Let’s talk about gossip – Susan Johnson
By Susan Johnson
Who doesn’t like gossip? There’s barely a soul among us whose ears don’t prick up when a juicy bit of scuttlebutt comes our way.♥
How else to account for the near-hysterical interest in the Kardashians or whether Ben Affleck did Jennifer Garner wrong by having it off with the nanny? Whether it’s reality TV or our own shameful interest in getting the lowdown on what really went wrong in our neighbour’s marriage, most of us are not immune to the joys of gossip.
The late American literary critic John Leonard once claimed that all novels are essentially gossip. I think he’s right: from Jane Austen to Helen Fielding to Christos Tsolkias’ The Slap and Jonathan Franzen, novels give us the lowdown, the inside guff, the private story most of us are yearning to know.
I was thinking about gossip when it came to writing The Landing. The story came to me – a glimpse of it at least – when I was driving into a small coastal hamlet in Queensland where a friend has a beach house (it’s more of a beach shack really – my favourite kind – but you get the idea).
As we were driving in, he was pointing out the houses: “That guy who lives there ran off with the daughter from the house next door, and the woman in that one drank herself to death” etc etc. The gossip seemed endless.
I’d been thinking for a while of writing a book about Queensland in general, and the development of Brisbane in particular. I’ve always been interested in home and away, here and there, exile and belonging and so I knew I wanted to explore the idea of a New Australian – as they were once known – coming to a strange new world.
Well – as I’m sure the writers featured here will know – in the end, a book is a bit like a dream: it’s yours, and yours alone and there’s not much you can do about it. Suddenly, I had this idea, this dream, of a small place filled with characters, and the stories of how they found themselves there. I wanted to gossip about all of them.
There are a few famous novels actually built around the idea of gossip itself – and especially its negative effects. Henry James loved playing with the idea of gossip and its fall-out: Portrait of A Lady uses gossip as a central plot device, and poor Lily Barton in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth effectively loses her life because of it. James himself once said he often got his best ideas from gossip around the dinner table.
I didn’t want to write a tragedy though. With The Landing I was inspired by all the English comedy-of-manners novels I love, especially Fay Weldon and Barbara Pym and Madeleine St John (even though she is technically Australian, she lived in London for most of her life and very much writes in that tradition). I was having a bit of fun with Brisbane society too I suppose – my aim was a light touch, but with something of the pain of living caught within it. I wanted a happy book – and the thing I am most thrilled about is that my 81-year-old mother, Barbara, loves it. She thinks it’s my best book, and that’s the loveliest bit of criticism I have ever had in my entire writing life!
Over the course of ten books and thirty years, Susan Johnson has been long-listed and shortlisted for many national and international awards. Susan is an Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Her latest novel is The Landing.