Since the publication of her first novel Eleanor,Elizabeth
in 1984, Libby Gleeson has enjoyed both popular success and critical
appreciation. She is frequently asked to speak on matters involving writing
for children, and has gone on the record several times with her views
on issues such as censorship, and girls and fiction. With fellow writer
Nadia Wheatley, Libby holds the Children’s Writing portfolio for
Society of Authors. Her latest novel Love Me, Love Me Not was
shortlisted in this year’s (1994) Children’s
Book Council Awards. Libby recently discussed her work and her thoughts
on some of the politics involved in writing for children with Judith Ridge.
There was a movement through the 70s and 80s to address the problems in
representation of girls in fiction. The current discussion about gender
and fiction seems to be about boys; boys don’t read, how do we get
boys reading? They are different issues, because boys have always been
well represented, but has the work been done for girls in fiction?
It’s an interesting question Certainly I think I would have been
part of that movement. My first two novels were definitely conceived in
that climate. In my own work, I feel as though to an extent it’s
been done; I cannot keep writing the same books over and over again, but
I don’t think it’s true that it’s been done in the wider
context. I had an interesting conversation with Tessa Duder at the Melbourne
Festival last year; somebody in New Zealand is doing a Ph.D thesis where
they’re doing a simple count of representation of girls in fiction.
I think she said it’s hitting 30%, which suggests it’s just
another version of the old glass ceiling. I also think there are still
plenty of books being written where the rôles are no different than
they were many years ago. And you’re right, it’s a very different
question to the "boys reading" one. That’s all about access,
about the way boys are taught, about the way reading is perceived. I don’t
think that it’s a question of roles and of images of boys presented
Books for young people are frequently categorised and assessed according
to social issues or political viewpoints. You’ve said that you’d
be very resentful if, for instance, I Am Susannah was categorised
as a "single parent" novel, and rightly so. So where do your
personas as writer and as a political individual intersect, and how do
they remain apart?
Can I have it both ways? I sort of feel I can. What I would find insulting
would be the perception that a book is about only one thing, and certainly,
although I am quite willing to stand up and say that Eleanor, Elizabeth
and I Am Susannah are books about feisty young girls, they’re
also about a lot more than that. I think that it is insulting to categorise
quality fiction in terms of one issue when it’s quite obvious that
they are complex and many-layered works in the same way that fiction for
adult readers can be. It’s all part of the same push, I suppose,
to moralise about children’s literature, and to assume that it only
has an educative rôle. It comes down to whether you are writing
books that are ideology-driven or story-driven, and in my case I would
hope always that they are story-driven.
Personal and family history, and the child’s need to learn something
of these things is quite important in much of your work. Is this a conscious
element of your writing?
Yes, I think it is. It’s all part of a personal philosophy, that
a person is the product of the environment to which they’re born,
the people they grow up with, the personal heritage is that shared history
that’s passed on. Of course, it is passed on far more through the
female line than it is through the male, and that’s largely because
of the intimacy of female conversation. I’m a great gossip, I think
gossip is the most justifiable activity, and it’s like a lot of
women’s behaviour that’s denigrated. One of the qualities
that makes a person a fiction writer is their personal interest in human
beings and their behaviour and their relationships and the small movements
in the pathway of their lives which cause change and development. And
so one of the things I’m really looking at is the way in which your
past influences your present, which of course will conspire to create
The protagonists in Love Me, Love Me Not are further along in
their emotional and sexual path than in your earlier books. Have you finished
with the themes relevant to the younger children; the identity theme,
leaving childhood and so on?
I don’t think so. As soon as I say that, I’m going to get
an idea for another book about 11 year olds! I don’t think it’s
as neat as that. And I’m certainly not finished with the 14 year
olds. Life’s not linear for me. I’ll be oscillating for a
few years yet.
Two stories from Love Me, Love Me Not were previously published;
had you written them as isolated stories that ended up in Love Me...,
or were they always intended to be part of the longer work?
They didn’t start out to be part of it. The first story I wrote
was called "In the Swim", for Landmarks. I had just
finished Dodger, and I was in that stage of "I can’t
start another big novel yet", and it intrigued me that I might start
writing a collection of stories, but the idea didn’t really gel
until I was invited to make a contribution to Goodbye and Hello.
I wrote "Her Room", which subsequently became "Fran".
Once I had those two, I really started to think, "hang on, there’s
a connection between these". The other factor that had come in was
that a couple of teacher-librarians had said to me, "why don’t
you ever write about love?" And I’d said, "I write about
love all the time, what do you think those other books are about if it’s
not love?" But of course, they were talking about early romantic
and sexual awareness and so on. I was intrigued with the idea of writing
about the early stages of those relationships. "Maria" was the
one that came next. They’re certainly not written in any order,
that’s the other thing. And so I had the three of them, "Fran",
"Cass" and "Maria", and I really started to think,
"well, hang on, if this is going to be a collection, how’s
it got to work?" And I decided then, it’s got to have male
protagonists as well as female, and there has to be some happiness in
all of this, because there are some kids who at 12 or 13 are very competent,
and do have happy relationships with the opposite sex. And so I went back
into the Cass story and looked at all the other characters that were there,
and pulled out individuals, and then re-wrote the Fran story with those
characters moving into that as well. And so I wrote the series.
The last story, "Cathy and Rodney" is interesting on lots of
levels. It’s the only story that you use first person in. Secondly,
Cathy and Rodney have been a bit of a figure of fun, from the other kids’
points of view. They’ve been objects of jealousy, of derision, of
all sorts of things. And so they’ve been wafting through as figures,
rather than characters, and then you bring them up front in the last story.
Now, I gather from what you said, you weren’t necessarily deliberately
aiming to that end...
No, although it was obvious that they were sufficiently significant in
the other stories that they had to have a story themselves. And I did
really want to show this relationship where people were having a go at
working out things. I really felt I had to write a story for one or other
of them, and it became increasingly obvious that this was an opportunity
to write a joint one. It was obvious that it should be the final story,
because they were the only ones who were making a go of it. I thought
at one stage that maybe I shouldn’t write in the double voice, that
it would be too great a divergence from the way the other stories were
written, but I really wanted to single these two out as different.
Did you work very hard at achieving the third person voice that’s
used throughout? You’ve balanced it very well; there is a level
in the narrative voice that’s detached and observational, but at
the same time very sympathetic and understanding to the characters.
Yes, that is obviously very, very carefully constructed, and I hope it
works all the time. The hardest to write were probably the two boys, Pete
and Troy, but I was determined to write from their point of view as well,
and I can only hope it came off. The choice of story was consistent with
the tone of the narrative voice, I hope.
Your books often end on a very "up" moment. Is this the mood
you want to leave the readers with?
Yeah, I think it is. It also seems the appropriate moment. The endings
are optimistic and they’re hopeful, but I don’t think they’re
illusory, and they’re certainly not neatly tied off. One of the
things I’m really trying to say is that this is a slice of life,
but it goes on, and who knows where it goes after this? I want the reader
to see that there’s this potential for hope and other possibilities.