Meet the Writer: Justine Ettler #AussieLit

Today, I welcome to the Meet the Writer series Justine Ettler, an Australian writer whose 1995 novel The River Ophelia is said to have sold 40,000-50,000 copies. When Ettler’s PR person contacted me, she noted that even though The River Ophelia was very popular, the author pulled her book from the market with the use of a lawyer. After checking out Goodreads, I noticed the novel mostly has one-star reviews. Ms. Ettler’s PR person said that I was more than welcome to ask about these situations, and my questions are reflected in the following feature.

Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your novel The River Ophelia, which was originally published in 1995 but is being re-released next month?

river ophelia

Justine Ettler: It’s all in the new Author’s Note at the beginning of the twenty year anniversary edition I’ve just put out. In a nutshell, I’d like readers to know that the novel is experimental and feminist, that it began as a parody of Ellis’s American Psycho, that while on the surface it appears to be about a vulnerable, sex-craved woman, it’s really about domestic violence and the effects that has on women who are in love with abusers, what it does to their minds and how it distorts their reality. I’d also like readers to know I was influenced by Kathy Acker and that like her I named the protagonist after myself as a distancing technique — though my character is also named after a famous literary character. So that’s meant to be twice as distancing for the reader. 

The distancing is important so readers can get through the difficult stuff depicted in the novel. Readers need to realise that Justine is an unreliable narrator, although as the novel goes on she does become more reliable, especially towards the end once she starts doing therapy and with her therapist’s help starts to move away from the abuser. I think it’s interesting that the novel predates Sex in the City, though Justine is kind of a cross between Carrie and Samantha.

Finally, readers might like to know that I abhor male oriented pornography and that I care deeply for women who are trapped in relationships with abusive men. I know women aren’t supposed to get trapped these days because of feminism, but the reality is they still do. I tried to get this across at the time but the book was marketed in a way that didn’t serve me as an author in the long term. What can I say? The corporatization of the publishing industry meant literary authors had to start selling books too so publishers could make a profit, so publishers looked for ways to create literary controversy and scandals. I think if readers had known where I was coming from the first time around I might have sold less books in the short term but probably just as many over the long term.

GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?

JE: There were a lot of firsts with this novel, though it was actually my second; Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure was my first. I learned that sometimes rewriting an entire manuscript back to front worked wonders, that less is more, that creating suspense in the opening section is really important. I learned how to parody a number of genres of fiction: pornography, obviously, but also the thriller (I had already parodied the romance novel in Marilyn). I had just written an MA that said parody was intrinsic to the artistic process — Nietzsche was a big fan of parody — so I was taking all this theory I’d learned and putting it into practice. It was an exciting time. I was young and optimistic and I truly thought writing could change the world.

GTL: Although I’m sure it’s an unpleasant reminder, you have a lot of one-star reviews for The River Ophelia on Goodreads. How do you perceive readers’ strong reactions to your work?

JE: Partly, we are a nation of believers in the tall poppies syndrome and we like to build people up so we can cut them down. But there are other factors at play, too. I think some of these readers are just not my audience. This mismatch between the book and readers was partly caused by the way the novel was marketed where the book was presented as Grunge and Dirty Realism and readers were expecting a non-experimental text, something realist like Anne Beattie or Andrew MacGahan. Realism means that characters need to have depth to be believable, but that doesn’t really apply to The River Ophelia because its a postmodern novel and postmodernist characters tend to be cardboard cutouts. So whenever I read a review where someone doesn’t realise that the novel has an unreliable narrator, or where someone doesn’t realise it’s postmodern, people who complain that the characters are flat, or the story isn’t exciting, I realise they don’t understand what I was trying to do because they are probably misreading the novel as realism. A lot of Goodreads readers are complaining about these sorts of things.

I also think some of the low ratings might be from the sort of people who read American Psycho and didn’t see it as misogynistic and flawed, if a great novel in many other ways.

A lot of readers did like The River Ophelia, though. I had stalkers and tonnes of fanmail at the time, people painting my portrait, everyone wanted to buy the film rights; Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori and Geoffrey Wright all wanted to direct it. I had so much exposure in 1995/6 and had sold so many books that in 1996/7 Vogue magazine wrote that what was out the following year was anything to do with Justine Ettler. So I even had my very own backlash!

Bad reviews, though, aren’t something I listen to that much. What writer can? Let’s face it, there’s a lot of stuff I hate out there but I guess the difference between me and a lot of people is that I wouldn’t post about a book I hated. What’s the point?

River Ophelia Cover Final.jpg
New The River Ophelia cover for 2017 e-book re-release

GTL: The River Ophelia won the Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction – Horror Division – Best Novel. I’m always curious as to why some readers don’t connect with an award winning novel. What is your take on the discordance?

JE: I think the novel is confronting for some people, the angry feminist aspects particularly, and that some people hate being confronted by the underbelly of our man’s world, and you can’t find anything much more underbelly than domestic violence. There could be an element of shoot the messenger about it? I certainly felt shamed by some people for writing the book and for speaking out on the unspeakable, for writing an angry book from the POV of the victim of domestic violence where the victim is not tough or heroic, just very angry and vengeful.

Again, I think a lot of the polarisation is to do with the way the novel was marketed, it’s not a grunge novel, but it’s also not an erotic novel. Fans of The Bride Stripped Bare and 50 Shades of Grey will be disappointed if they’re looking for something that explores women’s sexuality.

Also, because people started to read the novel autobiographically, they equated me with my dysfunctional character and then assumed because she can’t get it together, that I can’t get it together and that my writing is incompetent as well. This happens a lot in women’s writing, I think. I was reading something, I think it was Paula Hawkins, about writing female drunks and the assumptions people make and how you get discriminated against as an author. When a man writes a fuck up his character has a problem, and no-one suspects his writing, but where the drunk is written by a woman . . . People think she’s fucked up, so her writing’s fucked up.

Finally, some people will find Ophelia too confronting no matter what. Even with our awareness today about sex addiction, and what that addiction does to a partner, and about Stockholm syndrome and the way it illogically creates strong bonds of loyalty through abuse, some people will still go, “Yuck.” Perhaps these are people who haven’t made peace with their own demons? I don’t know. There is a lot of abandonment in the novel and that can be an uncomfortable thing to connect with. I don’t understand these women. I don’t understand women who voted for Trump, either. I don’t understand women who are misogynists but I know they exist.

By the way, I didn’t know about the award. I knew it won an award for its cover back in 1995/6, but I didn’t know about this award. So that’s great. It’s interesting that it’s an award for genre fiction, for horror, not literary fiction, though. Because I think interesting stuff is happening in genre fiction and that this experimentation at the margins tends to happen most when literary fiction becomes too cliquey and conservative, new distinctive voices can only get recognition elsewhere.

There is a horror element to the novel and it’s great that that has been recognized. There’s also a thriller element too, The River Ophelia is a real mixed bag that way: pornography, horror, thriller, romance, it’s all in there. One thing it’s not is a grunge novel, despite the realist aspects of the text.

GTL: I’ve heard that you took The River Ophelia out of print – using a lawyer to do so. Can you tell me more about that?

JE: Look, it’s something I’m a bit uncomfortable talking about for obvious reasons, but I will say this: pulling the books was one of the hardest decisions I ever made.

GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

JE: I really don’t want to talk about my personal life in interviews. Let’s just say I come from one of those, why don’t you become a lawyer or a doctor? families but that over time my family come to accept it’s what I do because I love it. A lot of my friends are creative people too because they tend to be the best at understanding what a writer’s life is really like. My dog is currently my best friend and he loves it when I get busy with my writing.

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25 thoughts on “Meet the Writer: Justine Ettler #AussieLit

  1. Great interview (as always!) Melanie. I’m a big Justine Ettler fan though I hadn’t realised she sold so many copies. Hopefully Americans – Kathy Acker fans anyway – will pick up on her.

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    1. I only found one source that said his many books she sold. It said 40,000 and didn’t provide evidence for where that number came from. Ettler’s publicist said 50,000. When I Google Ettler, not much comes up!

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    1. Thanks for visiting. I’ve never heard of such a thing either, though I do know of authors who begin with a small publisher and then switch to a larger one for more fame/money. I can’t blame the author, though that small press DID take a chance.

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  2. The author’s point about a reader not differentiating between a book that’s just not a good match for them and a one-star read is certainly valid; I’m often frustrated in reading reviews on GR which are written by readers who simply wanted another kind of book, not the book they ended up reading (and criticizing). I enjoyed reading about the difficulties aligning marketing and creative goals, and I can appreciate the need to keep certain elements private.

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    1. Not long ago I reviewed a kind, heartfelt book called Everyone A Aliebn When Ur A Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun on Goodreads. I noticed that a woman have it two stars. She wrote that the book wasn’t meant for her and perhaps she’s give it to her nephew. 2 stars. When I asked her why she reviewed a book negatively when she felt she wasn’t the audience, she responded because she could. What a petty person.

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  3. Hmmm interesting story here, I had never heard of this author before but I’m glad you brought her to my attention! Kind of weird that the publicist invited you to ask her questions about the book being pulled and then the author herself said she didn’t want to talk about it because it made her uncomfortable. As a past book publicist, I question what this author is being told and what is being pitched. It sounds like she’s been screwed by publishers before so it’s too bad there seems to be some miscommunication there.

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      1. I don’t work in publishing anymore, no. I got my English Lit degree in University, realized that wasn’t going to get me a job anywhere, so I took a post-grad certificate at a college in Toronto in a specialized program called ‘creative book publishing’. It was an intensive four month thing, but it introduced me to people in the biz, which is where I got started!

        I guess I technically work for myself now, although I don’t make much. Being at home with my daughter is my more-than-full time job now haha

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  4. Probably not my cup of tea, but I found this interview to be pretty interesting. I happen to be a fan of an unreliable narrator. I think it keeps the reader on their toes when you’re not sure if what your reading is real or not. And then being able to explore why the narrator is lying, being manipulative, or is just delusion makes the whole reading experience really interesting.

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    1. I’d like to see more unreliable narrators outside of the thriller genre. People use it as a twist, but in reality, many of us are unreliable narrators ourselves for various reasons: too much time has passed, trying to twist the story just a bit (even if we don’t really mean to), standing in a different place from others during an event, etc.

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  5. As always, quite an insightful and interesting interview, Melanie! I appreciate how well thought-out your questions are. I personally want to react to the idea of readers not connecting well to award-winning novels– I think this goes back to the intended audience, just like Ettler stated. I know that I wouldn’t enjoy reading a postmodern novel (sorry, Justine Ettler!), so I avoid them. I just don’t have the background knowledge or attention to detail required to appreciate the subtly of these novels. I’ve tried. So, I think the real question would be, Why don’t people who love this genre or love this award traditionally always connect with award-winning novels? That said– it’s SUPER awesome you were able to find this award for Ettler!

    Justine Ettler: Thank you so much for participating in this interview! I have a few friends who love postmodern literature and I’ve heard them discuss how The River Ophelia was pulled from publication. I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to discuss your private life, but can you explain anything at all about why you chose to re-release this book now? I’m very curious! But, please don’t feel obligated to answer, as I don’t want to pry.

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    1. Although I haven’t read her novel, the way it’s described by readers doesn’t make it seem post-modern to me. I have read post-modern stories in which the characters seem like cardboard cut-outs, but this isn’t a constant feature of the period from my perspective. Sometimes peripheral characters do because they stand in for an idea, but I’ve never read a main character that was a cutout like she describes. However, I’m willing to admit Ettler may have more knowledge about post-modernism than I do. I’m not sure what her studies focused on. A lot of post-modernism that I’ve studied tends to take very familiar stories and add something extra. For instance, I read one story about a father and his children who go shopping on Thanksgiving day to get the food to make their meal for that very day. Everything in the store is rotting and has flies buzzing around it, but they don’t seem to notice. Since the people aren’t the focus of the story, they ARE cut-outs for dad and children, but other stories that focus on the character in post-modernism are far from cutouts.

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      1. I guess when I think of post-modernism I think of Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. Books in which the character development is secondary, the reader is distanced from the narrator emotionally, and there are unexpected narrative shifts. But, I will admit my understanding of post-modernism could be improved.

        That short story sounds a bit creepy, but I understand what you are trying to say. What well known books/authors fall into the post-modern space? I need to brush up!

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        1. It’s basically 1970s through (??). Some sources says WWII forward (probably because WWI and WWII are modernism). I’m not sure literature has decided. John Barth is the most famous example, though I love Raymond Federman. His memoir SHHH: The Story of a Childhood is great.

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              1. XD Soon my house will just be a collection of anthologies. “What’s this?” “Oh, just anouther recommendation from Melanie…”

                How do you use this book when you teach a creative writing class? I’ve never taking a creative writing class– so I don’t really understand the structure.

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                1. A lot of teachers simply assign stories so that students are reading. Good writers must be good readers. Usually, I assign a story and pull out an element of writing in the story: character, plot, setting, etc. and have the students focus on that. Then, they look at something similar in their own writing or write a story with focus on the element we looked at.

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  6. How controversial. I know I wouldn’t read a book like that, cause I’d get massively triggered. But I also know that this interview was massively interesting to read, if I can at least look at this topic through an interview, that’s good 🙂

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