[Two men and two women are seated on red chairs before an audience. One of the women holds a microphone and sheaf of papers.]
Ramona Koval: Well, welcome to this Dome Centenary Conversation. It’s a pleasure to be here tonight in this fantastic room at the State Library of Victoria. The State Library and the domed reading room is really one of the sacred places that mark the geography of my growing up in the world of books and writing and ideas.
As we’ve heard, it’s a hundred years since the opening of the domed reading room, and on the website, [former] director Shane Carmody has said:
When it opened in 1913 it was the largest building of its kind in the world, and its height and scale in a city without sky scrapers was dramatic. Inside, the rising arcades and balconies joined in a glazed roof with a golden orb at its centre – like the sun, a source of light and enlightenment. For 100 years, as every room around it changed and new rooms were added, its purpose remained the same: a place to read, to think, to be inspired and to create. From 1959 until 2003, copper sheathed the leaking glass and the dome assumed a deep gloom, yet still the readers came.
And I was one of them. My first experience under the dome in the reading room was in that gloomy light period when I was 14 and I had a project on Pythagoras to do, and I’d been steered to the Library by a teacher. And it was terrifyingly grand; all I could do was enter the portals and find my way to a seat, one of those fantastic seats, the heavy, heavy chairs next to those big oak tables and green leather inlays and the hooded desk lamps. And I was so terrified that I didn’t know what to do, I was just sitting there, feeling really embarrassed, I didn’t know how to get a book, I didn’t know whether I was allowed to. So I did walk around and walk around, and somehow I got to the Pythagoras section and I took out a book, I remember reading it and it had some of those 19th-century geometry drawings, and I took notes. And then I sort of, well I did actually look sideways at a lot of the boys, and wondered about them and …
Shane Maloney: At an obtuse angle?
Ramona: If you want to speak, if you want to interrupt me, Shane, you’re going to have to speak into the microphone.
Anyway, for me the domed reading room has kind of whiffs of boys in school uniforms, the idea of it and the possibility that there was a big brain in there and all the books that had been written by all the people that had ever written and was I ever going to be able to read them all, and it was exciting and it was daunting and it was fantastic. That’s how I really feel when I see a whole group of books together now in bookshops and in other libraries as well.
This evening we’re joined by four fantastic Australian writers, all of whom have thought about the places to write, the places to write about and why some places are perfect and why perfect places are sometimes terrible, and about the relationship between spaces to work and the writing that emerges, and about writing under the dome.
On my right, Shane Maloney: novelist, commentator, writer of a series of pieces called ‘Encounters’ in the Monthly magazine, best known for his Murray Whelan series of novels, and winner, he assures me, of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Crime Writers Association of Australia. You must be very proud.
Morris Gleitzman at the end there, writer of children’s books, the latest is called After and I see that as of April this year he’d got up to number 37 in his books. And I know for a fact he’s very particular about the places he writes.
And Carrie Tiffany, most recently in the news as inaugural Stella Prize winner for her novel Mateship with birds; it also won the Christina Stead prize for fiction. And her first award-winning novel Everyman’s rules for scientific living was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize for fiction.
Chloe Hooper was going to join us as well; she’s got the flu so she can’t come and we all forgive her. We hope she gets better very soon.
So we’ve got a crime novelist, a writer for children, and a novelist whose work lately has involved writing quite a lot about sex and the countryside.
So there’s plenty of scope for a range of writerly responses to my questions. I’m going to start with the obvious one and I’ll start with you, Carrie. What does the domed reading room mean to you as a place to write?
Carrie Tiffany: Well I liked it when it was dim and I don’t go in much anymore. I would need to wear sunglasses if I was working in the domed reading room, which would make me concerned that people think that I was a sort of Bono-styled wanker …
Carrie: … so I tend to work in the heritage reading room now.
People were so excited about it being restored and it was going to be so fabulous, but for me there’s something too glaring about the light on those books and I like a more troglodytic kind of research environment. It’s beautiful and I certainly, when I do sometimes sit there, I think about Helen Garner writing Monkey grip and I look at the different seats and I wonder which seat she sat in when she wrote Monkey grip. And I also remember speaking to Gerard Murnane once, he’s a fantastic Victorian writer, one of my favourite writers, and he told me that, I think it was in the 1950s, he was at Catholic teachers college in Melbourne and he used to come across to the State Library and sit in the domed reading room, mainly to get out encyclopaedias and look up photographs of female genitalia, and that sometimes there would be that hushing librarian who would actually walk past, and as she walked past him she would ‘tut tut tut’ when she looked over his shoulder and saw what he was looking at.
Ramona: Because there was a panopticon and there was a man in the centre when I was a kid, and he was in a uniform, and he told people to be quiet.
Shane: ‘The shusher’.
Ramona: The shusher. So Shane, what are your thoughts about the domed reading room?
Shane: Well they’re quite mixed in a way. Like Carrie, I did like it when it was sort of darker and you know, more aquarium-like. It was more like entering into another world of some sort. But it is quite magnificent.
You know, I’m not sort of tech-savvy. So there’s this thing called ‘the cloud’, I understand. And the only way I can try and imagine it is that up there in the dome this kind of cloud has formed of the thoughts, and work, and so on, and there’s a cloud hovering somewhere up there in the dome that’s the condensation of the mental processes and the books below. And they need that much space for the cloud to be up there. So there is something, and I feel a great sense of attachment to it, in fact the whole building, I go, isn’t this fantastic to see this. I mean it’s really been kind of closed off and the books have been out of here … but even to come in here to the Queen’s Hall … I know it’s a little off-topic, but to think the art books used to be over there, and then there was a kind of music library of some sort. I don’t know what they had there, they didn’t have Inna Gadda Davida, I asked one day …
Shane: … and you know it was the later string quartets of someone with too many umlauts in their name. It was this kind of magnificent setting and then, to select a book and to go down into the domed reading room and the radial form, like this great kind of wheel. It was–
Ramona: It’s like the wheel of life was it?
Shane: The wheel of fortune. [Laughs]
Ramona: What about Morris, what are your thoughts?
Morris: Well I didn’t know the dome when it was in its gloomy period – I’m a relatively recent blow-in from the north – but I did have an honorary fellowship for a year, a couple of years ago, so I had a tiny office right adjacent to the dome, so it was just over my right shoulder for a whole year.
The first day I came into my office I was delighted to find that the dome was in fact gleaming and sparkling clean, because my office at home has a small bathroom adjacent to it, which is also gleaming and sparkling clean – because, of course, cleaning the grouting in a bathroom with a toothbrush is an essential literary pursuit.
Morris: Few of us would write a chapter without doing that. And I was a bit nervous that if I arrived and there was a gloomy, dingy dome that clearly needed cleaning … I’d brought a toothbrush with me on that first day …
Morris: … but I could see maybe I wasn’t going to get much writing done that year.
But I did have a sense right through that year, I didn’t think of it in quite Shane’s terms, but that it was also that the dome shape did seem to be something that would catch and hold unimagined previous generations of creative and ruminative processes, and it kind of felt really nice. Every couple of hours I’d come out of what was a very small writing area – which is the sort of writing area I like best, quite sort of compact and womblike – but it was great just to be able to go and sit in the dome and sort of soak up not so much some rays but some thoughts and resonances.
Ramona: Can we talk about the presence of books when you’re writing? Are they, when you’re going through the research period obviously you want to find a book and read it, but do you find that they are kind of seductive, they are whispering to you, they’re saying, ‘What I’ve got inside my covers is so much more interesting that what you’re writing’. Is that a problem?
Morris: I’ve never, that’s going a bit far Ramona, you know ‘so much more interesting than what you’re writing’, I don’t think any of us would think that! But I love the fact that you’re allowed to wander through the stacks and because you’re in a place like this, you almost feel obliged to explore and open books that don’t have any obvious connection to what you’re meant to be writing, and I think that’s one of the great delights and one of–
Ramona: But is it distracting? Is it something that’s actually necessary to your work or antithetical to the idea of writing?
Morris: Well I rationalise it as essential to my work and because it takes the stories in to places that you know I hadn’t anticipated, or in the case of my time here, I think two books that I had no idea that I was going to write have come out of my meanderings …
Ramona: Tell us, so tell us. What happened?
Morris: … through those stacks. Well, last year I wrote a book about soccer, about how those poor males who get to the very top of the elite soccer world in Europe and earn two or three hundred thousand dollars a week, don’t really have much fun because when there’s that much money at stake, humans never have fun. And that kind of notion came from a book. I mean I was here supposedly researching a fundamentalist Christian community in the Australian suburbs, but I allowed myself to pick up a book, a sports memoir by a soccer player who clearly wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian at all, ever …
Morris: … and I got a whole new book out of it.
Ramona: What about you, Carrie? For your books you’re interested in historical photographs and pamphlets and all of those things that were provided for farmers in the country to help them do more scientific farming. Or in the latest book you’re interested in sort of sex manuals of the early part of the 20th century. How useful was the Library for that sort of thing?
Carrie: Yes, look, I’ve worked a lot here for both of the books. For the first book I think I annoyed the hell out of a lot of librarians. I didn’t really know what I wanted. I knew when I found it so I put in very vague searches and I particularly wanted to spend a lot of time in the Pictures Collection but I was too shy to tell the Pictures librarian why I was looking for things, which I think really annoyed her. She would only give me a half hour slot sort of once a week and sort of throw something at me.
Ramona: Why were you shy? What did you actually, what was the question you were trying to formulate?
Carrie: Well you fill out a form as to what you’re doing. And the thought for me that I was doing something as arrogant as writing a novel that I thought probably never would get published, I couldn’t quite write that down.
Ramona: What did you write down?
Carrie: I think I wrote ‘independent research’ or probably something crappy like ‘family history’ or something, I don’t know.
So that was a bit tricky for me so I didn’t get taken very seriously there. And in fact I ended up buying images out of the collection that I published in the book because they were so important in the writing of the book. And I paid double because I then had to pay about $1000 in copyright fees to have those images published in my book.
Ramona: You paid double, compared to what?
Carrie: No I mean I paid, I kind of paid emotionally …
[Panellist and audience laughter]
Ramona: Oh right!
Carrie: ... researching the images, because the librarian was pretty angry with me and then I actually had to sort of, I felt like I was physically giving her the money, so I hope that wasn’t the case.
I also spent a lot of time with my most recent book reading every issue of The Victorian dairy farmer, which is a bi-weekly, from 1945 to 1955, in the Heritage Reading Room. And when they went to get it it took several days, I think it was in a store somewhere, and I like the idea that it was being brought in by tractor into the reading room. And I think I was the first person to look at it, there was a little card, since 1975 and I like that idea very much, so I spent a lot of time flipping through, and again, not knowing what I was looking for but sort of knowing when I’d found it and just sort of taking notes. And in some ways for me, because I don’t really have a lot of ideas, the research leads the writing rather than I’m leading the writing. I find something and I think yeah, that’s it.
Ramona: So do you think it’s fair that you had to pay for those images when ...
Carrie: Absolutely not! [Laughs]
Ramona: ... when they would have sat in those books probably for another 150 years before the next person came to see them?
Carrie: Yes they were in the Pictures Collection. I thought they really added something to the manuscript, I thought they were really enigmatic. I love having them in the book, although I have to admit also the book was published in the States and in the States my editor said, ‘Look, we’re going to publish this novel but we’re not going to publish the photographs because in America, American readers would not think a novel could photographs in it.’ So. But it’s in the European editions and the UK and Australian editions and I love the idea that these strange photographs from odd places – Teddy Waddy in 1923, are in this novel again, and being seen as well again.
Ramona: What about you, Shane, have you been led astray by books in such a place as this?
Shane: Yes Carrie I hope you milked the Australian farmer, dairy farmer, for what it was worth.
[Carrie laughs and touches Shane on shoulder; audience laughter]
Shane: I couldn’t help that. But look I’m very much with Carrie on this in that there’s an element of serendipity and happenstance in our work, probably in all our work. You know, you catch sight of something that you hadn’t imagined, a connection that you hadn’t made, a photograph you hadn’t thought about – you know, ‘why are those people together’. And this was given expression in the old system when they had the index card boxes, the drawers: you’d pull out the drawer and you’d be flipping through and you’d be looking for a specific book because you had something very specific in mind that you were looking up and then, you know there were all those – some of them in copper plates, some of them in … you know, the history of the typewriter, you can see in the typefaces and obviously some of them hadn’t been touched for a century or more – but you would go looking for one thing and you would flip through and a title would just arrest you and you’d go, ‘Well I don’t know, this book has nothing to do with what I’m doing but I must see it.’ And you might or might not get some kind of something ...
Ramona: A paragraph, or a character ...
Shane: ... that you can use, or an idea that you can use later, or it might just simply make you pleased, make you disappointed. But the great thing about the reading room with the – having the books accessible as it were, you’re surrounded, you’re in a circle of books. They’ve got you surrounded down there, you know, and there are two things when I work in the Library, what I’m looking for in the Library are a quiet place to work – well, they don’t do that here anymore, they’ve decided to abolish that, but – and the other thing is the presence of the materials.
Ramona: So you, hang on, you want the ‘shusher’ back?
Shane: I want the shusher back. I want the shusher back with a silenced automatic weapon, yeah, you know?
Shane: I mean I want the shusher back with a licence to kill.
Ramona: What happens now?
[Carrie shakes her head]
Shane: Well you know, this is a little bit of a soapbox of mine, but the domed reading room is not somewhere where I will work now unless I – well I’ve come in specifically to access the collection which is what this place is all about, because basically this is all a really beautiful box but the contents are what it’s all about. And the content here is the collection and that makes it different from every other library really in the state, you know. I don’t think there’s a room here for a children’s storytelling corner, that’s not this kind of library. And unfortunately the acceptance of the sort of corporate rationale, and language, by the librarianship profession, has meant that they have, I think, to some extent surrendered some of the most valuable aspects. But they’ve got to pay the bill, they’ve got to convince the bean counters and so on to cough up with the money to keep the collection housed properly. And the cost of that is letting people in by selling something [laughs] – no, I’d put an end to that for a start!
[Ramona and audience laugh]
Shane: Letting people in by offering things which aren’t part of what they would call the ‘core business’.
Shane: Oh like, go down …
[Carrie nods in agreement]
Shane: … like the internet, where there’s sort of, you know, 47 Dutch backpackers lined up at any given time to save the $1 it would cost them to do it across the street. You know, the number of times I’ve walked up and down looking for internet access, not for the catalogue because there’s dedicated computers for that, but if suddenly I think I need to find a reference on the internet, you go to those and you stand behind someone who has spent half an hour pricing Britney Spears hair products on eBay.
Shane: You begin to wonder if you’re in the right place. But nevertheless, notwithstanding all of that, I think there are, for me, the overwhelming presence of all of these books and the chances of serendipity that one of them will jump out and bite you, keeps me coming back. I mean I need to access the collection but there’s also something kind of wonderful about the kind of sheer range of diversity and material that’s here on the shelves that is compelling.
Ramona: Alright, so we’ve talked about using the Library as a research resource, and you Morris were talking about having a little room to write – what’s wrong with just staying home to write? Not going somewhere to write? How does that work for you?
Morris: Well it’s partly what Shane’s been just saying, it’s partly just the sheer practical range of materials available. I mean if I’m at home and I suddenly realise I need some information about Britney Spears hair products in the book I’m writing, I’m going to be hard-pressed to, you know ...
Ramona: Are you? What about the net?
Morris: Well, I’m–
Ramona: I mean hasn’t that replaced a lot of the stack wandering?
Morris: Yeah, it has, up to a point it has, yeah. I know that if I come here and go wandering in a physical environment looking for Britney Spears hair products publications ...
Ramona: Or Britney Spears herself …
Morris: Well I was here for a whole year hoping, but no.
Morris: You know I think we have to be honest about the limitations of this place, Shane as well, I mean it’s got a lot to offer but as yet not Britney Spears in my experience.
But again it goes back, I know on the net you can endlessly juxtapose onto the next thing and the next thing and the next thing but to me it feels kind of purer to do it on a bookshelf, and more – I can permit myself to do it more.
Ramona: But isn’t it, I mean I just have this great thought, I think it’s alright, that you know, a book at least has been vetted because somebody’s written it, somebody’s published it ...
Morris: Oh, absolutely, I know.
Ramona: ... someone’s published it, the librarian’s actually bought it because they thought it was worth reading...
Morris: Yep, so here ...
Ramona: ... unlike the net, where you can actually ...
Morris: ... here it’s going to be the authorised Britney Spears hair product manual, whereas online it could be somebody masquerading, so there’s no connection to Britney Spears whatsoever.
Ramona: Absolutely, and you’d have to go through a lot of stuff before you got the real thing.
Morris: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
Ramona: What about you Carrie, are you disturbed by the availability of wi-fi and the net while you’re writing, or is it useful for you?
Carrie: No, it’s not useful for me, because so far I’m not really interested in anything that’s contemporary, so what I’m looking for is not on the net.
Shane: The 1920s weren’t online, sorry.
Ramona: [inaudible, playfully] or I’ll have to hit you.
[Carrie touches Shane on shoulder, Shane pretends to lick the microphone]
Carrie: But I know what Shane’s talking about. The net is a great attraction for the Library and sometimes, particularly during term time, there is this other disturbing thing about using the facilities here is that because everybody is, I don’t know, between the ages of sort of 16 and 18, there’s this great sort of sexual fog that’s kind of floating around the room [laughs] which can be kind of distracting.
Ramona: How distracting is it? What do you notice?
Carrie: I noticed, I was in the domed reading room a couple of months ago and some young girls were brushing their hair [motions with hair and hands] and there were some young men who came up and smelled their hair [laughs] while I was trying to do my very nerdy research; this was a bit distracting.
Ramona: But this must have been quite good for you because you’ve been interested in agricultural things for a long time [all laugh].
Carrie: But it wasn’t a mane, it was actually hair.
Ramona: It’s very sort of, you know, mammalian isn’t it.
Carrie: It is, it is.
Shane: As long as they’re not shearing them.
Carrie: Yeah, I’m someone who likes to see the thing itself and one of the things the Pictures librarian would say to me is, ‘Why do you want me to get all these boxes of photographs out? Because it’s all digitised.’ And increasingly a lot of the collection is digitised, even in books and manuscripts, it’s digitised. And I see they don’t want us to come, they want us to stay at home and look at it online. But what I wanted to do, and I was too shy to say so at the time, but I wanted to see the actual photograph, I wanted to see the plate and I wanted to turn it over, I wanted to see if anything was written on the other side and I kind of wanted to sniff it, you know.
Carrie: And everything about it I wanted to see, rather than to see it on a screen, that was important to me. And the same with those copies of The dairy farmers, to actually turn the pages and imagine the person that I’m writing about turning those pages and reading those stories that I’m reading, somehow there’s something in that that you just can’t get on the screen.