Anne-Louise Willoughby has always taken the written word seriously. At age twelve, she was interviewed by a local paper on a topic long forgotten. What hasn’t been forgotten is the journalist’s misquoting of Anne-Louise’s sentiments; the memory of reading her words wrongly reported has stayed with Anne-Louise for life. She says it’s this experience, plus a rigorous cadetship, that informed her respected journalistic career, which spanned thirty years and a variety of media platforms. The publishing of her first novel – Nora Heysen: A Portrait – represents a shift from the fast-paced nature of reporting to the long-game of biography. Yet, her steadfast commitment to accurately representing her subject remains. Two years of research, of meticulously scouring records, letters, archives, family documents and paper clippings, culminates in a 381 page documentation of this rather puzzling female Australian painter’s life.
Of her subject, Anne-Louise is doting. To her, Nora – the daughter of famous landscape artist Hans Heysen who often lived, and painted, in his shadow – was a woman who, for a long time, was not given her rightful place. Visiting Anne-Louise in her Fremantle home, it’s clear that the two women couldn’t be less similar in this sense. Inspired first by her mother’s deft ability for place-making and then her late husband’s insistence that, to thrive, every woman must have for herself a space that brings them inspiration and comfort, Anne-Louise has made her home into just that. She is surrounded by pieces, however obscure, of a life brimming with significance. A hand-painted Navaho seed dish brought home from a family trip. A hand-woven flax carry bag, a gift from her daughter’s Maori partner. An intricate Chang Mai tapestry. A bright red, oblong-shaped 1960’s Australiana ash tray. All of this sitting among family heirlooms, photos and a meaningful art collection. It is a place that is infused with life and which, in turn, infuses life. As is the case in her journalism, there is a great honesty in Anne-Louise’s existence.
I was trawling through your Instagram and I came across something that really encapsulated how I wanted to open this conversation. It was a post about having read, and saved, your horoscope – which was out of character for you – six months before finishing your manuscript. It said if you go with the discipline that life is demanding of you, “you will learn something about yourself, your strength and your resilience that you haven’t had a clue about”. Knowing your story, I’d find it pretty amazing if you didn’t have a clue about your strength already. But did the process of writing this biography teach you something about yourself? How did your uncovering of Nora’s life parallel your own self-discovery?
Laughs. Breathes heavily. Pauses. I think the reason Nora and I connected so well is because I understood her doggedness. I understood the irrepressible nature of the things that drive us. Through writing about Nora, I really did come to realise a lot. To me, Nora was a woman who needed to be given her rightful place. I didn’t have the same issues that Nora faced in the 1950’s as a married woman, my interests outside of the home and my work were accepted as equally important as my husband’s. What I did have, just as Nora did, was a father who believed I could do anything that I wanted to do. I grew up believing that. Nora had that as well, in the enclave of The Cedars, she was nurtured and her interests were fostered. My mother always encouraged me, any interests I had were always met with an opportunity to explore. But, also like Nora, I came up against some shocking sexism as a young cadet journalist in the 1970’s. There were a number of incidents. Even though many of them were well handled by management, it’s still disappointing when I look back to think that so many things I wanted to do, I just accepted weren’t going to happen. It’s terrible. And she accepted it as well. What I loved about Nora, what really helped me looking so closely at her character and how she tackled the impediments to what she wanted to get done, was she just battened down. Writing is mostly a solo existence and researching and writing biography you really are on your own. Nora also lived that life as a portrait painter – she worried about this “likeness”, she referred to this terrible notion, of “getting a likeness”. And a biographer’s job is also to get a likeness, in words. You try to be loyal to the subject, but just like Nora might paint an element of a subject that’s not flattering, those things make up the whole. There were parts of writing this where I just thought, “Sorry Nora, I can’t really pretty this up.” Nora taught me persistence and patience – they’re the two main things. The quote right at the end of the book with Craig Dubery really speaks to that: Nora’s demonstration that to do anything of real worth, you have to be patient. I’ve come from a profession and a day where that profession was so on the go. We were always in a hurry, deadlines and staying ahead of the opposition. Journalism can be an impatient profession. With Nora I became comfortable in taking the necessary time.
You have been asked whether you feel that your experience as a journalist helped you in the writing of a biography. But I’m interested in how all your other life experiences put you in the unique place to write this biography specifically. How did that interest develop?
It was absolutely a confluence of life experiences that have delivered me to this point. I always thought I would wind up writing fiction but after reporting life events for so long it was a natural transition to writing a life. A number of factors from very different directions collided to present me with the idea of writing a biography of Nora Heysen. First of all, I’ve always had an interest in art. Finishing high school I had to make a choice: I wanted to be a textile designer but I was also very interested in writing. I wanted to go to Finland and work for Marimekko, that was a teenage dream, alongside collecting Chinese and Japanese ornaments and art. And I wanted to work for Belle Magazine. I collected Belle from a young age – I still have early copies back to 1974 when it was first published. It was very architectural then, and Lewis Morley was setting the pace with his images along with Babette Hayes’ reporting on design. And Marimekko, it was original and fresh, with a boldness I’d never seen. My high school friends couldn’t believe I would get off the bus four stops early because there was one shop – Jim Brant’s and David Foulkes-Taylor’s store – where I could go and see the collection. In the white modernist showroom there was a combination of Scandinavian and Japanese design, my cup of tea. I would save up to buy the iconic striped ‘70s Marimekko t-shirt. My school friends really thought I was mad. But I just had this thing about fabric and design. So, there was that. Second, I went on from school to get my cadetship in journalism and had a career that spanned all forms of media and subject matter. Third, much later in life, I met Tim. His close friend was Tim Heysen, Nora’s nephew. I was introduced, I went to The Cedars – I ended up writing a feature on The Cedars for Belle.
That’s mentioned in the book – you step into the pages early on.
Yes. But that was it. Nora was still alive at that point, in Sydney working. There was no obvious evidence of her at The Cedars. I didn’t know anything about her, her studio had not been reinstated at that point. But as the years progressed I did come across her art through her family and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t heard more about her. Finally, in 2004, I was contemplating retiring from journalism. I had written a column for four years when Newscorp reshuffled its holdings, and the landscape of publishing was starting to look unfamiliar; it was time. In 2005 I went to full time study taking a Bachelor degree at UWA, in English and Italian with a minor in Art History. So at this point I’m unwittingly creating a framework for my later understanding of Nora. When it came to me firming up my PhD topic, my supervisor advised me to rethink taking on the story I had been researching which now surrounded the death of my husband. He had died unexpectedly while I was travelling, and writing for three years around that would be challenging. I had been sitting with Nora for years. She was the right choice for so many reasons. It all just clicked and my journalistic nose for a story took over. I started to really think about her reinstatement in Australian art history, that she really deserves this. And she did.
So, on the matter of biography. You talk about the absolute obligation you have to the craft – what exactly goes into that? How do you navigate the conflicting obligations that arise with writing a biography – to the craft, to the subject, to the relatives?
This is my first published book and the first biography I’ve written. I really had no idea what I was approaching. That sense of responsibility I have always held very close, from my training as a journalist. I’ve always felt incredibly responsible to any person I was interviewing not to misrepresent them. When you’re writing a biography, every little thing you discover, uncovers another layer. And I wasn’t quite ready for that – I wasn’t ready for the depths it would take me to. In order to represent someone’s life faithfully, you have to go so deep. You have to take care with the peripheral subjects in the book. Janine Burke, who very kindly wrote a cover line for my book, said to me about this process: “As biographers we find ourselves as the repository of all information. The difficult part is that family members and friends know only some of it. We have to navigate that as carefully and respectfully as we can, while still meeting the obligations of a biographer.”
Do you think that you know Nora better than anyone?
I think I know her perhaps not better, but more broadly than anyone else, across the arc of her life. I don’t know her every nuanced response to things; the minutiae of her daily existence. But in terms of the woman, her belief system, the way she moved through life, the reasons for the choices she made – yeah, I do think I know her very well.
We’re here in your home, and it’s clear that there are many stories in this home, one of which is now Nora’s story. Having written a book in this home, I imagine you have a pretty intimate relationship with your space. What do you see when you look around you? What kind of life do you live here?
Oh, what a great question. I live a life here that is directly related to all the touchstones that have gradually been collected throughout my life and mean something to me. These things give me an enormous amount of comfort, reassurance, and sheer pleasure. There are things in here that are emblems of my children, emblems of my travels. I love going to work in my office. It’s cosy. I built the bookcases and filled them up with my books and mementos. There are so many things around me that have meaning. I don’t hanker for my possessions, but in the moment, they make life sweet.
Your home does reflect a life well-travelled. There’s a real mix of cultural symbols and emblems from all over the world. What inspired you to start collecting?
Well, I care about keeping things that are representative of the cultures that I visit. Especially textiles, because they are so important to me, and I understand how fundamental they are to culture. Weavings, clothing. Stories are told within these things. And now they tell a part of my story, and they remind me of where I have been, and of shared times.
Can you tell me more about some of your art? Your bedroom is full of artwork.
My bedroom provides peace and space, and my pictures are important for that. There have been nights – I’m a night writer – where I would write ‘til 3am, for two or three nights in a row. I’d need a few days to recover and my room is set up for retreating away from the work. That’s part of my working life. You’ve got to have that quiet time. Creativity needs to be fed, and whatever that food is, you make sure you give it to yourself. Love 1, by Lou Xiang, I bought in 1999 from David Forrest at Gallery East. I’m fascinated by what Japanese and Chinese artists can create with just one stroke of a brush. There’s another painting in there of two little birds by Chen Wen Hsi, which I bought in Singapore in 1984. He is regarded as a Master, a leader of the Chinese avant-garde movement, and he was one of the great contemporary exponents of the ancient art of Chinese finger painting. I went to his Old and New Gallery, when he was in his seventies, he was upstairs in his loft studio when I was downstairs choosing the small watercolour. He asked the assistant to bring me upstairs and he looked at the work I had chosen, even doing a little touch up before handing it back to me. I’ll never forget meeting him. There’s also John Olsen’s Tropical rain shower 1978 lithograph over the bed which was a present to myself when I finished Nora. I love his quirkiness. He’s a joyful painter. If there is a three letter word that I use a lot, it’s “joy”. There are pieces I collected in Italy and two small works, one a traditional style from Persia and a watercolour I bought in Mumbai, that sit next to a little Ivor Hunt pen and ink drawing of a swimming lesson in the Swan River.
What I love about your home is that there’s this interplay of opposites. It’s modern, but you’ve put things in here that soften it; things that have a story, a history. And you talk about joy; there is so much joy. But there’s sadness as well. Not everyone would bare it all in the way that you do here.
I tried to put those memories away. But it didn’t work for me. Do I put my wedding photo away? Pictures of Tim away? No. That’s my life.
You seem to have very unique relationships with your mother and daughters. There seems to be a lot of mutual respect between you. Do you think that has something to do with the fact that you’re all creatives?
I absolutely think so. Creativity and communication is certainly in our genes. We all want to be heard and talk – so we sort of jostle for space. But our creative minds are always ticking over. It’s a sharing thing. My mother is quite a woman, and she certainly set the tone for all of us. Language, music, art and her garden are central to her. She taught me to edit hard – words and spaces. She also taught me how to see. To understand balance. She taught me about creating spaces that work. Each of the children is deeply connected to her.
What’s next for you? How do you break up with Nora? You’ve got a new subject – well it’s an old subject really. But where do you go from here?
I don’t think I’ll ever break up with Nora. She’ll go into the background. But, I hear her voice. I think of her when I see a beautiful flower. I still have dreams where I’m talking to her and hoping that I got it right. There will be lifelong associations now. She’s sort of part of me. But I hope she’ll sit quietly in the background. Moving forward, new work is the best way to get over anything. I will get over this five year relationship by taking on a new cowboy to dream about! Laughs. He was quite the guy. He was a horse whisperer. He was also a German immigrant – his family arrived in Texas at the same time as the Heysen forefathers were moving to Australia. The guts of it is that his family brought sheep to the Texan hill country, which caused a problem between them and the cattlemen. This is a story of the Indigenous land owners who were dispossessed. Of the Mexicans who’d swim across the Rio Grande every February to work for the ranchers.
A very poignant discussion right now.
Exactly. And it’s set in the time of Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and I was there, in the heart of the republican conversation about the first black American president. It’s a love story. It’s about liminal zones. And my personal story sits within that as well.