In December last year I attended a talk at the Mentone Library. Elsie and Graeme Johnstone, husband-and-wife authors, spoke about their latest novel Lover Husband Father Monster. I was so impressed with their talk and their readings, that I tracked them down and asked them to answer a few questions for Literary Clutter.
The novel, a story about family breakdown, is written from two perspectives, with Graeme writing as the husband (Stuart) and Elsie as the wife (Jennifer). So it seemed appropriate that this interview should also be conducted in two voices, with Elsie and Graeme writing their answers separately. So, here we go…
Lover Husband Father Monster is a story of family breakdown with tragic consequences. What attracted you to writing this type of story?
A combination of events. Just before we did a house swap and went to live for a year in Ireland, there had been two headline-grabbing incidents in Melbourne of fathers seeking the ultimate revenge over marriage breakdown and killing their children. When we arrived in Dublin we came across court cases of a similar theme. We had planned to write some sort of book while we were over there — after all, the emerald isle is the country that has produced some of the greatest writers of all time. Initially, we had no real theme in mind, but pretty soon this became the story for us.
There are always two sides to every story; it takes two to tango; all of those things…
Sometimes two people just aren’t good for each other and certainly are not good, as a pairing, for the people around them. This story is the story of a couple like that — they have the ability to bring out the worst in each other. In the beginning they are two perfectly ‘nice’ people, both with strengths and failings, but as they rub against each other in the game of life they manage to project towards tragedy.
I am an observer of human behavior and have always been interested in how some couples complement each other perfectly while for others, the coupling is a disaster. This book explores that.
What sort of research did you do?
We lived in Ireland for ten months while we wrote the first draft of the book. It is set in Ireland. Several women whom I considered to be friends have, at times, come to me and told me that the marriage is dead. I have expressed surprise because, on the surface, they seemed to be happy, only to be told that the husband abused his wife. Women often cover this up to the outside world because it seems shameful and they wish to protect their families. The newspapers regularly report situations where the marriage partners have come to hate each other so much that they do awful things. We read, thought, discussed and researched the literature on abusive and revengeful partnerships. There are many of them. This book tells a common story.
The Dublin cases were front-page news every day and so we devoured every word we could on them, and began chasing up other cases on the Net. As well, Dublin talk-back radio was buzzing every day with comments on the cases, one in particular where a man, described as “a very ordinary insurance salesman” stabbed his wife to death in front of the three children at the breakfast bar. Very often people were saying that you couldn’t blame the man for what he had done, because “he had no where to go, the woman had pushed him into a corner.” And a lot of women callers were saying that! We began asking the question in all these cases, “What would drive a man to do that? What series of events would develop that would turn a man from the joyous lover to the sturdy husband to the controlling to the unconscionable monster?” Being a house swap, we were living in an outer Dublin suburb, in a cul-de-sac with a lot of young parents with kids and mortgages and the Celtic Tiger crashing around their ears, so we had plenty of opportunity to get to know and understand the wonderful, swirling, funny, generous complex character that is the Irish.
You had an interesting approach to the writing of the novel — each of you writing from the perspective of a different character. Why did you decide on this approach?
Simply because there are always two sides to every story. We decided to explore this issue from the two perspectives and let the reader decide where it all went so badly wrong.
We initially considered a joint effort on both characters, but then quickly felt it would be best to take one character each and apply specific female/male insight into the individuals. Having done that we also briefly considered interleaving the chapters, so that Jennifer would give her views on a certain period of time and/or event and then Stuart would give his. But we felt that would be restricting. We both agreed that it would be best if Jennifer told her story first in total and then Stuart gave his view. Sometimes they agree on events/times/issues and sometimes they don’t, while slowly but surely the differences begin to develop, the marriage starts to unravel and a shocking ending is looming.
Did you find this approach restricting or liberating?
Interesting. It meant that we had to write within a construct and that we really had to get inside the head of the character we wrote about. It made us dig deeper into the issue and not just look at the final act. Stuart did a dastardly thing but perhaps he was pushed that one step too far by Jennifer. Like the mouse that sank the boat!
Personally, I found it liberating. I enjoyed developing Stuart in my own way, while still working within the framework. I drew on my memories of a lot of men I had met or had witnessed in action in a family situation over the years, or had interviewed in my days as a journalist. Stuart is a composite make-up from those people, and I really got into piecing him together. Sometimes I got so much into his stealthy, controlling character, that when I would do something like open the car door for Elsie and give a courteous little bow, she would say to me, “Graeme, being just a little too much like Stuart today, thank you …”
George’s bit at the end
And so we come to the end of part one. But Graeme and Elsie will be back soon to tell us about their writing and publishing process, how writing Lover Husband Father Monster affected them personally, and what’s coming up next for them.
Catch ya later, George
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