What a shock to realise that Meggie Duthie Tulloch, red-haired gutting girl of the North Sea, came into the world, bookishly speaking, 10 years ago today.
It just doesn’t seem so long ago to me. I still have my Elemental corkboard on the wall of the studio, with its herring and puffins and girls elbow-deep in farlins of icy fish; its shawls and creels and fishing boats; its sea-boots and gannets. They are as real to me now as ever they were, as alive as Kate’s studio in Montparnasse, as Little Jock’s family in the slums of Glasgow, as the world of the novel I’m writing now. (Which is a good deal hotter than any I’ve ever lived in, in words or in life.)
Thank you to anyone who has ever listened to Meggie’s voice on the page, to those who took her into their hearts. And to Terri-ann White and UWA Publishing, who believed in her enough to publish Elemental.
Meggie, recalling the place of her birth:
I am seeing with the eye of a bird. There’s a coastline, there are canvas sails, wee boats painted blue. Coming in closer, the boatie shore, the long stony sweep of it, and the soles of my feet are tingling. Everywhere, skinny children, barefoot on the shingle. I am blown from the shore, up the slope to a grid of four streets. Tiller Street—my street—crosses through them, rows of stone houses with their backs to the North Sea. The wind is a howl the likes of which I have never heard since. And in the air, a sea tang, fresh and sharp and rotten all at once, spiced up with old bait, fish guts, plumes from chimneys where the fish are hung to dry and smoke. I can see the stiff striped aprons of the women, the wifies. My mother’s face.
If I spoke these words to you now, lambsie, they would sound shivery-strange, all shirred up on invisible threads, clipped of the Aussie vowels my voice began to grow when I came down here to this place from the top of the world. My ink is turning to water, briny and blue. I look at her, that girl I was, at all those people with her, and I see how easily it breaks, my will to walk away from them lean and free. Because when it comes to family, you can walk from the top of the world to the bottom and still not be free.
I love the way artists of different artforms and genres draw inspiration from each other in the creation of new works, adaptations, reinventions, collaborations. Think of the many paintings inspired by Tennyson’s poem (itself drawn from Arthurian legend) ‘The Lady of Shallot’; a print of probably the most famous, by John William Waterhouse, adorns the wall of my studio. My car playlist includes a musical interpretation by Loreena McKennitt. And there is a potent intertextuality, at the levels of direct reference, metaphor and theme, between the poem and one of my favourite novels, Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson.
Art, sculpture, dance, music, poetry and film have fed into my own writing in various ways, and I have been thrilled on the occasions when something I have written has influenced the creation of new art by others. The Sinkings, for example, inspired an art installation by South West artist Annette Davis. Film company Factor 30 has optioned the novel for development as a six-part TV series, so it might find its way to the screen someday.
And now, I’m beyond excited that Perth Symphony Orchestra is staging a concert featuring music reflecting Kate’s life and times, interspersed with extracts from Kathleen O’Connor of Paris and images of Kate’s work.
I can’t help thinking that Kate, so enchanted with artistic culture of all kinds, would love this kind of collaboration.
My father died recently, and I have spent a lot of time among the personal possessions he left behind, sorting, gifting, recycling, discarding, and thinking about what makes something ‘precious’—precious enough to keep, to hold on to for years, decades, perhaps for a life. In my experience, it rarely has anything to do with monetary value.
I remembered a guest piece I wrote for another writer’s blog some years back. The brief was to choose an object of literary value that was precious to me, but, as I prefaced my piece then, I chose an object that was neither precious nor literary…
Many years ago my father hired a metal-detector and went on a camping/prospecting trip to the Eastern Goldfields. He didn’t discover gold, but he came home with lots of stories. And this—a ring unearthed on the site where the gold-rush town of Kanowna once stood.
It’s made of thin brass, with a red ‘stone’ of some manufactured origin—the cheapest kind of trinket. But it fascinated me. Who had bought it, worn it, lost it, abandoned it? Did it mean something to them? How did it find its way into the red dust of the goldfields?
Years later, I went to the site of Kanowna myself—not to prospect for gold but because, by then, I had read a lot about what the town had been like at the height of the gold rush, a thriving place with a population of 12,000, far exceeding Kalgoorlie in municipal importance. I was keen to see for myself what was left.
I was shocked to find that the reality of an Eastern Goldfields ghost town is nothing at all like I’d been led to expect by Hollywood westerns. Our ghost towns are bare earth, razed to nothing, everything of value carted away.
But you can’t erase history as easily as that. Stories remain.
My first (and so far only) ghost story, ‘Rush’ (published in Inherited), came from thinking about these things, and I suspect this humble little ring has many narratives it could tell. But it’s precious to me for what represents. It inspires curiosity. It reminds me to dig. It makes me question absolutes like ‘deserted’ and ‘empty’ and ‘worthless’. It whispers ‘what if?’ What a writerly little thing it is.
Which I guess qualifies it, after all, as precious and literary.
Now, of course, it has become infinitely more precious to me—a bearer of the spidery kind of memories that spin personal and communal histories together, that summon a face.
The work of three writers most influenced me in the years when I was studying literature and writing, all the while daring to hope I might one day be able to write, myself. Those three writers were Gail Jones, Joan London and my guest today, Simone Lazaroo. You can imagine, then, how delighted I am to have the opportunity to interview Simone here.
Simone migrated to Western Australia from Singapore as a young child. She is an honorary research fellow at Murdoch University, where she taught creative writing for many years, and is part of a Spanish-funded research group.
Since winning the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 1993, Simone has published six novels, as well as numerous short stories and essays, and has won the WA Premier’s Book Award for Fiction three times. She has also been shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Prize and the Nita B. Kibble Award.
If you are not acquainted with Simone’s work, please do hunt down the brilliant novels that form her backlist: The World Waitingto Be Made, The Australian Fiancé (optioned for film), The Travel Writer, Sustenance and Lost River: Four Albums.
But before you do that, there’s the sixth, her new release, Between Water and the Night Sky…
Elspeth is full of inexpressible longings: to leave behind life in Perth and her beginnings in a small wheatbelt town, and a secret she scarcely comprehends.
Francis wants to fit in—to make a life for himself after migrating from Singapore that is not determined by the colour of his skin or the judgement of others.
Told by their only child, Eva, this is a novel about falling in love, and falling apart—the beautiful, sad story of a shared history that never ends.
AC: Simone, Between Water and the Night Sky has been described as auto-fiction, a hybrid genre blending elements of fiction and autobiography. There are many ways a novelist can weave real events and characters, and themselves, into a work of fiction; Donald Stuart, for example, whose novel Shuggie Bain is often classified as auto-fiction, said that it was not autobiographical but inspired by his own experiences. Could you please talk about your choice to write this novel in the way you have, and some of the challenges it posed?
SL: Between Water and the Night Sky began as a couple of short stories that drew on incidents from my parents’ lives, but fictionalised aspects of these (including some elements of plot, setting, characterisation, imagery). But a few years after my mother died, I felt compelled to incorporate extracts from these short stories into a longer story that memorialised aspects of my mother in particular, including her relationship with my father. I focused particularly on my mother’s courage and creativity in the face of considerable struggles she’d experienced. I’d always felt that the way she lived her life showed a kind of heroism often unacknowledged by society. Doubtless many of us know individuals who have shown unacknowledged courage in dealing with the after-effects in their daily lives of traumas they’ve endured, although we sometimes don’t know the precise nature of those traumas.
I also tried in this book to convey many of the social and historical circumstances of my parents’ lives, to give a sense of the era and some of the social and geographical settings in which they lived. For example, partly due to aspects of the White Australia Policy still operating then, marriage between Anglo-Australians and Asians was unusual in the late 1950s, when my parents married, as was migration of Asians into Australia. However, partly because I simply didn’t know certain details of my parents’ lives before and after their marriage, imagination was all I had to fill in the gaps. Also, as the writing of the story progressed, it took on a life of its own. I used various fictional techniques (some of which I’ve alluded to above) to make the story more engaging, and because of issues of privacy.
At the intersection of cultures
AC: Throughout your body of work, you have explored characters at the intersection of cultures. Could you discuss how this plays out in Between Water and the Night Sky?
SL: The marriage of Elspeth and Francis might be considered an embodiment of the intersection of cultures—in this case, Francis’s Singaporean Eurasian culture and Elspeth’s Anglo-Australian culture. And of course, they each experience the upheavals, difficulties and joys of migrating and living in cultures and nations they are unfamiliar with. These kinds of experience can make unusual demands on the individuals involved, and on their relationship with each other. Some of the effects of such experiences upon a bicultural (or perhaps it would be more apt to say multicultural) marriage and family are reflected in this book.
Ways of seeing
AC:A photo’s just a memento of how a person looks at a particular moment…but a person’s life floats across countless moments. Elspeth, p. 164
I love the use of photography as an elemental motif in the narrative. The younger Francis is a keen hobbyist photographer, an interest gifted to daughter Eva, who studies photography at university. It recurs again and again as a metaphor for light and shadow, positive and negative, truth and illusion. I wondered, too, about the relationship between photographs and words in telling the story of a life—whether each complements the other, compensating for the other’s limitations. Was photography always a fundamental part of the story of Francis, Elspeth and Eva?
SL: Yes—photography is in a sense emblematic of how Francis and Eva develop their ways of ‘seeing’ other individuals, particularly during Francis’s courtship of Elspeth and later as Eva sees Elspeth aging. Many of us are familiar with the ways in which family photographs help trigger narratives and understandings about family members.
An enduring kind of love
AC: The relationship between Elspeth and Francis is both incredibly strong and heartbreakingly fragile, and ultimately does not survive—or at least not in the way we expect of a love story. But (and I’m trying not to wander into spoiler territory here) long after finishing the novel I was left thinking about the nature of love, and what endures between people. Did you conceive this work as a love story?
SL: Not while I was in the early stages of writing it. But as the writing progressed, I reflected on some aspects of Elspeth’s and Francis’s relationship with each other in the light of some of the wisdom I believe my parents acquired about their relationship as they aged, and saw that a nonetheless enduring kind of love had developed between my parents, despite the breakup of their marriage. Although my parents didn’t have the conversation that Elspeth and Francis have just before he dies, I wanted to convey something of the growing respect they had for one another as they aged.
AC: The great trauma of Elspeth’s infancy, painfully, shockingly, revealed to her late in life, in some ways drives the narrative. Again, I don’t want to give too much of that away. But I have always been interested in the idea that trauma can be passed from one generation to those that follow, and I sense that in this novel. Could you talk about that aspect of the work?
SL: I’m certainly not an expert in these matters. But I’d suggest that while the offspring of a person who has suffered trauma may experience it much less ‘directly’ than that parent, they nonetheless are affected by their parent’s long-term psychological responses to the trauma, which can continue to play out in their daily life decades after the traumatic event—in ways such as depression, anxiety, perhaps difficulty with some kinds of social engagement—even if the parent hasn’t told them about the traumatic event. And it’s possible that offspring who know more directly about their parent’s trauma may feel a heightened sense of responsibility towards their parent, sometimes resulting in the offspring taking on a carer’s role towards the parent at a young age; this can in turn lead to depression and anxiety in the offspring, particularly if they feel powerless to ‘cure’ or make their parent feel ‘better’.
AC: I’ve noticed that while you don’t use it exclusively, you often seem drawn to writing in the first person. What does first-person narration bring to a novel such as this?
SL: As one of my hopes for this novel was that it might help people who’ve suffered similar kinds of trauma feel less alone, I used first person to try and build a sense of more ‘direct’ communication between the writer and reader.
More broadly speaking, I sometimes use first person in my fiction to give a sense of immediacy and direct revelation of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and experiences—although attentive readers and writers know this isn’t impossible to achieve with third person point of view, too.
When you have to let a title go
AC:Between Water and the Night Sky is a beautiful, evocative title. Was it an ‘always-was’ title or one that took time to emerge?
SL: It took a long time to emerge—partly because I discovered around the middle of last year, while I was working and travelling in Europe, that the title I’d originally chosen for the manuscript-in-progress (almost three years ago) was very similar to the title of someone else’s novel published about two years ago. So en route to various work destinations in Europe, and just as the cover design was being finalised, I had a frantic email correspondence with the exceedingly helpful and patient Georgia Richter of Fremantle Press, in an effort to find another suitable title. Both titles included water, which is central to the novel’s preoccupations with the Indian Ocean and with states of merging, flux, separation and release, in the relationship between Elspeth and Francis, and in her life generally.
I suppose I should say farewell to 2022, but I don’t actually feel it deserves the courtesy. But here we are on the first day of a new year and I, for one, am hopeful it will be one to remember—in a good way!
Wishing you, as always, good health, good books and good company…
Unpublished manuscript awards such as the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and the Fogarty Literary Award have brought into the light many new writers with impressive manuscripts. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Brooke Dunnell and her debut novel, The Glass House, which won the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a WA writer aged 18 to 35.
Brooke’s short fiction has been widely published (I remember choosing one of her stories for the journal Westerly when I was fiction editor), and her collection Female(s and) Dogs was a finalist for the 2020 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. She is well known in Western Australia as a creative writing teacher, mentor and workshop presenter.
Julia Lambett heads across the country to her hometown where she’s been given the job of moving her recalcitrant father out of his home and into care. But when Julia arrives at the 1970s suburban palace of her childhood, she finds her father has adopted a mysterious dog and refuses to leave.
Frustrated and alone, when a childhood friend crosses her path, Julia turns to Davina for comfort and support. But quite soon Julia begins to doubt Davina’s motivations. Why is Davina taking a determined interest in all the things that Julia hoped she had left behind? Soon Julia starts having troubling dreams, and with four decades of possessions to be managed and dispersed, she uncovers long-forgotten, deeply unsettling memories.
AC: Brooke, The Glass House dives deep and wide into contemporary life, giving us a story about parenting, marriage, childhood and ageing, among other things. Can you tell us about the genesis and development of the novel?
BD: It’s often really hard to know exactly where a novel originated, especially when it was so long ago!
For a while, I’d been exploring the idea of a character who is trying to decide whether to have children when they’re put in a position of responsibility for their own parent. Seeing the parent ageing and looking back on the decisions they made in their life would be a way of giving the character a different perspective on their desire for children of their own.
The concept by itself ended up being a bit too navel-gazey, with a lot of looking back at the past and not so much in the present. There wasn’t much momentum until I thought about adding the third generation—a child. I was interested in that moment of early teenagerhood and the issues and vulnerabilities that can come along with it. Once I hit on the idea of the main character not only putting herself in the position of being a parent, but also of being a child, then things got moving in a much more promising way.
A house, a suburb
AC:The Glass House is set mostly in Perth, where Julia travels from Melbourne to care for her elderly father and to help him pack up his house and his life. The house and the suburb, which play a major role in characterisation and plot, feel entirely authentic, and I wondered whether you adapted something familiar to your own childhood in creating them.
BD: Thank you so much, that’s wonderful to hear! I definitely mined elements from my childhood, though I haven’t identified it as taking place anywhere too specific because I wanted to be able to fictionalise places like the river and shopping centre in order to suit my own purposes.
I grew up in Willetton and our house was a late nineteen-seventies build on a big block, with a front yard, backyard, pool, Hills Hoist—the whole shebang. All my friends’ houses were similar. They don’t have the same charm as other architectural styles (apologies to anyone who particularly likes brown-brick bungalows with cathedral ceilings and sunken lounges!), but to me they have a lot of personality.
Wherever you grow up, I think most kids just see their house and area as ‘the norm’ and it’s hard to get an outside perspective until you have more experience. For Julia, the contrast of living in a flat in Melbourne and coming back to this really big house with a big yard in a quiet family suburb allows her to see the home, her father and her childhood in a new way.
AC: The relationship between your main character, Julia, and her stepdaughter Evie is such a tender portrait of mothering, avoiding the common trope of the child damaged by parental separation. Evie is beautifully mothered by both Julia and her biological mother, Samara, in ways that are supportive and complementary. Could you talk about your development of this aspect of the novel?
BD: It was important to me that Evie have a good relationship with her parents and with Julia, and for Julia and Samara to have a fairly good relationship as well, because I was interested in the fact that things can go wrong even when you’re trying really hard to do everything right. Evie is a very strong young woman, and this is in part due to her parents and Julia putting her best interests first. I gave Evie that personality to contrast with how Julia saw herself at a similar age, which was much less assertive and more desperate for approval.
Julia remains a fairly passive person as an adult and so it’s natural that she defers to Samara, not only because Samara is Evie’s mother but because she’s also a strong person. Samara could have used this influence negatively, but I wanted her to be kind and caring so that Julia slowly realises what friendships between adult women should be like.
When a friend might not be
AC: The sinister tone that gradually enters this suburban domestic scenario is subtly realised, which of course makes it all the more sinister! One of the sources of Julia’s (and the reader’s) unease is the character Davina. Please tell us about her.
BD: Davina was Julia’s friend when they were little, and she’s there when Julia returns to Perth and wants to be best friends again. Because Julia’s feeling exhausted, frustrated and vulnerable, having left her marriage in Melbourne on uncertain terms and facing the difficulty of moving her father and all his stuff, she’s flattered by Davina’s attention and confides in her a lot. After a while, she starts to realise that she’s not getting much back from Davina, who’s opaque about her own life and cagey when it comes to the past. Over the course of the novel, as she goes through the family belongings, Julia begins to work out just why she stopped being friends with Davina in the first place.
AC: The main narrative is interspersed with fragments from Julia’s dreams, which escalate tension and that sinister tone. If it’s possible to do so without introducing spoilers, could you tell us how these work in the story?
BD: Julia’s understandably stressed while she’s back in Perth. She’s put a pause on a marriage that’s having problems, and part of that is telling her husband Rowan that they shouldn’t contact one another for a while, so they can see what it’s like to be apart. She starts having bad dreams about her stepdaughter Evie being pursued by a sinister male figure, and because she can’t contact Rowan and ask what’s going on, the situation just exacerbates. Julia’s not the type who believes in prophetic dreams or anything like that, but the nightmares are so realistic, she wonders if she’s losing her mind.
Starring role for Biscuit
AC: Biscuit, the dog, must take a bow as one of the most important canine characters I’ve ever met—oddly so, since he ambles through the narrative in typical old-dog fashion! What do animal characters allow a writer to bring to a narrative?
BD: I love Biscuit! I love all dogs, obviously—even the fictional ones.
I think animals, in fiction as well as in life, can be good intermediaries between people. Biscuit forms a bit of a buffer between Julia and her father, and it’s good, because if he wasn’t there, the interactions between the two of them might be even more fraught. The dog is a symbol of Don’s independence; a way he can show Julia that he can still make his own decisions and be in control. For Julia, the dog is just a manifestation of Don’s stubbornness and denial.
I think animals also become carriers of the personalities and stories we assign to them. Both Don and Julia put a lot of meaning into Biscuit. For Don, the dog needs to be protected and kept stable, not subjected to anything that might unsettle him. For Julia, the dog is at risk just being in Don’s company, because Don doesn’t have the capacity to walk him or give him mental stimulation. Living with Don, the dog has food, shelter and company, which Julia doesn’t think is enough. But Biscuit ends up having a side to him that even Don and Julia didn’t realise.
AC: How did you find the leap from writing short fiction to writing a novel?
BD: I didn’t find it too arduous, because I’ve been trying to write novels for a long time. It’s definitely a different process—a novel gives you much more space to go off in different directions, have elements evolve at a slower pace, and introduce a wider range of themes. One of the pleasures of writing a short story is that you can keep the whole thing in your head at once, and that’s far more difficult with a novel! I plan to keep writing in both genres, because that gives me the scope to explore a wider range of ideas.
AC: What has been the most surprising thing about your journey towards the publication of The Glass House?
BD: In practical terms, I’ve been surprised in various ways at how the book publishing process works—the lead time needed, how interest gets drummed up, that type of thing. It’s been fascinating to see the different aspects come together, and it’s made me admire people who work in publishing and bookselling even more. They put so much hard work and passion into producing and promoting books they didn’t even write! Thank God for them.
More generally, I’ve been surprised and moved by the number of people who genuinely care about the fact that I’ve written a novel and are interested in it! I knew the WA writing community was close and supportive, but it’s been to a greater extent than I ever expected. Readers and even people I meet in passing can be really enthusiastic, too. I’ve been in a perpetual state of the warm fuzzies for a while now!
Huge congratulations to Fremantle writer Molly Schmidt, winner of the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award! Molly takes home a cash prize of $25,000, and her winning novel, Salt River Road, will be published by Fremantle Press.
Fremantle Press publisher and Hungerford judge Georgia Richter described Salt River Road, a coming-of-age story set in regional Western Australia in the 1970s, as a novel that ‘focuses on the fabric of small-town life, and the complexity of family and community relationships.’
Molly Schmidt said:
I wrote this story in consultation with Noongar Elders from the Albany area and I am so grateful for their time and friendship. I hope Salt River Road can become a poignant example of the possibilities of cross-culture collaboration.
The 90 manuscripts submitted for this year’s award were read by Rashida Murphy, former Hungerford winner Natasha Lester and long-time Hungerford judge Richard Rossiter. They reported that the writers who stood out were those who
combined a natural affinity with words alongside an understanding that their story needs to appeal to a reader, which meant that they had honed and edited and shaped their work, thus setting their manuscripts apart from the others that felt less fully realised and needed more time, development and writerly sweat to be successful.
Congratulations must also go to the other shortlisted authors:
Joy Kilian-Essert, The Slow Patience of the Sea
Gerard McCann, Tell Me the Story
Marie O’Rourke, Kintsugi
The longlist included Matthew Chrulew, Narelle Hill, Rachael Keene, Shannon Meyerkort, Stefanie Koens, Christine Talbot and Annie Wilson.
The award is sponsored by the City of Fremantle and Fremantle Press.
What a year 2022 has been for short stories. I began my reading year with Rashida Murphy’s powerful collection The Bonesetter’s Fee (Spineless Wonders), and since then I’ve had the pleasure of reading another two outstanding collections: Mirandi Riwoe’s The Burnished Sun (UQP) and Fiona Robertson’s If You’re Happy (UQP). I’m now reading (I like to have more than one on the desk!) Andrew Roff’s The Teeth of a Slow Machine (Wakefield Press) and Ben Walter’s What Fear Was (Puncher & Wattmann)—brilliant, both of them.
I’ve also just finished Susan Midalia’s collection of very short stories, appropriately entitled Miniatures (Night Parrot Press). Having experienced a personally challenging few months, I found this volume of more than 100 stories a joy to read: many of them had me laughing out loud—usually having been taken by surprise. One consists of nothing but a title! I’ve often said that Susan is one of the wittiest people I know.
Miniatures also reflects other qualities I associate with the author: empathy, a preoccupation with language and what it can do, and a strong interest in compassionate politics and the environment.
Susan Midalia happens to be the director of the 2022 Australian Short Story Festival, which is being held this year in Western Australia, at the Fremantle Arts Centre, 28–30 October. Among the participants are visitors Fiona Robertson, Andrew Roff and Ben Walter, as well and Rashida Murphy and Susan Midalia, mentioned above, but do take a look at the full list of writers. I’m delighted to be taking part in a session on ‘Writing Fremantle’ with fellow writers Rita Tognini and Josephine Clarke.
The festival is extremely reasonably priced, at $20 per day for Saturday and Sunday. The full program is here.
I’m thrilled to see that Robyn Mundy’s brilliant novel Cold Coast has made the shortlist of the prestigious ARA Historical Novel Prize. Congratulations to Robyn and to the two other shortlistees, Geraldine Brooks and Tom Keneally.
Also announced, the shortlist for the Children’s/Young Adult category. Congratulations to Brian Falkner, Katrina Nannestad and Claire Saxby.
Author of KATHLEEN O’CONNOR OF PARIS (narrative non-fiction), ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS (novels) and INHERITED (short story collection). looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...