How wanting to have a child took over Australian writer Julia Leigh's life

Julia Leigh at Jimbaran restaurant, Randwick. Her latest book is about her attempts to have a child through IVF.
Julia Leigh at Jimbaran restaurant, Randwick. Her latest book is about her attempts to have a child through IVF. Photo: Louise Kennerley

The myth of the "miracle baby" is a familiar one - the woman in her late 30s, 40s, or even 50s who finally conceives after years of IVF treatment.

Far less often do we hear the stories of women who desperately want a child, undergo painful and expensive IVF procedures and then experience the grief of giving up.

Australian writer Julia Leigh never thought that would be her story. As a university student, she scorned women who sought fulfillment through having children.

But when she started a new relationship in her late 30s, the desire to make "our child" took a sudden and fierce hold of her for the first time.

It is Leigh's great, unshakeable love for her longed-for baby that is at the heart of Avalanche, her new book that details her critical account of the IVF industry and unsuccessful attempt to fall pregnant.

Now 46, Leigh started writing the book in Bali shortly after making the decision to give up on becoming a mother, and for our lunch she has picked one of her favourite hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Java, in Randwick.

When we arrive, however, there is a sheet of paper stuck to the door informing us that it's closed. A disappointed Leigh takes me a short distance up Avoca Street to another Indonesian restaurant, Jimbaran, which is empty as we sit down.

Leigh, who lives in south Bondi, wanted to go to an Indonesian restaurant because she thinks Indonesian cuisine is under explored, particularly given the country is one of Australia's nearest and largest neighbours.

We pick to share the vegetarian curry, deep fried eggplant, steamed vegetables with peanut sauce and a stir-fried water spinach dish. We order iced coconut drinks and deep-fried corn fritters as a entree.

Advertisement

It's probably her eye as a film director and author, but Leigh seems distinctly conscious of our surroundings. She worries the light will not suit the photographer, points out the kitsch decorations in the restaurant, asks if a noisy young group that sits near us will affect the recording of the conversation.

The daughter of a high school maths teacher and a medical researcher, Leigh grew up on the north shore as the eldest of three daughters. She studied arts and law at the University of Sydney, where she edited the student newspaper Honi Soit and journal Hermes.

After graduating, Leigh worked in the business affairs department of the Australian Society of Authors. It was through the society's mentoring program that she met Australian writer Frank Moorhouse, a relationship she says included many long lunches at the Bayswater Brasserie in Potts Point.

Leigh published her first book, The Hunter, to critical acclaim in 1999. The novel is the story of the search for the last remaining Tasmanian tiger and was made into a film starring Willem Dafoe​.

After winning the Rolex Mentor and Proteges Arts Initiative, Leigh was partnered with Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison, who mentored her as she started writing her second novel Disquiet.

"I actually don't really think writers can be helped so I don't expect a miracle cure," Leigh says. "But it's very comforting to have somebody whose work you respect then read your work and essentially say 'it's good, keep going'."

Leigh made her debut as a director and screenwriter with the eerie film Sleeping Beauty in 2011, which divided audiences at the Cannes Film Festival but was distributed to more than 60 countries.

She has worked on other scripts since then under a pseudonym, deciding only to put her name on films that she has full creative control over as writer and director.

Avalanche is her first non-fiction book.

Leigh did not keep a diary during the years she underwent IVF, but started writing soon after she stopped treatment so she could capture her feelings "before they were blanketed by time".

"In a funny way, this book felt incredibly necessary to me. This is always the test. The writer asks herself: is this truly a story worth telling?" she says. "And in this case, it was a yes, definitely this is a book I really want to write mainly because I feel there is so much IVF failure out there and it's not really spoken about."

Leigh's desire to have a child was sparked when she reunited with a man whom she had shared a brief romance with as a university student nearly two decades earlier.

After his vasectomy was reversed, the pair tried to conceive naturally. When that failed they decided to start IVF treatment, but the marriage collapsed.

Leigh wanted to continue the treatment on her own and when her former partner withdrew his consent for his sperm to be used, she sought new donors and eventually found a generous friend willing to help.

The desired baby was not a real child, Leigh explains, but it was not unreal to her. In the book, she describes it as a "desired and nurtured inner presence... a presence that could not be substituted or replaced".

"I became so focused on this desire to have a child that it really took over over my life, not in a positive way," she says. "It definitely impacted on my work life and work opportunities, I couldn't travel at particular times, I turned down a lot of opportunities to be honest."

A place of hope turned into one of desperation, with endless injections, clinic visits and a growing realisation that maybe she would not get her "miracle baby".

"I found it incredibly hard to face defeat. This was a dream. I had a great fear of what I loosely call the abyss. Facing that abyss was incredibly hard. Giving up is very hard," Leigh says. "The key question I had to ask myself was what am I really afraid of? There's no simple answer to that, but it's a good question."

Light needs to be shone on the uneasy marriage of commerce and medicine in the IVF industry, Leigh says, how false hope is nurtured, how onerous the treatment is and how heartbreaking the decision to call it quits.

While she wondered if sharing her story was career suicide, she felt she had already lost so much that she no longer cared what others would think about her. The experience has given her an unusual freedom.

"There are many, many women who are on this difficult, lonely journey and I guess I wanted to offer a shared aloneness to people who I know are thinking about doing it, who are doing it, or have given up," she says.

Leigh does not use the word regret in the book or in our interview, and she has found immense joy in being an aunt to her four nieces and nephews.

"It's very hard for me to unshackle myself from the great love that I would have for my own child, but I hope to sort of transform that openness and willingness into other ways of loving."

Whether she will stay in Australia in the long term or continue pressing change in the IVF industry, Leigh does not know. The word career, she tells me, is a verb - as in, to career around - not a strategic plan.

"I hope this really kickstarts a lot of conversations, with people coming forward talking about their treatment. I hope this brings into light that there is a huge among of failure in IVF. I guess we'll just see what happens. I don't really have a plan."

While she does not give much away, Leigh says she is working on a script, which she also hopes to direct.

For the first time, she is renting an office where she can go each day to write. It is a strange-shaped space in Charing Cross in Waverley, she says, with minimal decorations aside from a sofa and a desk.

"I just wanted to see what it would it would be like to go out, leave home, go somewhere else and come back home. Work infuses my whole life. My creative life is my real life, so it's hard to separate."

Julia Leigh is a guest at Sydney Writers' Festival, May 16-22, swf.org.au