Posts Tagged ‘Gillian Mears’

SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘have we got a story for you’. Right from an opening ‘address’ that was performance rather than talk from story-teller Daniel Morden, which you can listen to here, the tone was set.

My highlights:

1. James Wood’s finger drumming. (Oh, and his thoughts on Winton, Stead, Carey, Naipaul, Sebald, Franzen, DeLillo, Austen, Auster, Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis (winner of 2013 Man Booker International), and his love for Keith Moon’s drumming.)

2. Novelists Edward Rutherfurd and Hannah Kent ‘sparring’ with Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala on the nature of truth in history fact and fiction. I say ‘sparring’ because at times they seemed to be in agreement: Rutherfurd argued history students should be made to write a short story every term so they can visualise the past rather than recite mere facts and figures. Dabhoiwala responded by saying he has his students write the history of today or tomorrow in order to show them that writing history is indeed a matter of perspective and selection. I’ll be writing more on historical imagination soon.

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a literary gentleman, talking lovingly about old book stores, the art of translation, the fact his Shadow of the Wind series will never be made into films because it would be a betrayal of the books. What resonated most, though, was him urging us to resist the ‘cultural deforestation’ underway at the hands of global technology companies.

4. The annual book design panel, with design luminaries like Hall of Famer W.H. Chong from Text Publishing, which you can read more about here.

DSC03676 - Saturday sun

Saturday sun @ SWF

5. The Silent History story ‘app’ as one possible future avenue for e-books. Purely digital, its serialisation is nothing new — Dickens and others used to sell stories in the same manner. But the geo-delivered ‘field reports’, which are an adjunct to the serialised story and which you only receive to your phone or tablet if you’re standing within 10 metres of a particular point, is exciting. They can provide a sort of fictional walking tour of places you visit.

6. ‘Love and laughter’ with Graeme Simsion and William McInnes. There was plenty of both. When he was bored working on an old TV series, McInnes used to write disturbing fan letters to fellow cast members! Simision wrote the screenplay for The Rosie Project but couldn’t find funding for the project, so asked his agent if writing it is a book would help, to which the agent said, ‘Only if it’s a bestseller’. The rest as they say is history. The movie rights have been optioned, and there are two book sequels in the pipeline as well.

DSC03668 - Saturday sun at SWF

Sun-spangled waters @ SWF

7. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists, and in particular Majok Tulba, a Sudanese-born Aussie, with a wonderful smile and charming nature, who spoke of how he came within an inch of becoming a child soldier, and how that experience inspired his Beneath the Darkening Sky; how a friend in a refugee camp showed Majok a book and told him there were machines you could speak into that made your voice into a book; and how, despite the struggle  to learn English, the real struggle was to get the painful images of civil war onto the page.

8. Gillian Mears discussing Foal’s Bread. Heart-rending and heroic. I’ll never forget it. For more, click here.

9. Daniel Morden’s performances, both the opening night ‘address’ and his (unbelievably free!) rendition of (most) of Homer’s Odyssey. There was good reason the likes of Cate Kennedy were in attendance to hear the epic tale retold. It was spellbinding stuff, proof of the power of story-telling and of aural story-telling in particular. If it goes up on a podcast, check it out. Also, Morden has put many stories, including The Odyssey into book form for young (and young-at-heart) readers.

DSC03688 - Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

10. Talking books against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour under clear skies (on the weekend at least!), with the amazing Vivid Festival adding even more interest for both locals and visitors after dark. In response to The Guardian’s quip that Sydney doesn’t do rain well (true) Carlos Ruiz Zafón said that Sydney was beautiful even in the wild rain we had on Saturday night. As for sunshine…well, we do that pretty well!  

Did the Sydney Writers’ Festival have a story for us? No. It had hundreds of them, enough to sustain us until next year’s festival. The 2013 edition was a resounding success for new director Jemma Birrell. Congratulations to her and her team. And a huge thank you to all those blue-shirted volunteers.


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SWF LogoI hope you’ll forgive me a little indulgence, but I want to share something special. Today I had the rare privilege of seeing Gillian Mears in discussion with Bruce Pascoe at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). I say rare because this was Mears’s first speaking event in Sydney in sixteen years. (The privilege speaks for itself.)

Introduced by Jane Palfreyman, head of Mears’s publisher Allen & Unwin, Gillian read from her critically acclaimed and much loved Foal’s Bread (my review). It was so lovely hearing her read. The tenderness in her writing was palpable in her voice and her curt laughter at our laughter as the kids played at being horses. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.

Bruce met Gillian many years ago and recounted how she was shocked by gender inequality in writing back in 1984. Mears said that growing up in Grafton, a country town in the north of New South Wales, played a big part. Grafton was her ‘fields of praise’. It was always full of horses.

Foals Bread by Gillian MearsBruce showed us a photo in an old Meanjin in which Mears was standing on the back of a horse. The horse was Bellini, ‘the last mare’ of Mears’s life. It was Bellini that diagnosed her MS first. She knew something was wrong with her before anyone else. We often hear that such-and-such a book couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Well, Foal’s Bread could not have been written by anyone else by Gillian Mears.

In the novel, Roley is struck by lightning three times. Bruce wanted to know whether this was an evocation of bad luck. Mears said that many Clarence Valley horsemen had been struck more than once and lived to tell the tale. She thought she had to use this in her story. It’s so hard for us not to equate, as I think Bruce was alluding to, the injustice of Roley’s condition and Mears’s own. The conditions they have share much in common; so too the dreadful theft of the ability to ride horses.

Pascoe brought up her eye for details, offering an example from an earlier work The Mint Lawn, in which a boy shakes spit out of a trumpet. Again referring to Grafton, Mears recounted the lovely anecdote of the moment she went to send in the manuscript, which meant going to the undertaker’s (as that’s where the photocopier was!), and dealing standing behind a desk with a man all dressed up in white shirt and bow tie who was from the waist down wearing only his ‘jocks’ because it was so hot! These details sum up Grafton, she said.

Mears worries about the state of humanity’s influence on the natural world. Aboriginal wise men have said when we begin to control the wind, that is the end of the world. She felt this acutely recently when she read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He writes such heartbreaking endings, she said. But even in the grey ending there is a sense of hope, some chink of light that Mears herself seems to reach for. And of course, McCarthy wrote of horses so well too.

The sensitivity of Mears to indigenous people is clear. She told the story of some aboriginal boys at her school (where the principal wore white shoes and a purple suit!), who got into the roof of the girls’ toilet to take a peek. It was hijinks, said Mears, but the principal had boards nailed over the roof and the boys were trapped overnight. It wouldn’t have happened to white children, she said. There is still a level of ignorance in the wider community.

When asked about the Eastern spinebill bird, Mears spoke lovingly about being enchanted by the grey butcherbirds of the Clarence River Valley. The Sydney butcherbirds, by contrast, can’t quite get their song going… it sounds more like a clattering – it must be, she said, all those jumbo jets!

Of course, MS was never far from everyone’s thoughts today. Mears has searched high and low for a cure. She spoke of the freedom of paddocks that you could put a horse in to recover from a condition. She went in search of that paddock, both figuratively and literally. What she found were so many gates in the landscape. It took her a long time to find the large paddocks. She spoke of camping in the northern coast of NSW, out in these paddocks. After a time she would be ‘moved on’ by the locals. It gave her the mere but painful inkling of how Aboriginals must have felt to be ‘moved on’ from their land in years gone by.

Returning to Foal’s Bread, she said she was given a foal’s bread by her sister, which dried into the shape of a heart, like the one in her novel. She had been gathering fragments of story for years as her body began to crumble, finally summoning the supreme effort to pull all these fragments together to form the novel.

She recounted writing out in the wilds, at a mobile desk she would set up, how on one occasion she spotted a red-bellied black snake slithering along the ground nearby. It looked as though it was headed off, but when she looked down again it was beneath her chair. To much laughter, Bruce asked: How did the writing go? It was a challenge to stay still, she replied!

Aside from encounters with deadly snakes, writing outdoors wasn’t very practical. And yet, how she misses the wilderness. She spoke of how cold river water used to be an ‘elixir’ for her legs. She once had the unique experience of swimming in such a river, and being joined by a mother platypus and its young. The image is a soaring one, isn’t it? She admitted how she so misses that contact with the wild world, like that one, like grey thrush visits.

Bruce asked her about Noah’s baby and the butterbox, a harrowing event in Foals’ Bread’s opening. She said Noah had no choice, that the act of the butterbox was one of mercy in a way, more merciful at least than other options that would have achieved the same outcome. It was a ‘lamentation for her life’. Given Mears’s change of heart over euthanasia it’s hard not to sense Mears’s own life in those same hands.

I am glad I ran out of ink at the session’s end; the audience had gone to a place where words couldn’t hold our collective emotions together, and I suspect any words I’d have written would have run on the page. Our ovation was heartfelt and long-lasting. Mears was and is heroic. She has moved all of us with her words and stories; today she moved us because of who she is.

I’ll leave the last word to her. After paying tribute to her sisters toward the end of the session, she described herself as a sheoak. Like the tree, she is best after rain, she said, when reaching for the light.

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My Irish convict forebear, James Boland, died falling from a horse, (fortunately after he, like a good Irish Catholic, had numerous offspring, one of whom led to me). Perhaps that is why, when I went for my first (and only) horse ride a few years back, ironically in the northern New South Wales hinterland where Foal’s Bread is set, I was terrified of falling off. Perhaps it was in my DNA. And even though I think horses are the loveliest animals, I had since assumed that nothing would ever persuade me to get back on one again.

There has been plenty said elsewhere about Gillian Mears’s Foal’s bread—and rightly so. Recent winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction—as well as some other major Australian literary prizes, including the ALS Gold Medal—the story has an intriguing structure and narrative style, both of which I wanted to focus on given the weight of plot summaries that exist elsewhere. There is a short ‘preamble’ of some two-and-a-half pages, in which some unknown narrator introduces us to the setting of One Tree Farm and the horses that run across its bitter ground, ending with a warning, to ‘watch out you don’t cry’.

There is a troubled heart at the centre of this book. It belongs to Noah (Noh), who, when the story properly commences in 1926, is a fourteen-year old girl giving birth to her dead uncle’s baby in the creek of the farm that would, by coincidence, one day be her home. Unable to see how she might keep the boy, she places it in a butter box and pushes him off into the waters and watches it disappear, all the while knowing that though it may vanish from view, the scene will play over and over in her mind for the rest of her life. Though she has had the most appalling initiation into adulthood, she is a spirited girl with a gift for horses—in particular: riding them over high jumps. Soon she’s making waves at the local fairs, despite her itinerant father’s alcoholism.

It was while riding a horse at a local fairground that her future husband, Rowley (Roley) Nancarrow spots her. Roley is the Australian horse high-jumping champ. Though much older than Noh—and against the wishes of his forceful mother, Nin—he eventually marries Noh and takes her back to the extended family’s home: One Tree Farm. The single tree is a jacaranda, beautifully depicted throughout the novel, from ‘antique seeming grace’ through to a ‘purple cloud’. The evocation of the harsh and unforgiving landscape is something that Mears does so well.

I spent much of the time reading thinking about the narration. The preamble is an unidentified omniscient narrator, or so it seems. The bulk of the story is written in what I could only call ‘multiple close third person’. There’s also a strange widening ‘aperture’ as we move along: at first we have Noh’s point of view and then Roley’s, but after their daughter Elaine (Lainey) is born the number of points of view start to increase and by the end we are getting into everyone’s head. In lessor hands it might have been a disaster, but Mears somehow makes the flitting in viewpoints work. The reason is, of course, the power inherent in the story itself. It gripped me and wouldn’t let go. With the pain that Noah carries from her upbringing, there was bound to be trouble later in life. She and Roley share a joyousness in their initial union, but so many plans go to waste after Roley is (again!) hit by lightning and begins to suffer debilitating health problems. I couldn’t help but think of Mears’s own health battles as I read—the sadness of having to give up the thing that defines him: riding horses. But the real debilitation comes in the form of a lack of communication between Roley and Noh. There’s no outlet for erroneous perceptions and cruelling resentments. These are very flawed characters and perhaps that makes them all the more real.

The final ‘act’ of the three-part structure is a ‘coda’, which … hmmm, while lovely in its own way, may not have been necessary. Enough said; I don’t want to give anything away.

Foal’s Bread is not a ‘fun’ read—there is violence against people, against horses; there is incest; there is hardship. But all of that is perfectly architected; it is not gratuitous; it has its place. Moreover, there are moments of great joy. The exhilaration of horse jumping leaps off the page. Overall, it is a deeply affecting and rewarding read. And yes, by the end, I was wondering how I might find myself a horse and give it another go. That said, I think I’ll leave the jumps for the Nancarrows!

Lisa at ANZLitlovers enjoyed Foal’s Bread, as did Sue at Whispering Gums.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears


Allen & Unwin

353 pages

ISBN: 9781743311851

Source: the local municipal library

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