Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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What has writing meant to you? At various points in your life you've turned to writing, did this start when you were younger, or what's the history of your turning to writing in your life?

I think at a certain point everybody tries to somehow put their thoughts or experiences into some sort of cohesive form, which writing is, or talking is, I suppose too: sentences, making thoughts have a beginning, a middle and an end. And I think ... well I think really it was because I was trying at first not to ... well I was trying to not to do acting, to stay at home more and be there. And also I love reading books. So I was very inspired by lots of writers, and I knew lots of writers. And somehow I really wanted, in a way, to let experiences that I'd had be put down in words. I don't know. I mean, I went to the Mexican Film Festival with John Osborne and Tony Richardson and Gillian, the critic who was married to John Osborne - or not married to him then, but she did finally get married to him. And I ... It was such an intense and funny time that I wanted to record it somehow. I didn't want to call them their names, because I was writing some pretty rabid stuff, but I just really wanted to remember it as a sort of experience that was very like a little universe in itself: just going to a film festival, twenty-four hours of that. And I thought it was a nice idea to do. So I started out doing it sort of like a little exercise, but then I became, as I generally do, totally fixated by finishing it and getting it readable. And then I gave it to Hodder & Stoughton, forty pages, and they said, 'Oh yes, yes, we'll give you some money for this. Finish it by such and such date', and I was caught. I had to finish it by that date and so of course there was a lot of scrambling at the end. And I suppose it's a slightly shorter book than it would have been if I'd been [not] concentrating entirely on finishing it on that day. But it did set me off, and I really liked it. Of course writing is also very difficult if you get stuck with a page, a white page, and you've absolutely no inspiration. It's a very tough profession. You don't have the director there to say, 'Come along now, let's get on, we're going to rehearse now'. No. You have to be a self starter to be a writer.

And that first book was The Manipulator.


And then the next one was The Hybrid. How did that get written?

Well I felt in The Manipulator I had been a manipulative myself, so I wanted to try and write something about what I felt was sort of allegorical, because it's about a person who is a hybrid. I mean they're half black and half white. And what do you do? It's becoming a much more ... a question that people are asking now. You have to acknowledge both sides or else you're sort of cut from part of your own genetic heritage. So in some ways I suppose there are many more hybrids than there were, but this was about a guy who wanted to be both things very much. And I have met people like that now: real hybrids, who actually do ... I made it a blue-eyed person who was a Negro - half - and half sort of white person, with blue eyes and black skin. So it was an allegory in a way, and yet I made ... tried to make the people very real. And also I suppose it was a thing about fame. And about corruption. And pollution of a place. Because it's very like what's happening in various different resort places in Australia and all over the world, where people come in and the thing of making money means that the place becomes a sort of interchangeable resort slum on the sea. And that's what this guy, coming from an island in the West Indies - that's where I set it - goes back and see it's going to happen, and gets muddled up in ... and then gets killed, because he's so against this sort of ... this imposition on nature that we keep on doing. I don't know why we do it, but we do try to make resorts look exactly the same, especially in the tropics, wherever you go: they're drop in, drop out, you know, Hawaii, or ... And that's what's sort of happening in Port Douglas, and I don't know how anybody can change it. It's a view of making everything acceptable to the tourists, which I don't know whether it really is. I think the tourists now wants something a bit different from cement and swimming pools and lying around on lilos and I think people want to do something different. And I think they want to live in something different. But that's how it is at the moment.

What did the critics think of your novels?

Oh, I got very, very good reviews. And they both went into paperback and translated into other things, other languages and things.

But you did stop writing them.

Yeah, I did.


Well, I really began to ... That was just when I sort of thought I didn't know anything. I realised from ... I mean okay, the first flush of bumping into writing and everything. And then I knew that I was totally stupid. I mean I really felt that I was uneducated. It showed me that I was very uneducated. I mean I was trying very hard to be ... I'd never really had ... I mean obviously academics go through university and a lot of people in this day and age believe that if you didn't go to a university you must be pretty thick. And I think to a certain extent that is, was, true of me, that I didn't know anything about ... that's why I went back to that school and tried to sort of formulate my ideas a bit, and be able to think properly.

You'd hated school. You'd been the terror of the boarding school, and then later, not only did you take yourself back to school, but you became a teacher.

[laughs] Oh, god, yes.

Now, how did, how do you see all of that in retrospect?

Well, actually I don't think it's such a strange thing at all. I think really ... I mean I don't think of myself as a teacher, believe me, I just happened to be ... have accumulated enough bits and pieces of knowledge to sort of ... and be old enough to pretend that I didn't sort of impart anything to anyone. I don't really think people can teach. They've just got to let the person who wants to learn something be able to be in the way of having that possibility. That's what I really think. I don't ... I think teachers are also ... have been through the thing of not wanting to ... The teachers, who are worth their salt, know what it's like to be so bored as a student that you can hardly ... that your eyes cross with ... you know. And I think also [with] teaching you've got to acknowledge that people want to dream. They don't want to have to do things like you tell them ... that you're laying it on the line. I think they [the students] have to be given a time to absorb in a different way. And they've got to have enough energy to have enough [energy] to stop just thinking about where they're getting their next meal and who they're going to have next, or who they're going to fall in love with, or whether their dog's got fleas or whether there are cockroaches on their walls, or whatever. They've just got to have enough space in their head for something else to go in. Because mostly our heads are sort of chocka with rubbish, and we've got to sometimes get rid of it.

Why do you think you were so resistant to learning and to school when you were a kid?

That's a question. Perversity, bloody-mindedness. I think I was born with a peculiar inability to cope with authority. I do honestly think it's ... [laughs] It was born with me. I must have been ... I do think that both sides of my family have been rebels. And I think it might be genetic. I hope it was. I wasn't [sic] just sheer recalcitrance and ... I think it probably was.

You seem always to have hated though, in any way, to be pinned down.

I recognise that. And I do think that I have this. Yes. I know that when I was little I used never to stop running away from people, and running away. And everybody used to think it was sort of funny. But, I think there is something in ... I mean there are ... It's like many people you meet: there are some people who really want to be touchy feelie all over, and there are some people who aren't, and they're rather ... They don't want to be sort of completely overcome by that all the time, and I'm that sort of person, really, I think.

So you've had a history where you didn't want people to pin you down and you didn't want situations, or even a particular profession, to pin you down?

I think, as I said, I think I've got a very low boredom threshold and I think also, I want to sort of spraunce [sic] it up all the time, so that everything is always pretty exciting, rather than slipping into a sort of miasma of dullness. And I think that comes from my sort of nature. I don't think ... I do think it's there and I can't get top side of it much. Peace is evidently a situation of never ... of having no lacks, lacking nothing, and I suppose I always wanted things to be sort of exciting. So I lacked excitement, especially in the idea of schools or being ... I mean I used to have physical things about my teachers sort of - like I couldn't bear listening to them any more, you know. Awful, isn't it, but there is was. I'm sure people have bouts of this too.

And there was no alternative but to get the hell out?


And that came up later too, with some of your relationships.

Yes. Definitely. I think though, I've sort of got a bit wiser in that way now, but you can ... Instead of not putting up with anything that doesn't please you or something, I think I'm much more able to handle the thing of ... If something gets on my wick a bit, I sort of say, 'Oh well, you know, okay. That's how it is', and I can surmount those little anthills.

You've had three marriages, and your present marriage seems very happy.

It is, sometimes because we're living in different continents. [laughs] But we do talk all the time and see each other very often, and when we do it's terrific. Because actually, that I think, if I follow that line through it's because my present husband Antony Schaffer never, ever, ever bores me. He always proposes, or I propose to him. We always have a very fascinating time, whatever we do. And I think that's a huge thing in amusement value, and laughing a lot, and being able to do things that are different, and lead you to weird places and things and people and ... I mean after all life is a great big game really. It's here to have to fun in it. It's your oyster. You don't have to go through all that sort of awfulness, unless you really want to. [But] maybe you need to if you want to.

People find relationships and managing love and marriage and those sorts of relationships, really often very difficult in their life. From your own experience of three very different marriages, what did you learn from those three, do you feel? How did you progress on a journey there about understanding that kind of relationship?

Well, I think when ... Each relationship that I've had has been at a very different stage in my evolvement or the evolvement of the people I was married to. Obviously, when you get married very young, when you don't know anything, you are going to make every single cliched mistake that is written in a million books about guidance to marriage. You don't know anything about it, and you don't ... Nobody can tell you anyway. I think then ... You see, I think my marriage to Sean was very much a problem: my profession and his profession together. [But] I think really, if it hadn't been there, one would have been very much less rich experienced in one's life. It was a very interesting and extraordinary part of one's life, [during] the years that are said to be the most potent of one's life. But then I don't say they are, because I think after you get a bit on in life ... Other people may not think that, and they may feel sorry for you, but you're not [sorry]. You have a much more extraordinary time because you are able to look at things with a little more objectivity and a little less dottiness. And I think that's really what's happened in my life. I hope it's what's happened in my life. I mean, certainly at the beginning of my relationship with my now husband, [we] had a lot of ups and downs, and things like: 'Oh no!' And, 'Go away' and 'I don't want to ever see you again', and 'This is over', and all that. But I think that happens in any relationship anyway.

The other major personal relationships that people have in their lives are often to do with their children. And you actually had a mother who was an expert on motherhood.


What kind of a mother was she?

Well I think she probably was an expert on motherhood for other people's children, more than her own. I think she was a terrific mother in a way, because she left us alone. I think that sort of ... I think over protectiveness in parents sometimes can cause a huge amount of adjustment that doesn't work after. And she really sort of was a very light touch as far as we went. And I've tried to do that with my children too, in that I try not to interfere in their lives, but I do try to sort of be there if they want to call me or do, say anything. And I've always tried to make them self sufficient and I've always encouraged them to sort of look after me really. [laughs] I don't mean in my old age, I mean I've tried to make the relationship not one of me being the total protector, but that they can feel as though they are responsible for me and them, and I'm responsible for them and me too. And so it's a sort of reciprocal maintenance rather than, 'I am your mother dear, you must behave as I say and do as I say and this is what you must do'. I've always thought that heavy handed attitude that happens ... I mean how many plays have we had written about it? Drillions [sic]. And finally I don't really recognise the situation because I never had it. I can't imagine anyone doing that to me. I'm not the boss of you. I mean, you're not the boss of me. That's the oldest Australian statement that my brother said, that I had said to him, as I threw an inkwell at him: 'You're not the boss of me'. So I think I probably ... and there's another saying ... I think I probably always not wanted someone to be the boss of me. And I think there is another statement, that I think you learn, which is that love is bondage willingly accepted by the free. And I don't mean bondage in a rather crude way, I mean bondage in that you are joined. And I think if you learn that, I think you've actually made it. And that's what I'm trying for now.

You really can't stand not being free.

No. No, that's right. I can't.

What do you think freedom is?

I think it's the inner state of being able to follow exactly what you intuit. I don't mean that ... It's not inner considering when you say, 'What's the best thing for me now?' I don't think it's like that. I think it's a state of being able to follow what comes towards you and you go towards, without any consideration of that it might be bad for you, or that you're not ... or you might lose out by it, or you might get killed by it. I think that's a ... I do honestly think I'd ... I would put my body on the line for it. Because it's very ... I think it is your life. I think if you worry about the next thing that's going to happen to you, that's when I think you get unfree, because you are always stuck between thinking: but if I do that, this might happen. Cause and effect of what might be, if that peculiar little word ... And you can drown in it.

Were your parents religious? Were you brought up religious?

Well they were of mixed religions, but I don't think ... And I think that was a problem. My father's family obviously had been Catholic, or were. But my father was not, didn't ... although I have a sister who was virtually a nun and is very religious. And my mother's family was very Church of England or Anglican, whatever you want to call it. So, I think with the two backgrounds, they chose not to centre on religion [with] their children. And I think it was quite a right thing. Also I feel that because both my parents worked from the moment ... well before I was born, I think we sort of skipped a generation, you know, that people ... Both parents work now in children's lives and it never phased me that they both worked. And I don't think they had very much time for ... certainly [not] for dogmatic religion.

What happened at school over that? What contact did you have as a child with religious ideas?

Well I think I was sent first ... I think I, I think I went one or two days to some sort of Catholic kindergarten or something and came and told my father that they'd said if I did something I'd go to hell. I think that's when I didn't go there any more. And I did ... I didn't really take much notice of it. I'll tell what we used to do when I was a boarding school. We used to play cricket in church. Now this a game that anyone who goes to church sermons can play. And it is that every time he says, 'And I say to you ...' that's a run. But if he says, 'But ...' you're out. So we used to sit there, and nobody could understand why we were listening so adamantly, and there'd be little gasps every time an 'And' was [mentioned] and if a 'But', you know. I think the actual priest must have felt very strange with all there girls listening intently and making funny noises when he said, 'But ...'.

I don't have to ask who made up that game.

[laughs] It was quite a good game. I think I got up to twenty-six once, runs.

And then of course much later you discovered your own way of looking at spiritual matters, I suppose you could put it. Is that how you'd put it? I mean, how would you describe yourself now? Would you say ...

Well, yes, I do have a very ... The spiritual side of my life and I hate ... that word is so horrifyingly used these days, but I do have what I believe is reality. I think the rest of it is sort of wonderfully illusioned. But I think if you ... If you look at the world as it really is, then I think that is a very, very spiritual experience. Because you see it has so many different layers in which we live. But we really don't want ... We want to blinkered, we don't want to look very hard at anything that's too unable to be coped with because it causes us to have to change our lifestyles. And that's what I've done, I'm trying to live what the ... I believe, is reality for people, for human beings.

Could you give me an example of something that you can look at superficially and conventionally, and that there's another way of looking at, to give an idea of the sort of looking that you're trying to do.

Ah, that's a difficult question. Let me think. I think really I can only answer that from the point of view of saying that when I gave courses here, people would come on a ten days' try out, to see if they really wanted to do it. I mean you can't say to someone, 'Look, you want to stand back and look at your life for six or eight or even ten months. You don't want to have to do that because you can't cope with it'. Some ... So you come on a ten day course to see if it's sort of what you want to do. And you do get a vision in that time. People go on and become pasana meditationists in that way - where they step back completely. Those are very hard for western people to do. It's just really difficult. But if you're doing things that interest you, and your day is very different and broken up into different areas, you're not just ... I mean it must be dreadful to work in a factory, where you're doing the same movement and the same thing. I mean, it must be mind blowingly horrible. That's what I think the whole of the teaching of esoteric [philosophy]... teaching to stand back ... We've got to sort of relearn how to look at the world. And the way to do that is by balancing up the centres of yourself. I mean you've got a intellectual centre, you've got an emotional centre, and you've got a body. They all get out of kilter in the way we live. Some people have tremendous intellectual centres and their poor old emotional centre doesn't exist. Some people ... or their bodies sometimes. Some people are so occupied with their body that their brain is recessed somewhere and doesn't ever look at ... They just think about what their body is going [to do]. I mean we're coming up to the Olympics. We see it every day. Some people pass everything through their emotional centres, so overpoweringly, that after a while all they're got left is old tapes that they run, because it's sort of bing and gone. I think what the first thing you have to learn when you begin to balance yourself up is to balance your centres so they actually sort of vibrate on the same level and are in touch with each other.

In the various articles that have been written about you, and your work here, especially when you were teaching, it's been characterised as New Age, and a commune and hippy commune, and so on. How do you feel about the label New Age?

I think they haven't got another one, that's the problem. It got ... When it was really New Age it sounded okay, and then it got into a ... as everything does, the misuse of the word became tantamount to saying, 'Oh, oh, all that bullshit, you know. Oh Christ, here we go again'. And words like spirituality, enlightenment, New Age - all those words became so sort of polluted. I mean I don't really think about it as a word - what one does. Some people call it The Work. I mean what it actually really is, is your own journey towards your own self: self discovery. But we are all in the same boat. We're all striving or yearning, or whatever we're doing, towards something in our lives, and it isn't death, believe me. Well, in some ways it is. But it died before you die, if you know what I mean. It's changing your centre of gravity, what I was really talking about. It has that connotation of becoming a person who can actually be able to see clearly. That's all that the word 'clairvoyant' means: 'clear seeing'. And I think we do blind ourselves a lot, or blinker ourselves a lot, by not really looking.

Do you think the time for reflection is really absolutely crucial to a full life? I mean has that been an issue for you through your life, the question of making sure that you get time to reflect?

No, I never thought I never had two brains together in my head, at one time in my life. I just thought all that stuff was stupid. I mean, I just didn't. I worked everything by instinct and a sort of ... I suppose I think everybody's like that too, a sort of adolescent enthusiasm for everything that can boulder down walls anywhere. But then I think you have to come round to actually beginning to ... and I think the heart is the reflector. I think the heart reflects what is real. I think if we ... if we trust that, then I think we're on the way to knowing what's going on. But I think we don't trust it much. We love to ... we have a monkey mind, you know.

[end of tape]

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