lip lit interview: kathy lette
Every Australian girl remembers the moment she read the classic Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey. My mother gave it to me when I was 13 – I think in a sneaky effort to warn me about the unromantic side of sex – and I remember being scandalised, intrigued and mystified all at once. I’ve had a soft spot for Kathy ever since. I was lucky enough to be able to correspond with Kathy from her adopted home city of London recently, and found her to be just as I always imagined: immediately warm, refreshingly open and with a heart as gigantic as her one-liners.
We spoke about her most recent book The Boy Who Fell To The Earth, (which was in part inspired by her own son, Julius, who is autistic), society’s current perceptions of “chick lit” and feminism, and of course, Puberty Blues and growing up in the shire. And, oh, and what happened when Hugh Jackman came over for dinner?
What inspired you to write Puberty Blues?
Puberty Blues was penned just for my surfie girlfriends. The surfie boys I grew up with, disproved the theory of evolution. They were evolving into apes. It would have looked more natural if they squatted on their haunches, grooming each other’s back hair for nits. We girls were little more than a life support system to a pair of breasts. But sadly, at that age, you have no objectivity. You think it’s normal to be treated as a human handbag, draped attractively over the arm of some bloke. Once I realized that Germaine Greer wasn’t just rhyming slang for beer, I wanted to write down our story to help liberate the other surfie girls whose talents were lying doormat , i.e., the boys were walking all over them.
You have a teenager daughter. Having grown up so quickly yourself, were you concerned this would happen to her? Do you think your experiences have made you more of a wary parent?
My daughter is my pride and joy and my total delight. She’s now 19 and studying politics and history at uni and is a straight A student. But yes, I was so over-protective. Because of the sexist, tribal brutality I encountered as a surfie teenager, when my own daughter turned 13, I just wanted to ground her, until she hit menopause. Funnily enough, for my generation though, an Ab Fab dynamic is the norm. Living with a teenage daughter is like living with the Taliban – you’re not allowed to sing, dance, wear short skirts… I would be sneaking out in my pink leopard skin mini dress and she’d hear the squeak of the stairs, run down the hall , yelling “Go back to your room. You are not going out dressed like that!” Teenage daughters are God’s punishment for having sex in the first place! I used all that material in a novel called To Love, Honour and Betray, set back in Cronulla. It’s Puberty Blues from the mother’s point of view. Sweet revenge for my own darling Mum!
Your latest book The Boy Who Fell To The Earth is about a woman whose son is autistic, and it’s infused with such a raw tenderness. Due to the autobiographical elements, did you find this book easier or harder to write than some of your previous novels?
The book literally poured out of my pen. I have always kept that side of my life so private. And I was clearly bursting to tell the tale. But, of course, had waited till Julius was old enough to give me permission. So, yes, it was cathartic, writing about the psychological hardships and humiliations aced by the parents of a special needs child and cataloguing the frustrations of trying to get the right help, the constant guilt about whether you’re doing enough, the bureaucratic speed bumps in your way etc. But it was also wonderful to capture the joy and love and hilarity of raising such exceptional children. I don’t think people are normal or abnormal. I think they’re ordinary or extraordinary. And these kids have savant like intellects, photographic minds, tangential, lateral, literal ways of thinking which are truly unique and inspirational.
I suppose the best way of describing the novel is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time told from the mother’s point of view. The mother in the novel has to learn to accept her child just the way he is, and also to let him go….I am occasionally so overprotective of my son, that my friends can’t believe I ever let him out – of my womb, that is. When he was teenager, I never let him go anywhere without a list of phone numbers and instructions longer than War and Peace. Plus enough supplies in his back pack to set up a comfortable wilderness homestead .
How did you feel about the adaption of Puberty Blues?
The Bruce Beresford film is hilarious and excruciating, simultaneously. I saw it for the first time in decades, just recently and I was torn between hysterical laughter and nausea to the point of projectile vomiting. The ages of the girls were escalated for film censorship reasons – we didn’t want to get a R certificate.
Adaptations can be disappointing. My book Mad Cows was made into a film starring Anna Friel and Joanna Lumley. It was so dire I bought back a lot of my film rights afterwards. The Victorian Opera staged How To Kill Your Husband – and other handy household hints, last year and that was a triumph. My new novel, The Boy Who Fell To Earth has been bought by Emily Mortimer, so I’m expecting great things there as she’s such a clever actress and so highly intellectual. And of course, she’s known Jules his whole life. (She’s John Mortimer’s daughter. And he was my best pal. He called himself my toy boy…but said it would take him three weeks to get a soft on!)
You’re working on the television adaption of Puberty Blues. Will the girls be 13?
The Southern Star version is an 8 hour mini series based around the book… a tad more ambiguous about the girls’ ages…
I’ve read all the scripts and given notes on dialogue and character. It’s hilarious to be considered old enough to be archival. I think it’s thrilling that the book is being reinterpreted for a younger audience. The book and film are in the cult territory now. Young Aussie kids dash up to me in London streets all the time gasping “Go get me a chiko roll and DON’T TAKE A BITE OUT OF IT ON THE WAY OR YOU’RE DROPPED!!”
It’s so exciting to have a fresh eye on that period of Oz history. The 70’s was time of social upheaval. Gough had just been elected, dragging us out of the beige 50’s mentality of Menzies. Cleo scandalized the Aussie male population by publishing nude male centerfolds. Germaine Greer was telling women to stop being tethered to the kitchen by their apron strings. The generation gap was Grand Canyon wide between parents and their kids. The new scripts capture that extraordinary mix of optimism, naivety, sexism, brutality, racism, politically incorrect humor, happiness and hilarity.
As a former resident, do you have any thoughts on the upcoming reality show The Shire?
When I tell people overseas that I’m from “The Shire” they presume I’m some kind of hobbit. But The Shire is an extraordinary place, Shire people are very proud of their area, and so they should be. It’s beautiful. Two of my sisters still live there as does my darling Mum. And all my old surfie girlfriends. I still stay in touch with all the girls I went to school with.
My thoughts on the reality show, The Shire? Reality television is a genre devoted to people who have nothing to say and spend all day saying it. It’s a genre where people who have nothing to do, watch people not doing anything. Once upon a time, fame was a by-product of talent. Now, people are famous for just being famous. It seems to me that production companies shoot too much footage, and not enough participants.
While Desperate Scousewives and Jersey whatever can draw on a vast human menu of megalomaniacal motor mouths, who seem to keep fit by doing step aerobics off their own egos, the majority of people from the Shire are not like that. Speaking as a former Shire Girl, most residents are laid back, cheerful, family orientated, fun and dry humoured. Our humour is typical of most Aussies, drier than an AA clinic. But this laconic style is low key and not the right volume for reality trash television. Also, the young Shire males are typical of the average Aussie bloke – serious pecs appeal and twinkly eyes, but a three grunt vocabulary of “na”, “dunno” and “ergggh.” They’re emotional bonsai – you have to whack the fertiliser to get any feelings out of them. Not exactly conducive to dynamic television.
Yes, of course, the producers will probably ferret out some fame-struck bimbos, addicted to nail extensions and their equivalent himbos, addicted to back waxing … but they are not typical of people from the Shire.
As for the effect an Aussie reality show will have on Australia’s image overseas? It will probably shore up the stereotype of the Fosters beer swilling image we fostered for ourselves in the 80’s. In truth, Australians attend more cultural events per head of population and read more books per head of population than any other nation on the planet. So , we are definitely selling ourselves short. But I wouldn’t fear too much back lash to tourism or immigration. When Sylvania Waters was aired here, yes, all we expat Aussies cringed in horror at the stupidity and vulgarity and anorexic vocabularies of the stars. But in Britain, the reaction was – hey, if those morons can move to Australia and live in a huge house on the water and afford a speed boat etc, WHAT COULD I ACHIEVE? I’m pretty sure it boosted British immigration.
You’ve spoken about how you think Australian woman have a fierce loyalty to each other and their friendships. How important do you think it is to maintain those female friendships in your life?
Your female friends are your human wonder bras – uplifting, supportive and making each other look bigger and better. I have an Aussie gang called “The Girts”, because our home is “girt by sea”, obviously. When I’m out for the writers festival, we’ll have many get togethers where we share secrets and love and laughter. I also have three sensational sisters and the most wonderful, warm, wise, witty mother. We are totally devoted to each other and laugh so hard when we’re together that our lips fall off. So there’ll be many bush walks and barbecues and much fun and frivolity and loud kookaburra laughter. I couldn’t survive without them.
In a recent interview, radio presenter Jackie O said that she didn’t identify herself as a feminist. A few weeks ago in a Nine MSN poll, only 20% of participants said they were feminists. Why do you think so many women today distance themselves from the word?
Feminism in the new F word. Women distance themselves from the term because it’s been derided and demonized by the male dominated media. I champion women in my work because it’s still a man’s world. Women don’t have equal pay, we are only getting 75 pence in the pound. We’re still getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling, plus we’re expected to Windex it whilst up there. And we’re still doing 99 percent of all the housework and childcare. Men say they’d like to help more around the house, only they can’t multi task. What a biological cop out. You’d never see any man having any trouble multi tasking at say, an orgy, now would you?
My message to women is – don’t wait to be rescued by some Knight in Shining Armani. Stand on your own two stilettos.
You’ve written a book called Men: A User’s Guide. If you could only give one piece of advice on men, what would it be?
The only time you can change a male of the species is out of a nappy, as a baby.
“Chick lit” is a genre that is often looked at with a degree of shame. What do you think needs to be done for the genre to be treated with respect?
I loathe the term “chick lit.” It’s derogatory and dismissive. Men who write first person, funny, contemporary fiction like Nick Hornby and David Nicholls get compared to Chekov while we women authors get pink covers and condescension. I am also allergic to Conan the Grammarian reviewers, who have a condescension chromosome when it comes to female fiction writers.
You received a lot of attention for wearing a corgi-printed outfit to meet The Queen, who by all accounts was delighted. Do you think people sometimes place too much pressure on acting a certain way in public, while they should just be enjoying life?
All mothers tend to put their children first. But the mother of a special needs child, tends to go into Martyr Mode. It’s very easy to let your own life dwindle to a speck. But I don’t think this is healthy. I’m a great believer in grabbing joy wherever you can. Which is why I’m often to be found swinging from a chandelier, champers in hand, loudly laughing at life.
And which is why I also wanted the protagonist of my novel (TBWFTTE), Lucy to try to embrace living again. The dating section in the book, is one my favourite chapters, as it allowed me to use humour to such chaotic effect. Every time my protagonist Lucy, kindles a romance… it is accidentally sabotaged by her aspergic son. I did draw on many of my own experiences for these scenes. Like the time I had a famous movie star home for dinner (actually, I don’t mean to go for Gold in the Name Dropping Olympics, but it was Hugh Jackman) and I was flirting for Australia. In my besotted, deluded mind we were both just about to leave our spouses and elope to the Caribbean, when my son, then aged 13, walked in. I leapt up to embrace and kiss him, casually commenting that he was growing a moustache.
My son gave me a measured, objective once over. ‘Well, so are you,’ he said, matter-of-factly. I could have deep-fried chips on my cheeks. ‘See all the hairs on your top lip? There’s millions of them. You have one or two on your chin as well.’
If only I’d taken a tip from mother nature and eaten my young, I thought.
If you could give one piece of advice to yourself at 13, what would it be?
I could play join the dots with my many sun spots and what it would say is “wear sunblock, you idiot!”
Kathy is appearing at next weeks Sydney Writer’s Festival
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