TEXT review

Conversations with writers

review by Anneli Knight


Ramona Koval
Speaking Volumes: Conversations with remarkable writers
Scribe, Melbourne, 2010
ISBN 9781921640612
Pb 417pp AUD35.00


Ramona Koval’s Speaking Volumes offers an array of delights for the writer-reader. There are reflections on the writing process and the writerly life from some the world’s most remarkable proponents of it; insights into intimate moments, political prisms and personal quirks through which these writers create their work; and it reveals, through Koval’s deft handling, a remarkable execution and delivery of the art of the interview.

One might begin to wonder, at first glance of this book, whether writing is an activity tantamount to being imprisoned in a single cell block at Guantanamo Bay or being infected by a bout of the bird flu.

John Banville declares writing to be a ‘hideous process’ (344), one he equates to ‘wading neck-deep in mud’ (338), while Margaret Drabble speaks regretfully of the career she has dedicated her life to: ‘Writing is an illness, I caught it by default when I was 21’ (294).

PD James does little to redeem the profession, with her reflection: ‘I think probably it’s a good thing for a writer to have as much unhappiness as you can put up with when you are young’ (108), while Mario Vargas Llosa’s spin suggests a sliver of optimism: ‘For a writer there can be no bad experience’ (56).

It is Martin Amis who, preceding an acerbic denigration of book reviewers, brings the prospect of joyfulness to a writer’s relationship with life: ‘By definition, writers tend to be lovers of life – otherwise they wouldn’t bother to adorn it, and order it, and give it moral and comic point on the page’ (303).

Although many of Koval’s interviews are close to a decade old (and several of them already published in her 2005 compilation Tasting Life Twice, published by ABC Books), the themes she nudges these writers through are timeless, and the compilation fulfils her introductory promise:

These interviews are ... spontaneous, the product of the alchemy of the moment, of intense preparation and a natural and compulsive curiosity, of voracious reading and delight in being completely immersed in the world and the work of the writer. (9)

Perhaps it is Koval’s grounding in radio that gives her such talent for setting the scenes of her interviews with vivid descriptions of place and a strong contextual backdrop. Most memorably, this unfolds during her interview with Les Murray as the pair drive around his property in rural NSW and speak about the way the land has shaped his life, his family and his writing. He tells Koval he won’t move from the place because he’s: ‘Too Aboriginal about it, I suppose. It’s country, y’know?’ (247).

The book provides lingering images from authors’ personal lives, including Ian McEwan’s explanation of the way in which he shares his ‘office life’ with his wife:

Every few months, when I’m writing a book, when we find time – it’s usually on holiday or at a weekend, on our very large Knoll sofa, the sort of sofa you can climb into, take your shoes off, with a glass of wine – I read to her, five, six, seven thousand words of where I’ve got to so far. It’s the only way to say, well, this is what I’m about. (125)

And Jeanette Winterson’s revelation that ever since her adopted mother burnt all her books when she was a child – in a bonfire in the backyard fuelled by paraffin – she began to memorise one new poem each week, a practice she maintains: ‘So when the library outside of me had been destroyed, I replaced it with the library that was inside of me that no one could take away’ (356).

Koval is equally nimble diving into the trenches to converse the politics of war, including Harold Pinter’s views over the possibility of Milosevic receiving a fair trial (185); the opinions of Amos Oz about Jewish settlements in the occupied territories (151); and John le Carré (David Cornwell) speaking on the war on terror, of which he says: ‘In the present war, we did everything wrong’ (395).

The book also reveals unexpected quirks of character among writers, including Hanif Kureishi’s matter-of-fact revelation that he never reads a book beyond the first 100 pages (373), and John Mortimer’s delight that he has been enjoying his first glass of champagne at 6 o’clock every morning: ‘ever since I could afford to have a glass of champagne’ (112).

In this collection of interviews, Koval reveals her ability to blend a light personal touch with profound knowledge of each writer’s work, and her clever questions lead to some unexpected responses. The single disappointment is the dearth of Australian writers represented among Koval’s handpicked selection of those she deems remarkable.


Anneli Knight is a freelance journalist, regular contributor to The Age and Sydney Morning Herald and co-author of Flirting with Finance (Fairfax Books). She is soon to complete a PhD in creative writing with her novel set in the Kimberley, where she has spent much of her time over the past six years.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy