In The Sisters Antipodes, novelist Jane Alison tells of her early years living in Australia, where her parents broke up and switched partners and children with another couple.
You have written three novels. How did this memoir finally emerge?
I had no desire to be a fiction writer. I would look at my friends who wanted to be writers and I would think, how dare you think you can be a writer? How brazen! I wanted to be an illustrator. But I was living in Germany, in Heidelberg—my husband was teaching urban design there—and the Germans wouldn't let me work, so that's where the three novels were written over 10 years.
I had started to write a short story [about this early material growing up with a new stepfather and competing with Jane, the stepdaughter, for his attention], but it didn't work as a story or a novel—it didn't lend itself to fiction. So I put it away and tried to write about anything else. My third novel, Natives and Exotics, is partly based on my childhood, on my experiences as a kid growing up in the foreign service.
'How did you recapture so specifically these early memories?
I feel uncomfortable with memoir that's all scenic, because I don't trust that: my memory is not like that. I have probably fetishized certain moments and objects in this memoir. Things my father gave me I still have and cherish, and conversations I still remember. I saved all of it, the letters and photos, and it's really painful to go back and read them. It makes me remember and even smell things again. The reason I had to write this memoir was that it was really preoccupying; my sister would say I am obsessed.
You mention that a writing teacher once told you that girls who grow up without fathers are full of longing.
Mary Gordon said that.
You write that “making a self is like writing.” Has writing made a home for you finally?
I had a comfortable life, but there wasn't a point of orientation. It was really impossible to answer the question, where are you from? So I kept up traveling until that weird time in Germany—and I had to make a little shell, and that's when I finally began writing.