Secrets (and lies?) at Wellington Writers and Readers Week

Cover of The Secret RiverKate Grenville appeared at an Auckland Readers and Writers festival a few years ago, talking about The secret river, a book based on the stories her mother told about her great-grandfather Solomon Wiseman, who was transported from England and “took up land” on the Hawkesbury river.

Grenville’s family’s eyes glazed over at these stories, but in 2000, walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge in a Reconciliation March, Grenville looked down, imagined a convict ship off-loading in the harbour and wondered – how did Solomon Wiseman “take up land”? Wondering led to The secret river, and, while at that Auckland Readers and Writers festival talking about the book, she climbed Rangitoto.

While she was climbing, a voice spoke to her with a synopsis of a novel and its first lines. She had nothing to write on except the brown paper bag her lunch came in, a bag she produced triumphantly on the stage at the Embassy in 2012.

Cover of Sarah ThornhillThe novel was Sarah Thornhill, and it features the story of Solomon Wiseman’s grand-daughter, a six-year-old Maori girl who was plucked from her family on Stewart Island after her parents died. To research the book Grenville visited The Neck on Stewart Island, as she believes novelists have to visit the place they are writing about, as a matter of respect, acknowledgement and humility.

Her books question everything about being a white Australian. In writing them Grenville says “let us not forget this”, but she has been attacked by the ‘commentariat’ annoyed that historians don’t sell many books, whereas writers of historical fiction do. Obviously really smarting from this criticism, Grenville gave some opinions I hope I’m reflecting accurately, opinions shared by a few fellow authors who also talked about historical fiction, but not by others.

Ron Rash seemed to be a kindred spirit as they both used the Faulkner quote “The past is not dead. It’s not even past”. Grenville said she writes fiction about the present set in the past; Rash said his book The cove was written about what is happening now in America, set in 1918.

The three ’emerging’ writers who were all writing books set in the past felt that just rendering time and place is not the point of  writing historical fiction. When Peter Carey wrote The true history of the Kelly Gang he “made it all up”; when Michael King reportedly suggested that Maurice Shadbolt distorted the historical record, Shadbolt’s’ reply was “it’s true if I say it is”.

I’m not sure what I think. Where does history end and the novel begin? Should history be registered in a “contemporary poetic”? Is voice the most important thing?