Call them chalk and cheese. Renowned Australian writers Kate Jennings and Valerie Parv, almost the same age, lost us almost the same week. They both wrote about love. But their writing couldn’t have been more different.
Jennings, whom Elliot Perlman hailed in his heartfelt appreciation as one of the best writers of his generation, was a thorny and decidedly devoid of sentimentality who wrote extremely moving books. I interviewed her in 2008 about her book on her beloved dogs, Stanley and Sophie, which has nothing to do with the usual slobbery dog kind of book.
She wrote poetry and non-fiction, but was best known for two wild, autobiographical short novels: Snake, on the unhappy marriage of his parents; and Moral hazard, about the difficult time she worked in Wall Street investment banks to finance the care of her husband Bob Cato, who died in 1999 after years of Alzheimer’s disease. It was a life spent shuttling between different forms of dementia, she told me.
As a feminist and radical, she was horrified by the amorality of high finance. She had championed social justice issues all her life and was impatient with the literary scene not to engage with society at large. What to do? “Take people out of the writing class and put them in banks … Stop writing about your heart and your family and get out into the world.”
She made an interesting little mistake in our interview when quoting Gertrude Stein: “I am me because my little dog loves me.” Then she smiled, “What a softie she was.” The quote is actually “I am me because my little dog knows me.” Which made me wonder if Jennings was sweeter than she had suggested.
As softie as Valérie Parv? I don’t think anyone is going to hail Parv as one of our best writers, but she has been one of our most successful, prolific, and beloved writers, as her huge army of fans would attest. She has written over 70 novels and sold over 34 million books translated into 29 languages.
If you haven’t heard of her, it’s because she chose to write in this very disparaged genre, romantic fiction. Jodi McAlister wrote him a nice tribute in The conversation which reveals that contrary to the belief that romance writers stick to rigid formulas, Parv was not afraid to experiment.
“Join me in committing to writing in a more dangerous way,” she told potential writers. Her “poster child for peak romance” was her 1987 book Leopard tree, who dared to suggest that his hero may have arrived by UFO.