What will I take away this year from Adelaide Writers’ Week? One of the visiting writers, Ian McGuire, when asked why he writes, quoted John Cheever: ‘I write as a way of making sense of my life’. Yes, I thought, that’s what I try to do.
I spent quite a lot of time not attending the talks on the banks of the River Torrens. It seemed better to savour a few things than to come away crammed with a confusion of wisdom. This allowed time to attend some of the concurrently running Adelaide Festival: plays, concerts and two excellent interviews/panel discussions on The Secret River and Richard III, conducted by David Marr.
I attended (and years ago had read) Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, I had recently read Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom and I have become particularly interested in how writers might use a little-known historical incident as the starting-point for a piece of fiction – most of the sessions I attended related to this interest.
Armando Lucas Correa uses the story of the ship, St Louis, which, just before World War II transported Jewish families from Nazi journey to find a safe haven. But they were turned away from Cuba, Correa’s home country, from New York – with its vibrant Jewish community – and other places, to have to return to Europe, to countries such as the Netherlands, which were later occupied. Many of those Jewish families seeking asylum ended up in Nazi concentration camps. Correa has created a young girl on that ship, who happens to be the same age as his own daughter, and he tells the story of those families through the eyes of the young fictitious Hannah.
Glaswegian Graeme Macrae Burnet found intriguing documents when he was researching his family history: medical reports and court transcripts of a murder trial in 1869. A seventeen-year-old youth wrote a lucid confession to three violent crimes. Why? The context is a remote crofting community where stoicism and violence may have been the only way to respond to feudal conditions and grinding poverty. One of the characters sums up what is explored in Macrae Burnet’s book: ‘One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone’. The book, His Bloody Project, was short listed for the Man Booker award.
Hannah Kent found a short newspaper article one day when she was undertaking some other research. In the early 19th century, in Ireland, a woman was tried but ultimately pardoned for a drowning murder because she believed that she was dealing with a changeling – a child brought by the fairies and substituted for another child. This led to Kent’s book, The Good People. Kent spent 6 weeks in Ireland, going to the place where her story is set, walking through the muddy fields, learning some of the expressions used in the isolated communities of that time. From a brief newspaper article a vivid depiction has unfolded of a life governed not only by faith in God but, with poverty so grim that a doctor can’t be afforded, with spirits and superstition.
Ian McGuire studied the journals of surgeons on whaling ships to inform his book about mid 19th century whaling in the Arctic region, The North Water. The book is a thriller, but not a ‘whodunnit’—we know from the first chapter that Henry Drax committed murder. There is an abundance of smells, suggesting that Drax is like an animal, moving through a world of smells as animals do. He is also animal-like in that he lives in the present moment, with no sense of consequences. McGuire grew up in Hull, where the book is set – it has changed greatly since those whaling days, but his familiarity with the town helped him to recreate it in an early 19th century context.
Although it is set in the past, the interviewer did not dwell on this aspect of Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom. There was greater interest in her treatment of domestic violence, which indeed is a central theme of her book. Zoë said that her main character ‘just appeared on the page’ one day when she was doing a writing exercise. Presumably her vivid accounts of performing a Rachmaninov concerto come from personal experience, as Zoë is an accomplished pianist.
Two other sessions that I particularly enjoyed were Caroline Baum’s discussion of her recently published memoir, Only, and Paula Byrne’s discussion of research into the life of Jane Austen. Caroline, an experienced journalist, mentioned how refreshing she finds it to write in the first person – something that is pretty much taboo for journalistic reporting. I was hooked when she read from her prologue, using the metaphor of a triangle as the situation of an only child – there are pointy ends, things don’t mesh together. Caroline mentioned that a life of privilege can in many ways be a handicap for a writer. Now she has had to tackle the fact that her mother doesn’t agree with all that she’s written, and grapple with the possible fallacy of memory – we think we remember something accurately – but is it accurate?
Paula Byrne has written several biographies of Jane Austen. From her talk I got further insight into Austen’s genius. Byrne said, ‘nothing Jane Austen does is an accident’. For example, the way characters play the piano has a purpose. The Real Jane Austen is organised around objects: each chapter begins by focusing on an object, such as a cashmere shawl. Byrne stressed that as a young woman Jane Austen was playful and naughty – not the demure young lady that the Victorians described, and Byrne emphasised Jane Austen’s independence and feminism – her female characters think for themselves, they don’t defer to men. Byrne is sure that Jane Austen could have married – in fact she turned down one poor man pretty much on the day of the wedding. She may have been anxious about childbirth, or she may have realised that as a married woman she would have less freedom to write.
Something quite different, though, was the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Harrower. How exciting that today we could see this 89-year-old writer, right there on the stage in Adelaide, and feel connection with the Australian literary canon. Harrower had attended the first Adelaide Writers’ Week in 1960. She used to have long phone conversations with Patrick White! She is a survivor of the generation of Patrick White and Christina Stead. Being there reminded me of musicians who, through their venerable teachers, have links to Liszt or Beethoven. After tremendous success as a young writer in the 1950s and ’60s, Harrower stopped writing when a manuscript was rejected by a publisher – she locked it away in a library and it was retrieved only recently by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, who was her sensitive and intelligent interviewer on this occasion. In some ways we writers of today may feel that things were easier in the 1960s with so much less competition, but there also wasn’t support. It seems that back then there was no one to tell Elizabeth that she was right to think her writing good and that she should have persisted and not given up with the ‘rejection’. Fortunately, Text Publishing came along 50 years later.