by Yasmin Parry
In a room styled like a Saturday night speak-easy, on the blistered wharf in Sydney’s Walsh Bay, writer and comedian Catherine Deveny gathered with memoirists Marieke Hardy and Ben Law to talk about telling the truth.
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival discussion entitled ‘Nothing but the Truth’, the writers talked about the difficulty of being honest when telling their own and other people’s stories in their recently published memoirs.
“I do use real names because I think it’s braver, but these people are all alive and I have to be held accountable,” Marieke Hardy said of the family, friends, ex-lovers and enemies she wrote about in her book of autobiographical essays, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead.
She said she tackled the thorny areas of defamation and hurt feelings inventively by offering the people she wrote a right of reply, and assuring them she would publish their responses. She said while the feedback she received was mostly positive, some were overwhelmed by the prospected of appearing in print and asked to be removed from the text all together.
“I had one person in my book, I showed him the story and he said ‘I don’t want to write a response and can you pull me out of that story’. And I did because you don’t want to publish and be damned. You don’t want to lose friendships over it,” Ms Hardy said.
It’s not an approach that suits Catherine Deveny, who is known for her brash and sometimes blunt sense of humour. She recently faced legal difficulties when Cardinal George Pell threatened to sue over a photo she posted of him to Twitter with a quote by him superimposed on top. With her own memoir currently in the works, Ms Deveny argued that any responsibility for offensive material should lie with whoever publishes the book.
“It’s not my fault they print them!” she said, in reference to the weekly column she used to write in The Age. “I wrote it, but doesn’t the legal responsibility lie with them?
“More damage is done by taking offense than giving offense. I mean, at the moment in Australia, our defamation laws are miles and miles behind, and legally I just say what I like,” she said.
Ben Law was far more careful about causing offense to his four siblings and parents when writing his memoir The Family Law. He described the concern he felt showing the final manuscript to his family, especially to his father. Mr Law admitted that he had purposely omitted certain stories from his book so as to not cause embarrassment to his family.
“There are some things that I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about, like our family doesn’t like talking about money,” he said.
Marieke Hardy and Ben Law both discussed techniques for sparing the feelings of those people close to them who become the unwitting subjects of their stories, including omitting the unnecessary, and sometimes even blurring the line between fact and fiction.
“Memoir for me implies that it is that personal perspective where you are allowed to mess things up a little,” Ben Law said.
He offered aspiring autobiographers the advice of a writer both he and Marieke Hardy admire, the satirical non-fiction writer David Sedaris: “If you’re going to write about someone in a bad way, just make sure it’s someone who doesn’t read much.”