Kate Grenville: “I was about to stop writing”

Kate GrenvilleI was thrilled to interview Kate Grenville, while trying hard not to trip over myself with the eagerness of a fan. Her books are beautifully written and convey a powerful Australian presence and history. Her book, Searching for the secret river, is a fascinating account of the evolution of a novel and the personal quest underlying it.

It was great to find that someone whose work you admire is such a nice person to talk to. She spoke  about the qualities needed to be a writer and what a challenging life it can be. At one point she was ready to give up being a writer because she could not make a living and was not getting the acknowledgement she needed to continue.

You need to enjoy your own company for hours on end. For the long haul of a novel you need to be able to be alone with your thoughts and not need anyone’s input. You need to be able to operate with  a very high threshold for uncertainty because a novel can take years and you don’t know if you’ll have a publishable novel at the end and you need to separate your creative or imaginative work from the need to make a living, not to try and make a living at your creative inner life – that gets very confusing

What is it like winning big prizes (she has won the Orange Prize for The Idea of Perfection and been shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Miles Franklin prizes)? Did it change her life?

The Orange Prize did change my life because I was about to stop writing … I couldn’t afford to go on writing. So I thought I have to listen to what the world is telling me … nobody particularly wants what I am doing. When I wrote The Idea of Perfection it was received in Australia to resounding silence, it didn’t do well. I thought alright that’s it, that’s my last novel, I’ll give up writing.

When a year later the book won the Orange Prize it gave her money and it encouraged her to keep going although by that time she had written most of The Secret River.

Her descriptions of the Australian landscape in her books are striking and I asked her about the importance of the bush to her. She loves the bush and grew up with her family camping out while they built a house, which took many years, going there every school holidays was the best time . Now she has 100 acres of bush and her own bach. When she feels particularly oppressed, she loves driving out there and “some dark thing just rolls away”

Kate’s writing is very sensitive to the issue of Aboriginal Australians. I asked her what she thought about the question of  ownership of a story particularly between cultures.

It’s very important not to tell other peoples’ stories for them particularly if the subject is as uneasy as the colonial heritage. I would never choose to tell an Aboriginal story. We took everything from them, to take their stories seems like the last indignity. I’m careful never to try and get into the heads of my Aboriginal characters or try to tell their stories. These are absolutely the stories of white fella Australians looking at Aboriginal Australians and trying to make sense of them.

When I was writing The Secret River, which was the first of a trilogy, I knew in a way how I was putting my head in a noose because I was writing about a subject in Australia which is still emotionally charged.

She grew up thinking Aborigines had basically died out and was not aware of meeting an indigenous person until she was in her twenties. She expected controversy because they do go head on into the heart of Australian white fella sensibilities.

Her connections in New Zealand include a great great uncle who was a sealer and lived on Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) with his Maori wife and children. Visiting Southland several years was like a pilgrimage into a rather dark bit of family story and it made her feel very connected particularly to Stewart Island. The New Zealand dimenson of Sarah Thornhill actually confronts the issue of stolen generations because when her great great uncle and his wife drowned, their two little girls were taken to Australia and raised away from the only culture and family they had known.

What kind of a relationship do you have with New Zealand?

I feel very warm towards New Zealand. There is something about the people I really respond to. I think its a quality of not worrying about what the rest of the world thinks, particularly in writing and just getting on with producing extraordinary things because you are not worrying  ‘are we world class’ .  You are doing something unique and doing it unselfconsciously.

Do you find yourself being pigeon holed as a historical writer?

I’m not a historical writer, I write fiction set in the past. To me there is a very important distinction. I’m not intrinsically interested in recreating the past, I’m actually writing books about today, the problems that we have today and the reason that we have them today is because of what happened in the past. I’m telling a story about yesterday but the reason I’m writing it is about today. So I resist that label historical novelist. If you look at my books, perhaps only one of them, maybe only one or two of them are not set in the past. I hate being labelled because I don’t enjoy reading historical fiction by which I mean a certain kind – like making a diorama of the past… I would much rather read history than to read that. So I’m writing fiction, its just that its set in the past. I do a huge amount of research so its accurate in general terms.

Have librarians and libraries been important in your life?

The school library at my primary school happened to be in the boys section … I needed a note every time I wanted to go to the library which was every couple of days because I got through books very quickly. That library was a bit of a lifeline for me and the librarian there was very supportive. My local council library also was fantastic. I remember wanting to take out some adult books at an age when I wasn’t an adult and the librarian preparing to say that’s not allowed and changing her mind … I remember her stopping and thinking and saying oh well alright and that was fabulous because I was interested in reading beyond my age. I owe a great debt to libraries and librarians.

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