Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…
There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming). Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories. Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.
Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review). She asked Kate about landscape in her works. Grenville said that imagination can work from very little. The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences. One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand. But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard! But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes. In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer. Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been. Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees. She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing. (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!) But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).
Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading! So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill. Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words. She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in. The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag. She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines. It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being. Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.
The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed. ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations. These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on. What happens when the secret comes out? That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill. She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’. Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.
The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white. Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another. There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant. When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction. She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today. Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review). (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’. Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories. How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance? But I digress…)
So why historical fiction? Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present. But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation. ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.
She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are. In this way books become very personal things.
She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre. I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance. Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA? Why was it marketed thus? Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat. It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?
One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing. Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot. She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her. What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong. Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story. Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others. There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection. Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.
Finally, the common thread that runs through her work? ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.