Jane Alison on NPR’s “Here and Now”:
Jane Alison talks family heartache and tragedy to Louise France in The Guardian (link)
On joining the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Program (link)
Jane Alison on memoir, fiction, and truth (in discussion with UVA students):
Jane Alison on NPR’s “Here and Now”
A Conversation about The Sisters Antipodes
You wrote three novels before you turned to memoir. How did your family story inform your fiction? Why did you decide to write a memoir at last?
One day I found myself walking to my office on a weekend, turning on the computer (didn’t have one at home), and writing a short story about the family, about the time my sister and I remet our father after seven years apart, in New York. This turned into several stories, and then a novel, and then many bad rewrites of a novel, until finally I gave it up. Then, in a way, the family story informed my writing by its absence, the hole I kept writing around . . . I’d write about anything else, and did that in the first two novels that were published, although the same themes are in those books, too: a girl standing knee-deep on a coast, longing for a man on the other side of the sea; men or women turning away from their lovers and magically reducing them to nothing. But an aspect of the family story proper did push itself out in a third novel, in sections about a young girl in the foreign service.
After that I was trying to avoid personal material altogether and wrote a proposal for a nonfiction book about Scotland and the Scottish plant hunters who went to the tropics and brought back exotics like palms and tree ferns that could actually survive in Scotland because of the Gulf Stream. A writer friend said, You have to personalize this or it just will not be interesting. And again the family story came out: little girls transplanted from Australia . . . So at this point I gave up on not writing this story and did what I should have done at first, but wasn’t ready to: write a memoir.
Your family story involves two diplomats, two beautiful wives, two divorces, two remarriages, two pairs of little girls. What advantages and disadvantages did this unusual symmetry give you as a writer?
The symmetries destroyed any life the story could have had as fiction. When I’d tried writing it as a novel, I had to get rid of the symmetries for the story to seem fictionally believable. There couldn’t be two girls in each family, but instead two in one and one in the other; the girls couldn’t have similar names; they couldn’t have the same birthdays; and so on. It was frustrating but necessary to cut out the sort of design that can annoy us in art but make us marvel in nature. Writing the story as memoir has, on the other hand, let me draw upon figures from both design and nature: cut-out paper dolls all holding hands, twinned markings on the wings of a moth. But even when writing about the symmetries in the memoir, I had to be careful—almost hold them up as marvelously absurd—because such a clear conceptual schema gets dull.
You write that you’ve wondered how life would have been different had your parents handled their split another way, if they’d made enormous efforts so that the after-effects were not so painful and long-lasting: “As I write this, though, I know I prefer how it was done. I like the austerity, the extremity.” Why?
A friend who read the manuscript marked another passage like this and wrote beside it, “Ah, a masochist in the making!” It’s a cliché that pain makes art, but clichés can be true. Pain can be awfully energizing. I have an almost frantic response to emotional pain: to convert it into something else, something beautiful outside me, as fast as possible. If there’d been no jaggedness to the split, no almost geological convections, I doubt that the submarine channels of obsession and fascination that run through my brain would have formed. I wouldn’t have the terrible need to tell this story—but then again, I wouldn’t have the story either, so the whole question circles.
Your three novels involved research and travel (Ovid, Rome, Venice, Scotland, gardens). Did you do research for the memoir? How was the experience of writing this book—excavating information for it—different?
For reasons I’m not sure of—and my sister isn’t either—I’m the one who kept all the letters that our father sent the two of us. I have those letters and just about every letter anyone has ever sent me, from my stepfather, grandparents, stepmother. These, plus the diaries and journals I’d kept off and on since I was seven, were the research materials for this book. I revisited places we’d lived and asked some old friends what they recalled of particular moments; for a time I planned to interview people who knew my stepsister in the years I didn’t see her, but soon this seemed unnatural and invasive. The book really had to be a memoir, a work of memory and reflection. But I was very lucky to have letters, photos, and journals to confirm or correct memory, and add layers I’d forgotten.
What changes to your techniques as a writer did you make moving from fiction to memoir?
This book is the most plot-driven narrative I’ve ever written . . . My fiction is not very story-based, but here it was the story itself speaking: a funny inversion of fiction and nonfiction. I’ve also never written in the first person, and this was a difficult adjustment, given especially that here the first-person narrator was actually me. More than I would in fiction I switched to a displaced second-person at times when there just had to be more distance. But the flexibility in memoir, even while far more constrained in material and in motion, once I’d decided to tell the story chronologically, was wonderful. I could narrate for a time, pause to ruminate, then slide back into the story, or skip ahead briefly for a needed effect, pause again, and so on. I also used scene less than I do in fiction. I don’t trust memoirs where just about everything is presented scenically, as if memory of conversations could be so divine. But trimming down scenes creates challenges, good challenges, and I liked working with letters, journal entries, ruminations, ekphrastic descriptions, drawing on everything possible to vary the texture.
In the memoir you reveal material about yourself that is personal and difficult. Do you feel that this was something you had to do, to tell the story?
I didn’t see that I could reveal so much of what I saw in my stepsister without doing the same with myself—both because this sort of triangulating, or mirror-imaging, has so often helped me try to understand her, and because it didn’t seem fair to expose her and not myself. Speaking of another memoir about two women, a friend once said, “She gave away all her friend’s secrets and none of her own.” This stayed with me.
In Nine Island, Alison tells the story of a solitary woman living in a Miami high-rise apartment, who considers retiring from love and is obsessed with Ovid’s poems.
The narrator of your book, J, spends a lot of her time looking out the window of her high-rise, yet her apartment is covered in mirrors. Is she more interested in looking outward than looking inward?
Interesting observation. She does spend a lot of time thinking about—obsessing about—pondering issues in her inner self, so it’s a relief to cast herself outward. She is fascinated by how other people—or pelicans or iguanas—behave and almost loses her own sense of self when watching. She’s also at an age when her own bodily reflection is more irritating than anything else. But those mirrors are good for expanding the sense of space, doubling the sky.
Like Ovid, the narrator is in exile. How does her solitude play into her affection for Ovid’s love poems?
I hadn’t thought of her in exile, strictly, but you’re right — if by exile we mean isolation from any notion of belonging. (Big difference between belonging and longing.) The Ovid who wrote The Loves, Art of Love, and even Metamorphoses was still the man-about-Rome, though, not yet in exile (those sexual poems might well have sent him there). Yet the figures in his Metamorphoses prefigure Ovid’s own exile from home, language, and culture in that these figures often transgress—by wanting or doing something very wrong—and as a consequence lose their form and human tongue. The new body (as a tree, a bird, a newt) is strange and estranging, something like the state of exile. In the case of my character J, the estranging transformation, the “exile,” might be from youth, from loveliness in all senses of that word, and ultimately from the natural order of human procreation. She’s an island.
You’ve written on Ovid before. Are there other parts of this book that are autobiographical?
The book is a nonfiction novel, or autofiction, or a semi-imagined memoir: the lines between fiction and nonfiction and poetry seem even more unhelpful. Ninety percent of the incidents portrayed here are based on experiences I’ve had, although I did compress the events of two summers into one.
What is it about Miami that the narrator finds alluring, or at least compatible with her life?
Maybe the nonhuman elements. The shifting sky, restless water, sea grapes, and anoles and gumbo-limbos and parrots. She feels a comforting affinity with other creatures, other bodies, that hold traces of the changeableness among forms, if only in imagination: an iguana that plops into the bay and suddenly looks like a fish with wings; a tree that looks like a girl who dove into the ground, legs swaying; a rock made of hundreds of petrified corals, their fans or labyrinths intact; metamorphic clouds drifting across the sky.
A version of this article appeared in the 07/04/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Difference Between Solitude and Loneliness
“The Secret Life of Plants”
By Ellen Kanner
Jane Alison is like a tenacious exotic, growing out of her element but determined to take root. She’s been living in Karlsruhe, outside Heidelberg, for seven years, but is it home? “Certainly not.”
Nor is it Canberra, Australia, where she was born, or Washington, D.C., where she grew up, or Princeton, New York, Miami Beach, New Orleans, or Bryn Mawr, where she lived during college and after, or even Charlotte, where she jets to twice a year to teach at Queens University’s low-residency MFA program.
If Alison knew where home was, “I’d be there,” she says. Growing up in Australian and then American foreign service, “I always felt on the edge of something–your standard writer position,” says the author of The Love-Artist and The Marriage of the Sea. “You don’t belong on a foreign post, home isn’t home–there was a funny outsider thing.”
That funny outsider thing is at the heart of Natives and Exotics (Harcourt). Alice in Ecuador in the 1970s, Violet at “the bottommost edge of the world” (the Australian outback in 1929), and George in the Azores in 1822 are all uprooted from their native homes and scattered elsewhere. Like any introduced species, they must adapt to survive.
“I wanted separate stories working together,” says Alison. “Not linked stories, but something more than that.” Spanning centuries and continents, Natives and Exotics doesn’t obey the three unities of Aristotle’s Poetics (time, place, and action), but Alison, a classics scholar, makes it work. As the 18th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who makes a cameo appearance in her book, observes, “Extraordinary connections were underfoot.”
Alison is all about extraordinary connections. In The Marriage of the Sea, two couples crisscross the Atlantic, but like New Orleans and Venice, which serve as the novel’s hubs, their relationships are rotting, sinking, falling away.
What connects the three characters in Natives and Exotics is blood. Alice is Violet’s granddaughter, George is their distant ancestor. They are also linked by a desire to find home in a strange new place, by the need to belong.
“It’s about how you can make a new country home by what you plant there or the names you give it,” says Alison, doing time in Karlsruhe because her husband, Alex Wall, teaches urban design at the university there. “It’s about nesting, about placing yourself in the ground.”
In fact, Alison’s favorite image in the book is of a Scottish boy in Australia–another transplant–who gets lost and goes missing. “But many years later,” she writes, “someone discovered in a hollow tree trunk a boy’s neat little bones, curled up and hiding,” like buried seeds waiting to germinate.
Her gift for physical description comes naturally. Alison first thought of becoming an illustrator. As a child, “I would draw cartoons,” she says. “It was always drawing and writing together.”
Alison grew her rich, fictive world, so to speak, from primary source material including Darwin and Humboldt, her own family’s journals about early life in Australia, and her own childhood memories of Ecuador. “I did a lot of research and used almost none of it,” she says, but she discovered the garden in the Azores she’d visited and loved was created by an unknown Scottish gardener. That idea became the genesis for Natives and Exotics.
George, transplanted from Scotland, finds the Azores, his new home, “so vivid and intense and live,” she writes, “the soft earth seemed to be hatching.” He creates a magnificent garden for his employer and mentor, Mr. Clarence, introducing new species, new seeds, new plants, where they quickly take hold. But in aiming to create a new paradise, George introduces an exotic that contaminates the other trees. The natives call it molestia. “It seemed, rather, a curse,” writes Alison. “The molestia spread like slow fire from tree to tree, each one producing rotted fruit and bearing bark that split and bled.”
“This seemed to be something–a gardener destroying paradise,” says Alison, who loves gardens and plants, “but I may not do too well by them.” If she can still see the world as Eden, she also knows it’s destined to be Paradise lost.
“It all has to do with our relation with nature,” says the author, 43. “But once you put it into political or cautionary language, it gets reduced. I don’t like political fiction. I don’t like fiction with any sociological agenda.”
Without getting too tree-huggy about it, Alison has a true gobsmacked reverence for stars and seas, for mountains, flowers, fruit. “The only thing to believe in for me is the natural world. It’s enough,” she says. “There’s no need to imagine anything else.”
Her characters feel the same way. Alice, whose name is so like her creator’s, comes to Quito with her mother and father, who is there on a diplomatic posting. At nine, Alice is too young to concern herself with the country’s political turmoil but not too young to be spellbound by its wild beauty.
“‘You really like it here, in Ecki-dor, don’t you?’” one of her classmates says.
“But the word like was so small,” writes Alison. “The girls sat down, side by side on a chimney, and stared at the night sky until they were dizzy. You could not even seen the stars’ patterns anymore, they were lost in the sheer volume, the brilliance.”
For someone so taken by the natural world, not much seems to come naturally to Alison, including being a writer. “I didn’t want to be one,” she says. “I never thought about it or planned it.” But she has taken to writing, a strange place where she never expected to be, with all the passion of Alice or George.
“I always sort of dread it, but I’m happy once I’m started,” she says. “I take myself down to my little studio by about 11 and stay there and make myself do something till four or five, then a break to walk around the zoo.”
She often feels isolated in Karlsruhe, but perhaps she would feel that way anywhere. She lives out of place and out of time. Studying classics at Princeton, “I was separating myself temporally,” she says.
Her frame of reference is still classical rather than contemporary. “The language of those poets has taken more root in my brain than anything I’ve read since,” says Alison. “And I’m just perverse. I resist. I don’t read the books that are hot, and I should.”
Alison has made isolation work for her. Hers is a unique narrative voice. “I don’t do big, I don’t do contemporary, I don’t do chick-litty. My voice comes from very old stuff.”
She is now working on short stories, a book on subtropical Scotland–the result of some of her Natives and Exotics research–and a new “not quite big” novel. Alison writes at a standing desk, a result of her illustrating background, because she has a bad back and because “I don’t like staying still.”
Perhaps that’s why travel interests Alison more than home. Like all her Natives and Exotics characters, Alison yearns to explore, both geographically and in her fiction.
“I really like it when the two can come together,” she says. “That’s one of the happiest parts of my life.”
Sydney Morning Herald
“Artist’s impression of love gone wrong”
April 17-18, 2004
Itchy feet and a broken heart gave a reluctant author the raw material for a work of intricate beauty
By Catherine Keenan
It is unusual enough to have a first novel looked at by the chief book reviewer for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, much feared for her blistering reviews (she dismissed the Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little as “Beavis and Butthead trying to do Nathanael West”). But it was quite something when Kakutani favourably reviewed Jane Alison‘s The Love-Artist, a fictional story about the poet Ovid, concluding with a line to make any first-time author’s heart stop: “She has written a small, twinkling jewel of a novel.”
Kakutani didn’t review Alison’s second book, The Marriage of the Sea, when it was released two years later. But another reviewer from The New York Times did, and once again it was warmly received, becoming one of the newspaper’s notable books of last year.
It was an impressive start to a literary career for someone who spent most of her early life thinking she wanted to be an illustrator. “I never wanted to write. I still don’t,” says Alison, who was born in Canberra, speaks with an American accent, and now lives in Karlsruhe, Germany. She only started writing by accident, when she was illustrating a children’s book, and realised the text needed reworking. “And then one day I started to write adult fiction.”
She was in her late-20s when that happened, living in New Orleans, and working at Tulane University as a speech-writer for the university president. She doesn’t remember deciding to write a book; she just went into work one weekend, when her boyfriend was away, and sat down in front of the computer. “It just happened,” she says. “It was like a disease.”
The book she wrote was quite a personal story, drawing on her complicated family life. She doesn’t want to go into that, particularly as her father lives in Sydney and it was never published. But it made her realise she needed guidance with her writing, and she enrolled in a fiction writing program at Columbia University.
A second unpublished novel followed, before the success of The Love Artist. Alison began teaching creative writing, something she still does part-time, and The Marriage of the Sea grew out of some short stories she had lying around. It is a beautifully intricate novel about seven characters who become involved in a daisy chain of relationships, stretching from New Orleans to Venice. The book explores the idea of replaceability, the distinctly unromantic notion that we can fall in love with almost anyone, if we meet them at the right time, in the right place.
It is an issue Alison thought about a lot when she was younger, as she constantly moved around with her father, who was a diplomat. She left Australia and went to the US with him at age six and, aside from a six-year stint in Washington, they moved every few months, every two years at the outside. No sooner had she settled into a school, and made friends, than she would have to move on and make new ones. “Everyone is replaceable. You’re living in a house that the previous family lived in, and you’re in that girl’s bedroom. It’s all very temporary.”
The itinerant habit has stayed with her into adult life, and the six years she has spent in Germany (her husband, an architect, has a professorship there) are something of a record for her. She started getting itchy feet after two.
The book also brings together other aspects of her life. One of the most harrowing stories is about Josephine, who has to brave fertility treatment on her own when her partner leaves her in New Orleans. Alison too had the “hideous experience” of being abandoned by a lover in New Orleans, and she also, at a different time, went through fertility treatment. In fact, she was going through it when she was writing the novel, and after 2 1/2 years of trying to fall pregnant, was told by her doctor that it wasn’t worth trying anymore. It was a pivotal moment for her, despite the fact that she had never felt extremely driven to have a child.
“I was very ambivalent. But then when it turned out it wouldn’t work, that changed. Because to know you can’t do something, when it’s something as really terribly final as this, your feelings change. So I had to switch the consequences of that for Josephine.”
Alison stresses that she is not at all like Josephine, but she seems to share with her character what she calls “cheerful nihilism”. For instance, when I venture that the scenes where she fumbles with needles are particularly gruesome, Alison responds: “You don’t think it’s a little funny sometimes?” Funny?
“Yeah. I know it is harrowing, but the slapstick of trying to inject and not being able to . . .” She laughs, and says that really, the needles are the easiest thing to get used to. For her, it was much more draining having to get trains at 5am to distant German cities, and sit in waiting rooms with 20 miserable women. As an aside, she mentions that her doctor’s husband was Gunther von Hagens, the scientist-cum-artist, who has created scandals around the world with his exhibitions of real corpses. “Imagine how gruesome? Actually, he was the ex-husband, but he was sort of a presence in this clinic.” She laughs again.
I wonder if writing about a woman having fertility treatment was, for Alison, a way of exorcising these kinds of memories? “I think I have a very lucky quality, which is that when things are hideously painful, my mind starts working as fast as it can to figure out what to use it for, rather than just suffer it,” she says. She had a “terrible dark winter” when her IVF came to an end, but almost immediately she turned to writing as a way of turning it into something beautiful.
It must be a very satisfying thing to be able to do. “Sure. Yes.” She laughs.
The Canberra Times
“Venturing into deep waters”
By Bron Sibree
March 20, 2004
(also ran in Australia’s Sunday Morning Post and elsewhere)
Jane Alison cannot understand her compulsion to write. “It just seems like a bad arrangement from the start. I am always full of dread every day when I have to do it,” confides Alison, who at the age of 42 has penned three novels, a screenplay and numerous essays, but maintains it’s “a miserable way of earning a living. I like to be outside, to be physical, but I do love researching. I like to find the place where a novel is going to be set and really have an idea of what it looks like, sounds like and smells like.”
Nor can she even begin to tell you which is the more potent of her driving obsessions–her fascination with place and the power it has to shape lives, or her acute sense of the temporal nature of human existence. These potent and deeply entwined obsessions not only coloured her extraordinary debut novel, the critically acclaimed The Love-Artist, but have also shaped her elegant second novel, Marriage of the Sea, and remain the driving force in her life. “Some people will lie in bed at night and dwell on no longer existing and others simply never think about that,” says Alison. “And I’m the type who will dwell on it forever, and if that’s pessimistic or just very real, I don’t know.”
She calls this state of ambivalence “cheery nihilism,” and, in order to give emphasis to it, reveals that she has just returned from Australia, the land of her birth, to chase down an idea for a third novel rooted in landscape and shaped around notions of human fragility. “I’m often embarrassed that I can’t shake these mortality questions, but I can’t,” says Alison, who now lives in Germany, and teaches at Queens University in North Carolina. “I’m fixated on those big ideas like mortality and extinction, which may be dangerous.”
From a very early age, she says, she sought refuge in myth and classical poetry as a counterpoint to her sense of displacement as the daughter of an Australian diplomat, moving to the United States when her mother remarried a US citizen. “You’re constantly living in places where you don’t belong, so everything seems very arbitrary, and things dissolve around you.” From the age of 14, when she wandered into a Latin class by mistake and encountered Ovid’s poetry and Apuleius’s tale of Amor and Psyche, she was hooked. She then studied classics at Princeton, focusing on Ovid. Her long-running obsession with the mystery of Ovid’s exile later resulted in her 2001 novel The Love-Artist, which launched her career in the US and Europe and was translated into seven languages. “The classical writers, especially Ovid, were acutely aware not only that they haven’t been here long, but also they wouldn’t be here long, and I think I just absorbed these sorts of ideas and have never been able to shake them.”
Notions of impermanence in both life and love pervade Marriage of the Sea as palpably as her belief that “our relation to this physical world that is around us is truer than any others that we often imagine.” Yet for all its emphasis on human frailty, this elegantly written, hauntingly beautiful novel defied both Alison’s and her publisher’s wildest expectations to become a New York Times recommended novel six months running.
She began the novel in 1998 while living in New Orleans, after being abandoned by a lover who left for Venice, and admits the novel has had a long and tortuous genesis. “When you leave a place it’s like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water. The water closes right up and doesn’t miss you, and I feel that very strongly. I feel that often in relationships the identity and the value you have are very briefly given you by someone else, and just as easily taken away when they look elsewhere. So I was interested in this kind of terrible reduction of people, and then that got connected to the whole story, because both of those cities, Venice and New Orleans, are so threatened by water, and of course will both one day be subsumed by water.”
At times melancholy, often humorous, the novel is an intricate weave of almost Shakespearean proportions. “I wanted a dark, bitter humour, not quite comedy, not quite tragedy, and something almost mythic. I was very conscious while writing it of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and all those easy illusions,” she says. “Just how you can simply begin to believe something about someone and you can then easily not believe it, or believe it again.”
In writing the novel, she eschewed any notion of a central character to give emphasis to a sense of ambivalence. “I didn’t want the single point of view and the knowing narrator and all those sorts of things where you are given the experience. The world isn’t so simple and I wanted it to be something the reader had to put together and find where to side his or her own self.” Yet so deftly, so subtly does she link the disparate characters of Marriage of the Sea to each other and to the two decaying cities that play host to them, that the novel lingers in the mind long after reading. “I wanted to see why everyone did what they did, despite the pain it causes. There’s no villain; what I was interested in was necessary cruelty.”
Nor is it accidental that the strongest relationships her characters ultimately have are with whichever of these two cities they choose to live in. “Place does seem to be almost even more than character,” she admits. “When I’m writing, place is always one of the first things I think about, but to say that it is profoundly influencing doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s almost the biggest thing there is.”
Despite her memories of living in New Orleans, it wasn’t until she returned to that city–”which is sinking at about the same rate as Venice but doesn’t get as much attention”–and learned of the annual migration of the Mississippi eels to the Sargasso Sea to die, that the novel began to take on a life of its own. Indeed, in Marriage of the Sea the story of the eels takes on an added potency, their sad, doomed underwater pilgrimage underscoring Josephine’s ground-level struggles with her infertility, and the disintegration of her marriage. “I was trying to find images of the undersurface of the riverbed, and I couldn’t find any anywhere, but I could find what lived there, and that’s when I found the eels. Just picturing them struggling to go upstream, then coming downstream to find their mate, seemed so heartbreaking.”
Imagery is of profound importance to Alison, who was an artist before she began writing, and still works occasionally as an illustrator. It was her discovery of the eels, too, which kindled her newfound interest in natural history and ideas of extinction. Such notions underpin her forthcoming book due out next year, Natives and Exotics. Set partly in the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia, where most of her family still live, it draws on the historical records of one of her own ancestors, and “has much to do with our relationship with landscape and what we imagine as home.”
Home, or rather the absence of home, is a recurring theme in a conversation with Alison, who admits to a kind of longing to resettle in Australia, at the same time as she feels a compulsion to keep moving. “The idea of being settled is so strange, but at the same time I want to be settled.” She remains deeply ambivalent, too, about the processes of writing. “I never wanted to be a writer, and I’m not sure I want to be one now . . . I don’t know that there’s a choice. I can’t help but write.”
The Author’s Sister
Chicagoan Catherine Cox reflects on The Sisters Antipodes, Jane Alison’s memoir about their parents’ mate swapping
By Michael Miner
Catherine Cox is a family friend with a strange childhood, and about ten years ago she told us that her sister Jane intended to write a book about it. Jane wasn’t even an author then—just a kid sister who wanted to vent. But then the novels started to appear, The Love-Artist, The Marriage of the Sea, and Natives and Exotics, the first called “a twinkling jewel of a novel” by Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times and the others also enthusiastically reviewed. When Catherine said Jane’s next book would be a memoir spilling the family beans, it wasn’t a mere tell-all I anticipated but a literary event. If Catherine’s feelings ran more toward dread, I didn’t notice.
Now Jane Alison’s The Sisters Antipodes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has arrived, bringing fury and disruption to Catherine’s family. At its core is a sadly familiar story: a girl grows up not sure who loves her because her parents divorced when she was tiny and her father went away. But about this core are wrapped extraordinary circumstances. Alison states them flatly in her opening sentence: “In 1965, when I was four, my parents met another couple, got along well, and within a few months traded partners.” Catherine and Jane’s father, an Australian diplomat, was replaced in their home in Canberra by the man the book calls Paul, an American diplomat who left behind two little girls of his own. (Jane changes most names in her book—Catherine becomes Maggy.) This new family soon left Australia, and seven years went by before Jane and Catherine saw their father or stepsisters again. The question Paul’s daughter Jenny (her real name) would pose during a sleepover, and that Jane would long ponder, was: Who went first? Which father had first decided to leave his wife and daughters? Was Jenny or Jane more truly abandoned?
Jane and Catherine’s mother’s marriage to Paul didn’t last, but by the time it was over each new set of parents had produced a son; it was half brothers all around, and these boys guaranteed that all four adults would remain in the lives of all six children. The sisters of the book’s title are Jane and Jenny, who were a year apart in age but shared a birthday. Jane describes Paul as a swaggering, hard-drinking guy grudging with love and approval. She made a claim on both—at Jenny’s expense. She grew up smart, tough, accomplished, and good-looking—Paul’s type.
She describes a picture taken with her stepfather when she was grown. “I sit on one side of the table beside Paul, just him and me, and I have the bright tense smile I always have beside him, and look the way I always feel then, glassy, privileged, uneasy, as if this position is both my right and my crime.” When Jenny’s older sister, “Patricia,” came to visit, she continues, “and saw my books on his shelves but no sign of herself or her sister, I am told, her shouting could be heard down the hall.”
Jane wonders if Patricia ever saw that picture of her father and the usurping stepsister. She’s sure Jenny didn’t see it: the night it was taken “his real daughter was about to buy heroin, although she’d been off it for years.” A few days later the call came:
“Hi, Jane, it’s Paul,” her father’s voice said. “Bad news. Jenny’s dead.”
I sat down. Just sat there, in an empty apartment on the fifth floor of a bare, new building in a small city in Germany.
My first thought was, I’m free.
My second was, But now it’s too late.
Because I’d thought, I’d quietly counted on, Jenny and me seeing each other one day, or Jenny reading something I wrote, and her knowing that she was in me, too, that I knew what I’d done to her, what we’d done to each other, and that I was unutterably sorry.
Jenny had overdosed. Catherine attended the funeral in Australia. Jane, on the advice of her biological father, stayed home. “Think of Patricia,” he’d told her. “It would be easier for everyone if you didn’t come. You understand, don’t you? With Paul there.”
There’s a point in Jane’s delicately written story when she begins to fuck and fuck, and the word is as maiming in her hands as a razor had once been in Jenny’s. She did it over and over, either coldly or desperately, looking for whatever. Says Catherine, “It took a lot of courage to be so brutally honest about what she went through in her college years. I think that’s how she’s trying to make the parallels with what Jenny went through. I think she’s trying to say this is how she reacted as a parallel to how Jenny reacted—with suicide attempts and drugs and things.”
The author renders herself as hard and bleak—which is not how Catherine thinks of her—and as I read it I came to think of the book as a gauntlet thrown down for her two fathers. If either of you loves me, it seems to say, show it now.
I met Jane years ago and recall her as a quiet, elegant presence at a boisterous game of charades hosted by Catherine and her husband, Ted. I’ve enjoyed the company, at separate times, of both her mother and her father. Her father owned a villa in Tuscany and our family stayed there a week. In short, many of the central characters of The Sisters Antipodes are familiar to me, which means I read it with that much more fascination—but primarily I read it as Catherine’s story, once removed. And as my wife, Betsy, said when she was done reading, “I was so glad when Catherine went off to Vassar and got out of there.”
Aside from Catherine, no one in the family knew what Jane was writing until she announced it late last summer. Then there was what Catherine calls a “dramatic, horrible meltdown” in the family. “I’m not sure Jane really recognized how much pain it would cause,” says Catherine. Elle praised The Sisters Antipodes as a memoir that “seems less a breach of family ties than an act of bravery,” and Patricia, the surviving stepsister, responded on the magazine’s Web site under her real name, Vanessa: “Jane always was a terrible drama queen—and reading the excerpt above from this book confirms that nothing’s changed. Jenny never vied for her step-father’s attention—though Jane certainly vied for Jenny’s father’s attention. For someone who has prided herself on research—Jane never sought to research this one. Brave my arse! She is after money to pay for her new apartment and doesn’t care who she hurts in the process.”
No professional writer can categorically deny such a charge. “This process has been sort of torturous for Jane,” says Catherine, “because it’s so personal. Worrying about what people’s responses would be and whether it would cause them pain was difficult.” Yet this painfully personal book is also an ambitious author’s latest, and the author is concerned with how it’s reviewed and how it sells. “She knows she’s gotten a lot more publicity and attention than most people get,” says Catherine, “but you always want more.”
Where do you stand on all this? I ask.
“I think it was an important book for my sister to write and an important story for her to tell, and even though it was inevitably going to cause difficulties for the family, I supported her as a writer to do it,” Catherine replies. But Jane’s memories and scars are not Catherine’s. The difference in age—Catherine is three years older—accounts for much of that, but so does a difference in temperament. Through the years, I’ve seen Catherine bring to the basic facts of Jane’s book a wry smile, a roll of the eyes, a shake of the head. “When we were growing up, it was always the amazing, interesting story we told people—and for me that’s all it was,” Catherine says. “It didn’t affect me at all like it affected her. I just didn’t focus on either of those fathers. One was distant to me and one didn’t like me, so there wasn’t much to focus on. And it was different for Jane.
“Shit happens, and I never felt abandoned, the way Jane did, and I was able to derive love from multiple sources,” grandparents, mainly, she says. “And it was enough for me. And I think Jane needed it from particular people.”
Jane describes her biological father in The Sisters Antipodes as a friendly but impersonal man a bit under his second wife’s thumb and capable of exposing himself emotionally only when it was risk free, during good-byes. There was never a family reckoning—not that Catherine ever felt there needed to be—until Jane wrote her book. Jane has sent her father a letter, says Catherine, “saying sometimes you just have to do things for personal reasons that you know will be painful. And I think she was talking about the book—and talking about the split.”
For Jane’s sake, Catherine wishes her story of that split and what it wrought a long shelf life. “But personally, I don’t want to live in this forever. And I don’t want to be concerned about the pain it’s causing other members of my family forever. I don’t think it’s over, especially since it’s just come out in Australia,” where her father and stepmother live. “It will be much more personal for them there, and it’s a much smaller fishbowl there.”
Catherine calls herself a survivor. “I always thought that was why I got through this maybe better than all the others,” she says. “I forge ahead, for better or worse. Sometimes I forge ahead and think, ‘Oh my god, what did I do!’ later. But I’m not one to wallow for long. And maybe wallow’s not the word. Dwell.”
Jane dwells. Then again, all writers dwell, and writing is their relief from the dwelling. We won’t have Catherine’s book, and if Jane had been more like her sister we wouldn’t have hers either. But should she have waited to publish it until certain people had died?
“She’s a professional writer, you know,” Catherine says, with a hint of a snort at my question. “This wasn’t just something she had to do to clear her mind.”