Two sessions on the first day of the festival were of particular interest for me because they dealt with that bridge between what we classify as ‘fiction’ and ‘non fiction’ in relation to telling the stories of family members who are no longer alive. Are we ‘thieves’? Whose stories are they?
Patrick Gale, an English novelist was interviewed about his recent book, ‘A Place Called Winter’. It is clearly considered to be ‘fiction’. The main character, Harry, is based on Gale’s great grandfather. Gale read a passage from it that started dramatically with a wet dream – certainly a good way of grabbing our attention! Harry’s daughter, Gale’s grandmother, was a great influence on Gale’s early life. More recently, when Gale’s mother died, he was left a chest of drawers full of letters between his mother and grandmother and an exercise book, in which his grandmother had sketched out her life. Gale put the letters in sequence and ‘joined together the dots’.
I was particularly interested to learn how a writer uses family members as a model for fictional characters – and in this case a sequence of events that actually happened. Harry really was sent off to Canada to work on the prairies. How accurately do you report? How much do you invent?
Gale mentioned that although the telephone existed in the early 20th century, letters were used for reflection about life, so the letters he was left provided a treasure-trove of detail about how and what these people thought. He described a ‘fault line’ that seemed to run through the women of his family. He said, ‘I honored all the facts I knew’. But a lot of the book is ‘ventriloquism’: he sees an Edwardian world through his great grandfather’s eyes. He had two photographs of Harry; one as a young man, the other as an old man, and ‘a few letters’. Because of the constraints of Edwardian times, Gale can’t be certain that Harry was gay, but he thinks it is likely: ‘a tap on the knee under the dinner table leads to a tumult of emotion’. He gave the character Harry a stammer. There were no labels, ‘they never call a spade a spade’. Gale found these constraints useful, but said that a lot of his rewriting involved removing ‘un-Edwardian’ thoughts.
Gale undertook research – he found lists that shops on The Strand gave young men who were travelling to the colonies – often quite unrealistic with no consideration of the harsh conditions they would face. Fascinating was research into the beliefs of the local (Canadian) Indians who believe a child with ‘two spirits’ is a third gender, neither male nor female. He said he found it difficult to depict the deplorable racism of the Edwardian English – there were many parallels with the European settlers’ treatment of Australian Aboriginal peoples. ‘Ventriloquising’ for Harry, Gale had to remove his own anger (to be true to the times) but allow the reader to be angry. Gale spent several weeks living in a cabin located as close as possible to the now-deserted settlement where Harry had lived. He did this to get an accurate picture of the fauna and flora – the smells, the feeling. Gale said that it wasn’t until his third draft of the book that he went through the text asking: What will the reader feel at this point? What will the reader know at this point? Important questions that all writers need to keep in mind.
For me, there was a useful segue into Kate Grenville’s session on ‘One Life: My Mother’s Story’. Grenville is well known as a fiction writer, but for this book, classified as ‘non fiction’, she sticks to the facts as much as possible. So in this session, once again, a writer is focusing on the life of a family member. In this case, it is a family member who Grenville knew very well and loved. In her meticulous way, Grenville produced 30 drafts of this book before publication. Grenville’s mother was a remarkable woman, born in 1912, of a generation of women who were expected not to work. Yet she married, raised children and had the unusual profession (for a woman in those days) of pharmacist. Grenville believed that her mother’s story should not be forgotten and indeed said she believed her mother expected her to write a book like this – but not because she was a trail-blazer, or famous in any way; because she represented what some ‘ordinary’ women did, but didn’t articulate.
Grenville was interviewed by historian Clare Wright, who asked, Whose voice was in your head? It was the mother’s voice. Grenville had kept tape-recordings and stressed that it is important ‘to write as we speak’. And was she concerned about discovering ‘dark secrets’? Grenville said that her mother had spoken frankly about sex. She knew she had had an affair. She knew she had had a contraceptive cap fitted – quite difficult to arrange in early 1940s Australia. But, she said, some things have not been told. Grenville seemed almost obsessively concerned to be accurate and respect privacy. She talked about ‘the stories we are entitled to tell’. She said that she wrote the book ‘as a fellow woman with my mother’ and quoted Oscar Wilde: ‘By the time you’re an adult, you forgive your parents’. Although, from what she said, there wasn’t much that needed to be forgiven.