Well-known for her fiery, fearless pizazz, multi-hyphen author Clementine Ford speaks to Sharon Stephenson.
This is a story about love. Not just romantic love, although there’s plenty of that. But in her latest novel How We Love: Notes On A Life, Australian author, broadcaster and public speaker Clementine Ford dives into a pool of familial love, of good friends, of self and a life that doesn’t always return the favour.
In six meditative chapters, Clementine (“Call me Clem”) spills her guts about unrequited childhood crushes, her mother’s death from cancer, the roller-coaster of childbirth and separating from her son’s father.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I stumbled across a column in The Sydney Morning Herald in which Clem questioned the logic of changing one’s surname after marriage. “Women are treated as if the names we have are on temporary loan, given to us to use until another man bestows on us the one that will become our new and true identity,” she wrote in her searingly honest way. Here, I thought, was a woman not afraid to take a swing at issues that matter.
It’s an impression reinforced over the past few years by hundreds of columns, Twitter spats and best-selling books Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will Be Boys, where Clem’s refusal to look the other way morphed into a full-time job.
So it’s a delight to finally speak to the feisty Ms Ford. She’s on the phone from Melbourne, her voice coated with only the slightest Aussie twang as she apologises profusely for having twice pushed back our interview.
“I started running at the end of last lockdown but haven’t done so for six months,” she explains. “I woke up this morning and knew that I needed to run for my mental health. I’m so sorry, it’s not a good excuse for mucking you around.”
I convince her that it is, in fact, a very good excuse, given the current bonkers state of the planet and her highly documented mental heath issues.
“I do feel amazing after a run,” she admits.
There’s a lot to unpack in the next 40 minutes, so I start by asking about her third book. Is it a change of direction?
“I find it interesting that people say I’ve pivoted, because I’ve only done so insofar as this book is about love. People don’t associate feminists, and certainly not forthright women who challenge them, with softness. It’s so much easier to assume we’re brittle and hostile but the reality is that caring about women’s equality and caring deeply about social justice is the opposite of hate. It’s about being filled with love for other people, for the world and for what you think the world can look like.”
Besides, she says, getting into her stride, it’s not as though she’s ever hidden her softness. “I’ve always been in this lane. I’ve written quite a bit of memoir, about my mother’s death, about grief, resilience and motherhood. So I haven’t really changed direction but people haven’t wanted to see that side of me because once you accept the hardcore feminist is a human with fears and vulnerabilities, you might actually have to listen to what she has to say instead of writing her off as a shrew.”
Still, handing the keys over to love was a lot harder than Clem imagined it would be.
“I made the mistake of thinking it would be easy to write this book because there was no research involved, it’s just my story. When I wrote Boys Will Be Boys, I spent hours enmeshed in researching these horrific circumstances of sexual violence and patriarchy and then had to go home and be a loving mother to my 18-month-old son (he’s now five). Carrying around that trauma is tough. But what I found with this book is that when you don’t have research to hide behind what you’re really saying is, ‘I’m going to bare my soul and hopefully you’ll find it moving but also a bit funny’. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position to be in.”
Particularly when it came to spending time with what she calls her “selves” – 15-year-old Clem in the painful throes of her first crush, the 20-something trying to navigate an intense friendship with a woman and a 30-something struggling with “mother rage”. “I’m raising a newborn on my own, I haven’t slept for days, I’m trying to feed this baby who won’t stop screaming and I haven’t got anyone to help. In my head I can see myself throwing the baby against the wall. Of course I don’t but it’s the scariest thing that no-one ever talks about because there’s so much shame surrounding it.”
And then there’s the teenaged Clem who lands a coveted gig in an ice cream parlour in a small UK town where her British mother and Australian father have recently moved. In a chapter entitled “Sweetie”, Clem is groomed by a toxic male boss, years before the term #MeToo entered our lexicon.
I tell her I cried reading that chapter, having been in an almost identical position in my first after-school job.
“That’s the thing about this book, it’s incredibly relatable,” she says. “I wanted this book to resonate with anyone who’s ever been in love, lost love or been hurt by another human being. Basically anyone who moves through society. I hope this book feels like a hug in a time when we need it most.”
It’s such a splendidly Clem thing to say, but her mission was also to debunk the “condescending fairy tale endings” many of us are fed as young girls.
“There’s no happily ever after in this book the way we’ve been taught – that once a woman has met her soulmate, she’s made it. That’s rubbish for most people and a belief that can trap us into a life of service for someone else.”
Instead, Clem believes we should expand our concept of what love is and the kind of love that makes us happy. For her, that’s a love of family, friends and her son “that’s so much richer than any romantic love I’ve ever experienced”.
Whatever your view of Clem, she doesn’t lack courage. Given the softer nature of this book, the haters have been quieter than usual. But that could be because Clem has pretty much excused herself from the toxic Twitter table.
Her infamous 2020 tweet about men not dying fast enough from Covid (in reaction to an article about gender disparities in parenting children during the pandemic) was like catnip for the social media pitch-forkers, who called her a man-hater, a frigid, bitter old bitch and an ugly, hairy lesbian. She subsequently apologised but it was enough to warn her off the platform she calls “the most toxic public space on earth”.
“It was a terrible tweet and I shouldn’t have made it. I only go on Twitter now to retweet something and even then the trolls have a go. One of the best things I ever did for my mental health and output was to get off Twitter which means I wake up every morning without wondering what the fight is going to be today.”
A bit like her latest novel, life these days is much softer. “As I enter my middle years, I’m stepping back a little and making space for these amazing young activists coming through. We need new blood and new voices and I’m so proud of these young women.”
It’s why, on this rainy summer day, Clem is all about joy. “I want to focus on things that make me feel good about myself – things like growing a balcony garden and cooking, usually something from Ottolenghi.”
She’s also playing with ideas for her next book, probably another essay collection, and lamenting the fact that she can’t travel to Aotearoa. She was due to appear at the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts in March, speaking about love alongside women such as Dr Siouxsie Wiles, as well as holding court at Miramar’s Roxy Cinema where she’ll be talking about her books, her life and whatever the heck she wants. Instead, she’ll be beaming in by Zoom.
“I really wanted to come over, because I love Aotearoa and have a connection through my son. But closed borders mean dirty Australians like me can’t enter! I’m glad I can be part of the festival, but as soon as those borders open, I’ll be over.”