Author Interview, Justine Ettler

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Image from Amazon.com

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.

 

Melanie at Grab the Lapels who always does great interviews has beaten me to the punch by half a day (here), and a video of the book launch (here).

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)

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Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Justine Ettler

Justine Ettler’s 1995 best seller The River Ophelia is in the process of being re-released and I’ve been asked if I would like to conduct an author interview. Of course I would! In my researches I came across an open on-line interview with Ettler from about 20 years ago in which one Kate W was a participant. Did you get anything out of it Kate?

I was offered a choice of formats – not including an open chat session, thank goodness, which looks like a mess. My preference would be to sit down over a glass of wine, but us not being in the same cities, that’s out of the question, and anyway would I remember to write down her answers. I get tongue-tied on the phone with strangers, so that leaves written questions. As part of the process, I thought I would re-read Ettler’s Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure which was published the year after The River Ophelia but which Ettler says she wrote first. And so, this review.

Marilyn’s a blonde very-Marilyn-with-a-touch of Meryl Sydney girl who has a crush on an older Wall Street type – Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox jr – she’s seen on daytime tv. Trying to contact him in New York through directory assistance she’s put through instead to Lisa who works in a downtown bookstall while waiting for an off-off-Broadway break.

Virginia, a girl she meets at New Year’s Eve party, persuades Marilyn that they’ll fly to New York together the next day, leaving behind her boyfriend hairy snail Lawrence, and her lovers Miller and Durrell.

[She] stares off into the hazy middle distance reluctant to hear her life so far reduced to what sounds like a reading list for an adult education course in modern literature and female sexuality …

Years ago I went through an Anaïs Nin phase so these are familiar names, though I assumed the Lawrence went with Durrell when Ettler may have intended D.H.

Virginia stands her up at the departure lounge – gets a super secret job offer she just can’t refuse – and Marilyn sets off on the 31 hour flight on her own, or on her own except for an I-don’t care-if-I’m-a-lousy-hack-air-hostess-because-I-know-I’m-Bette-Davis-where-it-counts who keeps sneaking looks in Marilyn’s new diary, as do we, and forgetting to feed her, but helps her interpret her dreams and slips her some drugs and so the time passes until Marilyn finds herself on the kerb climbing into a taxi, and giving an address to a black driver with lots of gold jewellery who asks, as does everyone she meets, often even before she speaks, are you Ostralian?

It seems Crocodile Dundee (1986) has “finally put Ostralia on the map”, though Ettler’s a bit pissed off by Americans? Australians? who read it as “a harmless fairytale”.

“Meanwhile Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox coaxes his body towards his first bowel movement of the day” which is his principal preoccupation, even more than making money from movements in the market, or Garbo, his girlfriend with God-are-they-silicon? tits; while Marilyn who has concussion from when the taxi dropped into an enormous pothole, tries to make sense of being dropped off at Liz’s flat in a run-down apartment building, coming to on a creaky slashed badly sprung vinyl sofa-bed under a dirty blanket to which she reverts in coming days to recuperate.

This is one of those books you read for the writing and for the atmosphere, but if you really don’t want to know how Marilyn ends up, then skip down to the last para.

We spin off into days of partying, random encounters, Marilyn spiralling ever closer to Twentiethcentury. Virginia reappears, disappears forever, and suddenly …

 …it’s the end of Twentiethcentury Fox and the end of the world and the end of her allergy and the end of TV and the end of herbality.

Back in Liz’s apartment everything’s a crazy bustling confusion of Liz and her sisters and her flatmates and all of their I’m-so-pissed-off-about-being-evicted boxes and suitcases and Marilyn’s strangely reassured when she finds Liz in the middle of it all hand-blow-drying real potato French fries and then when Liz asks about Twentiethcentury with a knowing look beneath her dyed natural hair Marilyn shrugs and says:
‘Oh well,’
And they both sigh and sip on their Coronas and gulp down shots of tequila.
And then Liz says:
‘Let’s get this show on the road kid.’

 And just like that, Marilyn is back in Sydney.

Marilyn is not intense in the way that The River Ophelia is. It has a lighter, trippier quality and there is an occasional suspension of causality which reminds me of some of the more ‘way out’ of Golden Age SF writers – PK Dick, Sladek or Sheckley. I’ve put this into a question for her (Ettler) and I’m sure she’ll answer ‘nope, nope, nope’ and cite someone I’ve never heard of, but hey, the reader is king. Right?

 

Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996

see also: my review of The River Ophelia (here). Author interview (here)

 

The River Ophelia, Justine Ettler

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The work of a number of young authors published for the first time in the 1990s, commencing with Andrew McGahan (Praise, 1992) and including Justine Ettler (The River Ophelia, 1995), Linda Jaivin (Eat Me, 1995) and Christos Tsiolkas (Loaded, 1995), was given the label Australian Grunge.

At the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1998, the Aust.Lit. discusssion group including McGahan, Fiona McGregor, Jaivin and Tsiolkas “all remonstrated at how hateful they found the label and how they did not wish to be associated with it.” But given that the ‘Grunge’ label has stuck, let me define it as writing about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, low rent inner suburban share houses, sex, booze, drugs and rock & roll; the name itself being originally applied to a type of music following on from ‘Punk’ in the 1980s, and the writing having pedigreed antecedents in works like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch (1964), Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) and Kathy Acker’s whole body of work (of which I have read only Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)).

Two current women authors I posted on earlier this year probably owe some elements of their style to their Grunge predecessors: Ellen van Neerven and Jane Rawson, and maybe also Nikki Gemmell (whose first novel came out in 1997).

In passing, I’m not a big fan of Jaivin, and while her second and third novels, Rock & Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996) and Miles Walker You’re Dead (1997) might be characterised as grunge (in a try-hard sort of way), Eat Me is just ordinary, middle class, women’s erotica. Four thirty-something Sydney women each seek sexual satisfaction in a novel of ‘women’s erotic fiction’ being written by one of them which, while both sexy and fun, the author uses as a vehicle to discuss seriously issues of third-wave feminism and the problematic boundary between erotic fiction and pornography. The women maintain their independence with a commitment phobia as great as that of the young men they sleep with, and while they are at least recognizable as the heirs of Deb and Guinea of Come in Spinner (my review here) in the same city half a century earlier, their incomes, their careers and above all their freedom from the constant spectre of backyard abortions are way beyond the dreams of 1940’s women, let alone of course the women of 50 years before that, in the novels of  Tasma, Praed and Cambridge, say, where ordinary 1990s’ lifestyles, incomes and freedom of movement, were possible only to the daughters and wives of the seriously wealthy.

Australian Grunge was contemporaneous with and to some extent linked with third-wave feminism and I think it is fair to say that if second-wave feminism was only equivocally successful at freeing women from men’s expectations and meeting women’s objectives for ‘equality’, then equally problematic is that aspect of third wave feminism, woman-as-sexual predator, which is celebrated by Jaivin, but whose downside is chronicled here by Ettler.

The River Ophelia, followed by Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996) were Justine Ettler’s first two novels, written while she was undertaking her PhD (in American Lit). A third novel was expected but hasn’t yet arrived and it appears Ettler is now an academic and journalist (with SMH).

One reviewer called The River Ophelia “a postmodern homage to de Sade, Shakespeare and inner city Sydney”. Sydney, in fact, isn’t named in the novel, though I have no doubt that is where it is situated. Ettler speaks only of an inner suburban area called the Peninsula, which I am unable to place at all, though the novel ‘feels’ as though it is located in the region Kings Cross to Bondi.

This is a novel of great pain, and an enormous amount of not always satisfactory sex. As one of the characters says about her growing up:

 It was the seventies. We were the sex generation. Where the sixties talked about love, the seventies talked about sex…Even when we get careers all we do is complain that we don’t get enough sex or that we don’t like the sex we get or we gloat about how great we feel about getting laid. We’re obsessed with sex. We never say no, we can’t ever get enough. (p.262)

 The references to de Sade and Shakespeare are, initially at least, in the names: Justine and her boyfriend Sade, their friends Simone, Marcelle, Hamlet and Ophelia. If Sade is not a sadist then Justine is quite clearly a masochist. Slowly over the course of the novel we learn of the childhood pain (not abuse, but neglect through lies) that leads her to harm herself, to throw herself at Sade although he is quite clearly having sex with others, sometimes even while she is present.

The key quote is:

 The thing is … the thing about all this pain we go through, all this love that just hurts all the time, the thing about all this pain is that it’s really exquisite. It’s exquisite pain. That’s what makes us keep going back for more. (p.134)

 The plot is straightforward, and largely irrelevant. Justine is a student preparing a thesis, Sade is a writer, currently with Playboy; Justine is doing therapy with Juliette, who turns out to be a murderer; Justine sleeps with Sade, spends all her grant money on taxis, alcohol and drugs, spies on Sade’s flat whenever he’s not sleeping with her, goes to nightclubs with Simone, where Simone ends up having sex with Sade, loses her flat and moves in with Hamlet and Ophelia; Ophelia leaves and Justine competes with Simone to sleep with Hamlet; Justine’s father is dying of cancer but Justine keeps putting off going home to see him; Sade gets offered a lectureship in New York but Justine won’t go with him.

Justine sums it up:

It’s like, so what, I made a mistake, I made another mistake, so what, everybody makes mistakes, I made the old I-can-make-him-fall-in-love-with-me mistake, I made the old hoping-that-he’d-change mistake, I made the old love-conquers-all mistake and then I made them over and over again. (p.141)

 A year ago, I nominated The River Ophelia on my shortlist (of 10) for the Great Australian Novel. The reason is the intensity of the writing. How Justine lives, what she goes through, is entirely outside my experience. I went up to uni in 1969, and for all the talk of hippies and free love, getting laid was infrequent, desperate and fraught; a year later I was up the bush driving trucks and by the time I was 30 I was married with children. The life she talks of, of clubbing, drugs and sex, is both alien and unappealing, and yet it generates the most amazing writing.

 

Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia, Picador, Sydney, 1995

see also:
my review of Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (here).
Author interview (here)

my review of Kathy Acker, In memoriam to identity (here), discussing inter alia the connections from Burroughs to Acker to Ettler.


added 18 Nov 2017. Ettler withdrew both The River Ophelia and Marilyn from the market after becoming unhappy with the (false) connections being made between her and her protagonists. What she says about it, and her embrace of post-modernism, in the interview is fascinating.

The expected third novel had to be shelved due to problems with defamation, but The River Ophelia has now been re-released. Justine writes: “Just to let you know that TRO went to the top 5% of sales on Amazon in its first week.”