An Interview with Shirley Hazzard

A photograph of Shirley Hazzard is presented, depicting her being interviewed.

In 1931, Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney and eventually left Australia in 1947.

Her life since then has been spent in various places including Hong Kong, New Zealand, Britain, France, and the United States, where she currently holds citizenship. She currently spends her time between Italy and New York.

From 1952 to 1962, Hazzard was employed at the United Nations as a clerical employee.

This led to her producing such works as People in Glass Houses (1967), a collection of wry character sketches, Defeat of an Ideal (1973), an exploration of the UN’s imperfections, and Countenance of Truth (1990), which delved into the Kurt Waldheim case.

She is also the author of the nonfiction books_ Coming of Age in Australia (1985) and_ Greene on Capri (2001)._

Fiction is what Hazard is renowned for. She has written the short story compilation Cliffs of Fall (1963), as well as the novels The Evening of the Holiday (1966), The Bay of Noon (1970), The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003).

The National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction was presented to her in 1980 for The Transit of Venus; in the past year, The Great Fire was given her the National Book Award.

It has been suggested that Shirley Hazzard’s writing is similar to that of Henry James due to her tendency to provide hints and clues throughout her books.

For example, in The Transit of Venus, readers are expected to work out why Ted Tice decides to take his own life.

Additionally, in The Great Fire, there are repeated mentions to a book being read by Aldred Leith, although the title is never revealed; nevertheless, it can be assumed that it is War and Peace.

Hazzard’s writing style, which focuses on the themes of love, war and the impact of the past, is the closest thing to that of Tolstoy’s.

On a cold, snowy day shortly after Shirley Hazzard had been awarded the National Book Award, we got together at the Manhattan apartment she had resided in for a long time with her now-deceased spouse, Francis Steegmuller, the translator and biographer.

— by Vendela Vida

I. Utilizing literature was my lone resort.

In Greene on Capri, the author explains how he began a friendship with Graham Greene through poetry.

At a cafe in Capri, Greene was reciting a Robert Browning poem, “The Lost Mistress,” but could not recall the last line. As the author was leaving the cafe, he gave Greene the final line of the poem.

Similarly, in The Great Fire, the protagonist Leith is reading a book on a train and, upon his arrival, is met by a soldier also reading the same book. This is a recurring theme in the author’s works, as it is often literature that brings characters together.

SHIRLEY HAZZARD: Intentionally, books were a part of life for many people before the invention of television. Graham Greene’s protagonist in Travels with My Aunt noted that books can teach us about pain and love.

He also commented that people from his and my generation could recognize a connection through a single allusion to a book or poem.

My novel The Great Fire set in the late 1940s has been questioned by some reviewers, who don’t understand that books were essential to many lives. Literary critic John Bayley wrote about the solace brought on by great language which I experienced in my childhood.

Through reading, I found myself and connected with others, and I’m still hoping to find more through reading, music, and experience.

In my teenage years, I worked in a British Intelligence office in Hong Kong, where the young English officers, who had fought in the war, were full of poetry and so was I. We were like walking anthologies, and it was a great joy that was quite common then.

BLVR: As readers, we are consistently surprised by the humor in your work.

One of my favorite moments in The Transit of Venus is when you describe a scene in which a girl is riding a country bus, thinking how it would be impossible for her and a person she is with to be “flung against each other” as it is written in novels.

You then write a page later: “The bus plunged and bucked, determined to unseat them. We are flung against each other.” This is a wonderful example of how life can imitate art, and how things that are thought to be impossible in books can be true in reality.

As expressed in the same book, I have stated that the amount of coincidence in life is so great that one would not dare include it in a novel.

BLVR: One of the characters posits that there are more occurrences of coincidence in reality than depicted in literature, as it may not be fair or plausible. Life, however, does not need to be held to such standards.

SH: We do not have to prove the existence of life; it exists and we must simply accept it. People who enjoy reading fiction generally enjoy the illusion of control.

However, in reality, even our own existence is subject to the unexpected, the unexplainable, or even the terrifying that cannot be logically explained.

A friend of mine who had visited the Shetland Islands informed me of a remarkable occurrence that happened there in July.

On days when the weather is fair, a rock can be seen that lies between the Shetland Islands and Norway.

Though scientists had dismissed this as a mere fantasy, the rock has been sighted time and time again, standing there with an almost mocking indifference to the arguments of those who had doubted it.

BLVR: This brings to mind the scene in The Great Fire I mentioned earlier, when Leith disembarks the train–I really love that scene–and the soldier who greets him is holding a book.

As a reader, you’re expecting it won’t be the same book, but at the same time, you’re hoping it is. You think, “It’s a novel, she can’t do that,” and then you prove us wrong! It’s delightfully surprising, and delightfully rewarding.

SH: This was significant to me. Leith got on the train with his father’s book in hand. Upon arriving, he apologized to the driver for making them wait. The youthful bus driver replied, “It’s alright. I had a book.”

In the present day, the driver could have his mobile phone, an audio tape, or a Walkman on hand. But back then, reading was a typical pastime–which coincidentally happened to be the book written by Leith’s dad. Everything was typical.


In Greene on Capri, I opted to include the rationale behind the writing of the book at the conclusion, rather than at the start in a preface or foreword.

I found this to be an interesting choice.The way it was seemed to be more suitable.

BLVR questioned if any experimentation had been conducted.

SH suggested that readers should be allowed to form their own conclusions rather than be told “how they ought to feel” in a book.

They can be informed about “how it came about” at the end. The memoir of Graham Greene was an opportunity for the author to recount the life they shared with their husband, and it is essentially a reflection of their own lives.

Graham’s presence was a strong force during their time in Italy, where they observed him on Capri in the spring and fall, though their own personalities and days were distinct from his.

BLVR: Your union with Francis Steegmuller was highly literary, as you have described it.

SH affirmed that it was an integral component of the entirety.

BLVR: At the end of each day, did you usually have a lot of work to swap with others or did you typically follow a certain pattern of work?

SH remarked that contrary to the expectation of hostility between two writers living together, she and her husband Francis experienced an understanding of the need for both silence and stimulation, as well as the need to dictate the terms of interruption.

She continued to explain that while Francis handled the administration of their lives, such as documents, taxes and leases, they were also fond of each other, avoiding the development of a running resentment.

Looking back, SH compared the differences in New York then and now, noting that in the past there was more room for leisure and the ability to take a stroll after dinner, something that is no longer possible due to the overwhelming “surf” of the city.

In Greene on Capri, BLVR brings up the matter of memory and the risks of taking notes. They wrote: “During our Capri encounters, I infrequently jotted down ‘notes’ after our conversations with Graham and Yvonne.

A hidden desire to capture alters the essence of the situation, sacrificing spontaneity and openness: it’s a form of imposition, like taking pictures.” This idea that our impulse to document a chat (like this one) alters the conversation was moving to me when I read the book.

I had the feeling that if I was given a transcript of your talks with Greene, it wouldn’t have seemed as genuine.

SH: Right. I never wrote down any kind of record. My memory is great for what interests me, though not so much for what is necessary. We have an appointment book for each day, where I might jot down something like “Dinner, Gemma, with Graham and Yvonne”, with a few words to jog my memory of the topics discussed.

Even if the book is not there, I can still remember complete conversations from long ago.

BLVR: Do you write your novels based on notes you take or do you rely on memory alone for the abundance of detail and setting?

SH: Memory is something I have always prided myself on. I remember the things that have brought me joy, the sorrows, the words that have stuck with me. I have a mental store of poetry, experiences, and expressions.

Although I file away the pleasurable moments, I also keep a record of the unresolved matters. I look back to my childhood and reflect on how I have banked on the beauty, happiness, and sorrow as a resource to draw on as well as a way to show the world my better self.


In an interview with Michiko Kakutani after the release of The Transit of Venus, BLVR said that there is a tendency to write jottings about one’s own psyche and term it a novel. However, their book is a story, which may have been the reason for its success.

All of the author’s books are stories, usually beginning with a significant event, whether it is the capsizing of a boat which leads to the loss of the girls’ parents in The Transit of Venus, the bombing of Hiroshima in The Great Fire, or the crashing of a military plane on Mount Vesuvius in The Bay of Noon.

Do these tragedies possess the seeds of a story, or does the author think that the story begins with a tragedy?

SH: A common thread in my books is the entrance of a solitary character. The Transit of Venus introduces Ted Tice; The Great Fire presents Leith; and the lonely girl in The Bay of Noon is arriving in Naples.

The protagonists are young, so they are facing a future that is still to be determined.

BLVR: The Bay of Noon and The Evening of the Holiday are both set in Italy, which is where you still spend some of your time. What areas do you visit when you are in Italy?

Back in my twenties, I had the pleasure of living in Naples for a year. It is an incredible city, but complicated – like all the great cities of today.

Even though the risk of danger is lower than in New York City, it is still a new kind of threat to those who are not used to it. Naples remains unique and steeped in history.

At BLVR, I experienced a feeling of uneasiness that I hadn’t felt in any other Italian locale.

For the past two decades, I have been able to use a pied-a-terre on the property of friends in Naples, close to where I resided in the late 1950s.

This is the same district that is featured in my novel, The Bay of Noon, and I stay there whenever I visit Naples. Additionally, I also have a place in Capri.

My husband and I used to rent an old and beloved property there, but after his death in 1994, the owners wanted it for their daughter. So I sold a painting in New York and purchased a small habitation on a hilltop in Capri.

It offers a stunning view of the sea, sky and the island’s green central mountain. New York is my main home, and I have two other nests in the Bay of Naples. Even though it may seem absurd, the continuity of habit and the memories associated with it are of great importance to me.

BLVR: Would you be willing to share with me some information about the places where you lived during your childhood? Your books depict various locations, and it’s evident that you have a wide range of knowledge and experience when it comes to the settings used in your writing.

When I was 25, I had already lived in a range of places across the globe, including Australia, the Far East, and New Zealand; with multiple visits to Britain; New York; and Italy.

Furthermore, during the ’60s and early ’70s, my spouse and I would divide our time, living half of it in Paris. It was a wonderful experience, as my husband was researching Jean Cocteau.

BLVR: His work was honored with the National Book Award.

SH confirmed that he had been awarded the honor twice; the second instance was for his translation of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert in 1981.

BLVR: It was certainly an enjoyable experience when you were awarded the National Book Award.

At the National Book Awards ceremony the other evening, I thought to myself how great it would have been to share the pleasure and the fun with him. I considered speaking about him in my remarks, but then decided against it.

Did the event occur at the meal?

I was in a conversation with Francis when the others around us were discussing their spouses and how committed they were. I quietly said to Francis that I would not join in, but I would find another way to make it up to him.

BLVR expressed amusement by emitting a laugh.

He commented that he was very pleasant.


BLVR: Could you tell me which book brings you the greatest sense of accomplishment?

He asserted that he was unsure of how to separate his writings, and recalled William Maxwell, who had published his first work when he was chief fiction editor of the New Yorker. He had written a number of short stories at the time and then began a novel.

Maxwell had advised that SH should look back at his earlier work nostalgically, as it had an innocence which he would not be able to recapture in later writing.

SH recounted a story he wrote in the early days called “The Worst Moment of the Day”, which still pleased him. SH acknowledged that a novel is something different, and it is hard to understand what it is that is achieved.

SH also expressed his attachment to his novels, such as The Bay of Noon and The Great Fire, and the satirical stories in People in Glass Houses.

Alexander Pope’s words were echoed, which state that those in power, even if it is only petty bureaucratic power, are rarely good news and can only be touched and shamed by ridicule.

BLVR: It has been mentioned that you are a devoted follower of Elizabeth Bowen. Who else do you think has had an impact on you? Are you familiar with D. H. Lawrence’s work?

SH: Elizabeth was an amazing individual who was close to us. Her works of writing are unparalleled. It is hard to say what influenced me the most. Numerous poems and novels have molded my understanding of the world.

Browning was a significant figure for me when I was nine. Later, when I was sixteen in Hong Kong, I read Hardy’s renowned poems and his painful novels.

Additionally, Conrad, who I first encountered through his stories in school, has been a constant in my life. His novel Victory is always with me.

BLVR: Joan Didion is a big fan of that book, from what I’ve heard her say. Apparently, she reads it again prior to beginning a new novel.

SH remarks that “The Secret Sharer” is an exceptional piece, as it is told on many levels, prompting the reader to question if there are two men or merely one.

Graham Greene mentioned that in his youth, he was enchanted by Conrad’s work and often avoided rereading his stories.

For SH, it was Greene’s The Heart of the Matter that had an impact on him in adolescence. D.H. Lawrence was appreciated by SH, but he does not have a strong inclination to read him.

There are other authors, such as Nigel Balchin, Jean Rhys, Nabokov, and Muriel Spark, whose works have made an impression on SH. He is uncertain if any of this could be labeled as “influence”.

There are certain books that move him deeply, and they are never forgotten as they become integral and enduring.

SH was previously linked to Henry James’ influence, yet he had written for a while before beginning to read James, as he was not fond of him in his youth.

He considers Voss by Patrick White one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but he has never been influenced by him.

Someone recently suggested that Somerset Maugham has impacted SH, which he does not agree with. He acknowledges that Maugham was a great writer and a great storyteller, yet he sees nothing in his work that reflects Maugham’s.

BLVR chuckled in agreement.

SH suggests that it is often assumed that certain events in one’s life shape their behavior. However, these perceived influences only scratch the surface, as the most important experiences are kept within.

Reading can be a powerful form of literary influence, as it is capable of stirring emotions and creating receptivity. In modern times, people tend to want to feel in control and understand what is happening around them.

However, there is much to life that cannot be explained and is often accidental. For example, SH recounts how a chance encounter at a party led to a meaningful relationship.

We can now return to the recurrent coincidences and intersections observed in your work.

Max Beerbohm once commented that nowadays, we are filled with explanations, yet we remain in the dark.

This could be because psychiatrists and sociologists never address the unintentional or the unexamined. He proclaimed that this is due to the fact that “they explain, because they can’t understand.”

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