Australian academic and writer, Kerryn Goldsworthy, wrote of the Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist, Helen Garner:

“Not all critics have liked Garner’s work. It is certainly the case that Garner is someone whose work elicits strong feelings … and people who dislike her work are profoundly irritated by those who think she is one of the best writers in the country.”

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Garner (1942 -) wrote her first novel, Monkey Grip, in 1977. It relates the lives of a group of welfare recipients living in student-style accommodation in Melbourne. Years later she stated that she had adapted it directly from her personal diaries. The book was very successful: it won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982.

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Helen Garner and Composer, circa the 1970s

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My introduction to Helen Garner was an interview she gave on Radio National’s Late Night Live, hosted by Phillip Adams. They were discussing the pitfalls of writing non-fiction.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law was published in 2004. It is an account of Garner’s presence at the separate trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao. On 26 October 1997, Australian National University student Singh killed her boyfriend, Joe Cinque, by lacing his coffee with Rohypnol and injecting him with heroin at a dinner party, where some of the guests had heard about the plan to murder Cinque. Despite this, none of them warned him.

The book was adapted into a film by writer/director Sotiris Dounoukos and Matt Rubinstein, and produced by Matt Reeder of Night Kitchen Productions. Principle photography ran for seven weeks in Canberra during April–June 2015.

Garner’s non-fiction book This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial, tells the real-life account of a man (Robert Farquarson) who loved his kids yet drowned them. She was criticised for not saying he was a monster:

“Why do people need to do this kind of moral trumpeting? He loved those boys. It’s a sentimental fantasy that love is a peaceful realm where we’re safe from our more destructive urges.”

It was in this context that Adams quoted the opening paragraph of The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns -when the article or book appears – his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

Malcolm took as her subject the popular non-fiction writer Joe McGinniss; McGinniss had become a best-selling author with his 1969 work The Selling of the President.

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Joe McGinniss

After an interview with McGinniss, an accused murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, proposed that McGinniss write a book of his story, a true crime project that would become Fatal Vision. MacDonald asked for a share of the revenue from the book as a way to fund his legal battle.

McGinniss agreed. MacDonald, an Army physician, had been charged with the 1970 murders of his 26-year-old pregnant wife Collette and their two young daughters.

In Malcolm’s eyes, McGinniss’ moral sin—and the basis for her broader journalistic critique—was to pretend to believe in MacDonald’s innocence. In Malcolm’s opinion he does this long after he’d become convinced of the man’s guilt. This is the “morally indefensible” position she speaks of on the book’s first page.

Many journalists thought Malcolm’s opening paragraph was a terrible slur on the profession.

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Helen Garner on writing for the screen:

“Does anyone understand the alchemy of many imaginations that distils a film? An actor’s mistaken emphasis can throw a carefully crafted piece of psychology out of whack. The wrong brand of teacup on a table can skew a family’s fantasy of itself. But by the same token, the tiny upward movement of one facial muscle, spontaneous, unconscious, impossible to write, can transform the emotional mood of an entire sequence. A director can take hold of your stick of an idea and make it blossom into a poetry your plodding typewriter could never have dreamt of.”

Clack of typewriters captivates authors (including Helen Garner and Robert Messenger)

Dear Mrs Dunkley: In a letter to her childhood nemesis, Helen Garner explains how time has softened her feelings