Humour sees Kathy through some of her darkest days

Australian novelist Kathy Lette is still playing it for laughs – and comedy has helped her face personal anguish. Grace Hammond reports.

Kathy Lette
Kathy Lette

SHE’S been nicknamed “the mouth from the south”, thanks to her quick-fire humour, endless line of put-downs and hilarious one-liners.

Keeping up with Australian wit Kathy Lette, whose best-selling books include Puberty Blues, Mad Cows and How To Kill Your Husband (And Other Handy Household Hints), can be an exhausting experience.

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In the last 10 years Puberty Blues has been made into a TV mini-series, she has sold the rights of To Love, Honour And Betray to the BBC and Emily Mortimer has bought the rights to her novel The Boy Who Fell To Earth.

A former TV sitcom writer for Columbia Pictures, more recently Sydney-born Lette penned some of the dialogue for the 500th episode of The Simpsons. A busy woman – but there are no trips to Hollywood on the schedule.

“I love Ian McEwan’s line about Hollywood – that you go there and lie by a pool while people betray you,” she says.

Today, she’s still spouting off acerbicly about men’s weaknesses and women’s strengths, banging the drum for women’s rights through her satirical prose. Is there any sign of mellowing?

“Oh, darling, no!” she exclaims. “It’s unseemly. I should have mellowed by now, but no. I’ve actually got a little bit wilder.

“I’m 54, and have found that once you hit menopause you just become so liberated.

“I’ve swung off more chandeliers in the last couple of years than I ever did.”

She even tried to spice up a rather stuffy royal polo event by jokingly offering to French-kiss Princes William and Harry when she was presenting the trophies, causing great hilarity among the royals. You can almost imagine her husband’s eyes turning skywards.

“I thought ‘I’ve got three decades of fun and frivolity left in me if I’m lucky’, so the now or never thing kicked in.”

Lette, who is married to human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, with whom she has two sons, Julius and Georgie, plays for laughs but behind the fireball of fun is an extremely astute, sharp and political woman.

“If you can sugar-coat your message with humour, you’re much more likely to have an impact,” she says.

Her latest book, Love Is Blind, is a bite-sized novel written as part of the Quick Reads charity’s campaign charity, which is producing six new titles by famous authors in an attempt to hook reluctant readers.

Lette’s contribution is about a woman who moves to the Australian outback in search of a husband, to the horror of her sister Anthea. When Anthea receives a wedding invitation, she travels down under to try to stop her sister’s latest crazy plan – and ends up taking a walk on the wild side herself.

In typical Lette style, she shows how women stick together when the chips are down and that not all men are idiots (but some still are, naturally).

Being serious for a few moments, Lette explains how writing has in the past been a salvation while going through personal anguish, when it was discovered that her son Julius, now 21, had Asperger’s Syndrome.

She went public on the subject last year in her novel The Boy Who Fell To Earth, which told the story of a boy with the condition.

Julius was diagnosed when he was three, after he had stopped talking. “When you get a diagnosis like that it’s like a cold knife sliding into your heart,” she says. “You are just in the dark. The first thing that happened was denial. I ricocheted around the country seeing every expert I could.”

Her husband could compartmentalise things to get on with everyday life, but she couldn’t. She kept sane by writing.

“I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I escaped into comedy at the worst times. It’s a defence mechanism. If you can crack a joke, you don’t have to strip off your emotional underwear.”

Lette now sees the positive aspects of her son’s condition – many people with Asperger’s have a very high IQ (she describes Julius as “Wikipedia with a pulse”) – and that with the right help they can have a very productive life.

She has had many hilarious moments with Julius, who cannot filter his thoughts and says what he is thinking irrespective of social acceptability.

“He can’t lie – he just speaks the truth all the time. I took him to 10 Downing Street once, when he was 11 or 12, and introduced him to Tony Blair. Julius said, ‘Ah, you’re the one my mother calls Tony blah, blah, blah’.”

For her next novel Lette moves on to the setting of London’s Law Courts and she promises it will be characteristically “female-led, funny and feisty”.