Farewell, Gillian Mears

This is a sharp departure from my usual posts. No drawings. No jokes.

It’s a tribute to one of my favourite writers – Australian author Gillian Mears – who died this week, aged 51.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing her and corresponding with her for a while in 2003-2004. If you have the stamina, here’s a long-form article I wrote about Gillian Mears during that time.

Gillian Mears: Geography of the heart (2003)

“Milk float tragedy” reads the heading, and I open the document, not yet realising my mistake. The story recounts the death of a six-year-old boy who was playing in the road with friends when he was run over by a milk truck.

The story is unsentimental and direct. It speaks to the randomness of fate. The imprint of violence on people’s lives. The ripples stirred through a small community by loss. The impressions left on us from childhood.

It could be the skeleton of one of Gillian Mears’ short stories, but it is not. It is an article from a Welsh newspaper that has found its way into my search by coincidence, because Gillian Mears, the Australian author shares her name with a mother of three in a Welsh community where last year, a boy was run over by a milkman.

I’m sure Mears would perceive meaning in this connection, not just because the story touches on the themes of her fiction, but because she is keenly attuned to life’s minutiae and coincidences. When, at a time of terrible sickness, she had visions of a small silver cat that lay on her neck and helped her to heal, Mears sought out a Korat cat that fitted this image. This pet, bel Canto, subsequently vanished.

She is moved by small details, and rings me in response to a letter I wrote in fountain pen, with a drawing at the top of the page.

“I am really only responding because of your beautiful swans and your lovely handwriting,” she says.

Once a “fanatical” and “fervent” letter-writer herself, Mears now feels that “letter writing is passing out of the people”.

“In a way, I think it’s the impact of email,” she says. “I tend to resist it strongly… its staccato demands and people sort of wanting, expecting you to instantly reply.”

Nonetheless, Mears says her own impetus to write letters has waned considerably since she suffered a heart infection last year. Her book of short stories, A Map of the Gardens was published just before she went into hospital for open-heart surgery, where she received “mountains of mail” from friends and writers, as well as “wonderful” and “fascinating” correspondence from readers who loved the book.

The letters have gone unanswered.

“On a physical level, I just didn’t have the ability to reply to them all and then, because what I’ve been through is so immense, what I find is when I start writing a letter, unless I dive into that immensity, it just seems so trivial and I abandon it.”

Twenty years ago Mears almost abandoned writing altogether after receiving a harsh appraisal of her first assignment as a creative writing major at the NSW Institute of Technology (now the University of Technology Sydney). “I was filled with a shame so piercing I sat on the train platform at Redfern, two scratch lottery tickets in my hand, full of hope that I would win enough money to depart the Institute forever.”

Needless to say, that did not happen. Mears continued her studies, receiving praise for her later writing assignments: “remarkable”, “original” and “unconventional but convincing”. Mears says she is now “eternally grateful” to tutor, Susan Hampton for the “absolute bluntness” of her initial comments, “because soon after that, it seemed my writing voice was able to emerge”.

Within a decade of graduating, Mears had published two volumes of short stories, and two novels, earning two Commonwealth Writers Regional awards and the 1990 Australian/Vogel Award along the way.

Mears’ author photos show her to be long and lean. There is a coyness about the way she angles her face slightly away from the camera in every shot. When she smiles, it is unguarded. Wide and youthful and studded with the small, bright teeth of a child.

In contrast to the youth and vigour of these photos and the unabashed manner in which Mears tackles taboos in her writing, her voice on the phone sounds unexpectedly English and ancient. She enunciates clearly and doesn’t contract words preferring “telephone” to “phone” and “handwriting” to “writing”. She speaks quietly, slowly and with a slight quaver in her voice.

At times our exchange feels more like a conversation than an interview. Mears asks questions of me, with alternating interest and concern: did I take a calligraphy course to write as I do? would I like to stop and check if the tape is “taking”? She uses my name as if it is old and familiar in her mouth; “What I find – oh Rachael, I don’t know if this is helpful [to you] or not”. When Mears expresses her thoughts or feelings on some issues, she earnestly asks what I think, as if hoping to be edified with some insightful or profound thought.

She wells with empathy for the suffering of both people and animals. A news image of a boy and his dog, shot dead in an embrace stirred in her thoughts of her dog-craziest nephew. Mears could not shake the recurring feeling that the dead boy “was also a nephew, dearly beloved by his aunt”. When a mouse in her caravan (her former home) began nesting in her novels, Mears captured the animal, driving out to an abandoned shed to release it.

Mears has loved spiders since she was a child. Beautiful descriptions of spiders and webs appear throughout A Map of the Gardens and the book ends with the image of a spider letting go of her twig and being carried out over a river by the wind. Longing for her eldest sister Yvonne “to realise the delicate beauty of spiders”, Mears once sent her a clipping on a mother wolf spider attempting to gather her children to her as she, and they, were dying in a chloroform bath.

Mears says her sister has always been arachnophobic and has likened her writing to “a spider at my family’s neck, sucking it dry”. However she sees herself more as a scavenger than a spider; a hyena storing up everything she has seen and heard.

Mears’ early fiction relied heavily on her personal experiences. Her unsuccessful marriage to a favourite school teacher formed the backbone of The Mint Lawn and numerous short stories, while other stories revolved around the high school friend shot dead by her mother. The agronomist father and dying mother in The Grass Sister were both drawn from her own parents, and repeated images of women being held by the neck bubbled to the surface in the same novel after a stranger entered Mears’ hotel room as she slept and grabbed her by the throat.

Last year Mears publicly expressed remorse for disregarding the feelings of the people closest to her when she produced these works. This gesture, she says, went some way to healing relationships that had been damaged by things she has written.

Though Mears continues to tap her personal life for inspiration, she does so with a greater consciousness of the way it might affect other people. A Map of the Gardens is populated by characters who have lost or are losing their mobility. The significance of this is that Mears has suffered from multiple sclerosis for nearly a decade.

At the time she wrote the stories, the problem had not been identified; Mears’ doctors simply called it ‘locomotor ataxia’ – an umbrella term used to describe loss of strength and coordination in walking.

Her illness ripened in 1999, as she turned thirty-five and predicting a decline that might see Mears using “nappies, catheters and a wheelchair”, neurologists recommended surgery. But after meeting a lady who had been left terribly scarred and doomed to a lifelong regime of painkillers after the same surgery, Mears piled her own x-rays and reports into a wheelbarrow and buried them in her garden.

She turned instead to natural healing, deepening her commitment to meditation and yoga and following a vegan diet. Then in the middle of last year, Mears ended up in hospital with “an infection only Western medicine could fix”. The experience taught her to be “deeply suspicious” the moment she begins to feel certain about something, “Because I’m bound to be wrong in some profound way.”

While she believes in a higher power and has a “very strong faith that there is something much more immense than this life”, Mears chooses to search for her own wisdom and peace rather than subscribing to organised religion. Still a vegan, she finds her simple diet gives her a clarity of perception that she feels was lacking in the the early days, when her writing was fueled by sugar, caffeine and alcohol.

A month after our initial interview, Mears’ lost cat returns to her. She refers to the event as “[m]y miracle of today”, giving me the impression that she believes miracles to be both everyday events and deeply, personally significant.

When we first talk, Mears has spent the morning on the phone investigating the purchase of a van. She has just won Australia’s richest short-story prize, the Steele Rudd Award, for A Map of the Gardens and hopes to use the money to fund a solo journey in six months’ time, beginning on the upper Clarence River and hopefully ending up in Tasmania. Mears plans to travel without her computer, keeping notebooks and gathering material for the future “without the burden of constructing fictional stories” as she travels.

After an intensive period of writing in which she has finished a novel and is now writing a play and some short stories to fulfil the requirements of an Australia Council Grant, Mears yearns to be in “wild country”.

“When I get into the wild land and the wild water,” she says, “I am truly given a lot more ability to walk. Where I’m living now, I’m just in a little red brick flat near the hospital which was just practical and convenient, but it’s truly as if the town of Grafton has sort of a stagnant belly… and it doesn’t really give me much vitality living in amongst old people.”

In speaking of her illnesses, Mears is matter-of-fact, offering up humour and fatalism. She does not immediately elaborate on everything she has suffered and the extent of her incapacitation only becomes clear quite late in our conversation as she reveals new details only as they become relevant to other issues she is addressing.

At first Mears says of her heart infection that it is “all cleared up and totally better” and “there’s not really a problem”. However, it turns out that she has an artificial heart valve that causes her heart to tick “like a travelling alarm clock that you can never turn off”.

But there is more to it than even that. The antibiotics Mears took to combat the infection knocked out her vestibular system (the balance system in the ears). On top of the MS it is a substantial blow to her mobility, though Mears does not put it like that. She can walk about 800 metres using a walking frame with wheels and looks forward to trying to swim in the Clarence River. She laughs that she feels like an old lady, telling me all her ailments.

Another result of the heart infection is that Mears will never have children. She had planned to have four by her early thirties. Still childless at thirty-one and with the onset of problems with her walking, Mears began to lament not being a mother. However, it is the blood thinning drugs she must now take for her heart that extinguished her hopes of motherhood.

There is a catch in her voice as Mears explains that the drugs can cause facial deformities in a foetus. “[W]hen I found that out, I really did weep,” she says. “Not because I necessarily wanted children by this point – just the finality of the line ruled across that option.”

I have never heard this metaphor of the ruled line before and it strikes me as unusual until I see Mears’ primary school workbooks kept at the Mitchell Library. Finishing one piece, Mears would leave a space, starting each fresh piece on a new page. In the margins there are admonishments from her teacher to rule off at the end of a piece and not to leave blank spaces.

It clarifies for me the finality Mears sees in a ruled line – a definite ending, leaving no room to spare.


Postscript

When she turned 40 in 2004, Gillian Mears invited me to her birthday celebration. Although I had never actually met her, she posted me a hand-written invitation following a long phone interview and a short-lived email correspondence in which we’d hit it off.

The card featured a drawing of ‘Ant and Bee’, the van she had recently purchased. And I seem to recall it included a message about celebrating her remarkable recovery (from MS) as well.

To my great shame, I can’t remember if I ever replied to the invitation.

I was very touched by it, but the idea of actually attending seemed so far-fetched. I barely knew Mears herself, let alone anyone else who would be at her party. I was embarrassed by the idea of being invited to share in such a special occasion.

And I was wary of her intimations of a miracle cure.

The intensity of her trust – in both our nascent friendship and her recovery – daunted and uneased me.

Yet, I admired her immensely.

If I had been as frank with Mears as she was with me, I would’ve told her that before we ever spoke, she changed the course of my life. At a time when I was looking for purpose and direction – an identity beyond motherhood – it was her writing and what I knew of her life journey that gave me the final push to pursue my own passion for writing, and in fact, to study at her alma mater.

But I lacked Mears’ ease for expressing something so deeply personal. So although I told her how much I enjoyed and admired her writing, I never laid bare that were it not for the gift of her words, my life may have been entirely different.


Credits: In addition to my own conversations and emails with Mears, this story draws on quotes and details from the following sources –

Hawley, Janet, “Runaway success”, The Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 May, 2002, pp 30-33

Mears, Gillian, Papers 1964-1996, Mitchell Library

Mears, Gillian, “The Figure in the Fig Tree” in Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January, 1996, p 4 (Australia Day Essay, commissioned by SMH and the Sydney Writers’ Festival

Mears, Gillian, “Stirred by a Shivery Delight”, The Weekend Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30-31 March, 2002, pp 4-5

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