Bestselling author Kathy Lette is a trailblazer, writing her first novel Puberty Blues at the age of 17. She has since written fourteen more books and become a feminist icon. Maryanne Irhia caught up with Kathy at MoAD (Museum of Australian Democracy) at the launch of the newest exhibition Breaking Through: 75 Years of Women in Parliament.
Maryanne: How are you enjoying Canberra?
Kathy Lette: I like everything about Canberra – especially that you conquer the Great Indoors – the National Museum, Gallery and Library with its fab Bookplate café (books of course, are a mental macchiato)… Although I also like the Arboretum’s cork forest (must be all the wine I’ve consumed which draws me here.)
You wrote your first novel, Puberty Blues at 17, which is now a massive film and TV series, what would be your advice to your girls wanting to break into that industry?
To be a good writer really only requires two skills. You need to have something to say and an original way of saying it.
Of course, if you are becoming a professional author, there ARE a few technical terms you need to master. For example did you know that “brontosaurus” is an anthology of works by 19th century English sister authors? Then there’s grammatical precision. A double negative is a complete no no. Another top tip is that it’s a good idea to name your child ‘Pulitzer’, so then you can at then least say that you have one. Oh, and get an agent to deal with the financial side of things. Writers are notoriously hopeless at handling money. We tend to spend half the time worrying about addition, half the time worrying about division and half the time worrying about subtraction.
You’re a feminist icon. What does feminism mean to you? Who is your feminist icon?
That is a lovely thing to say. Thank you! You see, you are proving my credo that women are each other’s human wonder bras – uplifting, supportive and making each other look bigger and better.
My feminist heroines are so numerous – hell, I’m a heroine addict! Besides Mary Woolstonecraft and incredible co, it’s In 1902, Viva was instrumental in winning women both the right to vote in federal elections and also the right to be elected to parliament on a national basis. She achieved this, two decades before Britain. (Though shamefully not all women got the right to vote, with indigenous women being left out in in the electoral cold.)
But have you ever heard of Vida? While the name Emmaline Pankhurst is revered as the woman who helped British women get the vote – the name Vida Goldstein is unknown in Oz. In the struggle for emancipation, Goldstein was the woman Emeline Pankhurst turned to for advice. Charismatic, clever, cheeky and possessed of a wit sharp enough to shave your legs, she was invited in 1911 to address all the major British rallies. More than 10,000 people heard her speak at the Albert Hall….
Oh, and she also helped win the right to a minimum wage – a maximum achievement for all. So, where is her statue, I ask you? Is the dog sitting on the tukerbox or the giant marino sheep or the massive pineapple of more cultural significance than this remarkable feminist activist
What struggles do you face as a female author?
Achieving the same respect as male authors. Take for example, Nick Hornby. Here is a bloke who writes first person, funny, contemporary fiction. He gets compared to Chekov. We female authors who write first person, funny, contemporary fiction gt cup cakes on our overs and dismissed as chick lit. Surely we can call it Clit Lit, at the very least. I am a member of the Clliterati.
Which was your favourite book to write?
My favourite book to write? Wow, what a question. You always love the book you’ve just written – it’s like giving birth to a child. You just hope it’s got all its fingers and toes!
If you were Prime Minister for a day what would you do?
I would immediately instate equal pay. 100 years since Emily Pankhurst chained herself to the railings and we still don’t equal pay. We’re getting 75 cents in the dollar. Plus we’re getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling – and we’re expected to clean it while we’re up there!
What does literary success look like to you?
To me, literary success is the women who come up to me at book signings and tell me how my novels have helped them through a difficult time in their lives by offering comedic comfort and sisterly solidarity.
If you weren’t an author, what would you do?
Women of course, can do anything – besides mountaineering in a ball gown or moonlanding in stilettos. But I honestly can’t think of any other profession. I love writing – it’s cheaper than therapy.
What challenges do you face as a female author?
Working mothers juggle so much we could be in the Cirque de Soleil! I think any mum who finishes a novel should just get the Booker Prize. Just for finishing!
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I like to write my sex scenes, in bed, wearing my PJs…. (hopefully not for long!)
How often do you read and what is your favourite book/favourite authors who have inspired you? What book inspired you to begin writing?
I don’t like to read when I’m writing as I start colouring my writing in their style – like literary litmus paper! But, having left school at 16 (I’m an autodidact…. And yes, it’s a word I taught myself!) I’m busily devouring all those literary lionesses, from Austen and the Brontes to Wharton and Christina Stead.
Is today’s generation more aware of the literary art or less? How do you think concepts such as Kindles & e-books changed the present or future of writing?
Book sales are limbo low right now, as Netflix consumes our free time. For many young people, their reading material is now limited to a tweet and a text. I just want to say to them that books are literary penicillin. In fact, I think doctors should prescribe them. A comedy to cure a melancholic malady: “War and Peace” to put your own problems back into perspective.
What’s next for you?
I’m just starting my 15th novel and I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. Of course, I may not be saying this in a month’s time, when I’m lying in the fetal position, sobbing!