Meeting Janette Turner Hospital

Words by Cosima McGrath

Published on July 25, 2014

It’s five minutes past our scheduled interview time and there’s no sign of her. I’d arrived at the hotel half an hour early, nerves getting the better of me. Already, my hands are sweaty and my whole body is electric with anxiety. I pull out my phone and scroll unseeingly through Twitter. I can’t tell if my fingers are actually shaking or if it’s just in my head. It doesn’t help that I’m currently surrounded by a flock of famous authors and personalities.

From my stool in the corner of the lobby I see Jennifer Byrne greet Thomas Keneally — two kisses, so chic. Anne Summers lounges at a table outside on the pier, looking out over the blindingly blue water of Sydney Harbour. Across the room, at a low table, Michelle de Kretser leans forward to talk to someone I don’t recognise — perhaps a publicist or journalist. I hope nobody can see my sweat patches.

Julian Barnes once described the unique and paradoxical position of the reader as alone and yet not alone: ‘Alone in the company of a writer who speaks in the silence of your mind’. There are some authors who go further, making the reader feel like the author is speaking directly and intimately to that one reader alone. These authors open up a connection between the real person behind the fictional stories and the reader sitting alone with a book. For me, Janette Turner Hospital was one of these authors.

I had finished reading her most recent novel The Claimant on the flight from Brisbane to Sydney. I had cried so much that my neighbour, an elderly businessman, had handed me a packet of tissues. I slid one out, wiped my nose inelegantly, and went to hand the packet back. ‘Keep them,’ he said. ‘You look like you may need them again.’ I wanted to explain my tears, to explain that I don’t always cry when I read — a lie, I cry a fair bit. I wanted to tell him about the mystery surrounding the Vanderbilt heir, the struggles of the feisty heroine, Capucine, the overwhelming guilt of the Countess, the shadow of war, and the big reveal at the end. He didn’t seem interested though.

In truth, the person I wanted to talk to was the author, Janette Turner Hospital. She would understand my tears. At that moment, as the plane landed in Sydney, I wanted nothing more than to meet her and talk about the book. But now, sitting in the corner of this very fancy hotel, jiggling my legs and pretending to find my blank phone screen interesting, I wish I were back home by myself, quietly reading.

I know I shouldn’t be nervous for this interview. I’m prepared. I’ve read the book. I have questions jotted down. I even have a charming anecdote ready to go in my playlist of social niceties: ‘It’s a funny connection but I sat next to your great-nephew in the clarinet section of the Queensland Youth Orchestra… It’s a small world isn’t it? Brisbane! I know right. Everyone knows everyone.’

A tenuous connection — my friend isn’t even a blood relative of hers — and jokes about how everyone knows everyone in Brisbane are as trite as jokes about Melbourne’s weather. I feel panic creep up my throat. There’s no way I’ll impress her.

I strain my toes towards the carpeted floor trying to relax, to look as though I belong, but they don’t reach. The stool is too high; my feet swing childishly in the air instead. Maybe I should move. There is a settee to my right where I could sit less awkwardly. But all these famous people will see me move. They’ll know I’m moving because I felt foolish on the high stool. They’ll smirk. Perhaps they’ll pity me. One of those young things who nab a media pass to a writer’s festival and shadow their literary heroes. I twist the Sydney Writers’ Festival lanyard around my neck. I had felt so professional when I first put it on, flashing it at festival volunteers as I skipped queues and slipped into ticketed events, drunk with my own importance. Now, however, I understand the hierarchy of the lanyard system. Mine simply says ‘Media’ in black and white with the phone numbers of a few staff members on the back. The authors, the elite, who glide in and out of this hotel sport purple passes that read ‘Artist’.

Before I have a chance to change seats, Janette and her publicist walk through the glass doors. Their eyes scrunch up, adjusting to the hotel lighting. I tumble off the stool towards them. With each step I think of all the things I want to convey during this encounter: intelligence, competence, warmth. As with most meetings, I want the other person to want to know me, to want to be my friend. But how can I get this ‘Artist’ to want to know me?

Somehow I did manage to impress Janette Turner Hospital. The interview went well. (Ed note: You can listen to the interview here.) I even made her laugh. Weeks later, I met her again in Brisbane at an event organised by the bookstore I work at. She hugged me in greeting and thanked me personally in her speech. From the other side of the room my boss caught my eye and mouthed ‘Woah, good job’. I was embarrassed but pleased — Janette Tuner Hospital and I would be braiding each other’s hair and swapping friendship bracelets in no time.

Cosima McGrath is a writer and editor from Brisbane. She works for Griffith REVIEW and is an editor for Bumf. In July, she will examine the way avid readers and aspiring writers encounter their literary heroes on the page and in real life.