Clare Rankine speaks to Enza Gandolfo about Enza's new novel 'The Bridge'.
It’s one of those Melbourne days where it rains so hard the street floods and you feel like you’re swimming. A swirl of red and yellow autumn leaves stick to the ankle and it’s a relief to take down your umbrella, be inside and warm. It’s on this day that I meet writer Enza Gandolfo at The Moat, where we sit tucked cosily away in the back, to talk over a coffee.
I admire the peach scarf wrapped around her neck and shoulders, which she tells me she bought from an op shop near her home in Yarraville. Our shared love of a good find is discovered as I point to my coat over the chair and my spotty linen pants. ‘Ah there’s something about op shops’ says Enza ‘discovering hidden treasures and the stories they contain, I love thinking of the person who owned this before me, why they loved it, why the passed it on.’ Her passion for stories created her first non-fiction book, 'Op Shops: An Inventory' (co-authored with Sue Dodd). Published in 2007 by The Vulgar Press, the book explored op shops around Victoria and their volunteers.
Apart from the weekly op shop visit, every weekday Enza wakes early and goes for a swim at her local pool. Some mornings she’ll potter around her garden. This is all part of the process, reflecting upon her work away from the desk. ‘After years of full time work as an academic, I finally have the luxury of time, I can write whenever I want now but still hours can slip by so it’s important to carve out time for writing everyday especially at the beginning of a project. I find once the characters are established, they become real, they call to me and then all I want to do is write. Enza tells me that she writes in fragments and links pieces together, without planning what the whole will become. ‘At the end of the first draft I can finally see what it is that I have been writing. Sometimes though it’s like building a house without a plan…I can see what kind of house it is but there are structural problems, five bathrooms and no kitchen and you have to go through the attic to get to your bedroom. This is when it’s time to work on the shape of the narrative and think about the best way to tell the story. Of course, even at the final draft there are sometimes things you’ve missed. A good editor will say “Enza I love what you’ve done with the house but you’ve put the bathroom in the middle of the kitchen and you have to get to your bedroom through the attic. How about we re-arrange things?” And then, before you know it, your house is solid and whole and the right way around.’
Our talk turns to Writers Victoria, two floors above from where we sit. Enza was one of the first members to join. She has written pieces for 'The Victorian Writer' and participated in creative writing classes. Her early work included short stories, articles and a novel, 'Swimming' published in 2009. Her latest novel, 'The Bridge' is set in 1970 and 2007 and is centred around the collapse of The West Gate Bridge. ‘The story was in the back of my mind for a long time. It’s one that’s never been told in full. There’s still a lot of anger about the tragedy. Some of the survivors still feel betrayed by the bridge. I write to answer questions I have: How do people deal with such tragedies, with the grief and the guilt?’ We talk about the themes that weave themselves through the book. ‘I love to write about place, especially the western suburbs of Melbourne,’ she says, ‘because when I was a kid, I never read any stories set in my neighbourhood, and I didn’t recognise any of the characters, they were never like the people I knew.’
Grief is ever present through her work. ‘I was born into a house in mourning, my grandmother’s youngest son died of leukaemia six months before I was born. I remember my grandmother saying over and over to me, “My life has ended now that he’s gone.” It wasn’t until I was older, an adolescent, that I realised not everyone grieved in the same way. I was and still am fascinated by how resilient people really are, how they can rebuild their lives. We feel we can never recover, but we do’.
It was an interview with an op shop volunteer in St Albans during Enza’s work on 'Op Shop: An Inventory' that reignited her interest in the West Gate Bridge tragedy. The elderly man told her he’d been overseas when the bridge collapsed but he knew many of the victims, they were friends and workmates and though he was grief stricken, he’d felt compelled to help finish building the bridge. From there stemmed intense research, and a book that she would work on for the next seven years. 'The Bridge' is about tragedy but also survival, it is about guilt and moral culpability and it’s an exploration of how people rebuild their lives after tragic events. 'The Bridge' has two main characters – Antonello who is a 22-year-old rigger working on the West Gate project in 1970 when the bridge collapses. He survives but 35 men are killed, among them two close friends. Jo is a young woman doing her VCE in 2009 when she has a tragic accident, she is drunk and driving and one of her friends is killed. The narrative asks: is redemption possible? Does Jo have a right to live and to be happy when she is responsible for someone else’s death?
Now, her book is in the window of her local bookshop The Sun, in Yarraville. She’ll celebrate the launch of her book there, along with The Sun’s 20th birthday. A wizard will cast a protective spell over the shop, there will be champagne and music. Enza will wear fabulous vintage. ‘It’s exciting’ she tells me, ‘it’s strange to be talking about the book after such a solitary time writing.’
Enza is interested in writing stories that aren’t being told – stories that she hopes will challenge our ideas about who we are as ‘Australians’ and what it means to be Australian. ‘I want to write about the working class, about migrants and of course women because I think that the mainstream stories are dominated by narratives about powerful white men – and we need stories to challenge those representations. Yes, there is increasing diversity in Australian publishing but there is still a long way to go.’
The next day, inspired, I visit the City Baths. A warm chlorine scented building with a gym and a long pool. There are old photographs on the walls of women in vintage bathing suits enjoying the water. The place hasn’t changed much since then. The long strip of aquamarine water is still today until I dive into it. I float on my back, looking up as the rain falls outside. The water shimmers. I swim and think of stories.
You can read more about Enza at her website enzagandolfo.wordpress.com.