Elizabeth Jolley, the author of An Innocent Gentleman, talks about her reader, changes in writing over the years, on innocence, themes, and labelling, and characters in her latest novel, An Innocent Gentleman.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: Tell me about the origins of An Innocent Gentleman.
Elizabeth: Well, the book takes place in the industrial midlands during WWII, and I’m really not sure why I chose that setting. I didn’t have an idea in mind when I started the book. It was more a sense of examination of the times – A way of looking at something, or exploring a particular time and place, than a story which I was familiar with.
Magdalena: Why the Dramatis Personae?
Elizabeth: I felt it would make it easier for the reader. I thought that they might be confused by the characters, and felt that a list of the people in the story; the characters, would give people something they could look back on.
Magdalena: What about the Scottish voice. Where does that come from and what does it signify?
Elizabeth: The Scottish voice just signifies a different accent from the midlands. He is patient but insistent because he wanted to get on with the story. It is just a bit of humour really. It doesn’t signify anything in particular.
Magdalena: Who is the narrator in the novel?
Elizabeth: In a sense one does have a narrator in mind, that voice who describes something about the salute, but I really wasn’t clear about this when I was writing the book. I would hope that the work would have worked its magic on a reader and that they would ascribe some character as the narrator, or develop some concept themselves. I don’t like to tell the reader what to do, or how to approach my books.
Magdalena: Tell me about the structure of the novel. You repeat some passages, and change the way in which Henry and Muriel are referred from their Christian names to Mother and Father and Husband and Wife. Why is that?
Elizabeth: I don’t really know why. I guess it was part of the rhythm of the prose, but I’m not aware of exactly why I did it. I wanted to express things in the best way possible, to change the story to reflect the changing reader. A story has to have a point of view in the narrator at times, and I was hoping that the reader would change in outlook, and in examination throughout the book. You can read for pleasure and for the story on a first reading, and on a second or third reading, find other things in the book. I was hoping that the change in the way in which the narrator referred to the readers, would help point the reader in their own direction for interpretation. A book always points me in the right direction if I wait a bit.
Magdalena: Is there an innocent character in this story?
Elizabeth: It is hard for me to say. I hope there is some innocence in it, but I think that it is for the reader to find. Victor is in a very important position. He seems to be there when he is needed, and he also represents the street person which of course was always evident. He has a quite a command of life in general – he is a survivor, despite his circumstances, and provides a balance for the society oriented desires of Muriel. I didn’t really have an innocent character in mind though, although innocence is an important theme for the book.
Magdalena: What would you say are the main themes of An Innocent Gentleman?
Elizabeth: I haven’t really come to labelling any bits of it. One of the themes is that difference between those that are rich, and well educated, and those people that are on the poor side of living. There was that tension between those who are poor admiring the rich. But I feel that the reader can identify whatever they like in the story. I don’t like to pre-set the theme for the reader.
Magdalena: You’ve been writing for many years. Have you noticed many changes in the way in which Australian literature is perceived worldwide?
Elizabeth: I think that there is lots of very good writing coming from all sorts of places in the world. It is always hard to get a foot into being published wherever you are. I’ve been very fortunate, but of course it wasn’t always that way. Everything was turned down in the beginning, and that is universal for writers. I do think that there are differences with how a book is perceived though depending on what country a reader is from. Americans tend to read more into books, to see them from a different perspective from Australians. My books are taken very differently in different parts of the world. I can tell you are American from the way in which you have read my book – I have lots of lovely friends who are American, and I can see that in the way you have worked through the book.
Magdalena: Have you noticed changes in the type of fiction that is being published in Australia?
Elizabeth: Over the centuries written words have changed tremendously. The writer of a novel or poem is reflecting something from society and you can’t always tell what it is. The poem doesn’t always work on the mind. Other things are happening below the surface. Certainly there are more distractions from media these days which we didn’t have during the war. Television is fine in its place and so is the ordinary novel – they are just ways of producing either the book or film or lecture – we can have all those wonderful things which we didn’t have back then.
Magdalena: Do you consider An Innocent Gentleman to be experimental/post modern in its structure?
Elizabeth: Not at all, it is a very basic, straightforward story and not meant to be taken experimentally.
Magdalena: Are you working on something new?
Elizabeth: Not at the moment no – I’m in Melbourne promoting An Innocent Gentleman, and there is nothing concrete which is in the works. I’m always thinking about ideas though of course.