Category: Writing

Talking to Tom Keneally

A couple of weeks ago I went to Sydney, partly to do a talk about From the Wreck at the Thomas Keneally Centre. The Centre, at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, is a wonderful little retreat from the lunacy of the Sydney CBD, and they’re perfectly happy for you to pop in and browse Tom’s library, or just hang out quietly on the couches. They also host regular lunchtime talks with authors. If the line for a slice of Black Star strawberry watermelon cake is just too long at Kinokuniya Books, maybe go hang out at the TKC instead?

Tom was in residence on the day I visited. He’s so great! If you run into him at an event or the shops or whatever, have a chat with him. He’s a really good bloke. His daughter and fellow-novelist Meg was also there, and she’s great too! She teaches SCUBA and she has seen lots of octopuses and we talked a lot about octopuses.

Anyway, their volunteer video bloke, Phil, thought it would be a good idea if Tom interviewed me on camera for a few minutes after my talk. He asked me the best questions. Here it is:

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From the Wreck – the history of a history

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.

Admella

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.

ADMELLA-WRECKI 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.

 

10 terrifying questions

Hello! Here’s an interview I did with Booktopia a while back, and which they’ve just published. They asked good questions.

In writing news, I think I’ve just finished the first draft of something new. You’re probably not supposed to say that; I’ve doubtless cursed myself now. Anyway, I’m excited about doing draft two.

In reading news, 2016 has been superb. Have you heard about that Elena Ferrante? Holy cow, those books are good. I have one left to read. And I also read Ali Smith’s How to be both and it’s my favourite thing in a long time.I just went and bought a copy at Readings St Kilda so I can read it over to try to figure out how she does what she does.

And in unrelated news, I saw the Flaming Lips last night and that reminded me how much I would like the things I write to be like the songs they make. I have no idea how to do that.