The 77th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue.
The intro read:
David Marr wrote the acclaimed biography of Patrick White, and recently published his selection of White’s letters. Denis Edwards talks to him about writing, leading the life you should, and the great, gaunt ghost hovering over his own.
Looking back, it isn’t that difficult to see how and why David Marr became a writer. It’s easy to see why he became anything except a lawyer. He’d graduated in law and had started work as an articled clerk at one of Sydney’s most prestigious law firms. It was a job dozens, even hundreds, of graduates would have killed to get. Not long after he got there, Marr was initiated into the legal profession’s great secret: that while the law can be fabulously lucrative and judges can come to enjoy near-limitless power, as often as not legal work is mind-bendingly boring.
Marr was having this truth hammered into him. Because he had shown promise, he was rewarded with a move up to “more interesting work”. This turned out to be processing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise agreements. The thought of a lifetime of this made him shudder.
If that thought didn’t kill any interest in the law, there was his office, which had a view out over Sydney Harbour and its ever-changing tableau of ferries, yachts, cargo ships – all of it the lure of a real and interesting life out there somewhere.
Behind all this was a niggling call to writing. The signs were there, stop-start fumblings of various writing projects. None got far, but the thought remained. “Back then you could reasonably describe me as extremely restless,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to make up my mind about the law.”
He could see senior lawyers in the firm hitting their mid-40s and wondering whether they had spent their lives misspending their talents and suddenly, brutally, becoming aware they were running out of time for other things. These people were not comfortable to be around, particularly when their doubts were being publicly and intensely expressed.
The final note in writing’s siren song to Marr was a journey of his own, ending with his decision that he was homosexual. This was the final grace note. Marr farewelled the world of gown and wig and was off. He wonders how he lasted as long in the law as he did.
From there he went into journalism. “I don’t write fiction because I can’t invent. I don’t think in terms of inventive characters and stories. What interests me is to work out why things happen. That’s journalism. I am fascinated by character. I have an unshakeable belief that we are shaped by our character. Of course, other things shape our world as well, money and weather and so on. But it is ultimately the character of our leaders which determine so much of what happens to and around us.”
If Marr’s journalism was being described in sports terms, it would be as a dream run. He got and kept the cream of Australia’s feature writing jobs, first on the Bulletin and later at the now-defunct National Times. Marr and the crusading National Times were a nice match. He went from staff writer to editor, from being fired to being rehired as a staff writer again.
“It was perfect for me, because I was never trained as a daily journalist and thus never got into the habit of always writing short stories and always looking to cut. We would have a long time to research and write our stories, and then we’d have about 10,000 words to tell the story. It was a very, very good place to work.
“I used to go around interviewing all these high-profile people and corporate crooks, who were often the same, and quickly learned that if they rang up and said, ‘It was a good story,’ it meant you had probably missed something.”
In 1985 Marr moved on to something that we can only dimly remember over here, a government-funded and commercials-free television network. He worked on the ABC’s Four Corners current affairs programme, where his high point was reporting a story which led to a Royal Commission, which in turn ended the recurring phenomenon of Aboriginal prisoners dying in the cells of rural police stations.
Marr knew he had hit the target when the West Australian police mounted an exceptionally vigorous defence against sharp allegations that they were killing the Aboriginal people. They sued the ABC, which stood firm. The police case wouldn’t get into court. Instead, it petered out. Both sides paid their own costs and went home. A win for the ABC.
Marr’s books came from his journalism. First were a biography of ex-Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick and then a long look at the Australian security services, especially through the exceptional, and sometimes farcical, Royal Commission into the links between David Combe, a former Labor Party official, and Valeri Ivanov, a Soviet diplomat and spy. It was 1983 and Marr had won few friends in Bob Hawke’s brand-new Labor government.
Those two books have been outshone by his jewel, his definitive, and massive, biography of Patrick White, the only Australian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. It runs to 644 pages, with notes and bibliographies on top. The book won numerous awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award and Age Book of the Year, and was a bestseller.
White had been on the very edge of Marr’s childhood, although they didn’t meet until Marr was an adult and discussing doing a biography. “My parents met him. My father did not like him, although my mother did. Dad found him awkward personally and didn’t like the work. When Voss appeared, my father read half the first page and threw it across the room, saying, ‘This man is mad.’
“We have had the usual crop of small errors surface, but nothing serious, which was very pleasing for a book of that size, and when, especially early in White’s life, there were few records as guides to when he had been at various places.”
Those considering tackling a biography of a complex personality, especially someone who lived a long life, might consider Marr’s comment: “I thought it might take two years. It took six.” Then, the biography written, he pressed on with the collection of White’s letters. “I expected that to take four months. It took four years.”
Yes, he has other projects sitting out there waiting. No, he doesn’t want to talk about them, at least not at this stage. “I think it would be interesting to look at the life of a simpler person. I like that idea because it would be interesting to search deep in their lives for the drama.”
Lives are much on his mind these days, his own in particular. Marr is giving some thought to his own. He’s in his late 40s, having reached the same stage as those Sydney lawyers were in the days when he was slogging through his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise agreements.
“Those people were thinking about, at their age, suddenly starting to lead the lives they should have led. I thought to myself I should lead the life I should, which was writing.” Now he’s wondering whether that’s what he’s been doing.
The interview changes direction. Marr becomes the interviewer and begins asking me about my life this far. He is a smoothly efficient interviewer, not surprising since he runs a daily arts programme on ABC Radio, a sort of Kim Hill restricted to the arts.
A recent guest was Alan Duff, a man Marr admires. “Does he stir things up here?” Yes he does. “I assume he finds himself getting support from the people he least needs it from, the rednecks?” Yes he does. Marr files this away. New Zealand writers lined up for an appearance on Marr’s show should perhaps prepare a position on writers and their role as spokespeople for this country’s fast-changing racial politics.
This interview took place a week after the street confrontation in Wanganui, the one in which it looked as if the City Council was going to call on the police to turf out the Maoris occupying Moutua Gardens. The pictures had been dramatic, and accordingly had been given generous play on television news across the Tasman. Marr is very keen on a reading of the likely direction of race relations here, particularly in light of the long promotion of New Zealand as a racial paradise.
Having drifted off down that interesting path, Marr is too experienced an interviewer not to return to the work at hand. He wants my highlights and gets them: Irish-Catholic upbringing, travel, sport, working in the emergency services, journalism, marriage, divorce and so on. Once in the driver’s seat Marr is frighteningly quick and incisive. It is a salutary lesson in what it is like to be on the receiving end of a probing interview. Then, the assessment.
“I am wondering now whether that is the life I should have lived. Yours is the life that I theoretically envy but could never live myself. You see, I just don’t know whether sitting writing was everything I could have done.”
While I breathe a silent sigh of relief at having got off this easily, Marr moves on. How one should conduct one’s life is subject matter he has been over before. It also brings the conversation back to Patrick White, the great, gaunt ghost hovering over Marr’s life. “Patrick told me that is why writers write. They do it because the lives they lead at their desk are always much more interesting than the lives they lead away from it.
“My breaking away has been an extremely bourgeois version of a personal revolution, and I wonder whether I have really broken away at all.” This internal debate, one doubtless shared by other writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, is as yet unresolved.
Marr is casting around and giving a working definition of indecisiveness, but only in this area. He is very clear about other matters. He is keen for a list of things to see in Auckland. He has a single afternoon and wants to get off the beaten track. Forget Kelly Tarlton’s and Victoria Park Market. He’s interested in windows into New Zealand’s soul.
He’s already picked up a feeling of optimism in the air here, unlike his previous visit when recession hung in the air and when the national mood occasionally soared upwards to being able to be described as gloomy.
He gets a list I hope will be quirky enough, a grim Once Were Warriors street in Otara, the architectural mishmash of St John’s Park and the twee villa-land of St Mary’s Bay. Add Karekare beach, so he can see where The Piano was shot, and it seems to cover the range.
The drive from Ponsonby to his Parnell motel takes him through the Domain. “My God, what’s that?” It’s the Museum. “What an absolutely vile building! I have been in Northern Ireland and seen Stormont, their Parliament and it’s just like that. It’s horrible.”
I quickly decide not to take Marr anywhere near the Britomart area, where the City Council wants to skittle a row of attractive old buildings for another round of mirror glass. Marr likes the old and established. It’s his background.
“My parents were very generous and very enthusiastic about getting us all into sensible trades. Fortunately one of my sisters is still practising as a doctor. She is the best return on investment for my parents, because the rest of us are doing other things.”