Publish and Be Damned The story behind ‘The River Ophelia’, a post-modern novel about domestic violence

Text: Justine Ettler

Every writer views success differently. Some are happy with good sales, others crave stellar reviews and awards. Still others need respect. I left Australia for London in 1997 sighing in exasperation; respect had been in low supply. While I was a household name, my notoriety had damaged my literary reputation and my academic career. It began a long phase of my life that I see now as something akin to self-imposed exile.

While self-publishing means risking mainstream visibility, it allows me to finally declare that I refuse to let my rollercoaster past shut me down.

With a new novel Bohemia Beach forthcoming from Transit Lounge, it makes sense to get my backlist in order after two decades of book publishing silence. And yet Bohemia Beach, with its allusions to addiction, passion and art, and its post-modern references to works like Wuthering Heights, is more a commentary upon than a continuation of what went before.

There are other encouraging signs. The family violence campaigner Rosie Batty was made ‘Australian of the Year’ in 2015. Nicole Kidman dabbing make-up on her bruises in Big Little Lies is just one mainstream example of a renewed conversation around domestic violence, while the popularity of the Fifty Shades franchise revealed the level of women’s interest in S&M. The #MeToo campaign signals that perceptions about sexual harassment are changing; that women can shift the conversation.

Today, for a few thousand dollars, I can not only control the media release and change the cover to my liking, I can finally set the record straight – The River Ophelia is a postmodern novel about domestic violence. I can also acknowledge the scholarship which has defended it.


Ophelia was a publishing sensation in 1995. With a marketing campaign that was the envy of many an established author. It’s first print run of 10,000 copies disappeared in under a week. With months on the 1995 bestseller lists it sold over 50,000 copies placing it in the top ten highest sellers in Australian publishing history.

The novel was loved in The Weekend Australian Magazine where it spearheaded a literary movement, and hated in The Sydney Morning Herald. Everyone had an opinion about it – even those who hadn’t read it.

I became the first novelist in Australia to sign a two-book deal with a mainstream publisher (Picador) for their literary debut. There were TV interviews and posters on building site hoardings and telegraph poles. I made over $110,000 and was recognised wherever I went. I even had my own groupies.

The book was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, won best cover design and filmmakers like Geoffrey Wright and Jane Campion wanted the rights. It was on the HSC syllabus and widely taught at universities. But did I feel successful? No.

Nine years, a BA and an MA in Writing, and a lot of hard work, had gone into writing two novels by the age of 29. A contract for my first book, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure with a small publisher faltered when they encountered funding problems. Five years later, having completed a second novel, Ophelia, I signed a two-book deal with Picador in 1994 for both works. After signing, they insisted on bringing Ophelia out before Marilyn despite my protests. Ophelia was the one they wanted.


Both novels featured protagonists named after famous women – ‘Marilyn’ as in Monroe, and ‘Justine’ as in de Sade. But reading The River Ophelia first meant readers remained ignorant of my trademark trope and would be more likely to read it autobiographically. Publishing successes like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) had proven the commercial value of a well-marketed debut: first impressions equaled only impressions.

I would always ask myself what might have happened if Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure had been published first? Readers would have known me as the author of an experimental novel who named her protagonists after iconic women. Marilyn, however, would appear as my second book in 1996, and not the kind of book my Ophelia readership expected.

So when I relocated to the UK, I hired a London lawyer to break my contract, getting my copyright back and pulling my books from print; something no writer ever does anywhere, anytime. Period.


Last year I started work on the new edition of Ophelia by looking at fragments… after a week relief flooded through me; I remembered what I’d been trying to do all those years ago. I was able to see the book for the first time for what it actually was: an ambitious second novel. It wasn’t perfect, but the electricity of the writing endured, as did the audacity of my intentions and technique. Taking on not only the literary canon but institutionally entrenched misogyny. The older me couldn’t help shouting, ‘bloody well good on you love!’.

Nevertheless, I hesitated. What about the sex scenes? I knew they had to be there, but could I put them back into print? I’d been mocked and harassed in almost every job since Ophelia came out; an academic colleague described the novel as pornography in front of my examiners; students passed around postmarked copies of Ophelia at the back of lectures; and several journalists expected sex after interviews.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Ellis’s American Psycho. But as authors we share certain experiences: we both became notorious for tackling the taboo of misogynist violence and sex in unconventional ways (Ellis by adopting the point of view of the perpetrator, me for writing from the victim’s perspective). We also had to endure having our experimental novels lumped in with our realist peers in artificially created marketing categories. In hindsight, both novels were trainwrecks of the corporatisation of the publishing industry; part of a disturbing trend where literary novels were exploited for profit.

While excerpts of American Psycho were leaked by Ellis’s publishers to the media prior to publication and he was then asked to cut four scenes, I was asked to pose anonymously nude for Ophelia’s cover with the understanding my identity would later be leaked to the media. We both, for different reasons, said no.

There was little I could do about the naked lady cover, which suggested the novel was erotic when it wasn’t, or the way my feminist intentions were ignored in interviews.

But getting myself and Ophelia onto the front of The Weekend Australian Magazine was open to negotiation. Refusing to give the required autobiographical account behind the book, however, meant that the only way I could keep the magazine cover was by allowing the journalist to create a literary movement from my peers: we were the new faces of Grunge Lit; and I became the so-called “Empress of Grunge”.

Ophelia deserved to create a stir. It broke the rules of what you could say at the time, to say things that desperately needed saying but which no one wanted to hear: women victims of domestic violence were just as incapable of leaving as ever. Being educated or a feminist wasn’t enough. As the informed reader knows, the trauma bonds created by abuse require treatment before victims can finally leave. ‘Justine’ only escapes once she begins therapy.

When The River Ophelia appeared again in these last few weeks, Susan Wyndham, the former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote: “Two decades later this daring debut novel and its author still have my respect.”

It was actually an email from an academic complaining of the difficulty of getting copies for her writing program that gave me courage to open the door. The contract for Bohemia Beach walked me through. A new book and an old book out in the same year.

Exiled or not, I never gave up.

Justine Ettler, 'Ophelia' book launch, 2018. Justine, smile, holds the new edition of her book.

Justine Ettler, ‘Ophelia’ book launch, 2018

Justine Ettler’s 20th anniversary edition of The River Ophelia is out now. Her latest novel is Bohemia Beach is released by Transit Lounge.


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