It probably shouldn’t be surprising that a writer of Anna Funder’s calibre can experience a crisis of confidence. A blank page is, after all, a blank page, and it doesn’t matter how many awards or accolades you’ve received, which in her case is many.
Still, Funder affirms you’re only as good as the last page you wrote. “It doesn’t make the writing any easier,” she says of the Miles Franklin award she won in June for her recent novel All That I Am. “When you face the page, you face the page, it’s just you, it’s not you with all your medals on.
“I’m hoping (the award) will give me a little more confidence than I’ve had in the past because a lot of writing is a kind of confidence trick, where you are batting down the more self-editing and anxious elements of your personality in order to be able to trust that what you are making is going to be OK. And maybe an award like this gives me a weapon against these anxieties that sit on my shoulder.
“I’ve had very big troughs. Writing, like anything, and particularly creative things, there is an element where you’re the boxer but you’re also the trainer. There’s no crew.”
I meet Funder in a café below The Olsen Hotel in South Yarra. She’s got a huge day of commitments – signings, appearances, interviews – but over coffee she is gracious enough to share not only her deeply held writer’s insecurities but also provide an insight into the life of a working mother.
Funder is now living in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, an architect, and her three young children. She is briefly in Melbourne, her home town, to appear at a literary event and to discuss winning the Miles Franklin. “I was in a tiny room in a really brutalist student dormitory at Norwich (in Britain), there for quite an amazing writers’ gathering,” she says about the phone call from her publisher. “It was quite exciting and surreal as well, being by myself in this tiny room.”
That moment took years to achieve. Funder talks about the “troughs” a writer experiences. “I don’t want to exaggerate them,” she says. “It took five years to write this book. I felt I was right out on a limb with it, out on a tightrope. I didn’t know how far the rope was going and whether I would get to the other side. It was a case of ‘Don’t look down’ a lot of the time.
“I’ve got three small kids and a very patient, kind, clever husband. But to do that to your family, to take those risks, to say ‘OK, we’re going to survive on one income’ – which is fine, good income – but if it fails what have I done to everybody? It was a gamble.”
Funder has two daughters, 10 and seven, and a son, three.
“Like all working mothers, you can only sit in one chair at the one time,” she says. “You are either looking after your children or somebody else is looking after your children. We organise the best possible childcare. We’ve always been in cities without family. It’s a juggle, but on the other hand it’s a very nice thing. I can control my time. A lot of working parents can’t and they have to go off at a particular time … And they’re under all sorts of pressures that I wasn’t under.”
I asked whether it was hard to snap into writer mode from mother mode. “I have a terrible confession to make … These three children are the central focus of our lives and our great joy. I organise my work around them. But that said, anyone who has three children knows you have a lot to escape. I had a small room out of the house that (I) could escape to and write … I would walk into that room (at the University of Technology in Sydney) and shut the door and breathe this sigh of relief and look forward to getting into the work I was doing.”
All That I Am is a fictional account of the lives of anti-Hitler activists in prewar Berlin and London told, in part, from the perspective of “Ruth”, an elderly woman living in Sydney. The character is based on Ruth, Funder’s German teacher’s own German teacher, who taught at Methodist Ladies’ College from the late 1940s to the 1970s.
“I was very friendly with Ruth since I was 19. My whole adult life I had this friend – she died in 2001 – who I dearly loved, who would tell this story justifiably proudly of how she had tried to smuggle 150 anti-Hitler leaflets written on tissue paper down the front of her trousers into Germany in 1935. She was betrayed by another member of the Socialist Workers Party. This bloke needed to get back into Germany, and the price of him not going to prison when he got back to Germany was betraying a member of the group. Ruth spent five years in prison and got out just before the war broke out and ended up in Melbourne. She was a very immediate, warm, funny, literate woman who I really liked.”
Funder met Ruth after having applied for a scholarship to study in Berlin. “That was the beginning of (Funder’s first novel) Stasiland. Part of that was to write part of the application in German. My written German was pretty poor. Ruth checked it. She confirmed that my written German was execrable and she helped me.”
They had a meaningful friendship. “What happens if you have a friend who is 60 years older [than you] is that the 20th century concertinas back on itself. Instead of thinking about the rise of Hitler and the resistance to Hitler as something you might read about in a book, it becomes something that your brave and humble and funny and straight-talking friend did.”
Funder’s trip as a young woman to Germany ignited her passion for Europe and its geo-politics. “In some ways you choose what you write and in another way what you write chooses you … In order to spend several years – four in the case of Stasiland and five in the case of All That I Am – writing a book, you have to be really captivated by something.”
She had studied for an honours degree in German at Melbourne University and at uni in Berlin in the two years before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. “So while I was in Berlin, this walled city of Nick Cave, of East German resistance kicked out of their country, of all sorts of really interesting things – having grown up as you did during the Cold War, we all thought Reagan would slip and fall and press the button and we’d all be blown to smithereens – I lived in a city surrounded by a wall which was a symbol of that Cold War.
“I met people – artists and writers – who had been kicked out of East Germany and they had been living in West Berlin. That’s a formative period for anyone in their life and if you’re 20 or 21, it’s a bit like a duckling which follows the first thing it sees when it hatches. That was what fascinated me. That geo-political situation and those personal situations … what kind of place kicks out its writers? That’s a very interesting thing for somebody who’s interested in being a writer.
“And then the wall fell … and I was able to go and explore those stories that became Stasiland.”
“I feel I’m incredibly fortunate with the success I’ve had because it means that people will read these books, and that’s what you most want.”
After Stasiland Funder didn’t want to write about Germany again. “I was making Ruth into another character in another novel set in Sydney. I was making her into this straight-talking, slightly dangerously truth-telling grandmother in a family that was in denial about a lot of stuff. The novel kind of stalled. I started to research Ruth’s life … and the Socialist Workers Party, what it was like for people in exile from Hitler in London, so long before the war, trying to alert the world to what was going to happen and nobody listening because of the appeasement politics of London.” The result was All That I Am.
Funder grew up in North Carlton. Her father is a professor of medicine and her mother a child psychologist. “I loved it; fantastic place to grow up in the ’70s and ’80s,” she says “Carlton was a mix of very interesting people. There were a lot of migrants. It had been a Jewish area but wasn’t when I was small – it was Italian and Greek, lots of university people, lots of people like my parents who were gentrifying it.”
I asked what drove her to write. “I’ve been obsessed with words all my life … It’s genetic.”
The family moved to the US and to Paris, where her father did postdoctoral work. She remembers as a six-year-old not knowing a word of French on her first day at school.
Funder returned to North Carlton and dreamt of being a writer. “I wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, but you want to be a writer in that way that you might want to be a fireman or Superman or something. It’s not necessarily going to happen and you don’t fully know what it’s going to involve.”
She expands on some of the bigger questions about being a writer. “What I find most striking about this life is that there’s a combination of an enormous amount of solitude, which is necessary and suits me up to a point but which also had to be managed – and then there are these periods – like now – of enormous extraversion. I write only in the mornings. I get the kids off and organised and then I go and work. I lose concentration every couple of hours so I have to have a coffee or whatever it is, and then do five-six hours, and after that I do some sort of exercise.”
I suggest that with writing, you’re never off; as a trained observer you never stop noticing or filing away something, so it’s never a job that you leave.
“But you don’t want to,” she says, “because in that process you feel you’re living properly, that you’re fully aware, you’re fully watching what you’re doing. I’m never more happy – and it doesn’t happen all the time – than when I’m really working on something and I know what the spine of it is, you get this sense, some kind of mania, where many things that you notice all around you are somehow relevant and they’re going to fit right into this thing that you’re doing … That’s a very intense feeling. It’s like you’re properly tapped into life in some way. Whereas when I’m not writing, I’m not tapped in properly.
“I feel I’m incredibly fortunate with the success I’ve had because it means that people will read these books, and that’s what you most want; you want to tell a story that you think is important and you feel should exist in the world. You want also to be making some kind of beautiful object, something of pleasure or some kind of enchantment or some kind of connection with people.
“It’s not like I didn’t try to have a proper job. I did a law degree and I worked as an international lawyer in human-rights law and treaty negotiations under the Keating administration in Canberra for a couple of years.”
But she knew that, in the end, she was going to be true to her six-year-old self. “I feel this is all I can do and I feel I’m not much good for anything else at this point.”