Here are a few occasional comments on the twists and turns of Pat's writing life, and on the world of words which absorbs us all.
Was it really ten years ago that I first drove out to Winton in the far west of Queensland, to check out the Australian Age of Dinosaurs project? This was when I was researching ‘Unearthed’, the fifth and final book in my Annie Bryce series. I was able to visit the site of their current dig, witness a large hunk of dinosaur being unearthed – to the excitement of all the diggers (and me) – and see the ‘prepping’ of the fossils in their laboratory, a tin shed on a stunning mesa overlooking the vast red plains of the outback. All of that arrived between the covers of ‘Unearthed’.
What a difference ten years can make! The tin shed is still there, but in that time the Australian Age of Dinosaurs project has received significant funding, built a reception area with an excellent auditorium, and constructed a gallery of terrifyingly authentic dinosaurs along the edge of the mesa – you reach that via their shuttle bus. Plans are going ahead for their Natural History Museum on the same site. All very professional but the excitement and enthusiasm are still there in spades.
Winton has a vibe all of its own. Proud home to the birth of Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda, it’s a vibrant town at a five-way crossroads. Everyone shares large tables on the footpath outside the pubs, and you meet all sorts of interesting people. It’s become a sought-after destination for making movies, and why not with that crystalline light, and the vivid reds and greens of the outback?
Revisiting Winton reminded me how much I enjoyed writing my series of Queensland-based novels – and how much I learned in the process.
I have just discovered the novels of Liz Byrski, who had an impressive track record in journalism and the media before she took up fiction writing. Based in Western Australia, she’s an older writer who focusses how people, particularly women, live the later years of their lives.
I was intrigued to read that she was inspired by just one novel: ‘All Passion Spent’ by Vita Sackville West, first published in 1931, tells the story of a widow in her late eighties who is finally free of obedience, dependents and obligations, finally able to buy the house she always wanted and to live the life she always wanted. I remember reading it many, many years ago, and the mixed emotions it stirred – glad for the widow but appalled that she had to wait (and live) so long to reach for her rainbow. As with many of the Bloomsbury novels, it was a parable.
And so it has been for Liz Byrski. Sackville-West’s parable has by now inspired her to author ten novels about contemporary Australian women negotiating with husbands, lovers, children, grand-children, parents, in-laws, siblings, friends and work colleagues to take some time out of their busy lives, to try to remember who they are, to try to shape a different future.
All of which goes to show that inspiration for writers may not be very far away. You just have to recognise what you can do with it!
Arthur Miller was an extraordinary writer. I’ve just seen a filmed version of the Old Vic’s production of ‘All My Sons’, his play which first opened in 1947 but is as fresh and relevant today as it was then. How do you do that? I suppose it’s all about focussing on the ‘eternal verities’ – the human dilemmas that never change – which are always trotted out to explain Shakespeare’s enduring appeal.
Miller also has a knack of dragging us into worlds where we don’t want to be, uncomfortable places full of self-doubt, anguish and conflict, but compelling enough to immerse us completely in his scenarios. I have always thought his lead roles were absolute gifts to actors at the top of their game, and so it was in this production, watching Sally Field give the performance of a lifetime.
This production was part of the National Theatre Live series, which films stand-out productions in the U.K. and beams them into cinemas around the world. They are must-sees in my diary.
I recently saw the newly released film Celeste, set in the fantastic Paronella Park outside Innisfail. The photography is outstanding, and perfectly captures the brooding mood of this unique place – and the larger-than-life story is a good match for the star of the show, Paronella Park itself. It must be about a decade ago that I was there, when I was poking around North Queensland looking for fodder for my fourth novel Destination Tribulation. I was entranced – with what it was, how it came to be and what it is now. Needless to say, Paronella wormed its way into the story; here is my protagonist Annie’s response to it, out of the pages of my book:
‘Paronella Park turned out to be a sort of contemporary ruin – an uncompleted castle built by a homesick Spaniard who came to North Queensland to cut cane. After a few years he returned home briefly to find a Catalonian bride, and together Jose and Margita set about building a fantasy in the steep, secluded Queensland rainforest – a romance of grand staircases, turreted towers, tea houses, even a theatre for movies with a suspended mirrored ball. Twenty years after Jose Paronella first arrived in Australia, his “pleasure gardens” were opened to the public. Over the years it was beset by floods and fires, but the family laboured on, building and rebuilding, and planting thousands of trees which today stood proud, erect and splendid along the formal paths… It was simply enchanting …
‘… Margita could hardly have known Jose Paronella when he swept her away from home and family to the other side of the world. Nearly a century ago she found herself in the remote uninhabited rainforest of North Queensland, drawn into the back-breaking work of constructing an impossible dream – and someone else’s dream at that. The resilience of women never ceased to amaze me. I found myself hoping that Margita had fallen so passionately in love with Jose that his dream became her dream …’
Celeste should remind us all what riches our vast state has to offer the arts.
Right now I’m into collaboration. I’m working with a team to produce a small history of a property, and what’s been going on there since it was first purchased in 1859. Lots! It’s had a very interesting career so far. And we’ve all learned a lot in the process.
We’re a team of eight, all retired volunteers, which means we were all something else once: that includes an architect, a doctor, a pharmacist, two administrators, a radiographer, and a couple with interests in local history. I’m the editor (hey, that means I have the last word, as I keep reminding everyone!). Being retired, we also have many, many other commitments. Some of us have research skills, some have people skills, some have persuasive skills, some are good with photos and some have critical skills. Overall, we tick most of the boxes. That doesn’t mean we’ve contributed equally, but we’ve all done what we can. It’s been an interesting exercise, and like all team initiatives, it needs a persistent driver to keep it (and the team) on track. That’s me.
The text is complete. The proofreading is done. The photos are collected. The copyright issues are solved. The funding is in place. The finishing post is in sight. Now starts the long trudge … from inspiration to publication. I will keep you posted. Once this book is published, I will probably bury myself in my study and luxuriate in the solitary life authors normally live …
In December 2018 I – along with many other Queensland writers – submitted my books for the ‘Adaptable’ project. A joint initative of Screen Queensland and the Queensland Writers Centre, the project is seeking Queensland-based material to adapt to the large or small screen. The submission guidelines specified max 400 words, part pitch, part synopsis. With 5 books to pitch and describe as a series, that was a teeth-grinding challenge! I opted for a broad-brush account of the characters and the series and a thumbnail of each book, and finally came in at 398 words. Then I hit ‘send’ and crossed my fingers.
How did I go? I was delighted to make it on to the long list of 40, but I’m not on the short list of 25, who now have to pitch in person at a marketplace of screen professionals in March. I believe the project is looking for about five projects to develop.
It’s not just the writing that’s ‘adaptable’. What about the writers? We have to be hermits, happy to sit in solitude often for months or years, tapping away to create our imaginary worlds; then we have to turn ourselves into entertainers, marketing our books through launches, talks, media interviews; and now we have to convert to masters of the hard sell, pitching our ideas hard and fast to the tough world of film and television. Good luck to all 25 shortlisted writers! This would be a truly daunting experience for most of us.
Gravestones, birth certificates, faded photographs … that’s the stuff of family history, which has invaded my life for the last year. I didn’t know much to start with, and what I thought I knew turned out to be mostly wrong. What an amazing cast of characters I have uncovered! From the well-kept secret of g-g-g-father Joseph who was transported in 1829 for his second offence of larceny, to g-g-father seaman Richard who first set foot here as a cabin boy of fifteen on the ‘Flying Cloud’ in 1863 and ended up as a Councillor in Warwick, to the implosion of the family tree when g-g-g-mother Jane’s oldest daughter married her second husband’s younger brother (work that one out!). What a resourceful, energetic bunch they’ve turned out to be, not to mention prolific – I have unearthed hundreds of second cousins and beyond.
Piecing their stories together (with the aid of the invaluable Trove and Ancestry) has been an exercise in sleuthing, full of surprises and a lot of fun. We’ve produced a little publication for that side of the family, with copies for all the agencies which have been so helpful along the way – family history is all about standing on the shoulders of others. That’s been keeping me busy this year.
A couple of years ago The Australian Dictionary of Biography requested me to write the biographical entry for Professor John Willett, the first Vice Chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland. I had worked there in management for most of his tenure in this position, had known him well and admired him immensely. My first instinct was to decline: as the ADB is the definitive source of information on prominent people in Australia, this would be an awesome responsibility for a person of his stature. It turned out I was the latest in a long line of former colleagues they had approached who felt the same. Years earlier I had written another entry for the ADB on a Brisbane headmistress so in the end I agreed, because I knew what was involved and I felt we owed him so much.
I have never put such an effort into such a short piece of work, which was supposed to come in under 1000 words. The ADB finally published all 1800 words of the article I sent them with a note pointing out that he had not lived a 1000 word life – they couldn’t find anything to edit out either!
The ADB, housed at the Australian National University in Canberra, brings out a new volume every two years; it is produced in hard copy for libraries (although I believe this is being phased out) and is of course also available on-line. It is invaluable to researchers. There is no payment to authors, many of whom are employed as academics. What motivates the rest of us? I suppose it depends on the subject you’re asked to research. In this case, I felt it was an honour.
Christmas is almost here again – I hope yours is a very happy one, followed by an even happier new year.
Have you seen the film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas?’ – which relates how a broke Charles Dickens badly needed to make some money in a hurry, and ran up his enduring classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a few weeks to get it published for the Christmas market. He made it – just!
Any writer would relate to how this book came into being – the writer as bowerbird, the writer as voyeur, the writer trying to fit these jigsaw pieces together, the writer being haunted by partly-formed characters who refused to do what they were told, and eventually the writer as businessman. Writing fiction is a baffling process for some of us. It’s never clear to me exactly who is in charge!
Enjoy the festive season and find time to keep tapping …
My sixth novel ‘On the Edge’ has been out and about for over six months now, and readers’ responses are trickling back to me. This is a fairly simple tale set in Townsville; it’s a chronological narrative that follows the fortunes of a few characters who have been unfortunate in life, exploring the consequences of the choices they have made. Told in the third person, it deploys few of the literary weapons from the arsenal available to fiction writers. That’s probably because it started life as a short story before it decided it ought to be a novel.
Most readers tell me they engaged with the characters and enjoyed the book. Some found it hard to put down (music to my ears – that’s always my goal), but I know a few who didn’t make it to the end. One criticised the dialogue as ‘too American’; others found the dialogue realistic. Some mentioned how they liked the ending; others mentioned that they hated the ending; some thought the action could have been stronger and more violent; others found it unnecessarily cruel.
How does that old song go – ‘different things to different people’? It’s a reminder that we all read in the context of our own lives and values, and – as many book club members have discovered – that often means we might as well be reading different books!
Feedback and criticism are very important to writers, but there comes a moment when you just have to remember that it’s your work, and in the end it’s your call. You can never please all the people all the time.