In this episode of Biographers in Conversation Gabriella chats with Bernadette Brennan about her book: A Writing Life. Helen Garner and her Work, a literary portrait of one of Australia’s most vital and revered authors.

Bernadette Brennan explains why she wrote a literary portrait of Helen Garner rather than a conventional biography, and how she disentangled Garner’s human story from her writing given that Garner’s life and writing inform and shape each other. Bernadette discloses why she opened A Writing Life with a scene in which an agitated Garner is a panellist at a writers’ conference and why she views A Writing Life as genre-bending. She also reveals why she structured the portrait around literary analysis of each of Garner’s books, and why she thinks of the chapters in A Writing Life as rooms in ‘Garner’s house of writing’. Bernadette describes the advantages and complexities of writing about a living subject and why she ended the book with an email from Garner about her Bible reading group and her remark: ‘our immersion in a (mighty) text brings everyone to his (or her) best self’.

Winner of the CHASS Book of the Year Award 2018

Shortlisted for the National Biography Award 2018

Shortlisted for the Magarey Medal for Biography 2018

Shortlisted for the 2018 Mascara Literary Review Avant-garde Awards for non-fiction

Longlisted for the 2018 ABIA Biography Book of the Year

Longlisted for the Stella Prize 2018

Helen Garner is one of Australia's most important and most admired writers. She is revered for her fearless honesty in the pursuit of her craft. An honesty that makes readers feel like they know her. Garner also courts controversy, not least because she refuses to be constrained by the rules of literary form. She writes herself into her nonfiction, and many of her own experiences help to shape her stories and novels. 

But who is the 'I' in Helen Garner's writing?

Garner's work and life are intricately interwoven. It is not possible to understand one without the other. In this literary portrait Brennan maps Garner's books, screenplays, letters, diaries and other unpublished work, against the different stages of her life. This is the first full-length study of Garner's forty years of writing. An invaluable read for anyone wanting to appreciate Helen Garner and her work more deeply.

Reviews of A Writing Life

‘To read Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work is to have the most-welcome, viscerally renewed sensation of recognising the country I live in as the making of me. Reading Brennan’s book is like coming home…

What I believe I encountered in Brennan’s book is love and rhetoric; what is palpable in A Writing Life is Brennan’s clear sighted passion for Garner’s work. Brennan has the intelligent grace to foreground her own process, paralleling, again, Garner’s approach. It is as if Brennan says openly: this is how I did it; it was hard won; it is not an automatic process; it is about my fallibility. She reflects that the ‘biographer – or literary portraitist – interprets a life through her own imaginative, cultural and political filters … [choosing] what to include, omit or emphasise’.

Moya Costello, Sydney Review of Books 11 August, 2017

Brennan’s book A Writing Life re-imagines the intersection between life writing and literary criticism. It contributes to a vital conversation across and about Garner’s work, where questions of borders, transgression and ethics recur…

The intimacy and trust of Garner’s and Brennan’s conversation is implicit throughout the work, but perhaps softens some of the sharper edges of the discussion. The Writing Life made me keen to see more of Brennan’s own intelligent and insightful “I”. This book offers an illuminating discussion of Garner’s boundary-crossing work. Its own magic lies in bringing elements of memoir and criticism into an absorbing conversation that begins with a rich contextualisation of Garner’s work, and extends into the literary and ethical questions with which Brennan has long been concerned.

Felicity Plunkett, The Australian April 29, 2017

 The New York Times journalist Richard Eder once wrote that a skilled interviewer needs “alertness to the answer that hints at a life half-hidden and stimulates a question that gets it to emerge, shake itself and look around”. Brennan possesses this rare talent and she proves a canny interlocutor for Garner, their conversations forming an essential and fascinating part of the book. Garner frequently offers fresh reflections and insights in response to Brennan’s questions and conjectures, in a process that many writers would find terrifying.

Brennan herself writes with an eloquence and perceptiveness equal to her subject. Her tone is never overly reverential or adulatory, the close analysis of the texts is lucid and intelligent and she is not afraid to probe difficult and controversial aspects of Garner’s life and work.

Alice Nelson, The West Australian  21 March, 2017

Bernadette Brennan
Bernadette Brennan

Bernadette Brennan is a biographer, critic and researcher of contemporary Australian writing. She is the author of a number of publications, including a monograph on Brian Castro and two edited collections: Just Words?: Australian Authors Writing for Justice (UQP 2008), and Ethical Investigations: Essays on Australian Literature and Poetics (Vagabond 2008). In 2017, she published her award-winning literary biography A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Text). Her most recent book, Leaping Into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears (A&U 2021), was shortlisted for the 2022 NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Award and won the Magarey Medal for Biography, the National Biography Award and the Age Book of the Year (non-fiction).  Bernadette is currently working on a literary biography of Drusilla Modjeska.

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  1. Elizabeth Chappell on April 11, 2024 at 1:58 pm

    Another thought provoking interview.

    • Gabriella Kelly-Davies on April 12, 2024 at 7:14 am

      thanks so much Liz
      Warmest wishes

  2. Rob Clifton-Steele on April 13, 2024 at 9:01 am

    I loved this interview, with its insights to the beloved Garner that aren’t even available to those of us who have read her diaries and books. This seems a remarkable and demonstrates the balance required and what an exceptional, persistent, honest but obviously deeply caring biographer can achieve. Brilliant interview. Thank you both.

  3. Penny Holliday on April 13, 2024 at 9:12 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this interview!

  4. Gabriella Kelly-Davies on April 17, 2024 at 7:15 am

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