In an artistic career laden with surprises, as well as prizes and accolades, Australia’s Julia Leigh − having displayed her mastery of fiction and cinema (<em>Sleeping Beauty</em>, which she wrote and directed, premiered at
the Cannes Film Festival in 2011) − has won more acclaim in another genre – non-fiction. Her latest book, <em>Avalanche: A love story</em>, is a candid and detailed account of her unsuccessful attempts to have a baby by
IVF. Described by the <em>Guardian</em> in the UK as “one of the first intelligent, personal accounts of the daily business of IVF”, <em>Avalanche</em> was recommended as one of the best memoirs of 2016 by US
TV personality Oprah Winfrey’s website, which praised the book highly: “In spare, scalpel-sharp prose, Leigh describes the intersection of primal desire and wildly inexact science. Treatment after treatment failed and her marriage
ended, yet she continued the quest… While much has been written about infertility, Leigh’s memoir stands out because of her raw honesty and canny eye for the absurd.”
The 47-year-old, Sydney-based Leigh was the inaugural Rolex protégée in literature in 2002−2003, mentored by Toni Morrison.
<b>Was it difficult to write a book about your own life, after having the relative anonymity of fiction and cinema in your previous work to protect you from exposing your personal life?</b>
Julia Leigh: It wasn’t difficult because it felt <em>necessary</em>. And I’d already lost so much, I didn’t care about losing face. With <em>Avalanche</em>, I’ve tried to tell an intensely personal story about a
common experience that has largely remained unspoken.
I hope I’ve brought into the light the way the IVF industry really works and I could only do this by writing non-fiction. It was a challenge to transmit what it feels like to be on the “IVF emotional roller-coaster”. Ways of loving, mysteries
of the body, vagaries of science – the material raised so many questions. I wanted to offer a “tender shared aloneness” to anyone who has desperately longed for a child and found themselves unlucky − more broadly, perhaps we can all
relate to defeated dreams. I started writing it very soon after I made the decision to stop treatment because I wanted to capture my strong feelings before they were blanketed by time.
<b>What have been the effects of publishing your account of your experiences?</b>
The book had its biggest impact in Australia. I was part of a current affairs TV programme on our national broadcaster and I did a huge amount of other press. The TV interview was unnerving, but I’m glad I did it. About six months after
publication – and in response to a number of complaints about the industry – the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission led an investigation into potentially false or misleading representations and the IVF clinics had to change
some of their practices.
I’m not anti-IVF, and I absolutely recognize the joy of so many IVF births, but there’s an uneasy marriage of commerce and medicine in the IVF world. Equity hates regulation. And there’s a discounting – a dismissing – of the very real
harms of treatment. With the advent of CRISPR (genetic editing of human embryos), it’s a whole new ball game. In a way, the complex issues around IVF are a bellwether for what’s to come – what’s already here.
<b>How long did your experience with IVF last?</b>
I first went to the clinic when I was 38. I stopped treatment at 44.
<b>Despite its subject matter, <em>Avalanche</em> does not read like the work of an activist. It’s rather like a novel.</b>
I tried very hard not to be didactic, not to be a journalist, not to be theory-driven. The facts and figures are there, but I primarily hoped to gather up the reader in the flow of the story.
<b>How did you find that writing a memoir compares to writing fiction?</b>
The good thing about writing a memoir is that you are following actual events, so in some ways it’s easier than fiction. On the other hand, a memoir is inherently a lost cause in that it’s impossible to convey the full complexity of so-called
reality. Still, we persist with the imperfect genre, both as writers and readers, because otherwise where would we be? A great many choices went into creating a narrative, to distilling my experience. In the text, I say: “I guess it’s
common sense but I sincerely believe in the truth of what I’m writing and at the very same time I know Paul [Leigh’s ex-husband] would shape a different story. What’s more, I know my own next sentence could turn this way or that.
<b>Has the success of <em>Avalanche</em> changed your view of what you are – a writer of fiction or non-fiction?</b>
I think I’m more attuned to fiction.
<b>You were recently in Europe to promote the local publication of <em>Avalanche</em>. Where has it been published? And have journalists interviewing you asked intrusive questions about your experiences?</b>
The book has come out in Australia (Penguin), the UK (Faber), the US (Norton) and France (Bourgois). I really don’t mind speaking about the book to journalists because I’m all for illuminating the world an IVF patient finds herself in.
If a question is too personal I’ll politely decline to answer, but I’m happy to touch on whatever’s in the book, already out there. The hard thing with the intimate stuff is not going any further than what’s on the page. Conversely,
I dislike talking about fiction and film because I’m not sure it serves the work to “pull back the curtain”.
<b>Have you reached a new audience, different from that of your fiction, with the publication of <em>Avalanche</em>?</b>
This book has reached a different readership to my other work. I’ve been deeply heartened by responses from women who’ve been on the same path. Those responses alone made the book worth writing. And, unexpectedly, I’ve had a lot of warm
response from women whose treatment was successful. Often they had a hard time getting there, but couldn’t really talk about it for fear of seeming churlish.
<b>Where do you find the ability to skip from one genre to another – fiction, film, real life? And what is next for you?</b>
It’s all coming from the same place. We’re all very adaptable – probably more so than we realize. There’s talk now of a possible one-woman theatre show with <em>Avalanche</em> and I’m weighing up whether I should have a crack
at writing the play myself or pass it on. I’m torn because the material is so personal, it’s hard to imagine trusting someone else with it. But, then again, I also want to put that time of my life behind me. So right now I’m not quite
sure what to do – stay tuned. What I’d also really love to be working on is another film that I write and direct. I’m tinkering. Something I admire about my fellow [Rolex] protégés – and the mentors – is their ability to keep going,
to create an <em>oeuvre</em>.