Notes on a paper bag and 24 drafts: Kate Grenville

book coverYou can’t help liking a writer who has spent four days in town and has clearly got out and about to explore. Kate Grenville, whose session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival this morning was a smasher, has popped in to festival sessions, visited Sumner (admiring the view back to the mountains and the lenticular cloud display yesterday), walked to the South City Mall, visited Central Library Tuam and has been wearing a vibrant knitted scarf throughout which she picked up in the Worcester Boulevard market.

Kate Grenville, with Owen Marshall as chair, talked about her writing process and the historical and personal background to her work.  An inspirational place to start is Searching for the secret river, the book about how she came to write The Secret River:

No cure for the bite of the past.

Her latest book Sarah Thornhill has dramatic connections to New Zealand. She was thinking about a followup to The Secret River but had not written anything when she visited Auckland and climbed Rangitoto. There she had an”oogyboogie moment” when a voice spoke to her and dictated the outline of the book and the first two sentences. This is not something that usually happens to her. She wrote it down on the only paper to hand – her lunchbag , which she produced.

One of those sentences is about the little half Maori girl who arrives on the Hawkesbury River after being taken from her home in Southland after the death of her parents:

None of us knew how to say her name so we called her Betty

This story is the heart of the book for its impact on Sarah Thornhill who realises the wrongs of the massacres of Aboriginals and stolen children like Betty cannot be repaired but at least the truth can be told. This is Kate Grenville’s philosophy too.

Kate  did indeed write 24 drafts of Sarah Thornhill, by draft 12 she had a sense of the book and could continue to shape it. She encourages people to write because you really want to know what happens and worry about your audience later.

This was a great session from a writer who believes “pbooks” will endure but embraces ebooks as well. Fans of her work will be pleased to know there is another book underway based on her mother’s memoirs of her family. It is struggling to take shape but anything is possible with Kate Grenville.

“We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people”: The secret life of the novel

The Secret life of the novel at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a “let’s have a look under the hood” examination of the process of writing. It worked well with Owen Marshall in the chair and Aussies Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville and Kiwi Emily Perkins on the panel – they’re all teachers of writing.


Kate likes Bernard Malamud’s statement “I don’t teach writers, I teach writing”. She encourages her students to write playfully, and not to worry about grammar or the market. It is important to “give people permission to speak with the voice that is uniquely theirs”. Sue’s classes are unusual in that students don’t read their work aloud. She thinks it is important to help students “stumble upon something they almost didn’t dare say”. In Emily’s classes, students read each other’s work out.


Owen asked the panellists about reading. Sue said “books parented her”. She loved Enid Blyton, and families not as weird as hers. Kate loved Captain W.E. Johns (Biggles) though says it was “the most appalling tripe”. She made an interesting distinction between “reading as a reader” and “reading as a writer”. Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out was a revelation to her as a writer: “It’s not that good”.

Emily felt a bit the same about reading some of Katherine Mansfield’s earlier work (such as The Tiredness of Rosabel): “You can see the workings … so unlike what she came too” in terms of authorial voice. For Emily

When I think of my childhood, I think of books.

Camping holidays as an adult are a revelation, because now she looks at the landscape whereas before she’d have had her nose in a book.

Fixations and character and research

Emily: “I’m really interested in how we construct ourselves … I find character in fiction so fascinating. All the different alchemies that go with writing and reading … We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people … Character is made on the page. I don’t see hard lines around them …”

Sue: Characters are more a consciousness … “at the end I give them hair and eyes … I don’t create them, I collude with them … they are like imaginary friends.”

Kate:  “There is something quite spooky when character takes over …”

Kate: “I resist the term historical fiction. I avoid it like the plague …. Research shows the contradictions. It doesn’t make sense but I know it happened.

Writing and the arrival of ideas

Emily: “You enter a bubble .. the skin of the world of the book is all around you.”

Kate wrote the outline of her new story on a brown paper bag containing her lunch. Has written ideas on a opened up Panadol packet at a kid’s birthday party.

Sue writes down odd phrases, bits of sentences.

Emily has documents in a computer, and has been known to text ideas to herself if she has no paper.

How to get writing and calm your inner editor

Emily: Just write. “You can’t fix nothing”.

Sue: “I was just writing, I wasn’t trying to make a novel … scene after scene, it made itself into a book … Sometimes the dialogue is right, but it’s been given to the wrong character … Everything is fluid.”

Emily: “Everything is malleable until the last minute”.

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.

Double happiness!

Double HappinessIt’s my Double happiness time! I get to blog on another literary festival and it’s The Press Christchurch Writers Festival right here in Christchurch. I’ve been on the blog team for this event twice before and each time the earth moved.

Third time lucky.

It was only after I’d submitted my selections of preferred events (from my very readable and striking lime green Festival booklet) that I realised I’d chosen only easy-on-the-eye male authors who’d apparently all been born under wandering stars – seems this festival is about the importance of Place for me. See for yourself:

  • Aaron Smith: Shanti Bloody Shanti (An Indian Odyssey)
  • John Lanchester: Capital (London) and Fragrant Harbour (Hong Kong)
  • Chris Cleave:  Incendiary and The Other Hand (Great Britain)
  • Joe Bennett: Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works (the whole world)

There’s no way I could live down a totally male line-up, so I added some ladies to the mix:

The main character in The Secret River gets to the heart of the importance of Place in our lives with this quote:

A chaos opened up inside him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground … He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.

How about you, do you have a place that you’ve fallen in love with? And when can we expect to see the book?

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?