Even in this atmosphere of unease, it arrived as an unexpected admission. To hear one of the most celebrated authors in Australia quickly admit to me over the phone that she was now susceptible to an unforeseen danger, that all of this virus business had left her wary, immediately knocked my recent conversation with Helen Garner entirely off course.
"I'm seventy-seven," she announced, with a tinge of surprise. "Once I realised that I had to take this seriously, that I was right in the middle of the demographic, I thought I had better pull myself together."
They were the kind of things you might hear a close relative say, casual statements completely stripped of vanity and artifice. Was I really speaking to the most famous author in Australia? Of course I was.
When we spoke, it seemed as though I had caught her during her morning walk, but even that seemingly trivial effort of hers was emboldened by a deeper purpose.
Garner wasn't breathless because of any looming health scare. She had just rushed up the stairs to her office, to pick up her papers, so that she could go home and keep writing. The endeavour sounded urgent. It must be have been. Virus or no virus, the blank page seldom waits patiently for an author as prolific as Helen Garner.
For the rest of us, waiting is our new and unfortunate norm. When the 2020 Newcastle Writers Festival was unavoidably cancelled earlier this month, it meant Helen Garner and the local literary community would have to wait to meet each other again. It was a disappointment compounded by the fact that Garner had been scheduled to address her fans at two separate events, about two very separate stages in her decorated career. One of these periods was recently revealed to us in Yellow Notebook, the first volume of her personal diaries, published in November. How Garner impresses in this diary, how she so finely spins a poetic silk out of the ordinary threads of her life, partly depends on her extraordinary, and famous, economy of prose.
It is a brevity that originates from the mash and then distils into potent shots of original imagery. A male peacock is a "Brazilian drag queen"; a lady at a dinner party parades in with her "teeth blazing", a spring night is "thickly scented with grass, and the odours of things growing".
Straight after Garner becomes the first woman to ever win our National Book Council Award - for her gritty debut novel Monkey Grip - she numbs the moment with a spartan candour: "I feel crazy and weepy", she concedes from Paris, from an unwanted solitude. "I haven't got any women friends here."
In short, even tiny paragraphs, her memories and most acute observations accumulate in sharpened, uneven fragments. From her 1978 sojourn to Paris to the end of 1987 in Sydney, we can also spot a linear outline of news items, a chronological frame that she has stuck together to house her treasured and more personal pieces of memory.
"I went back through these old diary entries before they were published and I was surprised to find so many of those little tragedies there," she said.
I went back through these old diary entries before they were published and I was surprised to find so many of those little tragedies there.Helen Garner on Yellow Notebook
"But then I discovered something else," she added. "There were also all of these crime stories in the diaries. There was something in crime that attracted and absorbed me. So the crimes I mention are markers in time that help to date the diary but they describe how I felt about the stories themselves."
Slightly less morbid in these diaries are Garner's regular acknowledgements to her creative inspirations. Yet even in remembering these influences, Garner is effortlessly modest. It is easier for me to imagine, once again, that I am chatting to a close relative than a widely-adored author.
"In the 1980s I was actually a theatre critic," she said. "I absolutely loved it".
"And then in the 1990s I was a movie reviewer. I say reviewer rather than critic because I don't really know anything about movies, or theatre even. But I knew what I liked and what I didn't like. I was interested in talking about that."