Justine Ettler (1965- ) is the author of The River Ophelia (1995) which is being re-released, as an e-book and print-on-demand, and of Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996). She has been absent as an author for a while and it’s great to see her back. I took the opportunity to send her some questions, I’m sure you’ll love her answers.
Q. What reading did you/do you enjoy and what ended up being influential?
A. These days I like reading English classic novels—Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Mrs Gaskell, occasionally some Hardy.
Back then, Kathy Acker was an important influence in terms of TRO, it was from Acker that I got the ideas of naming the protagonist after myself and of borrowing and parodying other characters from other books. I liked her work, there was a lot of power and inventiveness in it but I wanted to write a book with more narrative that would be more compelling. I actually met Acker when she came to Australia in the nineties it was so amazing when she said, without my prompting, that she loved The River Ophelia, she really understood what I was trying to do. That I’d taken aspects of her work but inserted them into a more narrative framework.
I also read and was influenced by Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour, Catherine Texier’s early material, Ellis I’ve talked about elsewhere but American Psycho is a book I’ve loved/hated. I was also reading a lot of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Freud and of course, Bataille, and de Sade. Some of these books made me angry, others were inspiring.
Q. When you wrote The River Ophelia and Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure – and in passing did you write them in the reverse order? Was it your publisher who made the choice to publish The River Ophelia first? – you were doing post-grad work in American Lit (is that right?). What was the subject of your thesis?
A. Yes. I wrote Marilyn while doing my BA at UTS, it was my first novel, and it was my publisher’s idea to publish in the reverse order. I guess they were thinking about the way debut writers get more media attention and they thought they could do more with TRO but I actually think publishing them in the order they were written would have been better for me in the long term.
I wrote TRO while I was researching my PhD. There just seemed to be an overspill from all that reading, material not suitable to a conventional dissertation comprised of a series of essays. The thesis was initially on the American writers I’ve listed above, with the addition of Jay McInnerney, and it was partly a defence of American Psycho which then was ignored by scholars and much maligned for its misogyny. I had read Liz Young’s work in Shopping in Space and found it quite brilliant and inspiring. Now of course Ellis, partly as a result of Harron’s clever film adaptation, has been redeemed and has outshone many of the other writers of that time and the final draft of the PhD has been an attempt to reinstate what the feminists were saying because in all the subsequent scholarly defences the misogyny in the novel, and it is there, has been lost. I felt there needed to be some kind of balance.
Q. I haven’t read American Psycho (or seen it – I avoid violent movies) but if I understand you correctly, you believe Ellis’ writing about violence towards women was pornographic in intent not condemnatory (I’ve been reading your 2014 essay ‘Sex Sells, Dude’. I’ll put a link to it in my post (here)). Am I right in my (limited) understanding?
A. In terms of the pornography in AP, it’s more the misogyny in the pornography and the way the pornography is fused with some of the absolutely all-time nastiest stuff I’ve ever read so that for the reader the experience of one becomes inseparable from the experience of the other. My thesis was an attempt to place the mass media feminist critique and the scholarly defences side by side and say both were true and that neither worked without the other.
Q. The publicity material for the re-release talks about domestic violence, is that a reframing of your objectives for The River Ophelia? I saw Justine – your protagonist – as seeking out ill-treatment. That doesn’t justify Sade of course, but I thought you were writing about a frame of mind, a self loathing, in women arising, in this case, from her father’s psychological mistreatment of her, which leads to her seeking more ‘punishment’.
A. It’s not a re-framing per se, so much as an attempt to nudge the clever reader in the right direction, in terms of my authorial intentions with the text. That the novel deep down is about domestic violence is a clue, a pretty hefty one I should say, to help the reader join the dots and solve the riddle hidden in the text.
It’s interesting what you say about self-loathing and women who seek punishment as a result of childhood trauma. I guess part of the reason Justine behaves the ways she does is because of her childhood trauma that involves not being protected by her father and as a result she grows up unable to protect herself. Justine does have low self-esteem and does feel self-hatred but Justine is also an unreliable narrator. Much of what she describes is part of the way she lies to herself about Sade’s abuse and therefore can’t be taken literally. Sade’s abuse causes a traumatised response in her and she is compelled to stay out of misplaced loyalty and love, because of a kind of trauma bond. But I don’t see her as a masochist, seeking out punishment.
Q. I’ll have put up a review of ‘Marilyn’ by the time you get this probably. I see her as similar to Justine but less intense; more confused and maybe even ‘ditzy’ but without the self-harm aspect that characterizes Justine. I think in an on-line interview in the 1990s you said you saw yourself in Marilyn (rather than Justine). Authors of course reveal themselves in their writing but I’m not asking are these works autobiography. My interest is always ‘are the works authentic?’, do they reflect/draw on the author’s lived experience. (For old authors I also work backwards and ask what does the writing say about the author’s lived experience).
A. Usually a writer’s first novel is their most autobiographical and then I think writers start the process of looking elsewhere for their material. Of course there is part of the author in all their characters. I’ve been a university student and I have had bad relationships. The problem is that a lot of people read TRO as autobiographical because I’d named the protagonist Justine. This was a literary technique as I’ve said. But, and I think this happens to women writers more than men, because my character was very messed up, people started to see me as messed up and that effected the way people saw my writing: it seems to me that women writers can get branded incompetent as writers if they write very messed up characters. I have also experienced sexual harassment so while TRO is authentic, it draws from life like any other novel, it is also completely made up, and what isn’t made up is borrowed and reinvented in true postmodernist parodic style. What I didn’t make up, hadn’t lived myself and didn’t borrow from other texts, I drew from my friends. I have had girlfriends who had been raped, been experimenting with their sexuality and who have been the girlfriends of sex addicts. The real meaning of TRO, like that of AP, is deeply buried in the novel: the novel is designed as a postmodern labyrinth, a riddle the reader has to solve.
Q. My final question(s) is, Where have you been? It’s been a long time, your loyal readers would love to know there’s another novel in the pipeline. Perhaps even the third novel that was promised way back in 1996. And how does the re-release feel? Many authors say they have trouble re-engaging with a work once they have let it go.
A. That’s right, there was a third novel back in 1996, you’ve got a good memory! But I ran into problems with that one to do with defamation. My postmodernism had developed and I was experimenting with using real life celebrities as cut ups for my characters, mixing them in with Shakespeare and inserting the results into a satire about the Murdochs, and, well that one’s still on the cutting room floor, I’m afraid. I’m still working on it, and I think I’ve solved the problem but I’m so busy at the moment writing novel no. 5, and with Bohemia Beach coming out next year and just about to go into editing… But I’ll get there.
That being said, I deliberately pulled Marilyn and TRO from my publisher in 1997 because I hated being bullied and conflated with my character, I loathed my notoriety and felt the people I was dealing with didn’t really have me or my books best interests at heart. So taking back the rights for both books quieted things down for a while.
I’m excited about the ebook edition of TRO, and I really hope that, with the new, careful framing, that this edition will find its true readership and, who knows, perhaps spark controversy and debate for a whole new generation of readers? Maybe readers who want something a bit more psychologically and technically complex say than 50 Shades…. Not that there’s anything wrong with 50 Shades, I mean, it’s just that narrative and psychological complexity really interests me and, I hope, will interest my readers.
Thank you Justine! I can’t wait for Bohemia Beach, though I hope we also get to see that post-modern take on the Murdochs, themselves pretty post-modern with the truth.
Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia, Picador, Sydney, 1995 (review)
Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996 (review)
Kathy Acker, In memoriam to identity, Pandora, London, 1990 (review)