HOW WE MET

JANE GARDAM AND ALISON LURIE
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The Independent Culture
Jane Gardam was born in Yorkshire. She has written six novels and seven collections of short stories. Her prizes include two Whitbread Fiction Awards. Her latest book, Faith Fox, was published last year; later in 1997 she will publish Missing the Midnight, a new collection of short stories. She lives with her husband in Kent; they have three grown-up children. Alison Lurie was born in Chicago. She is a professor of American Literature at Cornell University, and she has written eight novels, including Love and Friendship and Foreign Affairs, which won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize. She has homes in London, Key West and Ithaca, New York State. She has three grown-up sons

JANE GARDAM: My invitation to the Adelaide Festival in 1981 came from nowhere. I was so surprised to have been asked and thought quite seriously about accepting, but of course I did. Alison was one of the stars of the festival. She had lots of Australian supporters, and as soon as I arrived, all I could hear was people asking, "Has Alison Lurie arrived yet?" There was a tremendous feeling of excitement as everyone waited for her.

I'd read reviews of Alison's books but not the books themselves. Sometimes I think it's an advantage not to know a writer's work. I was sure she'd be a severe feminist. When she finally turned up she walked in with an expression which made her look alarmingly remote. She wore a stunning black dress, with a big straw hat and straw bag. As the author of a book called The Language of Clothes, Alison's outfit sent a definite message that the rest of us looked as though we'd come from the Women's Institute. Since then, I've often been shopping with Alison and she seems to have an extraordinary talent for going into Oxfam shops and coming out with marvellous clothes which I haven't even seen.

It turned out that the alarmingly remote expression was because she had toothache and felt like hell. What Alison needed was looking after. The organisers had arranged for us all to stay in a peaceful conference centre outside Adelaide which had wonderful gardens. All we could hear was the birds - especially the kookaburras.

During those few days while Alison was recovering, we spent a lot of time talking. It turned out that both of us had brought up three children and the writing had come later. Like me, Alison had enjoyed those years at home with the family and was amazed at how quickly they had gone by. For me, it was particularly interesting to meet someone who knew so much about children's literature. It's one of the subjects Alison teaches and she has a tremendous knowledge of folk-tales, myth and allegory.

Being so well-known and experienced at taking part in writers' events, Alison taught me a great deal about how to behave. The organisers had spent all that money getting me to Adelaide and looking after me, so I took it for granted that it was my duty to do absolutely anything they asked. Alison said it wasn't. "You don't have to be photographed if you don't want to," she said. It hadn't occurred to me that I had a choice, that there were things I could do to protect myself. Alison made me realise that in order to be yourself, you have to be very grown-up.

The festival was tremendously hard work but great fun. Alison took part in a discussion on Humour. Everyone else on the panel chose to read from their own work but Alison read "Gone's Gone", which was a funny folk-tale. At a time when there's a great temptation to self-publicity, I thought Alison was being very modest. We met a week or two later in Sydney, and went to the zoo. Someone came up and asked what we did. Typically, Alison replied: "We're teachers." It was a wonderful experience and Alison and I still talk affectionately of our time in Australia. She's someone who believes in friends and treats friendship seriously.

Over the years we've often visited each other; I always look forward to May because that's the time when I know Alison will be in London. Landscapes are important to us and we both always enjoy showing off the different landscapes around our homes. I once stayed with her in Cornell at Hallowe'en when there is an eerie, strange kind of light. Flying over Vermont, the forest looked like ferns under the sea.

We don't discuss what we're writing and I haven't a clue what Alison's new novel is about. Whenever I finish a book, I have the fear that I won't be able to do it again, that the writing will leave me. I don't think Alison shares my feeling that time is rushing on. As a writer, she reminds me of Jane Austen because she's so precise and says exactly what people are thinking but nobody dares say. One day I was moaning to her about not being able to lose weight and she said, "You know, sometimes I think the body likes to be fat."

My early books were all for children and I'd often found it hard to convince people that children's writers were not some lower form of life. It was a real joy to meet Alison - to feel her enthusiasm and understanding. But more important, she was someone who was being herself. She wasn't being a writer.

ALISON LURIE: Jane and I met at the Adelaide Festival. We were two of the imported writers who had been invited to sit on panels and do readings. Elaine Feinstein and Fay Weldon had also come from England. Usually at festivals you get to know a few people slightly, and a couple of people in depth. My being sick in Adelaide meant that a friendship which would normally have taken a long time to develop, blossomed within two days.

Feeling so low, I realised just how wonderfully caring Jane was. I'm certain that, even if I hadn't been ill, we'd have seen enough of each other to realise that we got on very well. We'd have swapped addresses and phone numbers and arranged to meet in London. Although I tried to ignore it, I'd arrived in Australia with toothache. Eventually it became so painful that I found it difficult to keep on pretending that I was fine. I developed a fever and started shaking, so an awfully nice woman who was in charge of the writers took me to the dentist, who diagnosed a badly infected tooth, put me on antibiotics and sent me to bed.

Elaine and Fay visited me, but I remember especially that Jane was particularly kind. She hardly knew me, but kept popping in to bring me treats and report back on what was going on at the Festival. Sixteen years ago neither of us was as well known as we are now, but I seem to recall that somewhere in the back of my mind, I vaguely knew that she was a writer of children's books. I hadn't read any of them. She must have given me two of her books because I was definitely too ill to buy any for myself from the festival shop. I read The Hollow Land and Black Faces, White Faces, which I enjoyed.

We've often talked about writing for children - something I've never been able to do. Jane's a very versatile writer but when she writes for children she seems to have a natural ability to understand how a child's mind works. It's such fun to discover a wonderful new writer who's also a nice person. It doesn't always work out like that. Sometimes you meet someone you like tremendously - but you don't care for their writing; and sometimes you love the writing but don't feel at all comfortable with the person.

When I felt better, the two of us had fun in Adelaide, and later met up again in Sydney. We discovered things we had in common - like both of us having three children. Although our children are all grown-up, for Jane they're still very much part of her life.

What I most liked about her, and still do, is her intelligence and charm. She has a straightforward approach to life. There's an English expression - "there's no side to her" - which I think describes Jane perfectly. Some writers have a public self which is different to how they really are. They wear the public self like a painted shield. It's a form of protection because they don't feel able to face the world in their real personality. When you've been to as many festivals as I have, it's something you notice. Jane isn't like that. She behaves exactly the same no matter who she's with.

Friends are very important in my life. Because my year is spent in different places - Ithaca, Key West and London - I probably have more women friends than most people. Over the years Jane and I have visited each other in our various homes.

I was very excited the first time I stayed with her in her house in Yorkshire, which is by the side of a fell where the views are very dramatic. She also has a beautiful garden at her house in Kent and is obviously a gifted gardener. I just about manage to put in a few tomato plants each year. Jane's also a good cook. She's a wonderful companion at an art gallery because her attitude to paintings is literary. Jane doesn't just look at the colours and the shape - she wants to know the story behind the pictures. She notices everything that goes on around her, but never lets on all that she sees.

During the year we keep in touch with a few phone calls, but almost never write. When I was young everyone wrote letters. The telephone was only for emergencies or speaking to friends in the same town, which didn't cost anything. People write so few letters these days that we won't have any more marvellous volumes of correspondence to read. We rarely talk about our work in progress, but we discuss the state of publishing and how difficult it is for young writers. For the first time since we met, we're loosely connected by our different publishers, who are all now part of a great conglomerate. It's strange the way things work out. !

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