Entertainment Books

Friday 18 January 2019

Swapping notes with the outrageous Aussie, author Kathy Lette

Author Kathy Lette speaks to Julia Molony about causing a national scandal as a teenager, her friendship with Kylie, and the challenges of raising her autistic son

Kathy Lette
Kathy Lette
Kathy Lette with her pal Salman Rushdie

We are in Kathy Lette's happy place - enveloped by plump upholstery and drinking tea amid the elegant, art deco splendour of the Savoy hotel on The Strand.

She laments that at just after noon, it's still too early in the day for a cocktail. There's one on the menu named after her - the Kathy Cassis - which was invented to mark her stint as writer-in-residence here in 2012. It was, she jokes, "better than winning the Booker Prize", though she didn't get much writing done at the time. "I wrote cheques," she says. "I wrote cheques for more Champagne. But it was a lot of fun, we had pool parties and pyjama parties."

She fits in well here, is almost a decorative feature herself; effervescent as Bollinger and dressed today with characteristic charisma - she's wearing black from her boots to her felt fedora, her hair and lipstick a bright bolt of matching cherry red.

Her day's schedule is a neat illustration of her unconventional life: after tea at the Savoy she'll meet the psychiatrist who oversees care for her autistic son. And then tonight, it's off to a super-secret album launch being hosted by one of her best mates, Kylie Minogue.

Kathy Lette with her pal Salman Rushdie
Kathy Lette with her pal Salman Rushdie

"I'm tossing up whether to wear a Stetson, because she's gone a bit Dolly Parton, or a tiara." she says. "Can I put the tiara on the Stetson? I don't think you can ever be over the top in Kylie-land."

As a writer of popular fiction Lette first became famous, notorious even, in her native Australia as a teenager when her racy and explosive first novel Puberty Blues was published. Since then, she's written 12 more novels and her work has been translated into 17 languages.

When she first met Kylie, soon after moving to London three decades ago, it was the latter who was starstruck. "I remember everyone was fawning over her and jumping on her, because she's so fabulous. She's a goddess. And she turned to me and she went - "Kath! Puberty Blues!" She'd grown up reading my novels under the bedspread with a torch. Parents didn't let their kids read my books. No one in England knew who I was, but she did."

Lette moved to the UK after meeting and marrying an English man, the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson. She stole him, she says from Nigella Lawson, whom he was dating at the time. Despite being former love rivals, she and Nigella are now firm friends. "I'm having dinner there on Thursday, actually. We're friends now, even though we're very, very different," she says. "I never let a man get in between females."

She's lived in London ever since, and even though she and Robertson separated last year after 27 years of marriage, London is now as much home as anywhere else. Her two children live and work in the UK: her autistic son is an actor in Holby City and her daughter works for Jeremy Corbyn. She has a new man in her life "there's a bit of Celtic action going on. Got my eye on an Irishman," is all she'll say. And she has, by any standards, an impressive gang of friends.

"I've got so many great mates... a little comic coven. Ruby Wax, Sandi Toksvig, Ronni Ancona, Maureen Lipman, Jo Brand pops in and out, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French."

They all convene regularly at the Savoy to raise hell. "We were here one night having a drink," she says, gesturing towards the Beaufort Bar. "And we'd drunk just enough Champagne to think that it was a good idea that when Tom Jones came in that one of us would throw our underpants at him. That's his favourite bar, he drinks there all the time.

"One of us threw our pants at Tom Jones. But as they flew through the air, I realised they weren't little lacy G-strings. They were huge granny pants, like Spanx pants. The poor man nearly asphyxiated."

It's fair to say that she's one of the best-connected people in the British capital. Salman Rushdie is a dear friend. Google photos of Camilla Parker Bowles's 70th birthday, and there she is, wearing a bold-as-brass expression and giving (a delighted looking) Prince Charles a flirtatious squeeze. It's not really a surprise that despite being a lippy Australian, she's charmed her way into the very heart of the British establishment.

Lette is warm and irresistibly good company. Her speaking voice drips with honey. Every person that steps into her path, whether a duchess or a waitress, is treated to the high beam of her solicitous attention. It's not so much a charm offensive as a carpet bomb.

Lette grew up in the Sydney suburbs in the Sixties and Seventies. Her father worked in fibre optics and her mother was a school principal. Kathy herself was a wayward teen. She left school at 16. Puberty Blues was published the next year and became an "overnight sensation" - a disorientating experience for both Lette and her family.

"My mother has only told me recently that she got death threats and hate mail.. And my father, who was Irish Catholic, didn't speak to me for a couple of years, because it was all about having sex in the back of panel vans. But now we're great, great mates, He just found it confronting of course, because I was so, so honest."

The feminism that has been a central theme of her writing and speaking from the earliest days, was shaped by her early life.

"My mother worked," she says. "And it was very unusual for women to work at that time. None of my friends' mothers worked. And her mother worked - she was a teacher. So it was always understood as women that we would stand on our own two stilettos. We wouldn't wait to be rescued by some knight in shining Armani.

"And then, of course, I was a surfer girl in Australia, and that culture is so sexist," she goes on. She was inspired to write Puberty Blues by the toxic masculinity she encountered as a teenage surf groupie.

The feminism in her writing has remained a constant theme in her work - though always, always leavened with humour.

"My husband used to say, I'd like to help you more around the house but I can't multi-task," she says. "That's what men say. Now, this is a biological cop out, because no man would have any trouble multi-tasking at a menage a trois. The hands would be going everywhere at once."

Her brand of feminism is sisterly rather than dogmatic and seems borne out of a genuine love for other women.

"Biologists say that laughter is good for you, but anthropologists say that women laugh more often then men, in all cultures on the planet," she says. "Especially in all-female groups. For women, because we are the carers in life, we care for our aged relatives, we care for fragile friends, ill siblings, our children, all their needs - anyone with special needs, you need to laugh otherwise we'd all be crying. I think women do that. I think it's a way we can strap a shock absorber to our brain. It's a way you can take a sting out of it."

This is the principle at the heart of her new stand-up show, which she launched last year and which she's bringing to Dublin next week. Titled Girls' Night Out, it's a whistle-stop tour of the Lette comic worldview.

"When you go on a book tour, I love it, because I talk. I do literary lunches and talks and then you meet your readers. For me these women are wise, and witty and warm and funny and lovely and I just want to hang out with them all. So I thought, why not turn it into a show? I talk about my life and books and explain how I became the frazzled feminist that they see before them.

"But I touch on all the key points in a woman's life from dating to pregnancy to childbirth to raising teenage daughters, and the menopause.

"The best bit - my favourite part of the show and what keeps it really, really fresh is that in the second act I do a part where we put the house lights up and we have a quick Q&A and people share their stories about their own lives and things that have happened to them. And that's my favourite part, because I get the most amazing stories from women.

"The other night a woman confessed that her fiance had just left her at the altar. She's crying and everyone is hugging her. And then we turned it into a big workshop about how annoying men's habits are and how she's better off without him… everyone is laughing and it was just amazing."

She doesn't shy away from her own personal tragedies. Her eldest child, Jules, was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, (although his diagnosis has since been re-evaluated as Asperger's). And while she clearly adores him, it's a situation which brings heart-rending challenges.

Every woman, she says "has a story about something hard and sad, Because we are the carers. And I talk about my own vulnerability with my son. Which women find quite liberating - if even someone like me who looks as if I'm having this glam time, really has this whole reservoir of sadness and angst and trauma I have to deal with on a regular basis, it sort of makes them feel easier about talking about their own emotional trials and tribulations"

She didn't talk about Jules's autism publicly until he was 21. "Because I didn't want to invade his privacy." But then, while she was working on another project, a book about a single mother raising a boy with autism just started to flow.

"I asked Jules to read it, and said how would you feel about us coming out about your autism? And he read the book and he said 'well mum, it's a celebration of idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and being different'. So with his permission I very tentatively started talking about it. And I was very nervous - I was overly nervous. Because I'd kept it secret for so long."

"What it taught me," she says, "is that it's always better to shine a light into a dark corner. Because it illuminates. Not just for you but for other people. And talking about it only makes it better."

Her latest book, Best Laid Plans, revisits the same characters, tackling the different dilemmas that emerge when a child with special needs reaches adulthood and, specifically, sexual maturity. In it, she describes the pain of seeing your child suffer from rejection, social isolation, low self-esteem and frustration, despite a desperate desire to connect.

"You couldn't devise a worse torture," she says. "The conundrum of the autistic person is that they don't like being with people but they're very lonely."

She remembers one day when Jules was 17, "he'd had so many rejections, he said to me one day, he was so down in the dumps and he said, 'I'm a reject, I'm shit on a shoe or something', and then he said 'Mum, if you'd known I was autistic would you have aborted me?' I mean, you might as well just wrench my heart right out of my chest," she says.

So she helped him join a dating site. When the only response was from an 88-year-old grandma who said, hilariously, "timewasters need not reply", she contemplated hiring a prostitute for him. "Which as a feminist," she says, "is kind of a drastic thing". Eventually she baulked, but the idea is brought to life in Best Laid Plans. In the opening chapter, the protagonist is arrested for soliciting sex for her autistic son.

The issue of "what happens as a parent when your kids becomes sexual" is, she says a "psychological minefield for all parents. My generation had to leave home to have sex, but now we let them have sex at home", over the age of consent - she adds quickly.

"I used to walk around with a cattle prod until they were 16. It makes for some very awkward moments over the muesli in the morning because you never know who's going to turn up. But when you have a child with special needs in the house, you really never know what's going to turn up. Animal, vegetable, mineral. I've had some very nasty shocks in the morning."

Though he's had several girlfriends, Jules is currently single. "The social isolation is really hard," says Kathy. "He's had a few, but it's tricky terrain... he's too exotic for girls his own age. My old friend Salman Rushdie said to me a few months ago, 'who's Jules going out with?' And I said "well his new girlfriend is a bipolar, self-harming, manic depressive kleptomaniac half-Russian, ex-felon". He said: "The only word I'm worried about in that list is Russian."

Despite these challenges, Jules is thriving. A few years ago Lette enrolled him in an acting course, and last year he was cast to play autistic teenager Jason Hayes on the BBC medical series Holby City. It has, she says, "changed his life. And also helped take the stigma out of autism. Jules being in Holby is more effective than a million dry documentaries, because the audience relates to his character. And can emote with him and journey with him."

Kathy Lette's Girls' Night Out is at the Civic Theatre Dublin on March 26. civictheatre.ie

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