Heather Rose: My year of wonder

Heather Rose: My year of wonder

December 14, 2018

At the beginning of the year, I wrote in gold pen "The Year of Wonder" on a white piece of card. I had been meditating and it was a feeling that bubbled up. The Year of Wonder. I had to write it down and put it somewhere obvious, so I stuck it on the fridge.

The definition of wonder, I discovered, is "something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar". I wondered, as I looked at those words, what would happen if I claimed a whole year of it.

“I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set.”Credit:Simon Letch

On Wednesday, November 29, 2017, I was in New York, meeting for the first time with Giuliano Argenziano, Marina Abramovic's director. Abramovic is the performance artist at the heart of my seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love. Giuliano has been the lovely voice in the emails I've been receiving since I first approached Abramovic to appear as a character in my novel. She agreed to that invitation via Giuliano. It was Giuliano who received my updates, the drafts of the novel, and finally, years later, the news of publication. He had been unfailingly generous, kind and supportive. When I met him at the Abramovic offices in Greenwich Street for the first time, I was armed with 24 yellow roses. He was vibrant, handsome, Italian and delighted with the flowers.

During the course of our meeting, we discussed the launch of the novel in New York. I was also in New York to meet my US publisher. That, in itself, is a story of wonder. Some months before, I was introduced to a German publisher in Sydney. I spoke to him for less than four minutes. I learnt later that he obtained a copy and read my novel on the plane back to Germany but was unable to convince his publishing firm to take the novel on. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, a month or so later, he saw a New York colleague. He took her by the arm, walked her to my book, put it in her hands and said, "This is for you." It turned out he was right. My New York publisher, in another twist, lived in the same location as Arky, the lead character in The Museum of Modern Love. In all of Manhattan, the same location with the exact same view over Washington Square.

So there really was going to be a US launch. It wasn't just a possibility that Giuliano and I had discussed from time to time as the years went by, and the book was rejected, then eventually bought in Australia, then in Greece, Israel, China, Thailand, Catalonia and the UK. The book was coming home to New York. So when Giuliano asked me my ideas for the launch, I said that my dream was to have it at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was the home of Abramovic's 2010 retrospective and seminal performance piece, The Artist Is Present. That is the artwork that unfolds throughout the novel – Abramovic's 75-day ordeal sitting opposite strangers and meeting their gaze. Abramovic is herself in the novel and there is a cast of fictional characters, including a ghost. The book, as you may be gathering, is a strange blend of fact and fiction.

At my words, Giuliano in his delightful Italian accent, with his hands gesticulating, said, "Darling, that is a very big dream." Then he paused and smiled. "But you keep your dream, because we do not know what is possible." He suggested I ask Abramovic to be part of the launch. "She loves the book," he said. "We all love the book. Ask." Then he shrugged. "And we will see."

I write an email. I write an email to the very famous, very busy, on-the-road Marina Abramovic, asking her to be part of a book launch. She responds a few days later. She would like to be part of the launch. But she has a big international schedule. Her diary and the US publisher's dates have to align. The publishers want November … We are waiting on an international biennale to confirm Abramovic's dates, too …

How are we going to get MoMA? For a book launch? It's like asking to be on Richard Branson's first flight into space. But I keep seeing the launch there, in the atrium. One night in June, I'm at dinner in Melbourne with a group of old and new friends. One of the new friends is a big fan of the book. She is very excited when she hears Abramovic may be launching the book. "I think it's going to happen," she says. She asks me about the venue. I say it's not decided. I say I would really like it to be in the atrium at MoMA. It would be a homecoming for the book. "I'm going to help make that happen," she says, explaining that she's a friend of the director at MoMA. She sends him a copy of the novel.

I receive confirmation that the international biennale dates are not a clash. Abramovic will be available for November 28. And she will be in New York. She is a yes to the launch.

We learn that MoMA bookstores do not stock novels. They do not stock any fiction. Even if my book is set in the gallery? Even if it was launched at MoMA? No, no, no.

MoMA's director writes and says he will look into the possibility of having the launch at the museum. July, August and September go by. August is my birthday. I have lunch with four girlfriends at a Japanese restaurant in Hobart. They make me write my wish list for the launch. I write who I want as the MC. I write that the launch happens in the atrium at MoMA. I take this piece of paper home and prop it on a shelf where I keep other things that are sacred to me. Photos of my children, an Aboriginal bark painting, a small ivory netsuke of a man reading.

No news from MoMA. The publishers are getting anxious. Do we have a back-up plan if MoMA doesn't come through? Am I sure Abramovic is confirmed? Famous people cancel, apparently, all the time. I assure them that if Abramovic has said yes, she is a yes. After 11 years of research, I feel it is something I can be certain about.

We have only met once, me and Marina Abramovic, and it was over in seconds. But I have written hundreds of thousands of words about her. I have more than 300 individual pieces of research about her work and her life in my files. This is over and above the collection of books I have, and all that I have read about her. I hadn't wanted to meet her. To me she is a character in my book. Writing is a strange enough thing to do each day without your characters coming to life.

Time is running out. There is talk of alternative launch venues – the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library. Or simply McNally Jackson, the bookstore in SoHo. But Abramovic is confirmed and a book store doesn't seem big enough for her presence. Since The Artist Is Present, her absence from the atrium has haunted me on every subsequent visit to MoMA.

I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set. Abramovic spent 75 days of her life in the atrium. I spent three weeks there researching the book, then five years or so imagining that performance almost every day while completing the novel. But the MoMA atrium is one of the most desired locations in New York. It's a place for high-end fundraisers and black-tie charity events.

An email arrives. The director expresses his affection for Abramovic, for our mutual friend, for the book, and for making it happen at MoMA. He's sure, however, that the atrium will be booked. (It's booked months and years in advance.) But he will get back to us with an alternative location for the launch. Three days pass. Then an email arrives: "looks like the atrium will be free!!!" Those three exclamation points are the moment of truth.

My publishers seem genuinely shocked that an obscure writer from Tasmania has pulled off a launch at MoMA, sponsored by MoMA, and in conversation with the artist (and character) Marina Abramovic. I am a little shocked, too. I tell friends and colleagues. I advise them that an official invitation from the publishers will be forthcoming. Twenty-eight friends confirm they will be flying from Australia for the launch of the novel. I would have been surprised if eight friends had wanted to come. But 28?

Abramovic agrees that we will do an in conversation. Via email we discuss the format. I need someone to make the opening remarks. I would like it to be someone Australian, with a connection to the book. Someone who can hold her own at MoMA with a world of international people amassed for a book launch with Marina Abramovic. I ask someone I deeply admire who has recently returned to New York. She says yes. When I pass that piece of paper from my August birthday lunch on the shelf, I see that I had written her name on the paper as preferred MC. I had completely forgotten.

My three children are flying to New York from their various homes in Australia and the US. My 84-year-old father is coming from Australia, chaperoned by my sister.

When I arrive in New York, Giuliano calls me from London. Abramovic is very unwell. She was due to travel to New York on Tuesday for the launch but instead is to be transferred to a medical facility in Austria. Giuliano flies to New York to be with me for the launch and Abramovic sends an audio message. She sounds exhausted.

"Good evening everybody. I'm so sorry I can't be there but the doctor has forbidden me to fly to New York," she says. She goes on to explain that she's having high blood pressure caused by Lyme disease. I know her condition is erratic and dangerous.

"I'd like to tell you a little story about this book and me," she says, recounting how she met me briefly some years ago. She knew I was writing a book, and then one day, the book arrived, dedicated to her. "It was so overwhelming. It lies on my office table and later next to my bed for a long time. I didn't really have the courage to open it and see what I would find there. I also always believe that right time, right place, right situation is the best.

"So soon I am leaving for India and the only book I take with me is that one. And India was the right place, right situation, when I can read with ease and full concentration. I was so touched by this book. It's not just that it was about me and The Artist Is Present … but much more important than all that, is the way it was written. It's a really, really, great piece of literature. I hope you enjoy this evening and I'm so sorry I am not with you tonight."

Author Heather Rose.Credit:Jim Rice

And so, on Wednesday, November 28, at a private event at MoMA, Marina Abramovic and I were not in conversation. Instead Anne Summers stepped in to conduct the interview. She is a fan of the book and a consummate interviewer. She had just returned home to New York after her Australian tour following the launch of her memoir, Unfettered and Alive.

She makes the evening look as if it was always meant to be this way. We discuss the book, and the writing of it, and the life of being a writer, while faces from The Artist Is Present appear huge on a screen behind us. Faces that include that of Abramovic, who is a very large, very still presence throughout the evening. Like the character within the pages of the novel, she remains silent, enigmatic and quietly powerful.

Perhaps it's strange to say it, but I'm not disappointed. I was deeply saddened to hear of Abramovic's health challenges. I understand well the challenges of illness. And like her, I am a great believer that there is a flow of right action in the world. Whatever unfolded, this too was as it should be. She has already made enormous contributions to both the book and my life. And she has done all that from a great distance. That is what artists do.

In 2010, I sat opposite Abramovic four times in the centre of the atrium during The Artist Is Present. I was just one of 850,000 people who attended that performance. Eight years later, I sat in the centre of the atrium and Abramovic's image watched over the launch of a story drawn from that event. Perhaps one day Abramovic and I will get to have a conversation. Perhaps it will be far from an art gallery with wine, food and good health. For now, we remain creator and character, author and artist, author and muse.

A novel born of an idea first realised at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), written largely in Tasmania, and published in Australia, has arrived in the United States. A book that took 11 years to write, and was rejected many times over, has had its US launch at one of the most famous art galleries in the world. It is the first novel to be launched at MoMA and the first and only novel to be stocked in its bookstores.

It's hard to explain how much wonder has happened since 2005, when I first saw a photograph in the NGV that made me consider Abramovic as a character for a book. This was before she was the world-famous artist she is now. Before she became a household name. In 2010 when I sat opposite Abramovic at MoMA in New York, she had already been sitting at that table for years in my mind. (That's another story.) But it was at MoMA that I realised I couldn't fictionalise her any longer. She was too magnetic, her story too real. That's when I asked and received permission to include her as herself.

In 2015, the very same day I got the phone call telling me the book had finally been accepted for publication here in Australia, Marina Abramovic flew into Hobart for the launch of her retrospective at The Museum of Old and New Art. She hadn't been to Hobart in 40 years. That was where we met, in that brief moment she referred to in her audio message.

When I looked for a venue for a post-book-launch gathering for 28 Australians in Manhattan, everything was prohibitively expensive or booked out. I tried numerous options and came up short. Then someone recommended a bar. I called and they were helpful, inexpensive, welcoming. Great food. It is in the street right behind MoMA. This is where we Australians and New Yorkers gathered after the launch to celebrate late into the Manhattan night. The pub was called Characters. Of course the pub was called Characters. That is what writing a novel is all about. It is about those elusive, ephemeral and powerful creatures who come to our writing minds as characters.

Writing is a long road and overnight success can take decades. I began my life as a paid writer at 17 for the Hobart Mercury. I've written millions of words learning my craft and I'm still learning every day. If I am lucky, I'll be learning to be a better writer until the day I die.

My seventh novel is taking flight around the world. I don't know how readers will respond to The Museum of Modern Love in America. I do know, however, that the book was launched at MoMA exactly one year to the day since I first expressed my dream to Giuliano. I also know that when we gathered for the event, with the image of Abramovic watching over us all, it was a dream come true. It was "something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar". It was a wonder.

Heather Rose has published seven novels. The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, $20) won the 2017 Stella Prize.

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