Helen Garner lives in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington, in an Edwardian-style house with a picket fence. A corridor from the guest bedroom connects to the house next door, where Garner’s daughter, Alice, lives with her family. Most evenings, the two households have dinner together. My first meeting with Garner took place on a summer morning at her kitchen table, which looks out onto a brick patio, a vegetable garden, and a wire enclosure accommodating three ISA Brown chickens—or chooks, as Garner calls them.
Garner was born Helen Ford in 1942, the eldest of six children, in the coastal city of Geelong, Victoria. In 1968, she married the actor and writer Bill Garner, a fellow graduate of the University of Melbourne; they separated in 1971, when Alice was two. Garner’s debut novel, Monkey Grip, published in 1977, describes a love affair between a divorced single mother living in a Melbourne share house and a heroin addict. “Helen Garner has published her private journal rather than written a novel,” one reviewer complained, apparently unaccustomed to the peculiar laws of what would today be called autofiction. Garner is up-front about the fact that she makes liberal use of material from her diaries in her fiction. Her second novel, The Children’s Bach (1984) was a technically precise yet lyrical account, told from shifting perspectives, of an upending of family life. Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), her third novel—three linked stories of a hospital visit, a cremation, and a Garner-like figure experiencing a spiritual crisis in a former share house—was written after Garner’s divorce from her second husband, the French journalist and translator Jean-Jacques Portail; her fourth and most recent, The Spare Room (2008), describes, with blistering honesty, the frustrations of caring for a dying friend.
In 1995, Garner, already an accomplished journalist, published The First Stone, a book-length investigation into a campus sexual assault scandal, which stirred controversy by challenging contemporary feminist thinking about sex and power. It sold more than fifty thousand copies in its first year. Garner’s reputation as a nonfiction author was cemented by the publication of two propulsive, devastating books about murder cases: Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004), an account of the trial of a young woman who killed her boyfriend, and This House of Grief (2014), about the conviction of a father who drove himself and his three children into a dam. Four years ago, Garner began editing her diaries for publication in three volumes. Together they offer an intimate portrait of a writer with a gift for self-scrutiny, an astute reader of everyone from Patrick White to Goethe to her psychoanalytic therapist. In one of our exchanges, Garner rightly likened the third volume, How to End a Story (2021)—which details the disintegration of her third marriage, to “V,” the writer Murray Bail—to a novel.
“I never planned for there to be a nicely balanced tripod,” Garner told me, but her ease and brilliance across fiction—including many short stories and, in 1986, the screenplay for Jane Campion’s film Two Friends—nonfiction, and diary writing challenged this magazine’s classification system for interviews. These days, she considers herself primarily a nonfiction writer, but in every form she retains the same voice and capacious emotional intelligence that distinguishes her as a novelist. In our conversations, which continued on Zoom as the Australian summer shaded into fall, Garner revealed herself to be the person she is on the page: generous with her time and her intellect; at once vulnerable, no-nonsense, and quick to laugh. When we were interrupted one day by a light tap on her study door, she told me, “That was my enormous grandson. He comes in every morning and says, ‘Can you cook me breakfast?’ He’ll have to make his own today.”
—Thessaly La Force