reader or audience is going to judge harshly…and then bit by bit to take the story down a path that convinces the audience [to reassess their opinion]. I don’t want the reader to suddenly discount the things that were tough or spiky about that character, but to understand the pain in them and to love them. I love it when a writer does that for me.

RG: It’s so interesting you put it that way because I think sometimes when people talk about seeing things through the eyes of the audience, they think that means pandering to the audience. And you’re saying the dead opposite of that – you’re thinking about the audience in order to challenge them and take them to fresh new places.

DO: I also feel this duty to give people a feast. I feel that if someone’s given up their night to sit in a theatre to watch my play or they’ve spent $32 and put in hours of time to read my novel, then I owe them a very satisfying – I was going to say three-­course meal, but I would say a five-­course meal. I owe them a degustation menu. I owe them great characters and a ripping story and moving moments and funny moments and surprises. I owe them as big a feast as I can give them because I feel like they’ve given me that trust, so I will do my best.

Photo credit: hunt-er from Pixabay

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About the author

Richard Glover

Richard Glover’s books include Flesh Wounds, The Land Before Avocado and, most recently, Best Wishes. 

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