Strangely Peaceful: Interview with Gaylene Perry
Gaylene Perry sits at her kitchen table, her younger sister makes tea in another room. They are waiting to for search and rescue workers to let them know their brother’s body has been found. But they won’t know, not tonight, not for another three nights:
Brad is still in the water. He will spend the night in the channel. The news strikes her as the worst so far. Life, death, these are ideas she cannot comprehend tonight, the reality of the words will not sink in. But the word drowning sinks in. And Brad in the water, left to drink in the dark, in the storm: that sinks in.
In her memoir, Midnight Water, Perry relives those nights as she and her family come to terms with their loss. It’s a candid and compelling account from inside the tragedy, from the nightmare of that first phone call to the heartbreaking reality of Brad’s eventual discovery. A writer and writing teacher (Perry is a lecturer in Professional Writing at Australia’s Deakin University and has published several short stories, poems and articles), Perry’s story is more than just a memoir about family loss, it’s a richly crafted story—suspenseful, romantic, sometimes even humorous, and presents an authentic picture of rural Australian life and the power of family.
The book, told in third person with “Gaylene” as the central character, is divided into distinct segments, from Perry, then 23, learning of the tragedy, to her drive from her Melbourne home to the accident scene. From then we wait with Perry and her family, (including her future husband, Jude) as they await news about Brad. Throughout, Perry relates significant moments as a member of that family, how each day and each simple act, can impact on others and the unit as a whole. It’s these moments, we learn, that make a family and give it its uniqueness.
Perry talks with pride about her brother and her father. She almost gives them back their lives, rebuilding them on paper as principled, happy men. Perry’s recollections round out Brad and William and she gives the reader a genuine sense of who they were and what they meant not only to Gaylene but to other family members, their friends and each other. In a particularly moving moment, Gaylene recalls the time her father moved to Darwin for a period of time:
And she missed William. He sent her a self-timed picture of himself with a green tree frog perched on his beard. She sent him a Father’s Day card with cartoons of lions across the front and a caption inside: Read between the lions. Between the lions were the words I love you. Her phone rang. She picked it up and heard him say with no preliminaries, ‘I read between the lions.’
Perry’s style is simple yet the intensity it conveys demonstrates how even the most fascinating and heartbreaking of tales can, with expert command of language, become so much more.
Gaylene Perry spoke to PopMatters about Midnight Water and its impact on reader, as well as the family it honours.
PM: When did you decide you wanted to write this story?
GP: My answer needs to be a little complex. From the earliest weeks following my family tragedy, I needed to write about what had happened. Since childhood I have used writing to help me make sense of the world, even (or perhaps especially) when no sense could truly be made. In those early weeks I was not consciously beginning to write my memoir: I was simply writing what was on my mind, what possessed me, obsessed me. About ten years later, I thought about writing the story of the tragedy from beginning to end, from my perspective. I started writing, but the project was going nowhere. I could not decide how much of the past and how much of the present to mesh together. After a year, I was ready to abandon the project: it was just too hard. Then, I had the idea of setting the story in a tiny, contracted time frame. That changed everything. From then on, I wrote the first draft in just five long, busy nights, and then completed the book to submission stage in about eight weeks.
PM: Why did you want to share this story with a reading audience?
GP: In my mind, even though the story of my father and brother’s deaths is a sad story, it is a beautiful and rich story. They were ordinary people who were at the same time quite extraordinary in how much they were liked and loved by most who knew them. I wanted to shout out, or even just to whisper, their stories and for them to be heard. It’s easy for the general public to let a seemingly anonymous tragic death in the news slip by from one day to another. I wanted to draw readers’ attention to the fact that every one of those ‘little’ deaths has a complex story surrounding it.
PM:Are you happy with how the book turned out?
GP:Yes, I really am. I think it’s a fitting tribute to my father and brother, and the very loving relationship I had with them, and how significant their loss was to me. I think it also encompasses the details and complexity of my perspective of my family’s life up until that time. I feel happy that the complexities of life can all be placed together, mosaic-like, and work as a whole. That makes me feel, perhaps strangely, peaceful: that so many pieces: different people, different events, different memories and perspectives, different ways of life, different beliefs and philosophies, can exist at once.
PM: What do you think is compelling for audiences about tragedy in the lives of others?
GP: Particularly at this time, I think many people are feeling threatened and afraid and somewhat sad about the state of world affairs. Even if we don’t know personally the victims of war or terrorism or oppression or poverty, we can’t help but be affected by the tragedy of others. Readers of Midnight Water may find a sense of hope, a sense of the way that love and family bonding can help a family—or a community, local or global—to find the strength to survive tragedy.
PM: What was it like revisiting those hours?
GP: I revisited the hours in a contracted period of writing time. The experience was intense. Once I started that new draft mentioned earlier, I could not stop. I almost lived the day/night of the tragedy over again, as well as many other events from my past that came pouring out between the lines. In some ways, it was traumatic. I reacted physically as I worked: I cried and spoke and laughed aloud, I sweated, my heart raced. But it was a positive experience overall. I felt very close to my family, and I felt strong. I think I fully understood, for the first time, the hugeness of what we had endured. At the time of the tragedy, shock and trauma and grief veiled that hugeness to some extent.
PM: Did emotion ever threaten the writing of the book?
GP: No, in a way, emotion threatened me more if I did not write the book. It needed to be written. In some ways not writing this huge story that haunted and obsessed me was holding me back as a person and as a writer. Once I was on the way with that new draft, emotion was the driving force in the writing.
PM: How is it now that the book has been published—dealing with these emotions all over again? Have the questions and comments regarding it been at all difficult for you and your family?
GP: I feel strong about my grief after writing and publishing the book. I don’t believe in trying to shut away grief—it is much more healthy and truthful to admit to living with grief every day no matter how happy the rest of my life may be. I feel somewhat euphoric about being able to express the intensity of my loss and celebrate the lives of my father and brother. For my family, it’s more difficult, because they have not had that same cathartic experience of writing. Questions and comments must be far more difficult for them to endure. But we are a close and very loving family and I know that helps.
PM: Are you happy with the response to the book?
GP: Overall, yes. Almost daily, I receive calls and emails and visits from readers and I am deeply touched by the personal stories I have been told and by the intensity of responses I have received. Just yesterday I heard through an interstate friend that a stranger (to me) had said after reading Midnight Water she did not feel afraid of loss because of the way I had written about it. I find it remarkable and humbling that my book may have such positive effects on others. Some readers have felt I told too many personal stories in the book, stories that might have remained private. But I wrote honestly, I wrote with love, and I cannot therefore regret any parts of the book.
PM: Was your style influenced at all by other books you’ve read?
GP: Not consciously, keeping in mind the intense manner of writing: I was sharply focused on what I was writing. But I admire nuanced and detailed Australian writing such as Poppy, by Drusilla Modjeska, Craft for a Dry Lake, by Kim Mahood, Rose Boys by Peter Rose, and also the work of Helen Garner, and of Michael Ondaatje. My work in general, is very much inspired by those authors.
PM: Did you ever feel as though writing this story and releasing it was the wrong decision?
GP: No. It is a very revealing book, but I am not the sort of person to be afraid of self-exposure. As a writer, I am interested in the minutiae of life, the minutiae of character, of selfhood and identity. I love the way those details fit intricately together. After writing it, to not publish it would have been somewhat dishonest, I think: it would have been denying that: this is me, and I cannot be anyone else.
PM: What was behind writing about yourself in the third person? Did it work for you?
GP: Funnily enough, I did not even realise I was writing in the third person until about the third chapter. I suspect that was because I have previously thought of myself as primarily a writer of fiction, and I prefer to write fiction in the third person: it’s the point of view that feels most useful to me as a writer. I had written and published several short stories about the tragedy and about other aspects of my life, and they were always written in the third person. When I understood that I was writing a memoir in the third person, I paused to think about it for a moment. And I wondered if this was the best way to write such a personal and searing story: to give myself just enough distance to allow me to write it as a story, to be able to bear writing the hardest parts. I used the third person as a writing device to help me finish that first draft: to write everything I needed to write. I reasoned with myself that I could always change it in subsequent drafts. But I liked it. So, I didn’t change it. Afterwards I learned that J.M. Coetzee has written his two memoirs in the third person, so in that sense at least, I’m in good company!
PM: What do you think has been the best thing to come out of the writing and publication of the book?
GP: The first thing is that I have a copy of Midnight Water put away for my son, who is currently four, to read when he grows up. I want him to be able to have a good, detailed sense of who my father and brother were, and what they meant to me. Another has been quite a surprise, and that has been the strength of responses to the book. I am very proud that the book as elicited such powerful responses. When I wrote it, and even right up to very close to the time of publication, I saw the book as a ‘little’ one, a quietly depicted story that would have a quiet existence out in the world. It seems that certain kinds of quietness can be almost deafening, judging by the response.