‘Permission to write’: Emilie Collyer Interviews Marion May Campbell

By and | 31 October 2021

This question of time. Not only what sense of time is alive within a piece of writing but also what a writer is doing with and to a reader or audience in regards to time. David Cole writes of theatre that it ‘exists to manifest an illud tempus’ (Cole 1975: 156), that an illud tempus, in religious terms is ‘a time of origins’ (7), and that it is ‘not so much when it first occurred as where it is always happening’ (italics in original) (8).

Is that what Marion means? That the time in this book she loves, liv, is a sense of time that is always happening and that this is radical and difficult for fiction readers who are seeking comfort when they read, that trauma should be over. Past. Resolved. How technically and formally exciting to try to evoke a sense of ‘always happening’ in a piece of literature. It seems this ambition is suited to performance writing. A quote that circles in me, that has a miraculous simplicity, that almost captures everything I love about writing for theatre, Susan Bennett in her book Theatre Audiences, quoting Umberto Eco: ‘when the on-stage drunkard says that he loves liquor, ‘it does not mean that the subject of the utterance loves liquor – it means that there is somewhere somebody who loves liquor and who says that’.’ (Bennett 1997: 70).

‘There is somebody somewhere who loves liquor.’

‘There is somebody somewhere.’ Always. Illud tempus.

Marion had been a mentor to Yasbincek and then was also on an awards panel when the book was being considered for a major literary award. Marion had to stay out of the voting.

MMC: And the chair of the committee said, Well, I don’t know if this stuff really happened to her. That’s horrible to think about [00:55:00], [and], if she made it up, what kind of […] imagination does she have?

And we just.

Both of us.

At her dining room table.

With the dogs patiently waiting on the couch.

Empty teacups and the crumbs of banana cake on my plate.

We both.



At the …

MMC: So [this Chair] of the committee was just [perplexed and troubled]. They [the committee] agreed to commend [the book] because they thought it was [very] powerful, but not very ‘nice’, you know

And that, yes, sequences in the book were disturbing and hallucinatory and cruel and it was about transgenerational trauma so it had to …

EC: Yes exactly, But so there’s an issue. It sounds like there’s an issue there. If we’re just to generalise about some mainstream sensibility in Australia, that there’s an issue with, what’s perceived as taste, poor taste, but also form. So, a difficulty with grappling with both, both of those things. Um, if they don’t conform to a certain sort of.

MMC: And a horror of the abject. If it is …

EC: if it’s not resolved, there’s no redemption or no, sort of, yeah …

MMC: if it’s not resolved. That’s the key thing. If it’s not redeemed and if, as in liv, the persona barely survives at the end of the book … You know, the last word is kind of …

Not very nice.
Not a very nice imagination.
Not a very nice way to use language.

MMC: I think it’s a work, you know, [… that] has genius.

The poignancy of this. What we need, as writers, to feel nurtured and to carry on. Especially writers who are attempting difficult and dangerous work. ‘Not very nice’. There is something in this dismissal that saddens me. Enrages me.

We talk about how this has perhaps changed a little in recent years. How writers like Maggie Nelson have ‘pushed form along’ so that more is possible. I posit that a writer like Nelson makes the kind of difficult and confessional more palatable somehow, she captures the zeitgeist at just the right moment with a tone that is not ‘too much’. Writers like Marion’s friend, above, have laid the groundwork, pushing at form in ways that readers or the industry were not ready for, in certain places at certain times.

and this will come up again
in another interview
talking about the
‘Malvern ladies’ who go
to writers’ festivals
and the publishers and agents
who want nice, attractive
women writers who are 
good at talking on panels
who look
and can speak

Having said that, this encounter with Marion is nice. Or is that the wrong word. It is kind. It obeys social rules. We are warm with each other. There is an exchange of niceties. There is nothing wrong with writers being nice. To each other. But is there something wrong with an industry that expects writing to be nice. To be palatable. Just enough (as the forthcoming interviewee will say) ‘frisson’. Just a little. To titillate or stimulate. But not so much as to disturb. To undo. To erupt.

So what is possible?

MMC: I mean, it’s lovely to encounter someone who’s thinking about the – what, to me is the most fascinating problem: How do you translate what you’re doing, you know, with kind of a radical exploration of form – how does this connect to possible social or cultural impact?

EC: Do we, do, do you, I mean, is there, is there a part of you, if this isn’t too kind of earnest a question, that that believes that’s possible, that believes in the project, of the radical?

MMC: Even though I am inclined to think so, you know, I can see that those who argue the opposite can be right. Yeah. Or are probably right in saying that Marilyn French in The Women’s Room did more, you know, to affect women than, uh, all the Monique Wittigs.

Marion walks me out to my car. The rain has made the afternoon green. We did not know each before and now there is a relationship of enthusiasm and goodwill. I turn the wrong way leaving Drouin but only for a few hundred metres until I realise and correct my mistake. Later we will email, and exchange plays to read, and she will continue this enthusiasm, praising my work, stepping into the role I witnessed, where she finds meaning and connection in the work of others, in their intellects and their creativity. Marion will introduce me to her friend Kathleen Mary Fallon, and I will interview her. Another small piece in the jigsaw.

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