Almost everyone in the room was a writer. All were masquerading as nothing more assuming than avid readers, eager to hear David Malouf read from a new collection of stories. I don’t remember which piece he read, but I recall being bored. That calm voice evoked a gentle appreciation of literature. The audience nodded their heads in subtle degrees of comprehension and pleasure.
The voice I’d heard when reading his work was more urgent. It was a voice of strength, subtlety and integrity. At its best, it was a fervent whisper, as relentless as it was crucial. The public performance of prose isn’t usually the best way to hear the words of a writer. It’s better when we only have the voice, when it emerges directly through the purity of paper.
Question time was also a sedate affair — until my wife raised her hand. She’d never read Malouf as far as I knew. She’d only come to keep me company. There were no other raised hands in the room. The night was almost over but David Malouf pointed to my wife. One last question.
We were sitting in a small room at St Kilda Town Hall. The launch of Dream Stuff in 1999 wasn’t a major deal. If it was a novel Malouf needed to launch, we would have been sitting downstairs, in the much larger hall, among hundreds of people. No one needed a microphone in this room and nobody had risen from their chairs to ask questions.
My wife got out of her seat. She began talking loudly and I could feel her vibrating with anger. Perhaps it was passion.
She asked the man behind the lectern, whom she knew I admired (I’d talked at length about the masterpiece that is An Imaginary Life as we walked to the Town Hall from our home), a long question, in various parts, and then remained standing to hear his answer. Every head in the room turned toward her. I felt their attention shift to me, because I — sitting in the moulded orange plastic seat beside her — was the question.
“Mister Malouf. What do you have to say to a writer who loves writing every bit as much as you do, yet works in complete obscurity, with little hope of being heard? What advice do you have for a writer at the beginning of his career, who has not found the courage to really set out on that path, yet cannot turn away? Is there anything that has helped you to continue along that course? How does he get from where he is now to where you are: reading words from your new book, up there on that podium?”
David Malouf had maintained a pleasant demeanour for the evening. He was a winner of many awards and had read around the world at festivals and prestigious events. He was used to much larger audiences than the small gathering in that room in St Kilda Town Hall. The bonhomie evaporated as the question went on. The public persona fell away as he looked down at the book before him and registered her question in the silence following my wife’s voice.
He told his audience that no writer simply chose to write. That it didn’t matter what he said to my wife. He did advise her, however, that if turning away was still possible, that’s exactly what he’d recommend. It didn’t matter what he said, because the only thing he could speak about was necessity. Either a person felt it was necessary to put words to paper, or they didn’t. That was the only real separation between a writer and reader. Not the words or pages, but a need to create with them. Who was listening, the chances of publication, how hard or long the road, all of these things were beside the point. It was a necessity, or it wasn’t.
The launch was over and I wobbled out of the room, wanting to disappear. David Malouf would sign books but I needed to get out of that Town Hall as quickly as possible. Others congratulated my wife for being brave enough to have asked her question and they knew enough to leave me to my embarrassment. When they mentioned her courage it made everything worse. The bravery that was required made my vulnerability and exposure all the more apparent.
My wife had spoken for more people in that room than just me. I don’t know how many of those who attended the launch of Dream Stuff in St Kilda 1999 desperately wanted to be writers. I’m sure there were a few. Perhaps it wasn’t only me that looked up at one of the great Australian authors, and saw everything fall away from his face, leaving nothing but that one word.