Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2021

Author Talk: Ramona Koval and Bernadette Brennan and her bio of Gillian Mears

What a pleasure it was to attend a Zoom author event featuring Ramona Koval in conversation with Bernadette Brennan, talking about Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears!

Gillian Mears (1964–2016), as you see from her obituary here, was a notable award-winning Australian author.  I read The Mint Lawn when it was released in 1991, and her last novel Foal’s Bread in 2011. (See my review here).  Bernadette Brennan has spent three years writing a biography that sounds utterly irresistible.

Ramona Koval began by saying that Gillian Mears was a singular person, and the conversation went on to proving just how singular she was!

Bernadette Brennan says that Mears belongs in Australia’s literary landscape in the generation after Helen Garner and one-and-a-half generations after Thea Astley. She was born in 1964 and began publishing 20 years later in the 1980s, when McPhee Gribble and other women authors were role models for women’s writing.  She was published very quickly: she had barely finished a creative writing and journalism degree, when Bruce Pascoe decided to publish one of her stories and so did Carol Ferrier.  Brennan said that Pascoe was just about begging her for more stories for a collection, and so was UQP.

She was so successful, that only one of Mears’ story collections was ever refused.  Bruce Pascoe thought Fine Flour was good but it should be a novel, and McPhee Gribble didn’t take it either.  Mears was miffed and sent it to UQP who promptly published it and it went on to win prizes.  Imagine, said Brennan, that happening to a young writer in today’s literary landscape!

Mears’ archive is extraordinary: she collected everything! She was always obsessed about collecting and documenting her life.  She kept birthday cards from when she was five in and all kinds of other weird and wonderful memorabilia. She was a diarist, and a great letter writer, especially to her sisters.  She collected all these letters, and even sent her sisters an envelope at the end of the year with instructions to send her letters back for the historical record.  Brennan doesn’t think this was narcissism, it was more a case of holding everything close.  Mears was very keen on control, and keeping such things as letters and school reports enabled control over her life.  This was important to her because she was also fragile, and shy, and unsure of herself, even though she was so confident of her destiny as a writer.  This was because she anticipated being an important writer that people would want to know about, and in the archive she even addresses a future biographer at some stage.

Brennan talked with great humour about the astonishing — overwhelming — quantity of materials that were in the archive.  It was second only to the Fairfax archive, and it was daunting.  At first she thought it would be great, but then it became frustrating.  There were even masses of documents from text messages on Mears’ phone, 4000 pages of it all.  (No she didn’t read them all, she worked out a way of scanning through to see who the messages were from).

Mears was one of four sisters, living in an idyllic rural landscape, away from any other family because of migration from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  These parents did not have good relationships with their parents and they wanted their girls to have everything that they didn’t have.  The mother was a strong personality, and Gillian was critical of her affairs and her absences which took place at a difficult time in the mother’s life.  The sisters, OTOH, were very close, though there were destructive rivalries in the 1990s when Yvonne began writing.  This was when Mears was well-established and highly awarded and she gave Yvonne a lot of advice.  But she used Yvonne’s title as her own, and also used ‘Yvonne’s’ topic (high jumping) and so Yvonne felt betrayed.

Ramona Koval also raised the always difficult issue of the biographer needing to negotiate the inclusion of stories about people who are still living.  Gillian wasn’t much worried about boundaries, but her family, friends, lovers, and other people were ‘a minefield’.  Their intimate lives were at risk of being exposed in a damaging way, and it took time for Brennan to resolve things.  But Brennan said that what she loved about biography was that it means meeting such wonderful people that you wouldn’t get to meet in any other way, so it was a positive experience.

It’s clear from this conversation that Mears was a flawed and somewhat self-destructive person, but Brennan has a humane view of the difficulties of Mears’ life, especially as her illness became so debilitating.

Leaping into Waterfalls is definitely one to add to my TBR of literary biographies!

You can buy Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears by Bernadette Brennan from Readings.

Thanks to Christine Gordon for organising this event.


  1. Only one story ever rejected: wow, that’s an amazing statistic! I’ve heard of other writers shaping their archived material (Octavia Butler, L.M. Montgomery, Margaret Laurence, etc.) and I think it must make for a different sort of writing for experienced biographers. With both positive and negative sides.


    • Yes, great question! Ramona Koval asked Brennan about whether this highly orchestrated archive meant that she needed to be on guard against writing the bio that Mears wanted, rather than her own. Well, Brennan is an experienced biographer, and by using the other strategies in the toolkit (e.g. interviews with those who knew her) she thinks she’s succeeded in writing the biography that a writer of this calibre deserves.


  2. I really liked Gillian Mears and was very sad when she died. I would love to read this book. Ramona Koval is another very favourite person of mine. I remember when she was taken off Radio National mornings book show (I think it was) I wrote numerous letters of disgust to ABC to no avail. Would love to hear this interview.


    • Alas, Pam, the ABC Book Show is a travesty these days. Much more interested in shallow reading, and one of them (I forget which) lost me forever when she said she hadn’t read the book and then went on to give opinions about it. Ramona Koval would *never* have done that!


  3. This was a wonderfully entertaining and insightful talk wasn’t it? But it wasn’t until I was looking into the book the next day at work that I realised the end papers include wonderful full-colour illustrations from Mears’ journals or letters. I would now to love ask Brennan a question about these.

    The final question about spending time with her ‘if she were still alive’ was rather telling, with Brennan responding ‘I respect her but wouldn’t want to be close to her’. Curiously it made me want to read the book even book – as you say, Brennan has chosen to focus on a humane (and respectful) retelling of Mears’ life without shying away from the more challenging aspects of her personality.


    • LOL Brona, it’s risky to be close to any author if they’re the type of author to pillage their friends’ and family’s lives!
      Maybe one day there will be an exhibition of what’s in the archive… I forget which library has them, I hope it’s ours!


  4. Thank you, Lisa. Straight onto my library list.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the summing up of the event. Mears was one of the first literary fiction writers I encountered back in high-school, reading a copy of Australian Short Stories journal. I’m looking forward to reading Brennan’s biography. No doubt a lot can be said about her which wouldn’t be if she was still alive; her early death changes the situation. Will be interested in your review.


    • Ha! This one joins 17 other literary biographies waiting on the TBR!
      (Fear not, KSP will be first off the shelf when it finally arrives!!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m honoured! That’s quite a stack.


        • I try to read at least one each year… but I haven’t done it so far. I started Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson but got side-tracked.


  6. […] hosted by Readings Bookshop in Melbourne, between Bernadette Brennan and Ramona Koval (for a full recap of the talk check out Lisa’s post here). One of her comments was about how Gillian kept everything close as it gave her a sense of control […]


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