While Father’s Day is not an occasion author Deborah Robertson likes to celebrate, this year the annual event will represent an important milestone. It’s the first time she’s going to speak publicly about her troubled childhood, which in the past, she’s preferred to channel through various characters in her books.
Taking part in Sunday’s session, ‘Father’s Day’, Robertson will be on a panel – including Patrick Gale, Tony Birch and chair Toni Jordan – discussing relationships with dads, absent fathers and the importance of father figures.
Robertson has also written a feature piece for The Age Good Weekend magazine, explaining why Father’s Day isn’t a day where everyone can play ‘happy families’. She says it’s also the first time she’s written about her upbringing. ‘Up to this point, I’ve done all my exploration of my childhood, which was a really difficult one, through fiction. Which is a mask and a disguise and a way of distancing myself from everything,’ she said.
Robertson’s father was a gambler. Betting on horses was an addiction which tore her family apart. ‘I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t gambling,’ she said. ‘And he deserted us. He just left one day because he’d embezzled some money and he went missing for years. Years… I was the oldest of three. My Mother coped magnificently in terms of working hard, keeping food on the table and getting us to school, but she was emotionally very fragile so I did a lot of that sort of care.’
Eventually, Robertson’s father returned, but their relationship had been irreparably fractured. ‘When he finally gave himself up and came back, he came back to the family and we were a family again, but we were never close. He would never talk about what happened and you can never be close when something as big as that has happened. He was just a terribly isolated, unhappy man.’
Even now, the emotional toll seems painfully present in her eyes. ‘Father’s day, his birthday, Christmas day, their wedding anniversary day…they’re just sad days. There’s just no other way of dealing with them. They’re just sad.’ The Spring Carnival in Melbourne is also a difficult time for her. ‘Melbourne Cup Day is sort of grotestque to me. It’s a day that I don’t feel like I’m Australian, because I get bad-tempered and feel isolated and I just can’t connect with the idea of a flutter.’
After years of tolerating a strained relationship, Robertson says she is now estranged from her father and has been for the past year, since her parents finally separated. And while Robertson is strongly anti-gambling, her story this weekend is not a lecture from a crusader. It is told from the perspective of what it is like to be the child of an addict. ‘My particular story is gambling, but I wrote this story, trying to leave enough space in it for people to come in with their own experiences.’
She is however, angry that gambling, (pokies in particular) is so readily available in Australia. ‘I’m from Western Australia and we never had pokies in WA and the world hasn’t crumbled; no one’s died of boredom. We have a casino but that’s completely different to having pokies at pubs where families might go to for dinner.’
Robertson moved to Melbourne three years ago – giving up a long-term job teaching at university, to become a full-time writer. ‘I was exhausted and Careless had been successful enough to mean that I had a contract and an advance for another couple of books. I turned fifty and realised I was no longer ever surprised by anything in Perth, which is pretty serious for a writer. So it was inevitable. I almost didn’t have a choice.’
Careless came out in 2006, winning enormous literary acclaim. It was handed the Nita B. Kibble Award and the Colin Roderick Award, not to mention being shortlisted for half-a-dozen other literary prizes. It’s about a young girl, Pearl, whose little brother is killed in a shocking act of violence. For a first novel, such success was gratifying. ‘I was incredibly moved to know I’d made a connection with lots of people that I didn’t know.’
On Saturday, Robertson is also taking part in the MWF, on a panel in a session titled ‘Fish out of Water, which focuses on ex-patriate characters where she’ll discuss her latest book, Sweet Old World. It examines the serious issues involved in a man’s mid-life crisis and his unfulfilled desire to have children. ‘And he’s estranged from everything,not just his country of birth,’ says Robertson. ‘I think often for men, the desire to become a parent doesn’t happen till later so they can miss out. Fathering is a rite of passage in masculinity and we don’t observe rites of passge in society much at all.’
For more details about the sessions Deborah is speaking at this weekend, go to the Melbourne Writers Festival website at http://www.mwf.com.au/2012/?name=Home-2012