Interview with Joan London

The author of Gilgamesh talks about the making of her novel, her characters, how she used the original epic, about the differences between writing short stories and a novel, Australia in the 30s and 40, and more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball: Tell me about the background of Gilgamesh (your novel). You mention in the press notes about a trip to Armenia. Was writing a novel in your mind at the time?
Joan London: I did not visit Armenia until I had started writing the novel and had spent quite some time reading about it. So when I went there it was as if I saw it through the lens of the novel.

Magdalena Ball: Which came first for you, the concept of writing a novel
mirroring the Epic (Gilgamesh), or the characters and general plot?
Joan London: They came at the same time. Some years ago I had a series of dreams culminating in an orphanage in a desert, with a title, like that of a film, Gilgamesh. I was only very vaguely aware of the Gilgamesh epic at that time, so I started to hunt out and read various translations of it. At the same time I started reading about the parts of the world where I felt these dreams were located, and the characters and the story started to take shape. For a long time I did not know how the Gilgamesh story would come into my story, and tried to keep the action very much depending on character, rather than manipulating the characters to enact the epic. In the end of course, like all great stories, the shape of the epic can be traced in any life.

Magdalena Ball: The press notes call it a ‘long awaited, much anticipated’ novel. Why is that? Did it take a long time for you to write?

Joan London: I started to collect books, photographs, music, which I felt
were somehow to do with the time, the place, the atmosphere of this vaguely apprehended mass I called Gilgamesh. I kept on reading, about the Second World War, about the Orient Express, about Group Settlement in Western Australia , about the Depression etc. Meanwhile I wrote other things, and took periodic stabs at Gilgamesh which didn’t work. I thought it was going to be a long short story, but it kept on growing. I didn’t really get started until 1997. It ended up taking me about four years to write.

Magdalena Ball: Australia in the late 30s/early 40s as portrayed in the novel is a pretty harsh place – eschewing any migrant who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. Do you feel this really was the case? Has Australia changed?
Joan London: Yes, life in the Group Settlement communities was often
particularly harsh and heartbreaking, especially during the Depression. And from my own memory, growing up in the suburbs in the fifties, there was often a very excluding, patronising, if not overtly aggressive attitude towards those New Australians who didn’t fit the Anglo-Celt mould.

Magdalena Ball: This is your first full length novel. In what way does writing a novel differ from writing short stories?
Joan London: It’s lack of containability. Gilgamesh just kept on growing, back in time, forward in time, sideways: it was too big to be compressed into an essence, which I think is what stories are. There wasn’t a sense of closure, of a single illumination: the closure couldn’t happen until a very long journey had been made.

Magdalena Ball: Were you worried that Edith’s voyage was simply too daring ? too unusual for a girl of her background and life experience?
Joan London: That was just what I wanted to explore. Edith’s journey was
like my journey, to test out, to examine, just how possible, in all the smallest, most practical ways, i.e. the suitcase, the passport, the money, the nappies for Jim, it would be for a totally impoverished young mother to make a preposterous journey if there was enough will, enough desperation. And to examine what allows her to survive.

Magdalena Ball: Talk to me about some of the parallels between the epic of the King and the epic of Edith; of Jim; of Leopold; of Aram?
Joan London: All of them, like King Gilgamesh, set off on their major
journeys after suffering loss of some kind and the reason for their journeys could be seen as an attempt to restore that loss, and to ‘find eternal life’, through love or heroic deeds, or perhaps in Jim’s future, artistic production. Jim is just starting out, and Aram dies, but Edith and Leopold have to suffer, like Gilgamesh the painful process of return, of finding one’s place.

Magdalena Ball:What about the religious elements, such as the fanaticism which takes hold of Frances while Edith is away? Is that a microcosm of the bigotry which is experienced in a broader sense by Ada and Jim, as they try to settle in Australia?
Joan London: The extreme loneliness and loss which Frances suffers make
her fall prey to the false religiosity of the Brothers and Sisters, who could only thrive during the War because of the desperation of those left behind. They are chased out of the rural communities once the war is over. In fact I don’t think that the bigotry Edith and Jim suffer would differ from attitudes at that time all over the world in small rural communities