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Dorothy Hewett

in conversation with Nicole Moore  


This piece is 5,800 words or about fourteen printed pages long.

Dorothy Hewett (21 May 1923–25 August 2002) was raised on her father’s remote wheat farm in Western Australia. At the age of nineteen, she published her first poem and joined the Australian Communist Party (which she left in 1968). By the age of twenty-two she had won a drama competition and a national poetry competition, and she went on to become one of Australia's best known playwrights and poets. Her emotional life was as turbulent as her political life: she had three husbands and six children. For the last decade of her life she lived in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where Nicole Moore interviewed her on Sunday 12 July 1998 for Overland magazine. Jacket is grateful to Nicole Moore and to Ian Syson, editor of Overland, for the chance to republish this frank and absorbing interview.

Dorothy Hewett died peacefully in her sleep in August 2002, after a battle with breast cancer.

You can read three poems by Dorothy Hewett in Jacket # 12.

DOROTHY HEWETT is in the "chapel perilous", as broadcaster Ramona Koval called the back room of the old coachhouse on the highway leading from Sydney to the dry inland of New South Wales. ["The Chapel Perilous" is the title of one of Dorothy's plays.] The Blue Mountains have turned on 'fine and cool' weather and the weekend traffic is just turning around to head back for the two-hour drive to Sydney. I have brought red roses and blue irises, Dorothy is in black with leopard-skin cuffs and collar, as doesn't befit a shopkeeper's daughter, looking fit but wary, prepared to be welcoming. I meet her husband Merv Lilley on the way in and he is as laconic as the occasion requires (that is, says almost nothing to me but points out the way). I sit down, and Dorothy says "I don't know what we're going to talk about -- I seem to have talked about everything in my life a thousand fucking times."

Nicole Moore: [laugh] I bet you have. Well! . . . Let's not talk about your life. We can just talk about what you think about everything else. When Jenny Digby came and talked to you once, she said, well everybody's always talked to you about your life, so I'm going to talk to you about your writing.

Dorothy Hewett: Yes, yeah, well that was a relief.

Nicole Moore: Let's talk about how you separate life and writing -- which is the question that everybody wants to talk about in relation to your work, all the time . . .

Dorothy Hewett: I know.

Nicole Moore: Well it's kind of the same debate around Sylvia Plath, after The Birthday Letters. That's the kind of question I think is really interesting . . . Is there a necessary separation between the domestic, the personal, the autobiographical, and the poetic and the realm of writing? Is it necessary or is it impossible? Can you not separate the two?


Dorothy Hewett, by Fritz Kos

Dorothy Hewett
photo copyright © Fritz Kos, 1999


Dorothy Hewett: I think it's impossible. Maybe it isn't for everybody, but really, it would be difficult for me. Not that I do always write autobiography, this just isn't true. And it's always said with that tone, like you know -- oh well you just sit down and write autobiography like automatic writing. [That kind of comment's] definitely got a sting in the tail. But this is what I think: that every writer writes from their own experience because they haven't got anything else. I mean, how can you negate who you are and what has happened to you? Say oh well, I won't write a word about that. It just sounds ludicrous to me. But when it's transmuted into writing, it changes totally, and you only use what you want to, anyway. You leave out all the dross. So it's a kind of mixed bag I suppose, and I get material from everywhere, you know -- I read a hell of a lot, I always have, and I get a lot of ideas from novels or poetry or plays or whatever, autobiographies of other people, biographies, I even get stuff from off the TV sometimes, anywhere, from conversations, or just somewhere out of your head, from god knows where.

Nicole Moore: Do you read a lot of other people's autobiographies?

Dorothy Hewett: Yes, a lot. Particularly writers' autobiographies, I'm fascinated by them. Writers and actors.


Nicole Moore: Why actors?

Dorothy Hewett: Well I wanted to be one.

Nicole Moore: Of course!

Dorothy Hewett: Recently I decided to write the second volume of my autobiography, probably starting next year or the end of this year. I've put it off, because -- oh out of nervousness and self-protectiveness and all those things I suppose, and also because when you start writing right up to the present, it's very hard to remain objective, or as objective as possible. Also there's lots of people who may take terrible umbrage, because they're all still alive, whereas with that first volume a whole lot of people were dead, like my own family. Old boyfriends are particularly difficult, because men are all so supersensitive! About anyone saying anything about them, it seems to me. They're a secretive lot of bastards. Some people of course are quite flattered if you write about them, but not very many. And it depends of course on what you say.

Nicole Moore: Well exactly. That's the worry, though, and I think it's so much more dangerous for women writers -- you start talking about your life and then you get read backwards through what you say about yourself, again as you say, like automatic writing . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, men are able to get away with a whole lot more. I remember that somebody wrote about that Wild Card book I wrote [a memoir], that if she was a man, her life would have been called Rabelaisian.

Nicole Moore: And the question would be what's wrong with calling it Rabelaisian if you're a woman . . .

Dorothy Hewett: As a woman, she is Rabelaisian, that would've been nicer, better.

Nicole Moore: But do you get sick of that sort of construction of yourself, as always the Rabelaisian . . .?

Dorothy Hewett: Oh sick to bloody death of it. You know I live a fairly peaceful life, particularly these days. I suppose this is inevitable, considering I was seventy-five this year. It does rather put the kibosh on things. All this sort of scandal mongering . . . well, it's highly exaggerated because people want to have something to write about and talk about. So that if you've done anything at all in your life it becomes the subject of innumerable speculations and manifestations and God knows what else.

Nicole Moore: There's a great line in Mona Brand's autobiography, which just came out at the end of last year . . . She says something about how people always used to tell her she was ahead of her time, and she says "I just hung out with a lot of people who were ahead of their time", you know, why don't you keep up . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Exactly.

Nicole Moore: Someone reviewed it and said it wasn't personal enough, where's all the personal detail? And she said, "What do they expect, do they want to come into the bedroom with you?" Which is exactly the opposite to the kind of reception that your autobiography got, which was like, I wish she'd shut up about all that bedroom stuff . . . Even Bobbin Up got reactions that said it was too much about sex didn't it?

Dorothy Hewett: Well, the Communist Party was full of respectability because its roots were in the Trade Union movement and the Australian working class, and no-one's more respectable than them -- except for the tearaways, the ones the Communist Party used to call the lumpen proletariat, like the girls in the spinning mill were who'd never been organized into any sort of trade union. And then of course there were always a few anarchists around, in the Communist Party. And I married two of them. Or lived with one, Les Flood, and married Merv Lilley. 'Cause I was always attracted to anarchists, you see.


Nicole Moore: Yeah, cornered the market . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Dunno about that but I always found the respectable working class, in their white singlets mowing the lawn on the weekends, a bit boring. They would've said that was a sign of my middle-class anarchism, which may be right.

Nicole Moore: But I mean, it makes it a really impossible situation for women, in a way, the women coming into the CP then, 'cause so many of them were really active and out there and doing a lot, writing or doing political work, and then the big respectability push means -- no they should be at home, being wives or looking after the kids.

Dorothy Hewett: That's right. I can remember when I was living in Redfern, one of the jobs I was given was to organize women, so I thought, oh well, the obvious people to start with are the wives of the Communist Party activists, so I started calling on them all. And their husbands were furious, absolutely furious! How dare she come and interrupt our peaceful, domestic lives where the wife does everything and I go out to my meetings . . .

Nicole Moore: Have you read any of those autobiographies by CP women that have come out in the last ten years or so, there's quite a few of them -- Amirah Inglis' . . .

Dorothy Hewett: I read Amirah's, in fact I wrote a review of it for the Age.

Nicole Moore: She's got all those lines in there where she's stuck in the suburbs in Melbourne . . .

Dorothy Hewett: While Ian's rushing around being the big revolutionary . . .

Nicole Moore: And having affairs as well . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Yes! On the side. Which he was very good at. (laugh) Yes exactly.

Nicole Moore: And she says something like all the great events of the twentieth century happen without her, 'cause she's stuck in the suburbs.

Dorothy Hewett: With the kids! Well I was never very good at that role, as you might imagine. (laugh) In fact I fought against it, steadfastly, even when I had three little kids.

Nicole Moore: And you were the breadwinner as well.

Dorothy Hewett: I was at one stage. And then of course, when I married Merv, back in Western Australia and we had two children -- I had six kids altogether; I mean, it's outrageous, isn't it -- are you Catholic or careless, you know (laugh).


Dorothy Hewett with children

Dorothy Hewett, 1960s, with her children (left to right) Kate Lilley, Rose Lilley, and Tom Flood

Tempus fugit department:

You can read an article by Kate Lilley in Jacket # 2, four poems by her in Jacket # 5, and three poems by her in this issue of Jacket.

Rose now teaches anthropology in Hong Kong, and Tom is a prize-winning novelist.


But I went back to university, finished my degree and started working in the English department but I could never have done any of that without him. He was fantastic. He was the antithesis of all those men. I must've sensed something different, 'cause I didn't really know all that much about him, 'cause it was a fairly fast courtship, but my instinct must have told me -- choose right this time! And also back in Perth of course, I had the extended family, which does make a difference when you've got children . . . And when I started to work, I could afford to pay for baby-sitters, that sort of thing, whereas when I lived in Sydney, I could hardly afford to put the meal on the table, let alone anything else.

Nicole Moore: And that's the period when you weren't writing for eight or nine years or so in Redfern . . . That was about poverty and just trying to make ends meet . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Just trying to make a living, that's right, and also be political, at the same time. And so the possibility of ever having a second of time to oneself was just about nil. Only when I got to work at that awful Waltons and there was a typewriter in front of me again, I could snatch a few hours, you know, here and there. Which was when I started to write Bobbin Up.

Nicole Moore: And that started from just a single short story.

Dorothy Hewett: A single short story called 'Jeanie', yes. And I can remember that enormous sense of excitement
I had; it was like a fantastic liberation of the spirit. I felt as if I'd stepped out of a prison into the wide world again!

Nicole Moore: You've always talked about that, in a way, that it was communism and the doctrinaire part of politics that stopped you.

Dorothy Hewett: That was part of it, and the other part of it of course was children, domesticity and living with somebody who had no sympathy, really, with what I was trying to do. Or whatever sympathy there was, was very marginal. And then of course he went crazy, so that didn't help much.


Nicole Moore: The preface that you wrote for Bobbin Up when Virago published it, seems to work, to me anyway, for a lot of writers of your generation as a kind of moment when you look back on your old politics and you think, what an idiot I was, what a fool I was. And there's a lot of other writers of your generation who did that in the same kind of way, or even more harshly than you did. At least you forgive yourself a bit, and say at least I was sincere about it.

Dorothy Hewett: Oh well I was absolutely dedicated. Stephen Murray-Smith was a great friend of mine. He said to me once, not long before he died: Dorothy, how could we, who were intellectuals, who went to university, fall for all that stuff that they kept shoving into our heads and not even protest? I said I don't know, Stephen, it's one of the mysteries of the universe . . .

Nicole Moore: But he protested in the end, and you did. But there were other things that you were committed to, I presume, to other parts of what was going on. Sometimes you still say that you've got Marxist politics these days.

Dorothy Hewett: Mmm, I have, it wasn't all negative, by any means. I mean being in the Communist Party taught me an enormous amount, just about human beings, particularly about the working class. I met people that, in my fairly sheltered middle-class existence I would never have known. I wouldn't have known what it was like to work in a factory. I wouldn't have known what it was like to go hungry. I wouldn't have known what it was like to have the electricity and the gas turned off. All those things.

Nicole Moore: What happens out of that? Out of middle-class people, intellectual people knowing those kinds of things?

Dorothy Hewett: Well I think it extends your region of understanding and sympathy. When you come to think of it, in Australia, there haven't been a great number of people coming from the working class who've written about their lives, for obvious reasons. So if you get a ring-in like me, it can be quite useful.

Nicole Moore: That's true. So say, Stephen Knight's article on Bobbin Up in that collection of essays about you -- he puts it in a history of working-class writing doesn't he, which is a really interesting way to read it. It's not normally read that way is it?

Dorothy Hewett: He's an interesting man Stephen Knight: I knew him in a little way, not much. But of course that was his area, working-class writing, in England mainly.

Nicole Moore: And he doesn't talk much about women in Australia who write about working-class issues, because there were people like Mena Calthorpe . . .

Dorothy Hewett: The Dyehouse . . .

Nicole Moore: And Betty Collins, there is that whole history that's not read at all.

Dorothy Hewett: It's very patchy though.

Nicole Moore: Yes that's true, and those are from the fifties, but you've got ones from the thirties and forties; that are sometimes really patronizing . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Well there's all those Ruth Park novels, who sentimentalized the whole thing, tremendously. Yet I remember when I first came to Sydney in 1949, reading that winter, in the Sydney Morning Herald, where it was serialized, The Poor Man's Orange, and being quite excited by it. No-one had written about that life before. No-one had written about Surry Hills.

Nicole Moore: There's some story of her reading it at a Fellowship of Australian Writers thing, and a man getting up from the back and saying "Australian readers don't want to read about pregnancy and slums. That's not right, that's not literature!"

Dorothy Hewett: Well that's the equivalent really, of saying, years later, that Bobbin Up's full of sex! And of course Jean Devanny got into terrible trouble with the sex in Sugar Heaven.

Nicole Moore: Exactly, yeah, and the sex in The Virtuous Courtesan which was one of hers that was banned . . . Your novels, especially, and Wild Card seem to have provoked quite a bit of shock about sex . . . differently to your plays?

Dorothy Hewett: Well for so long Australians tended to write plays that sounded a bit like television. Very naturalistic and internalized sort of plays, between only a couple of characters because no-one can afford a big cast. This trilogy of mine is set in a country town between 1920 and 1970 and it's all the characters in the town so there's twelve people in the play and even that doesn't take in all of them. I might do what that fellow in Tasmania did with his film script. I might turn my play into a novel because I think it would work quite well. But I'm still disappointed that nothing's happened because, well, what's the point of writing a play to stick in a bottom drawer? It's ludicrous.


Nicole Moore: Are you starting to prefer writing novels?

Dorothy Hewett: It's very nice to have all that space to move in and to be able to talk about people's innermost thoughts. Wonderful. I've shifted over, you know, since I wrote that autobiography and then that book that so many people seemed to find quite shocking . . .

Nicole Moore: The Toucher?

Dorothy Hewett: Yes, I've nearly finished another novel. Called The Neap Tide. I've always wanted to write novels. I used to write lots of novels when I was a teenager, which I didn't finish because I never really had the self-confidence or the application. When you think about Bobbin Up, it really is a series of short stories strung together by the image of the spinning mill, the central symbol is the mill, and it comes together at the end with the sit-in strike.

Nicole Moore: And the city as well.

Dorothy Hewett: Yes the atmosphere of a city. But the actual stories, they are helped in their linkage together by the fact that they all work in the same place. Like there's no linear structure. Bobbin Up doesn't really work that way at all, which makes it interesting I think and quite innovative for its time. I never really thought that I could sit down and write a novel where everything was tied together in some sort of way.

Nicole Moore: That kind of ideal novel. The Victorian novel . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Why I thought this was what you had to write I've no idea! I suppose that was what the culture told me. And I wasn't really into that by any means. I thought I wasn't organized enough to write a novel. I wouldn't get all the ends tied up and there would be bits sticking out everywhere and people would say "Oh well, that wasn't explained properly". Writing that autobiography, which I know is different to writing a novel of course -- but there are similarities and you do have to have some sort of organizational structure -- when I found out that I could do that it gave me a big boost. I was in England at the time and I'd just delivered the manuscript of Wild Card to Virago and I sat down to write the first five chapters of The Toucher. But then, of course, as so often happens, all sorts of things intervened and I didn't get back to it for months. But it was obvious that I'd found a new self-confidence out of that experience of writing the autobiography. And I found it so marvellous to be so totally in control of what I was writing! One of the wonderful things about the theatre is that you work with other people and I love that, but in the end what you have to accept as a dramatist is that you hand over your work to the director and the actors. It doesn't work that way. Whereas a novel belongs to you.

Nicole Moore: What about those reviews of The Toucher that were a bit worried you'd gone soft until Esther really got horny and the sex happened? 'Cause she's an old lady and crippled she shouldn't be having sex . . .

Dorothy Hewett: Lots of people told me they were shocked by that novel. I was surprised really, how many.

Nicole Moore: The way you write about working-class men in it seems really interesting to me -- really desirable but not, you know, in that glorified role as the larrikin or whatever . . .

Dorothy Hewett: That's true . . . I've known a few in my life! . . . They were different. I think it was the difference I found so fascinating and the entry into a completely different culture. And I admired their courage and I admired their not caring what the world thought. I admired their get-up-and-go. All that stuff. I still do really.

Nicole Moore: Yes, well in a way working-class masculinity, if you like, is what got represented as the failure of the organized left in a way, in Australia. That none of the blokes could deal with women very well.

Dorothy Hewett: Well, they couldn't -- it's quite true -- this whole thing with working-class men is very ambivalent. On one side you've got the courage and the dash and the -- no fear of behaving properly or class behaviour, all that sort of thing. A kind of freedom from all that and Australian working-class men -- many of them are inclined to be anarchistic, which I find quite attractive. And on the other side, you had this masculine ethos which shuts women out from their lives and leaves them the poorer for it, it seems to me.

Nicole Moore: Yeah. The kind of mateship ethos.

Dorothy Hewett: Which is very strong. It still exists. You know, the pub mateship syndrome. The football mateship -- all that stuff. A strange ambivalence which to me makes the whole situation between men and women in that sort of milieu, very interesting. How do you make this work? If you're heterosexual? How can it ever possibly work? So I make it even worse by making one protagonist middle-class, old and crippled. The whole fucking lot! I wanted to see what happened if you presented this sort of situation. My son, Tom tells me it's wishful thinking. He's got a point, but the whole question of sex exacerbated to that extent, fascinated me. And some people say it didn't work. You know, they're not convinced that such a thing could ever happen, but I think they're wrong.

Nicole Moore: It must work because to some degree that's why people find it so shocking.

Dorothy Hewett: Exactly. If it didn't work they wouldn't find it shocking at all. If it failed, they could just dismiss it. I'm not saying it's a perfect novel by any means. I would like to write other novels and better ones, but I think that actual relationship between Billy Crowe and Esther La Farge does work. It is believable.

Nicole Moore: But then poor old Iris gets it in the end.

Dorothy Hewett: Hilary McPhee told me once that Iris was the most horrible female character ever invented in Australian literature.

Nicole Moore: There's this sense in which the working-class bloke gets all the dash, and the poor old working-class girl doesn't get anything . . . She gets a spade in the head!

Dorothy Hewett: I know. Yes, she does, she does. I've known a few Iris's too and they were pretty horrible but I did write about all those good working-class girls in Bobbin Up. So I had partially redeemed myself.


Nicole Moore: A question that's kind of related to this, in terms of reception, is how you think about the impact of your work, over all this time. I mean, there's a kind of sense now that you get constructed as a writer at the end of her writing career.

Dorothy Hewett: They think I'm going to cark it!

Nicole Moore: So you have the collected plays, the collected poems, the essays and the monographs. It's like, she's all over now, we've had enough.

Dorothy Hewett: Well, people still come up to me and say "still writing?" Which I must admit gives me the shits a bit.

Nicole Moore: And it's conscious as well -- you talk about ageing and dying so much . . .

Dorothy Hewett: I've always been absolutely obsessed with the whole thing of dying because I hate the thought of it. I really hate the idea that I could actually go out into nothingness and of course being an atheist that's what I believe. And you know, I still wake up in the night and have nightmares about it, so I don't think I'll go gently into that good night at all. I'll rage against the dying of the light. But I don't feel at all as if I've come to the end of my writing life. I've still got all these projects on. Another book of poems nearly ready -- and nearly finished this novel.


Dorothy Hewett, 1972

Dorothy Hewett, 1972
in the garden of her home in South Perth, Western Australia


Nicole Moore: And the trilogy is out there.

Dorothy Hewett: The trilogy is out there and I've also just started to do something with Fremantle Arts Centre Press and John Kinsella. About the great southern of Western Australia, wheat and sheep, big sweeping plains and huge skies. I suppose it could be a kind of superior coffee table book . . .
So I don't feel I am at the end of my career. Maybe I'm deluding myself, who knows? Perhaps I should stop talking about death and shut up about it. A friend turned up here one day saying she'd come to write my obituary for The Herald. I felt quite threatened! I said "Come off it Margo!"

Nicole Moore: But how do you feel about looking back at the history of your critical reception and your work? What kind of impact do you think you've made?

Dorothy Hewett: Well I think it's very mixed. I think it is true that I've always been a maverick, that I've never been part of any mainstream and that's probably for lots of reasons. I think one of the original reasons was that I came from Western Australia and, you know, in those days it was like coming from another country and it's still a bit like that. I mean, I didn't take part in any of the great Australian literary movements that have taken place in my lifetime because I was stuck over in bloody Perth most of the time and when I wasn't stuck there I was in the Communist Party and it had its own agenda which didn't include all those very interesting modernist movements that were going on, which I actually would have loved to have been part of, but never was.

Nicole Moore: A lot of writers about your age went overseas.

Dorothy Hewett: I was all set to do that and the war broke out and then I got married. I seem to have made all the wrong choices at all the wrong times. So that was part of the reason I think and also that I stopped writing for so long. You know I started off as this sort of enfant juvenile terror -- winning a prize in Meanjin and winning an ABC poetry prize when no-one had heard of me and suddenly a silence fell, like death . . . And then I surfaced again with Bobbin Up and people said "Who's she?" Because it was as if I kept on re-inventing myself. I discovered that literary critics are very, very suspicious of people who change genres. They think there is something suspect about it. Otherwise you are Jack-of-all-trades or Jill-of-all-trades and master or mistress of nothing. Whereas I've never found any difficulty in this really. It just seems natural to me. It's all writing, you know. But I never really consolidated what I was doing until I suppose fairly recently. So my daughter tells me that I'm very famous, but I honestly don't feel very famous.

Nicole Moore: But you are . . . Well, how does it feel to be famous? That's a good question.

Dorothy Hewett: How do I know? (laugh) Dunno! If this is being very famous, it's a bit disappointing that's all I can say! I thought it'd be better than this! I thought you could get your trilogy of plays on! and . . . So what's gone wrong?

Nicole Moore: So you think there has been a kind of shutting down a bit in the last couple of years -- a shutting down of literary opportunities and cultural work?


Dorothy Hewett: It's part of the whole conservative backlash we're going through. You know it reminds me of the late awful Menzies years, only I think it's a bit worse if anything. At least they used to say Mr Menzies had a beautiful voice. They can't even say that about John Howard. And you know even when I go to universities, which I do occasionally, what I notice is how terribly conservative the students are. Quite frightening in fact. All they seem to be interested in is their economic situation and not any sort of global protest. When I was a young university student in 1941, we were deeply involved, and particularly after the war ended, in what was going on and we saw ourselves as a sort of vanguard of thought and action. As you see in Indonesia or various other countries, but this doesn't seem to be happening. I mean you get the odd student march or protest, usually about having to pay more money to go to university or fees going up or whatever.

Nicole Moore: There was that protest a month ago or so with the high school students . . .

Dorothy Hewett: That was very good and I thought maybe another generation is coming up who do have the need to protest.

Nicole Moore: What do you think about the future? It's going to be the twenty-first century in a minute . . . Do you feel like a twentieth-century writer?

Dorothy Hewett: I suppose so -- Well, I have been, haven't I? But I'd like to have one toe in the twenty-first! . . . And it should be a period of great excitement with a feeling of newness and innovation and doing new things, but it isn't! All it's about is the fucking games. It's like giving them circuses, like the Romans. Yep and, of course, the whole One Nation phenomenon is the result of all this because nothing like that could happen in a country that felt that it was alive and young and going somewhere. It's a looking backwards, because all those, particularly those farming communities that are backing Pauline Hanson -- what they want back is the past -- that long, golden, sleepy time. You know when there were tariffs to protect everything, when we were the white outpost in South East Asia. This is what they want back again and that sense of endless security that nothing will ever change. But it always was a dream you see. It was the ideal, the Australian ideal. That's how we lived and somehow someone came along and took it all off us.

Nicole Moore: And that's what something like Bobbin Up showed then, that it wasn't all like that . . .

Dorothy Hewett: No, of course it wasn't, but this was the dream and the dream is still alive and kicking out there, on the frontier somewhere.

Nicole Moore: What do you think about the state of writing in Australia at the moment?

Dorothy Hewett: I'm worried about the publishing industry because it's becoming so huge and taken over almost completely by huge dominant multinationals and the markets will shrink for writers for a start. And I suspect that the markets will also get more conservative, because I've never met a big corporation that wasn't conservative. The Australian publishing contingent is getting smaller and smaller. There are so few independent publishers now and most of them are small like the University of Queensland Press.

Nicole Moore: And they don't really any more want to publish new writers.

Dorothy Hewett: No and they don't want to publish any more poetry. Few of the mainstream publishers publish any poetry. So the situation for poets is very, very bad. They've got to depend almost completely on little presses or else starting little presses up on their own as they did in the 60s. Maybe I'm being old fashioned, but I like to have a relationship with a publisher where one feels a kind of benign interest and I don't get this feeling at all any more. I get it a bit from Fremantle Arts Centre Press and I get it a bit from Currency Press because they're little presses. But Penguin, forget it.

Nicole Moore: What do you get from Penguin?


Dorothy Hewett: Disinterest or only interested in a new book. Not interested in carrying anything. For instance -- I think this is quite a good example -- Wild Card sold 18,000 in Australia which is pretty good for an Australian book. It's now been out of print for a year. So I continually get phone calls from universities saying "Why can't we get Wild Card?" And this stuff isn't just happening to me. That whole concept of keeping a backlist is gone and if you don't keep a backlist, it means that if amongst those books there are classics, they disappear. Again it's that old thing about no sense of history, no sense of building a canon, no sense of any of that. It's now. It's all now, mate or fuck off. It's totally commercial and they say they've got to do this, they're driven by commercial interest because that's the world now. You know, with economic rationalism there's no other way to exist than globalization and it's bloody true! It's probably bloody true. I feel that whole scene is very depressing and very worrying, but on the other hand there will always be little presses, I believe this. There will always be people who believe in us, in creativity, who set up with virtually no money and just enthusiasm and idealism, to get out books. But the number of books that are printed like that will obviously shrink, which is sad, but it will exist. These sort of books will be printed and they will exist. Anyway, nobody cares about poetry except poets and we poets care about it to the extent that we don't really care about anything else that much. I'd rather write poetry than anything else.

Nicole Moore: So you love it?

Dorothy Hewett: Better than anything. When it turns out well, there is nothing like that feeling of triumph, until the next time. That wonderful feeling -- for a moment that everything came together. I think it's the economy of it I love, to be able to say so much in such a contained form and with such intensity. It suits me, you know. It suits me. And when you write novels as well as poetry and maybe even the odd play you can have it all, can't you? You can have that wonderful expansive, slow, introspective build-up of a novel. You can have the experience of working in a collaborative set-up in theatre and you can also have the marvellous sort of private exuberance of writing something short and memorable. So I can't see anything wrong with being a Jack-of-all-trades or a Jill-of-all-trades or a maverick -- that's all right.


Nicole Moore

Nicole Moore teaches twentieth century Australian women's writing at the University of Tasmania.


J A C K E T  # 9 
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