Family history is turning out to be addictive. My father’s story was written in collaboration with my brother, who did most of the research. Once again we were amazed at what we uncovered – such as quite close relations living nearby who we never knew existed. Why not? We simply have no idea. On both sides of our family, whole families migrated from England to Australia in the 1800s after a couple of intrepid siblings came over to check it out and reported back – pack your bags! Our father was born in Brisbane in 1891, just a few months after his grandmother, then his parents and two older siblings had arrived to join the advance party. Dad effectively had two lives: a long, carefree bachelorhood before committing to marriage and family when he was approaching fifty – and commit he did. It has been very gratifying to fill in all the gaps and leave a little legacy about their heritage to our younger generations.
Well, lots of water under the bridge in 2019 swept along lots of theatre, cinema television and books, all avidly consumed. What stod out?
The Australian Opera’s ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’, a little known opera by Rossini had a short season at the Sydney Opera House – such an imaginative production! So much talent on stage! So breathtakingly beautiful to the ear and the eye! So funny! How lucky was I to get to see it?
On the big screen, the NT Live filmed production of ‘Hansard’ was unforgettable. A new two-hander play beautifully crafted by Simon Woods, the characters and story gradually unfolded in brilliant performances by Alex Jennings and Lindsay Barker. On the (so-called) small screen I was transfixed by ‘Years and Years’, a mere short step into an Orwellian future with Emma Thompson totally convincing as a fascist Prime Minister spinning out of control.
On the printed page David Hill’s ‘1788’ gave me new insights into the colonisation of Australia – thoroughly researched, a valuable contribution to Australian history.
What pleasures our creative artists give us. What lies in wait in 2020?
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.
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.
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.
What indeed? I only wish I had the answers for the increasing number of self-publishers who are coming my way. Suddenly writing the book seems like the easy part. Getting your work out there demands a completely different set of skills, not to mention cast-iron confidence and nerves – and preferably lots of money you don’t need! These days it’s not just self-publishers facing these problems: I understand established publishing houses are now discussing their authors contributing to more striking covers, better paper stock etc etc – to give their new book the best chance.
It is no accident that Bryce Courtney has been one of Australia’s biggest selling authors. That’s because he was a highly successful advertising executive – over time, he became Creative Director of three major Australian advertising agencies. He made a mint. He was able to pay for adverts for his books on the backs of buses trundling around all our capitals. He gave away at least 2,500 copies of each of his books to admirers, to pass on to their friends. And look at the result!
Some people are much better at selling than writing. Others (myself included) are the reverse; we come out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of ‘publicity’. So we just do the best we can. These days I’m happy for my books to be stocked in libraries and to be sold off Amazon. Money trickles in, so I know my readers are out there, and I can get on and write something else. That suits me fine.
Family history, I am learning, is full of surprises, not least that one branch of ours stretches back to Ireland – news to us all. Aiming to tackle my total ignorance about the Irish in Australia, I picked up a battered book called just that by Patrick O’Farrell. By the time I finished the second paragraph of the introduction, I had to collect my breath: what an intellect! Here are a few of the excerpts that had my head spinning:
… ‘Precisely who, and what, shall be called up from the ranks of the dead? Those Irish and that Irishness that came to Australia? that Irish Australia they found and made there? their descendants?’ … ‘an elusive complexity rules …’
… ‘The Ireland of 1900 was a whole creation away from that of 1800’ … ‘these were ambivalent, ambiguous people, thinking Irish, talking English; hating the tyranny, serving the tyrant’ … ‘each arriving Irish generation brought a new phase of Irish experience, its Ireland frozen for it at the moment of departure’ …’within Australia a procession of Irish histories, Irish comprehensions, proceed at once’ …
Rich reads are not always easy reads, and Professor O’Farrell’s history is no exception. This is a book to be savoured, certainly not skimmed.