On 6 August, 1859, the steamship Admella was wrecked on Carpenters Reef, about 1km off the coast of South Australia. It had left Port Adelaide the previous day, making its regular trip to Melbourne. One hundred and thirteen people were aboard – 84 passengers and 29 crew. For more than a week the wrecked and broken ship was stuck on the reef, its inhabitants slowly dying from hunger, thirst and exposure. Many attempts were made to rescue them, but terrible weather and bad luck meant every effort failed. Finally the wreck was reached by a lifeboat from Portland, Victoria: 24 people had survived the eight-day ordeal. Among them was George Hills, my great-great-grandfather. George had been washed off the boat during the first moments of the wreck, but was rescued by Soren Holm, an able seaman from Denmark; Holm drowned soon after while trying to reach shore and raise the alarm.
After his rescue, George, who was 24, married his fiancée Eliza Ridge; they had eight children including their youngest daughter Sarah, who was the mother of my grandmother, Nancy Bradley. George Hills died in 1916 at the age of 83.
Since 2009 I have been trying to write the story of George Hills. Richard Flanagan has spoken about those family stories that just nag at you until you get them written – his resulted in ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, which I really didn’t like and which made me wonder if writing ‘the story that needs to be written’ is a bad impulse and that I should give it away.
For a while I did, but then last year I decided to start all over again and rewrite the story from the perspective of an alien creature, seeking refuge on Earth after her own planet had been ruined by human terraforming. Suddenly I started caring a lot more about the whole thing – as well as a story about trauma it became a story about learning to treasure these sweet little lives we’ve each been given, with all their awfulness and disappointment and smallness. It also became a story about our relationship with other species, one of my favourite obsessions.
I know it’s traditional to wait until a book is published to acknowledge others’ contributions, but the way I see it the main thing is finishing the book, not getting it published. So I would like to note that I had so much help getting to the end of this project. My husband, Andy, is amazing – he really gets why someone would bother to waste their life plugging away at a piece of art that may never matter to anyone else. He also noticed that octopuses are probably from another dimension: that was very helpful.
Members of my family – particularly my mum and my uncle Andrew and cousin Cath – had already done so much of the research legwork before I even started, and cared enough about the story of the Admella to make me see its potential. My mum has read this novel in all its forms and the final version is probably her least favourite, so it would be nice if a real historical novelist would write this story for her in proper historical novel form: thanks! Marlee Jane Ward listened to me thrash the idea out of my head and into some kind of storyish form and said it was something that would work. Jane Ormond, Rose Mulready and Bridget Weller have been, as always, my stalwart writing companions. Charlotte Wood and Alison Manning ran a two-day workshop that helped me get my brain in the right shape to write this thing. My late uncle John – who knew about Australian history – fixed my terrible historical errors, encouraged me to keep going and shared a lot of plates of cheese-on-toast with me. Rose Mulready, Rose Michael and Patrick Allington all read drafts and made the thing so much better than it would otherwise have been.
I finished the final version in July. In August, Transit Lounge agreed to publish it. I am so grateful that Barry Scott, Transit Lounge’s publisher, exists and will take on strange genre-smearing work like mine. Here’s his description.
“Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (May 2017) tells the story of George Hills, who survived the wreck of the Admella steamship off the South Australian coast in 1859. He is haunted by the spirit of a fellow survivor, Bridget Ledwith. Both real and transformative this is a novel imbued with poetry and feeling: a woman from another dimension seeks refuge on Earth and a little boy holds the entire history of another planet in his head. Like Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth it evokes an existential loneliness.”
The writing bit is over. Here comes all that other bit.