Elwood Writers recently held its Winter 2018 Soiree at St Kilda Library in Melbourne. Over four blog posts, each of the writers will tell us more about the work they presented at the event. We begin with Jennifer Bryce.
It’s daunting to get up in front of 30 or so people – even when they are friends – to read your own work. Daunting because what you’ve written is something of your own creation; you are vulnerable – you can see the response of the audience – it’s more immediate than receiving a critique (or a rejection notice) for something you’ve written.
But the experience of reading in a public setting is extremely valuable. We usually read work out aloud in our writing group meetings because we find that hearing our words brings out different aspects of a piece. You might have read a piece to yourself several times – but things jump out when you hear the words rather than just look at them. And when you know that it’s to be a public reading, you go through the work with a fine tooth comb.
Earlier this year I started work on my second novel. It is connected to the first (which is at present doing the rounds of publishers), but not necessarily a sequel. Publishers would classify it as historical fiction. For our Soirée I chose to read the very beginning of this new book. One reason for choosing the very beginning is that it should make sense to listeners without requiring any explanation.
I love to immerse myself in early 20th Century history – I’m intrigued to understand the world that existed just before I was born. In my new book a young woman travels to London in the 1930s to take up a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. So much happened at this time: World War II was brewing, Edward VIII was about to abdicate in order to marry a divorced woman (he also had Nazi sympathies), radio had developed and people liked to ‘listen in’ to news broadcasts and concerts.
My protagonist has completed a diploma at the conservatorium in Melbourne, but she is naïve to the extent that the trip to London on board the Strathnaver is indeed a rite of passage. She isn’t modelled on any particular person of that time although a few years earlier pianist Eileen Joyce had left Australia ultimately to become a celebrity known in films and on gramophone recordings as well as on the concert platform. Other young women, such as composer Miriam Hyde, also ventured overseas at that time because Australia was seen as a backwater and you had to study overseas to ‘make it’.
For the Soirée I divided the first chapter into two parts. In the first part, the ocean liner leaves Melbourne. The young musician is alone and she watches the coastline as the ship steams up Port Phillip Bay and through the heads. I have never travelled by ship, so I had to read memoirs and talk to people who had had the experience of a liner pitching in rough seas, sea-sickness, the layout of a large steamer. I found useful photographs on the Internet. In the second part, my protagonist has met one of her cabin mates (she is travelling tourist class and has to share a cabin with strangers) and they have dinner in the tourist class dining room. This part was assisted by an old menu I had from the time when my mother was taken overseas by her parents in 1939. Compared to today’s menus, the food was stodgy and plain – Brown Windsor Soup, roasts, caramel pudding.
I know, from experience, that this chapter will change a lot before I consider the piece to be ‘finished’ – indeed, is a piece of writing ever finished? But the challenge of reading at our Soirée meant that I gave the all-important opening chapter special attention.
My first novel took several years to write. I hope that the process will be a little shorter for my second. One thing I’m sure of is that in a year’s time the piece I read at our Soirée will be different. I hope that in a year’s time I will have finished a complete first draft of the novel. Even though I have a plan, it will change.
At the Soirée I enjoyed the opportunity to play some music. Playing the oboe is an important part of my life and I’m in a chamber group: Trio con Brio. Our flautist has been unwell, so we were Duo con Brio: oboe and ’cello. We have found that some of Bach’s Two Part Inventions for keyboard work very well for this combination because Bach gives an interesting line to both treble and bass – it’s not a case of the ’cello plodding away and the oboe having all of the fun. We enjoyed playing some of these pieces in between literary items.