Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Rebecca Edwards
By Yong Shu Hoong
Two decades have passed since Australian poet and visual artist Rebecca Edwards published her debut poetry collection, Scar Country (University of Queensland Press, 2000). In 2020, a year devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, she launched her second collection, Plague Animals (Puncher & Wattmann, 2020) a memorable title that cuts a little too close for comfort, though she explains it is completely coincidental she had decided on the name for the book around 2018.
In this long-awaited collection, Edwards navigates the difficult terrains of physical and mental trauma, touching on subjects of mental illness, "pain (that) is forced to sing" (using the description on her publisher's website) and the breakdown of her relationship with her eldest daughter.
In the past, Edwards has also published a chapbook Eating the Experience (Metro Press, 1994), a verse novel Holiday Coast Medusa (Five Islands Press, 2002) and young adult fiction The River Sai (UQP, 2007).
Born in Batlow, New South Wales, in 1969, Edwards lived in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as a child, before going on a year's exchange to Japan at the age of 16. She later graduated from the University of Queensland where she majored in Japanese. She is currently living in Adelaide, where she is working on her first historical novel, All Things Return, which is set in 19th century Indonesia and Malaysia.
1. What are you reading right now?
I'm reading your fine collection, Right of the Soil. I've half-finished Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words. None of the characters interest me much, so I'm looking forward to finishing it and re-reading Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I'm finding it very difficult to decide between wise, confident, successful Elizabeth Bennet; lucky, brave, altogether wholesome traveller Bilbo Baggins and the Wizard of Earthsea, Ged, but I think I have to choose Ged. His struggles are more terrifying than Bilbo's, and his dark side leads him to make some terrible decisions early on, but he becomes a powerful, shape-shifting mage who speaks with dragons. He's disciplined, clear-sighted, unpretentious, tenacious and able to overcome seemingly insurmountable evil using the skills he's honed over a lifetime. In the face of climate change and the probable demise of the Great Barrier Reef, I feel entirely powerless, even though I do what I can to live sustainably I turn all our organic waste into compost, I carry buckets of grey water from the washing machine to the garden, I make art from things people throw out, we have a hybrid car, and solar panels but it's just not enough. Magic powers would definitely come in handy.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
I think that, because it's taken such a long time to get Plague Animals published, there might be a misconception that I've actually stopped writing, or that Scar Country contains my best poems. I've thought that at times. Now I feel more confident that at least some of my best poems are yet to be written.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I hesitate to answer the first part of this question. It feels presumptuous of me to say, "I identify with so-and-so." But I find it much easier to identify with South Australian artist Fiona Hall. That's not to say that I think I'm as good as her nowhere close but I'm like her, in the materials I use: beads, sardine cans, found objects, anatomical diagrams, textiles; the techniques I employ: basketry, weaving, drawing, collage, book making, paper-cutting; and concerns: environmental destruction, loss of species, the insanity of our current human trajectory. As for dead authors, I identify with William Blake in the sense that he was a master of the written and drawn line, and I'd like it if one day the same could be said for me. I recognise a kindred spirit in the way he saw the world, as a place of delight and dismay, at once beautiful and appalling.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, I believe in writer's block! I overcome it by waiting it out, and never giving up on the desire to write. If I can, I go for a long walk on a beach any beach but I don't drive, so usually I go and walk in the Belair National Park instead. I read fiction and non-fiction, make collages and drawings, and try not to panic. I try to employ Ernest Gaines' six golden rules of writing: "Read, read, read, and write, write, write."
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
A good work ethic, a broad knowledge of literature, a deep insight into human nature, originality, compassion, wit, courage of conviction, passion, a willingness to draft and the ability to not take oneself too seriously.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Well, it has to be the use of clichιs. There's just no excuse.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
My favourite line of all time is from A.A. Milne's 'The Four Friends': "but James was only a snail." I deeply identify with James. The older I get, the more profound this poem seems to me.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
have a sideline in making 1:12 scale zombie miniatures.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
A comedy, because the best comedies have tragedy at their core and I'm not about to waste $20 + two hours of my life on an action thriller.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My least favourite word is "awesome", unless you have been truly struck by the terrible majesty of creation. My favourite is "turquoise", because every time I say it, I see that exact colour and the beautiful lumpy stone, with its connotations of the Silk Road and Persian skies.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: act, human, mourn.
To mourn our fall from grace: a human act
or crime that brought us to this place, this broken tract.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A cup of tea. Milk, no sugar.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Morning is my best time, between 7.30am and 12pm.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I'd invite these three, because I wouldn't like my last supper to be boring: Hanshan, Annie Proulx and Geoffrey Chaucer.
16. How are you able to see the beauty in pain and trauma through the preparation of your new book Plague Animals and in our current world?
I accept pain and trauma as important, unavoidable aspects of growth and development as a human animal, but I don't see beauty in them. I've had chronic pelvic pain for four years now, and been on antidepressants for exactly half my life, and I resent every minute I've felt too unwell to write, make art or be with people I love. If I were given the choice of having my eldest daughter back or writing poems about losing her, I would choose the first without hesitation. That said, in the 20 years that went into writing Plague Animals, I seem to have unconsciously chosen the rocky path every time. A dead animal is smelly and messy, but when only the bones remain, what exquisite architecture is revealed. These poems are my bones. As for our current world, I find people fascinating it gives me intense pleasure to sit beside a rice field chatting to a Javanese farmer, or to read a book of poetry by a friend, or to hear the countertenor Cyril Wong open his mouth and sing in a Brisbane restaurant. But as a species we're ruining it for every other species, plant and animal, and I feel distressed and dismayed on a daily basis.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021
Rebecca was only a snail.