‘It’s Just Some Guy, Not a Monster’: Gendered Violence in Emily Maguire’s Recent Novels

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Abstract

Emily Maguire is a Sydney-based author who has written six novels, three non-fiction books and numerous articles on feminism, culture and literature. Her early novels Taming the Beast (2004) and The Gospel According to Luke (2006) were both awarded Special Commendations in the Kathleen Mitchell Awards. Smoke in the Room (2009) and Fishing for Tigers (2012) were followed by the two more recent novels that have had the most impact: An Isolated Incident (2016) – which was shortlisted for both the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award – and Love Objects (2021). Her novels tackle uncomfortable topics such as abusive relationships, intimate partner violence and the ways in which young women are socially conditioned to be ashamed of their own sexuality. In these latter two novels, she deploys alternating perspectives to explore the multifaceted effects of often-traumatic events on her different characters. This in-depth analysis of characters’ motivations and emotional responses mitigates against any simplistic view of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Like her fiction, her non-fiction addresses issues of feminism, sexuality and power. Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity (2008), for example, examines the restrictive roles that society has afforded young women. A revised edition of the book targeted at young adult readers, Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice, was published in 2010. Her most recent non-fiction book, This Is What a Feminist Looks Like: The Rise and Rise of Australian Feminism (2019), traces an Australian feminist history, showing how many of the earlier struggles for gender equality are still relevant and unresolved, as evidenced in the #MeToo movement.

Sue Kossew and Anne Brewster interviewed Emily Maguire about her two most recent novels, An Isolated Incident (2016) and Love Objects (2021). They discussed, in particular, the issue of violence against women and the representation of such violence in fiction. Part of the focus was on the implications of writing and reading about violence.

Emily Maguire is a Sydney-based author who has written six novels, three non-fiction books and numerous articles on feminism, culture and literature. Her early novels Taming the Beast (2004) and The Gospel According to Luke (2006) were both awarded Special Commendations in the Kathleen Mitchell Awards. Smoke in the Room (2009) and Fishing for Tigers (2012) were followed by the two more recent novels that have had the most impact: An Isolated Incident (2016) – which was shortlisted for both the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award – and Love Objects (2021). Her novels tackle uncomfortable topics such as abusive relationships, intimate partner violence and the ways in which young women are socially conditioned to be ashamed of their own sexuality. In these latter two novels, she deploys alternating perspectives to explore the multifaceted effects of often-traumatic events on her different characters. This in-depth analysis of characters’ motivations and emotional responses mitigates against any simplistic view of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Like her fiction, her non-fiction addresses issues of feminism, sexuality and power. Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity (2008), for example, examines the restrictive roles that society has afforded young women. A revised edition of the book targeted at young adult readers, Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice, was published in 2010. Her most recent non-fiction book, This Is What a Feminist Looks Like: The Rise and Rise of Australian Feminism (2019), traces an Australian feminist history, showing how many of the earlier struggles for gender equality are still relevant and unresolved, as evidenced in the #MeToo movement.

Sue Kossew and Anne Brewster interviewed Emily Maguire about her two most recent novels, An Isolated Incident (2016) and Love Objects (2021). They discussed, in particular, the issue of violence against women and the representation of such violence in fiction. Part of the focus was on the implications of writing and reading about violence.

Sue Kossew (SK): Can I start off by asking you about An Isolated Incident, and the ways in which the narrative address to an unspecified ‘you’ engages the reader. I wondered if the ‘you’ refers to a particular person; perhaps the reader or May, the journalist character.

Emily Maguire (EM): It’s definitely been interpreted in those ways and more. In the initial writing, when I first started using that form of address, it was May. I was thinking of the structure in which she’s telling all this to the journalist. But in later drafts, as I worked through it, I took out a lot of those references because I wanted that ambiguity to be there. Part of what I’m doing in An Isolated Incident is messing around with ideas about the voyeuristic nature of crime fiction. I’m writing about both crime and true crime, the genre that the journalist character of May is working in. And I wanted there to be times when the reader was confronted with the part that they were playing in the reproduction of the violence in crime fiction.

SK: So the ‘you’ is also the reader? For example, when Chris says, ‘Go ahead and read the goddamn coroner’s report and look up those obscene photos for yourself. I’m not your pornographer’ (23). By including the reader here as well as May as a narrative addressee, does the text implicate our own readerly voyeurism?

EM: Yes. Because in a way the journalist, as well as the character May, is a stand-in for all the journalists who do put those kinds of details out there so that readers can have that experience of this intimacy in the aftermath of crime. I did deliberately make it more ambiguous later so it was possible that the reader would be feeling directly spoken to without that explicit filter.

SK: There is a sense that May’s duty as a journalist to spectacularise the violence is gradually replaced by her realisation of the ethics of her social role in representing violence. Did you want to show her becoming more aware of what she was doing and starting to resist her editor’s pressure to be explicit about the crime – and therefore also getting the reader to become aware of this ethical dilemma?

EM: Yes. I’m interested in the role journalists play in these kinds of stories. Because a lot of crime reporting, I think, does important work in raising awareness about gendered violence, which is a clichéd idea, but it genuinely does. For example, the Four Corners report about the murder of Lynette Daley, ‘Callous Disregard’ (Meldrum-Hanna) – which aired only just after this book came out – was absolutely horrific. There was an outcry that that kind of reporting was unnecessarily graphic. But it had a huge impact so that people got het up about it and there were calls for a new inquest and enquiry into it. It shows that good crime reporting and journalism can play a very important social role. But there’s the other side of that. I read a lot of true crime books and reports in writing this book to get into the head of May and there’s so much there that – even once cases are over and done with, and there’s nothing to be gained from it – there’s this incredible hunger to share grim details of such crimes. There must be a demand from readers and publishers because there’s so much gratuitous detail that doesn’t need to be there, which doesn’t change the story in any way and just puts those specific pictures in the reader’s head. So, in this book, I specifically didn’t put any descriptions of what had happened. But there’s enough in there so readers can jump into that space themselves and imagine it. And in at least one review (in The Australian), the reviewer said that she found herself wanting to know the details.1 That’s the thing, because the genre itself, if you read a lot in this genre, trains you to want that. I’m switching between fictionalised and true crime because there is a lot in common when it comes to the book form, anyway. The character of May had a sense that you just report what there is to know and the details are part of that. But as she gets to know the system, or gets to know Chris more – and through her, Bella, the victim – the obscenity of that kind of reporting becomes clearer to her. So she’s torn between being the kind of journalist her editor or readers would want and responding just as a person, a woman who sees things playing out and knows that there’s something quite obscene in sharing these details about the crime.

Anne Brewster (AB): You do nonetheless have some graphic detail about the crime, don’t you? You write about how the body had been mauled by dogs.

EM: Yes, but that description is via the newspaper reporting and the third person witness. I wanted to give an idea of how the crime was being reported. But there’s no objective description of what happened to her, like a forensic report. The newspaper report has some detail, and, of course, they put ‘mauled’ in the headline because that’s what draws people in and interests them. So, yes, there are details about the crime scene, about where she was found, that it had been raining, that she had been left out in the open. These are to accurately imitate that kind of news reporting.

SK: And it sounded like it was deliberately made to seem clichéd.

EM: Yes, it invites an imagining of what happened and the kind of unpleasant details that readers dwell upon. I grew up in Western Sydney and was really young around the time of Anita Cobby’s murder and had a couple of one or two degrees of separation with members of the family. And it had such a huge impact, triggering the conversations that happened around all the details of her death: the speculation and the thrill people seemed to get out of that. There would be the level of what you could read in the newspaper – which was pretty graphic, as I remember – and then, people adding to that, saying, ‘Well, I heard . . . well, I know this person and this is what really happened’. I find this kind of building on those reports to fill in all those gaps disturbing and upsetting. At the same time, it is interesting to speculate as to why so many people have that impulse to get the full picture, to want all the gaps filled in, to want to know exactly what happened and how. And there are true crime books and now a plethora of websites as well where they do have all the crime scene photographs, some with bodies in them and some not. People who are true crime fans can methodically go in and fill in all the gaps so that the details are specific.

AB: And you’re intervening in this process through a feminist discourse, aren’t you? You take on the issue of feminism quite overtly in various ways.

EM: I think so and, although it wasn’t my first level intention with it, I was aware that I didn’t want to pull my punches or pull back from it at all. I didn’t want to worry that it would alienate men or be too this or too that, because that is a discussion that comes up with fiction: that you have to try not to be polemical and didactic. And that’s certainly true, to a point. No one wants to read a novel where they feel like they’re actually reading a disguised manifesto or treatise. But I thought of it as the lived experience of being in a female body. The background of this is the life I and the women I know experience – their stories of hearing these terrible crime stories and having them in our heads and, at the same time, loving men and spending time with men and being alone with men all the time. It’s a timely feminist conversation at the moment as well.

AB: It seems to me there are some moments where you don’t pull your punches on observing male violence. There’s so much that looks innocuous about the masculine culture depicted in the novel – a certain kind of aggression and violence which looks like mateship (in the pub, for example) – but which actually forms a menacing undercurrent of oppression towards women.

EM: Yes, definitely. There’s that sense in which it’s not harmless in terms of women getting the message that they’re not welcome in these masculine spaces because that kind of misogynistic language is a real marker of who is welcome in this space and who can be comfortable here. The other thing that’s going on throughout the book is the idea that you can’t know where the harm is going to come from. Those blokes using crude, sexist and misogynist language might be completely harmless and it could be the husband of the young woman at home who is the problem – we know the home is where most violence occurs against women – so that there’s no way of knowing which kind of man women can trust.

SK: And then you also talk about the idea that men who murder may not appear to be ‘monsters’ and in fact could be the bloke next door. So was that your intention in keeping the details of the perpetrator sketchy, as we never find out his motives?

EM: Yes, early on I wasn’t going to have the crime solved at all because my thinking all along was that, in terms of this larger environment in which women live, one person caught for something is not fixing anything because of this one so-called ‘isolated incident’. The victims didn’t know each other, the perpetrators didn’t know each other, there are no circumstances in common. But in a society in which one woman a week is being killed by a man, there’s a pattern there, there’s something gone very wrong. One particular crime being solved might make people feel safer because it’s been a sensationalised crime that’s been on the news and everyone thinks, ‘Thank God they got him’ and there’s a sense of justice or someone getting what they deserve. But the next week there’s the next crime and the next one and the next one. Later I decided that, for craft reasons, but also in that larger philosophical sense, it would be better to have them catch someone but not play into that crime novel genre convention of the reader tracking these men throughout, like: Is it Nate, is it this man? How can we pick a killer based on their behaviour? Rather, I wanted to suggest: it’s just some guy, not a ‘monster’.

SK: So, the focus isn’t on ‘whodunnit’ but on the victims of violent crime. I wanted to ask you about the idea of victimhood and different kinds of victims. It seemed to me that you made a deliberate choice to set up the two sisters as very different, with Chris taking so many risks with sexual encounters with men and Bella as being seemingly ‘pure’ in the sense that nobody would have thought of her being part of events that would lead to her being the victim of a sexual crime.

EM: Yes, there was a feeling in the community that Bella wasn’t doing anything to ‘invite’ the violence. One thing I always thought with Chris was that there would be an awareness that builds in her, and I don’t think she ever explicitly states it, that if she had been the victim then all this fuss wouldn’t have been being made because she [Chris] did have a risky lifestyle. There are certainly women who are murdered, particularly sex workers, who don’t get anywhere near the attention of other cases. And then, expanding that, what interests me is the idea that after a while it’s frightening for a community to think, ‘Someone has been able to do this and they’re out there’. It’s such a frightening feeling, and you can observe this tendency for people to start finding reasons why it happened to her. It’s a self-comfort; like, ‘It’s not going to happen to me’. You see it all the time with victim-blaming around rape. People seem to justify it by saying, ‘It’s terrible, but here are reasons why it happened to her’. It’s a self-comforting thing that happens unconsciously in pretty much every crime, even when you start with a victim like Bella who is a so-called ‘perfect victim’. Bella’s a nursing aide and she’s really sweet and she’s got a safe lifestyle and doesn’t even drink. That’s the thing you hear, too, often in interviews with the public: ‘It could have been me’. That’s the scariest thought. Bella wasn’t doing anything ‘wrong’. She was just leaving work.

AB: Can I ask you about Bella: we find out that she’s not quite so pure and innocent as we thought, because she’s having the affair with the married bloke. Did you also want to deliberately move away from that pure innocent victim?

EM: Yes, I did. I wanted to gritty her up a bit in a sense, even from Chris’s perspective. I wanted her to be more real, and there’s lots of ways to do that. This idea around how a woman behaves herself or not with men – that seemed an interesting way to do that. Also, importantly, her affair didn’t at all end up having anything at all to do with why she got killed, with what happened. It’s irrelevant to the murder mystery part of it.

SK: I found a lot of gothic elements in your book. Chris is haunted by not just images of Bella but also by bruises on the wall and other hallucinogenic images – the ‘caverns of horror’ alluded to. Were you drawing on a gothic tradition for that?

EM: I remember really censoring myself and stopping myself when that stuff started creeping into the writing because I realised: this is weird, am I actually trying to say there’s a ghost or what? Then eventually I just let it come in because it felt like it was coming from somewhere. In thinking about it further, I felt like if you read enough crime fiction and true crime reporting you do become a little bit blasé about why it’s even that bad that someone’s been murdered. I think those images arose from Chris’s experience of wanting to represent in some way the extreme horror that she was feeling about what happened – the images in her head and her complicated loss. It was not a straight-forward loss that she could understand. It felt like something that needed to come out; this genuine feeling that the world was not what it had been and that what had changed was this visceral fear.

SK: There was also a link with a national gothic, a haunting of place and sense of unfinished business, that came through with the images of massacres.

EM: This nation is built on incredible violence that is not acknowledged in an official sense or in a larger popular sense. There’s continuing violence, so it’s not only historical. And, again, this isn’t a manifesto and I’m not trying to explain anything too much, but I am personally haunted by how much violence we all live amongst. Most of us in middle-class educated society still act suitably horrified and shocked when an act of violence breaks through and we have to pay attention to it, when really there’s violence behind closed doors on every street we walk along: there’s violence that the nation is built on, there’s violence in the treatment of asylum seekers, of the Indigenous population, there’s violence against animals, which I try to bring in too. There’s just this thin veneer of peace and safety.

AB: Strathdee is a country town, isn’t it? Are you making a comment about rural culture and do you think that violence is more visible in rural areas because of the isolation?

EM: I didn’t mean to be doing that, but I think I accidentally have. Originally what I wanted was a closed society that had some space for others to come through. That was a plot device, more than anything. A lot of the psychology and the group dynamics of the community is very much borrowed from my Western Sydney suburban upbringing. That sense of being a suburb where everyone talks about each other and everyone knows everyone’s dirty laundry and who’s doing what. But if an outsider comes in and wants to talk, everyone closes ranks. I have some experience of living in country towns but not for as long as I lived in suburbia and I wanted to capture that mentality in a plot sense: there are people they know who might be capable of murder, but they would rather think not, of course, because it’s their community and they live there. So a country town setting allows the possibility that there are truckers coming through, and it’s much easier to think that it’s an outsider that’s done something terrible. I did want to present it in that way that could easily be transferrable to anywhere else. And yes, I definitely used that sense of the geographical isolation. I think violence is more visible in country towns and in suburbs because in the city people are more anonymous. When you go to a country town, everyone’s got their eyes on you. When I go back to the suburb where I grew up, you bump into ten people you know in the shops. You can’t have mental space and aloneness the way that you can in the city where you’re surrounded by strangers and become anonymous. So while there are acts of violence, particularly theft or opportunistic acts of violence in cities, this kind of personal violence against women is more visible in country towns and in suburbs. People know when a woman is being hurt at home, often, or they’ve got an idea but they don’t do anything . . .

SK: Were you also linking violence against people with violence against animals? There were the dead joeys on the road – a sort of meaningless violence.

EM: Yes, the link is definitely there between accidental violence and deliberate acts of violence. The animals on the road – that’s a detail of setting that worked well thematically. Because, if you do drive on those roads on the Hume Highway, depending on the time of day, it is horrendous. There are bodies everywhere, there is blood everywhere. It’s a violent space even though there’s not been an intentional crime: it’s road kill. But, in terms of setting, and theme, it’s the sheer violence of our presence here. This is a space that is the animals’ space but that we’re just charging along through anyway: that’s just the price we pay. Our trucks need to come through, we need supplies, we need food.

SK: How do you react to the novel being described as crime fiction?

EM: I don’t write thinking about genre at all, but as soon as I started talking about this to my publishers and to friends when I was writing it, they regarded it as a crime novel. Sisters in Crime, who are the women’s crime writers’ group who are based in Melbourne, embraced it. They invited me down for their SheKilda Festival at St Kilda last year. So they brought me into that fold although I didn’t originally think of the novel that way. I think someone who’s a real lover of generic crime fiction – I don’t mean that in an insulting way, I mean strictly within the genre – might throw it across the room, because it’s not going to satisfy that particular generic drive. But I never know what to call it. And publishers get frustrated because they need to know how to market it and who to sell it to. We had a lot of grappling over the cover because the first few covers were very crime fiction-y.

SK: With bodies?

EM: Yes, with bodies or weapons or dark shadowy streets. I was adamant I didn’t want a disembodied woman, and was reluctant to have it look too crimey, because I don’t want to annoy readers who are looking for something particular. But having said all that, I’m drawing on crime fiction all the way through it and conventions of that, so, although it’s not not crime fiction, it’s just not consciously crime fiction, either.

SK: I wanted to ask a question about violent women – that women are not only victims but can be perpetrators as well. There’s that moment where May talks about the pleasure of hitting the person who’s bullying her brother Max. I wondered what you were saying about the conditions under which women might not only be the victims but also the perpetrators of violence?

EM: I often wonder why more women don’t use violence. I genuinely wonder, and I have theories and reasons and have read things around it. We’re socialised not to show our displeasure or anger physically from the time we are little girls, which is correct – we shouldn’t. We should all be socialised away from violence. Boys are too, to a lesser extent, but they’re not quite as ashamed if they do act out violence: there is a bit of the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude or ‘oh, he’s such a boy’. But while boys are also taught not to hit, so many more men do go on to solve things or express their feelings through physical violence. Not only against women, but against each other. Men are victims of violence more often, as you’d know, but it’s from other men. And I do often wonder, why not women? Charlotte Wood’s book, The Natural Way of Things, poses the question, why don’t the women just fight back when they’re all together? And Sarah Hall’s novel The Carhullen Army is set in a sort of near-future dystopia. She has a group of women go off and live in the hills. And they become a terrorist army, basically, to fight back.

SK: You’ve kept May’s ethnicity ambiguous. Are we supposed to know or not supposed to know, or not care?

EM: No, you’re not supposed to know. It’s just another element of her. I was thinking, too, of the general lack of diversity in a town like that in terms of just who you see around you as compared to the city, like in Sydney, where it’s a normal experience to have plenty of people whose ethnicity you would not know from looking at them and it’s pretty much irrelevant in most cases. So, it was another element of her being a bit of an outsider but also to subtly draw attention to that reality of the whiteness of the country town.

AB: Did you ever have the experience of feeling a certain risk in writing crime fiction? This goes back to what we were saying about writing violence. You described it as thrilling and intimate. Did you ever find yourself feeling contaminated or seduced?

EM: I felt worried about it all the time, constantly worried about it. Not least because, first of all, it’s difficult to write about the sensationalisation of violence without replicating sensationalised violence. But also, I was immersed in reading this kind of literature, too, so that I was aware of feeling my own emotional disconnection from it sometimes and thinking maybe I’d been seduced by it or that I was falling into that kind of writing. While it was something I was acutely aware of, it didn’t help me to think that I was going to be above it or escape it entirely.

SK: But that awareness itself gives you a bit more perspective on it.

EM: Certainly more so than not, but I still don’t think it is entirely a protection, because you’re immersed in it. I teach a fiction writing course and this is one of things I talk about with emerging writers all the time. How you can’t know certain things about your own work because you’re so deep in it (and that’s not just about representation of violence) that you can’t see it anymore. At a certain point, you need other readers to talk to you about it because you might think you’re being subtle about something and others will say they’re being hit with a hammer, it’s so obvious. And vice versa: you think it’s obvious because you’re so deeply into it and you know in your mind what you’re trying to do. When it came to it, because representing the violence was an ethical thing for me as well as part of the project of the book, it was a constant worry about whether it was coming across too much or not enough: I was thinking, am I doing the thing that I’m writing against?

SK: You’ve written about vicarious traumatisation, when exposure to a violent incident can bring back something from your own past and trigger retraumatisation, like May does thinking about the boy who left the drawings of her naked body around at school. She was able to identify on a more human level with women who were victims as she realised that she herself had been a victim.

EM: Yes, it’s a plot thing and a character thing, but it’s also very real to me. I have tinkered around the edges of journalism and done writing around this. I did a long form feature for Right Now, which is a human rights publication on violence (‘In Small Places’). And that brought up a lot of stuff for me. Other journalists I’ve talked to who work in this area a lot more consistently than me are constantly being confronted by these sorts of realisations. One woman I was talking to, who writes a lot about violence against women, came to it thinking she had no personal experience of it, and, as she learnt more about it and how it operates, she remembered an earlier relationship that she then had to process. And I would never want to attack journalists or the media as a group on how they report this stuff, but there’s a lot of ignorance about how violence operates, particularly intimate partner violence. Much of it is not treated as intimate partner violence until there’s blood drawn or someone gets killed. It’s only when someone goes deep into reporting it that they begin to see that this is an incredibly common thing.

SK: In relation to partner violence, you draw a complex picture of Nate’s violence and his relationship with Chris.

EM: I think people can be very bad for each other which is definitely the case with Nate and Chris. I saw it as that kind of toxic relationship. But I also wanted the romantic element to come across: they do really love each other. Often people will say to women, particularly young women, who find themselves feeling stuck in a violent or abusive relationship, ‘He doesn’t really love you if he treats you like this’. I think that is too simplistic and it’s a message that those young women push back against because they know that he does. The point isn’t that he doesn’t really love you; it’s that you are being harmed and, even if you do love each other, this is not a safe place for you to be. I think that’s a distinction we don’t often make because we want to be so clear about it. It can work against these discussions if we don’t allow them to be more complicated.

SK: In the novel, there are also other murders that happen – a couple of other women are murdered in the same town at the same time – but we’re not really focusing on them, we’re focusing on this spectacular one, that caught the imagination of the greater public and that appetite for sensation, sensationalised news.

EM: Yes, as distressing as it is, when there’s a case like Bella’s or Anita Cobby’s or Jill Meagher’s, it’s devastating in so many ways, because it’s the monster myth. It’s easier for us as a society to talk about these odd cases as ‘isolated incidents’, instead of the one woman who’s killed every week or every fortnight by someone who’s meant to love her in her own life. These more ‘ordinary’ murders are a much harder thing to deal with as a society. I feel that these kinds of deaths come out of this simmering level of underlying violence and involve a lot of soul searching and a hard look at ourselves as a people, as a nation, at our social values, our community values, our gender values, all those things. When there’s a ‘monster’ who murders a woman who’s a stranger, we can all condemn that and think it’s horrifying, so it’s easier as a people to deal with that kind of ‘exceptional’ violence.

SK: In your recent novel Love Objects you take up the issue of gendered violence but apply it more specifically to a contemporary form of violence – the sharing of a sex video online – that causes so much trauma for the character, Lena. How do you see the issue of gendered violence affecting the current generation of young women?

EM: The current generation are affected by gendered violence in all the same ways previous generations have been, but with this added manifestation of online or digital abuse as well. I mean, the abuse happens online or via devices, but the effects are as real world as any other kind of abuse.

SK: You use the notion of the ‘monster’ here, as you did in An Isolated Incident, to index the ordinariness of a particular type of masculine entitlement that leads to the kind of violence that Josh perpetrates on Lena. Josh tries to excuse his behaviour by suggesting to Lena that he ‘became the monster so the monster wouldn’t hurt me’ (306). What is the ‘monster’ here?

EM: The monster Josh is talking about is the intensely homosocial, patriarchal culture of his elite university college. His college mates engage in ‘pranks’ (that are actually acts of physical, sexual or emotional abuse) in order to show their loyalty and membership of the group. If he doesn’t join in as a perpetrator, he believes he will become a target.

SK: This novel is set in an urban setting, in Sydney, rather than in a country town. Are the dangers of violence against women, and the psychological pressures they face, different in this novel as a result of this setting?

EM: To an extent, they are different. Random, public or public-adjacent acts of violence and abuse are certainly more common in urban spaces. Being groped or grabbed or yelled at on a crowded train or bustling street, for example. But the violence taking place in private is probably the same, and, in theory at least, city-dwellers have better access to services and support if they are victims of violence. The thing about the abuse Lena suffers is that the sex video is put online where there are no borders, no regions. Part of the horror for her is realising that it could be being watched literally anywhere and that there would be no way of knowing or of stopping it. It’s a form of abuse that transcends place.

SK: Psychological and emotional trauma seems to take bodily form in your characters in this novel: Lena’s anorexia, Nic’s hoarding disorder, Will’s rotten tooth. Additionally, the image of scars provides a sense of the ongoing effects of the past on the present. How do you see the link between trauma and the body in this novel?

EM: These are characters without a family or social culture of therapy or mental health treatment. They’re also people without much money and so health care – mental or physical – is often limited or inaccessible. But trauma doesn’t dissipate just because it’s ignored any more than a rotten tooth heals itself if left alone. Untreated physical, emotional and psychological wounds fester or heal and scar and this is a book about people who have left a lot of things untreated for a long time.

AB: Your writing fellowship enabled you to interact with medical researchers. How important do you think it is for creative writers and researchers in other fields to collaborate? What effect do you think this has had on your writing of this novel?

EM: The fellowship was incredibly important to the writing of this novel, not only because it enabled me to interact with medical researchers but because it gave me, a non-academic, affiliation with a major university and that opened a lot of doors that may have remained closed, or at least taken much longer to open, otherwise. So, as well as the researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre where I was working, I was, with my Writer-in-Residence credential, welcomed into other academic and healthcare communities, which was an enormous help. That I had a full year in which to conduct this research was also really important because my questions changed as I learnt more and wrote more. At the same time, as the people I was speaking to understood more about what I was doing, their answers and their questions back to me changed. So while research is obviously always important for creative writers in order to get this or that fact right, it’s this longer term relationship of back and forth that I found so useful and that I think would benefit others. Your word ‘collaborate’ is the right one for this kind of process; not a one-off interview but a continuing, evolving exchange of ideas.

SK: Thank you so much, Emily, for talking to us.

Acknowledgements

This interview was conducted as part of Anne's and Sue's research project, Rethinking the Victim: Gendered Violence in Contemporary Australian Women’s Writing (DP14010553), funded by the Australian Research Council. The book that emerged from this research is entitled Rethinking the Victim: Gender and Violence in Contemporary Australian Women’s Writing (Brewster and Kossew).

Footnotes

  1. The reviewer in The Australian wrote: ‘To my dismay, I discovered myself in this group of the ghoulishly curious: I wanted the details [of the murder]’ (Leal).

Published 28 October 2021 in Volume 36 No. 3. Subjects: Crime fiction, Feminism, Journalism, Power, Sexuality & sexual identity, Emily Maguire, Trauma theory, Victimhood, Gendered Violence.

Cite as: Kossew, Sue and Anne Brewster. ‘‘It’s Just Some Guy, Not a Monster’: Gendered Violence in Emily Maguire’s Recent Novels.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.7922c6121b.