I’d have thought you’d be hard pressed to find a reader less likely than me to fall in love with a novel about a boxer. But it’s 2022—unpredictable to the marrow—and here am I, smitten, and urging everyone who appreciates superb literary-historical fiction to read David Whish-Wilson’s captivating new release, The Sawdust House.
Mind, this novel is ‘about a boxer’ as much as Oliver Twist is about a greedy boy—something that will become abundantly clear when you read David’s generous responses to the questions I’ve put to him.
David is one of Western Australia’s most prolific and versatile authors, having published six crime novels, four in the Frank Swann series, which explores the seedier aspects of 20th-century Perth; three works of non-fiction, including a stellar contribution to the NewSouth Books City series, Perth; and a historical novel, The Coves, that traverses some of the ground covered in his new novel. A much valued teacher and mentor, he coordinates the Creative Writing program at Curtin University, and lives and writes in Fremantle.
San Francisco, 1856. Irish-born James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan is being held in jail by the Committee of Vigilance, which aims to rout the Australian criminals from the town. As Sullivan’s mistress seeks his release, and as his fellow prisoners are taken away to be hanged, the convict tells a story of triumph and tragedy: of his daring escape from penal servitude in Australia; how he became America’s most celebrated boxer; and how he met the true love of his life.
AC: David, the present of the narrative is San Francisco, 1856, at the time when citizens had formed a Committee of Vigilance to deal with Australian gangs of criminals who had dominated the city—the setting also for The Coves. Was it during the course of your research for that novel that you happened upon the story of James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan?
DW-W: Yes, I came across his name several times while doing archival work in San Francisco on the story of the wild Australian men and women who so rapidly established themselves in that city, and whose reputation as ‘hard citizens’, formed in the crucible of the Australian convict system, gave them such a bad reputation. One such citizen was Yankee Sullivan, as he was known, considered a leader and something of a celebrity due to his once status as the US boxing champ, but also his ability to roguishly engage with the local media. He was caught up in the second great purge of Australians from San Francisco in 1856, arrested for being a ‘shoulder-striker’ for the Democrat party, which led to him being locked up in a makeshift vigilante prison while others arrested in the same purge were being lynched.
Contemplating an extraordinary life
AC: What was it about Sullivan’s story that caught your interest initially?
DW-W: The fact that Yankee Sullivan was a colourful figure and a boxer, strangely enough, didn’t initially draw me toward him as a subject. I was curious as to why this man, considered by some to be the father of American boxing (which is now of course a multi-billion dollar industry), wasn’t better known in Australia, but that wasn’t enough for me to consider dedicating researching and writing about him for a couple of years. I did a bit of digging and learned about his time as a convict in Australia, where he was a serial escapee and was sent to Moreton Bay as a sixteen-year-old (then the worst prison in Australia, under the notorious Commandant Logan—the subject of the terrific Drones song ‘Sixteen Straws’). It interested me that he’d been able to escape Australia, and reinvent himself so thoroughly (and quickly) in the milieu made famous by the Scorcese film Gangs of New York, where he became a significant figure, but it wasn’t until I found some words written by his wife following his death in San Francisco that I really felt like I wanted to explore the parts of his life absent in the historical record. She’d noted his vulnerability, and his melancholy, and his fears, which is the starting place of the novel—the human story of a man who’s lived an extraordinary life but is now facing an imminent and humiliating death, using storytelling as a way to distract himself from his situation but also to communicate the things most important to him.
‘Letting the language wash through me’
AC: As someone deeply interested in structure and point of view, I am in awe of The Sawdust House as a masterpiece of both, with two main characters—Sullivan and the reporter Thomas Crane—in conversation with each other while Sullivan waits, in a cell, for his fate at the hands of the Vigilance Committee. Were there challenges in using this device?
DW-W: I felt like I needed someone for Yankee Sullivan to communicate with in his prison cell, someone who Yankee not only trusts, but can see himself in, had his life been different—had he been blessed with some of the opportunities that we take for granted now. But I also wanted Thomas Crane to see something in Yankee that he himself lacked, as an introvert, a certain flamboyance and courage, so that they reflect one another on an emotional level. So the novel proceeds by way of this conversation, and by way of internal monologue that reflects Yankee’s gradual fracturing self as a product of his distress, melancholia, and lack of food and sleep, and Crane’s observations of Yankee and thoughts about his own situation. I haven’t told a story this way before, and so it proceeded slowly, and in fragments, and in a non-linear fashion, moving backwards and forwards in time, with abrupt switches from the present to the past. As a process, I found it intriguing, surprising, and pretty enjoyable, in that because both characters were keen to speak to one another (and to me), I was able to proceed intuitively, with minimal anxiety about where the narrative might be going, instead just letting the language wash through me.
AC: Your research for the novel, as outlined in your Author’s Note at the back of the book, was wide-ranging, including archives, informal sources and site research. Is there one that stands out for you now as the most valuable of these—a photograph, a document, a feature of the landscape?
DW-W: I think the two most important research moments involved the discovery, in the archives, of details about Yankee’s transportation to Moreton Bay as a sixteen-year-old, which was a bland record providing dates only, plus a small note to say that he’d also escaped from Moreton Bay before being recaptured. Knowing how harsh that penal colony was in turn linked to the second most important research discovery, which was a portrait of him as a young man in New York, where he looks so calm and healthy. Knowing how many times he’d been flogged in Australia, how scourged his back must have been, made the portrait (which was used to advertise a tobacco brand) extra poignant to me, and helped with his characterisation, and the development of his voice.
Truths of fiction
AC: You speak, in your Author’s Note, of having ‘changed names and dates and amalgamated characters for dramatic purposes and to better suit the truths of fiction’. Could you talk about the ‘truths of fiction’ as they apply to The Sawdust House?
DW-W: Yankee Sullivan was a much-mythologised character in the US, and some of that reputation was the product of self-mythologisation. This is natural, to a certain extent, for an escaped convict whose worst fear (according to his wife) was to be returned to the chain in Australia. It looks like not a single person in the US, including possibly his Australian wife, knew his real name, for example, or that he’d begun his boxing career in the dusty streets of Sydney, New South Wales. I explore some of that concealed history in the novel, working with the main features of his life that were known (and including some of the newspaper reports written about him, verbatim, as well), but where appropriate I also felt like I needed to streamline some aspects of the narrative by designing devices (such as Yankee’s being chained to Leggo on the transport ship) and by changing dates while keeping to the emotional truths of the events as they played out, and as they affected Yankee’s reputation. This reputation was cemented, for example, when he cheekily sailed back to England and challenged the British middleweight boxing champion, Hammer Lane, to a bout, which Yankee won, despite the risk of his arrest and potential execution before sailing back to the US. In revolutionary America, this was a big deal, and I explore this in the novel while having slightly changed the focus of the return trip, to one where he’s in fact there searching for what remains of his family.
When a character begins to speak
AC: Is the fictional newspaperman Crane (I’m assuming he’s fictional) based on a real journalist of that time, or is he perhaps one of those ‘amalgamated characters’?
DW-W: Thomas Crane is an entirely fictional character. In fact, I met him for the first time just as the reader first finds him, as a disembodied voice addressing Yankee in his prison cell, before he proceeds to colour himself in, so to speak. Without the benefit of much planning or foresight, all of his personal aspects appear to the reader as they appeared to me, too, as Crane becomes a key figure in drawing out Yankee’s story, but also in exploring some of the aspects of Mormonism that so interested me in researching The Coves, such as how violent and chaotic the early history of that religion was.
‘The way he sees the world…’
AC: Sullivan’s narrative, though it carries stylistic characteristics of an untutored 19th-century voice, is frequently poetic. To give one example of many:
…I barely have recollection of what I have said from one utterance to the next. Since my incarceration here I am like a taper whose wick is my voice and the flame has been lit but the wick consumed as it goes—
Did the Walt Whitman connection—which came as a surprise—give you opportunities for developing Sullivan’s voice in this way?
DW-W: The link to Whitman developed later, when I was excited to read that he was a contemporary of Yankee’s in New York City, and when I came across some fascinating anecdotes about him in different texts. The development of Yankee Sullivan’s voice, on the other hand, which of course is an approximation, or a hybrid version of a 19th-century voice shaped by a life in several different countries, was one of the great joys of writing The Sawdust House. As an aspect of this hybridity, perhaps, and of the need to let him speak freely, I was fortunate that right from the beginning, Yankee expressed himself in imagery and metaphor, which is something I hadn’t anticipated, but which is important, because without it I don’t know if I would have been able to sustain the narrative. I was frequently surprised and delighted by the way he sees the world, and while I wasn’t doing any contextual reading at that point, not wanting to complicate the language with another’s voice, it seems to me in retrospect that Whitman’s expansive and enthusiastic style might be an unrecognised influence.
The power of white space
AC: I found the physical layout of the novel fascinating, with each question and each answer of the interview beginning on a new page, even if they occupy only one or two lines. White space speaks eloquently in The Sawdust House, and it contributes to the way you control the pace. But, as white space also = page extent = money, I’m wondering whether there was any discussion surrounding this aspect between you and your publisher.
DW-W: Fortunately, because it’s quite a short novel, the white space, which like you say is there to control pace but also to serve as an absence/presence, or a silence/voice, wasn’t mentioned as a significant issue. Essentially, I think I’m very blessed to have a publisher willing to take a risk with a non-traditional kind of narrative, and an editor who was able to see the merit in this kind of approach. I don’t know if the two things are related, but perhaps it’s significant that Fremantle Press is one of the last publishers around who still publishes terrific poetry.
Title as talisman
AC: The title is immediately intriguing, but I also found it to be one of those titles that was even more resonant after I’d finished the novel. Was it always your working title, or one that came to you in the writing process, or later?
DW-W: It was always my working title, acting while I wrote as a kind of talismanic aspect of Yankee’s yearning, both during his difficult years of captivity, and then, after he’d achieved his parents’ dream of owning a public house/saloon with that name, as an aspect of his recognition that the very things he’d done to achieve that dream had diminished him and his ability to value this achievement—something which becomes significant toward the ending of the novel.
Photo credits: boxing image—James S. Baillie, 1849, black and white lithograph of Thomas Hyer, American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of 1841, fighting Thomas Sullivan on a snowy day in Baltimore; Yankee Sullivan image—Lorilliard’s Mechanics Delight Boxing Card
It’s Women’s History Month and I’m delighted to see Kate being featured by Fremantle Press, a publishing house that has made a tremendous commitment, over many years, to recognising and celebrating the contributions of women to Australian culture and society.
Kathleen (Kate) O’Connor was a woman ahead of her time. She fought for her right to determine her own future as an artist, leaving conservative Perth and its narrow expectations for women to live and work in Paris in the late Belle Époque era and the bohemian 1920s. She was described in the 1960s as one of the last surviving Australian links to French impressionism, as an Australian European, and as the doyenne of art in Western Australia. Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is my account of her life and times, and of the difficulties of researching and interpreting a woman who refused to be drawn on her personal life.
The image above features, alongside Kate, the stories of:
Dame Mary Durack, one of the most successful Australian writers of the twentieth century. Inseparable Elements is the story of her life as seen through the eyes, and portrayed in the witty style, of her daughter Patsy Millett—an unmissable recent release, and a must for anyone interested in the literary culture of the last century
artist Nora Heysen, the first female artist to win the Archibald Prize and the first to be appointed an official war artist. There are beautiful reproductions of many of her works in Anne-Louise Willoughby’s fascinating biography Nora Heysen: A Portrait
three generations of strong Indigenous women. Sally Morgan’s My Place has become a classic since its publication in 1982, a story of family history, Australian history and the discovery of identity.
It’s a pleasure to introduce my first international guest in the Talking (new) fiction series. Sue Orr’s second novel, Loop Tracks, has been a bestseller in her home country, New Zealand, since its release last year, and has just been released in Australia, to acclaim, by Terri-ann White’s Upswell Publishing.
Loop Tracks was recently longlisted for New Zealand’s premier literary honours, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Sue Orr is also the award-winning author of two books of short stories, Etiquette for a Dinner Party and From Under the Overcoat, and the novel The Party Line. She teaches creative writing at Victoria University in Wellington, and has for some years been involved with programs teaching creative writing in prisons and women’s refuges in Auckland and Wellington.
Sue took time out from Adelaide Writers’ Week to answer a few questions…
It’s 1978: the Auckland abortion clinic has been forced to close and sixteen-year-old Charlie has to fly to Sydney, but the plane is delayed on the tarmac. It’s 2019: Charlie’s tightly contained Wellington life with her grandson Tommy is interrupted by the unexpected intrusions of Tommy’s first girlfriend, Jenna, and the father he has never known, Jim. The year turns, and everything changes again.
Loop Tracks is a major New Zealand novel, written in real time against the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic and the New Zealand General Election and euthanasia referendum.
Voices from sisters past
AC: Sue, you’ve spoken about Loop Tracks having been inspired by a conversation some years ago—a moment you’ve described as ‘a tingle, like shorting electrics desperate to earth’ when a friend spoke about ‘a plane delayed on the tarmac at Auckland Airport for hours, with anxious pregnant girls and women on board’. The plane’s destination was Sydney, where the women and girls could go to have a safe, legal abortion, something they could not do in New Zealand at that time (1978).
The first question I want to ask about this concerns the issue of teenage pregnancies in the late 1970s. As you show in Loop Tracks, the choices available to young pregnant girls were limited—abortion or adoption—both involving a great degree of secrecy and hypocrisy. And those so-called ‘choices’ were often made by others. What floored me was the cruelty meted out to so many young girls in the name of ‘respectability’. Were you able to access formal, as well as anecdotal, research into the long-term effects of these practices in developing your story?
SO: Yes. As an ex-journalist, it was really important to me that the backdrop to the fictional narrative of Loop Tracks was factually correct. I obsessed over the accuracy, to be honest, and now on reflection I think it was also because I didn’t want to give anti-choice lobbyists any grounds to challenge me on sloppy research, diverting the conversation away from the issues at the heart of the book.
Dame Margaret Sparrow, with others, set up Sisters Overseas Service, the clandestine network that enabled women from the far reaches of New Zealand to travel to Australia for abortions during 1978. Margaret went on to establish Family Planning in New Zealand.
Margaret launched the New Zealand edition of Loop Tracks. The novel is dedicated to her, and to my friend who was on the delayed flight at the beginning of the story. Loop Tracks could not have been written without the generosity of these two women.
Someone else’s story
AC: I’m also wondering about the process of developing a narrative from that initiating conversation into the rich terrain covered by the novel. Was it difficult to transform the experience of a friend into fiction? Were you conscious, for example, of the need to de-identify your friend? I imagine this might affect all manner of creative choices—characters, settings, motivations…
SO: Unlike Charlie, my friend who was on the flight stayed on the flight. So it was never a question of transforming her specific experience into fiction. But she was able to gift to me the essential details of what it was like to be a very young woman pregnant in 1978, not wanting to have the baby. What it was like to have to find a doctor (and they were rare) who would help her navigate the system that had been established by the Sisters Overseas Service. What it was like to raise the small fortune needed for the flight and procedure. What it was like to turn up at the airport and be shepherded on to a commercial flight with others in her situation. The condescending air hostesses. The dash to Sydney, or Melbourne, and the return home two days later to take up her old life, pretending none of it had ever happened. And, of course, the delay that occurred on her particular flight. That delay was the genesis of this book.
I have always protected the identity of this friend. It was the promise I made to her, when she agreed to talk about all of those things I just mentioned. I’ve written an essay about this here.
‘The girl that was me’
AC: I love the way you play with tense and point of view with your protagonist, Charlie. Although the novel is essentially a first-person narrative, the world through Charlie’s eyes, you also give us third-person sequences that tell the story of ‘the girl that was me’, and which slide between past and present. What advantages did this narrative sleight of hand give you in conveying Charlie’s story?
SO: It felt as though I had no choice but to offer Charlie the sleight of hand as a way to confront her traumatic past. Charlie has never dealt with the shocking circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, the father of the baby, or the birth of her child. Rather, she has developed mechanisms for shutting down that period of her life; shutting down any conversation that looks as though it might be drifting towards these traumas. As a result, she’s disassociated herself from ‘the girl she was’.
The disassociation starts to crumble when two things happen—her grandson Tommy gets an inquisitive girlfriend, and the pair of them summon Tommy’s father into all their lives. Charlie’s forced to confront those events, all those years ago. She is so far emotionally and mentally estranged from them, the only way she can cope with revisiting them is via a third-person perspective. The distance she creates between her adult self and the girl she was enables her to face the past, fearfully crack it open, and eventually create the possibility of moving on from it.
Joys and challenges
AC: Charlie’s grandson, Tommy, is a wonderfully drawn character, and I found my response to him vacillating between protectiveness and exasperation, affection and outright horror. Can you please tell us a little about Tommy and how you developed this character?
SO: Tommy came into Charlie’s life at the age of four—dropped off at the gate when his father became unable (or unwilling) to cope with him. Tommy needed Charlie, and Charlie needed him. She needed someone to care for, a purpose in her life.
As I grew this character—as he grew into a teenager—I realised that his relationship with his grandmother had to become more mutually reliant rather than less, as would normally happen. I also needed a character who would interpret the world in a very literal way; someone who would be vulnerable to the conspiracy theories in 2020 New Zealand.
I have friends with sons on the spectrum—I have watched these boys grow up, watched how they interpret the world around them, watched how their loving families have accommodated their views and celebrated their difference. One such friend read an early version of the manuscript, and pointed out that I had painted too rosy a picture of life with a child on the spectrum. Where’s the anger? she asked me. Where are the unreasonable, vicious, hurtful outbursts towards the people that love them and care for them the most? The next draft was more honest. It captured the challenges, as well as the joys, of raising a child on a spectrum.
‘Another crack at reckless joy’
AC:Loop Tracks could be thought of as a multiple coming of age story. Tommy’s passage from adolescence into new adulthood is one thread; Charlie’s earlier, very different experience of that journey is another. Is the older Charlie also undergoing another kind of ‘coming of age’ in the narrative present of the novel?
SO: She absolutely is.
As Tommy gains independence, Charlie recognises that she’s becoming irrelevant to him. (There’s no feigning denial of this on Tommy’s part—he says it like it is!) So where does this leave Charlie? Who is she, if she’s not Tommy’s provider and protector?
Her second coming of age—her opportunity to reset her life, bump the looping patterns off track—occurs against the backdrop of the extreme lockdown conditions of the first wave of Covid-19 to hit New Zealand in March 2020. For Charlie, already cast adrift from the responsibilities of the last 20 years, this weird new world presents opportunity for another crack at reckless joy, this time tempered with wisdom.
AC:Loop Tracks is a novel that foregrounds the political. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the rights of individuals are woven into the story in ways that make it clear that rationalisations and doctrines don’t hold: the political is personal, it affects lives, it has consequences. Is this an abiding concern in your work or did the original inspiration, the experience of your friend, dictate this direction for the novel?
SO: Characters always come first for me. I started with a girl on a delayed flight: she’s pregnant, naïve, and makes a crazy decision that makes sense to her in that moment. That’s all I had to work with. I knew the circumstances of her pregnancy, and little else.
But if you’re willing to inhabit the hearts of your characters—be your characters—then the story unfolds in its own surging, organic way. This feels like the only way to write, to me. This is the source of the joy of writing. The excitement of discovering what happens next, at the same time as your characters. Jumping on their shoulders and experiencing their lives with them.
The issues—the themes, whatever you want to call them—they emerge in a natural way, as a result of the character’s development and decisions. I’m there for the ride, documenting the fallout, the consequences, the joys and despair of human fallibility and resilience.
AC: The stunning cover for your Australian edition features an image by Greg Simpson that brings to mind Charlie’s, and then Tommy’s, love of the 1960s design toy, Spirograph. Could you please talk about the way this works as metaphor in Loop Tracks?
SO: I always imagined the cover being a Spirograph image (it was my favourite childhood toy) with a big smudge across the page as the pen was bumped off course. The final cover was so much better—less literal, less obvious, while still clearly referencing a Spirograph design. The geometric loops have gone haywire, just as the rigid routines in Charlie’s life get knocked off course in the novel. The image also alludes to Tommy’s discovery of loop track music and his natural gift for mathematics, and the beautiful loop track bush walks in Wellington city.
The C word
AC: Yours is one of the first wave of novels to draw Covid into the story—and the pandemic atmosphere brings so much to what is happening. What influence, if any, did Covid have on the way the novel ends?
SO: The novel ends in spring 2020—after the General Election which saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government return to power. By early October, Covid had been eliminated in New Zealand for the time being. The return to a normal way of life gave agency to all the characters—they were free, finally, to make decisions about how they would live their lives, for better or for worse.
Portland Jones is a beautiful writer—a favourite of mine on the strength of her brilliant debut novel, Seeing the Elephant, which was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. I came late to reading this, but I have been singing its praises ever since, and if you haven’t yet read it I urge you to (as Molly Meldrum used to say) do yourself a favour and seek out a copy.
Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Portland’s second novel was scheduled for 2022, and anxious to read it. I was not disappointed. Only Birds Above is sublime, and I think you’ll get a sense of that from reading her responses to my questions below.
Portland Jones is a writer, lecturer and horse trainer who lives and works in the Swan Valley, near Perth. She has a PhD in Literature, and in addition to her two novels she has co-authored a non-fiction book, Horses Hate Surprise Parties. She is currently working on a third novel and another work of non-fiction.
Arthur the blacksmith goes to war with the 10th Light Horse, to care for the horses of his fellow soldiers. When he returns, Arthur’s wife, Helen, and their children bear witness to a man forever damaged by what he has seen and suffered.
As a second war looms, Arthur insists on his son Tom going to work in Sumatra. Tom is taken prisoner by the Japanese, but is sustained by memories of life on the farm at home and a growing understanding of his father.
This big-hearted, beautiful novel captures the deep and mysterious connection between humans and horses—whose very presence lends a sweet, steady counterweight to human frailty, and whose nobility aligns with human courage.
AC:Portland, I’m intrigued that your two novels, although very different, both tell stories of war—the Vietnam War in Seeing the Elephant (2016) and now World Wars I and II in Only Birds Above. What draws you, as a novelist, to these critical historical periods of the twentieth century?
PJ: I think there are two main reasons. The first is because history, or more specifically the history of conflict, has always felt very real to me. When I was growing up my Dutch grandmother would hold us in her lap and tell stories about fighting in the resistance during the war. She used to tell us about hiding my grandfather in their house between the floor of the second storey and the ceiling of the first. They would roll back the rug, prise up the floorboards and then, once he’d squeezed himself into that tight little space, she would nail the boards back down and replace the rug. She told me how German soldiers had come to the house and yelled at her, ‘Where’s your husband?’ And she had pretended she didn’t know, although he was hiding just above their heads.
And some stories become indelible because of their context. I admired my grandmother a great deal and it wasn’t until she had been gone for several years and I started a PhD on learned helplessness in war veterans that I realised that both she and my grandfather had suffered from PTSD. My grandparents belonged to a generation that didn’t speak about trauma. PTSD was only recognised as a disorder in 1980, so people like my grandparents just lived with their responses because they didn’t have the language back then to talk about them. That realisation reframed a lot of my childhood memories of my grandparents. I saw how their lives and the lives of their children had been irredeemably altered by their experiences and I suppose that made me want to understand more.
I was born at the height of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese say). During my childhood I felt like it was a dark secret grown-ups wouldn’t talk about with children and I’ve always been suspicious of those sorts of secrets. Then the Welcome Home March was held in 1987 (the year I left school) and it all felt a bit underhanded. No-one that I asked could give me a coherent answer about the treatment of our Vietnam veterans, so I started to read as widely as I could. Back then, there wasn’t nearly as much material about the Australian soldier’s experience in Vietnam, it was mostly about the American experience. As an example of that, one of the most popular Australian songs about the war (Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’) is about a battle that Australian ground troops didn’t even fight in. They could have written the same song about Long Tan without even changing the rhyme, but perhaps in the late 70s no-one knew anything about Long Tan because it was a specifically Australian battle.
I decided to do a PhD so I could untangle in my own mind this enormously complex, multi-dimensional part of Australian history. When I first started researching, we were on a family holiday to Exmouth and we stopped at the Overlander Roadhouse. I saw a man sitting in a car eating a burger and on his back window a sticker that said AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam). I knocked on his window and we had a chat about his service and a few weeks later, over a cup of tea, he told me about himself and the terrible price he’d paid for the years he spent in the army. History can be uncomfortably close when you hear it first hand—that was another story made indelible by its context.
The second reason that I write about war is because it frightens me. I have three children, two of them boys, and I can never forget that we’ve had conscription during my lifetime. Once you’re a parent, history happens to sons and daughters. So I write about war as a way to try and understand that.
Custodians of the horse
AC:Arthur is a blacksmith who has grown up and worked with horses all his life, and he carries an intimate knowledge of and love for them into war as an infantryman in the 10th Light Horse. The scenes where Arthur is interacting with his horse are among the most beautiful and moving of the novel, and they clearly come from your own experience and knowledge as a horse trainer. Could you please tell us about this aspect of the novel, and the research you conducted into Australia’s war horses?
PJ: During WWI the horses were usually tethered in a row on long picket lines. At the end of the war, when it was decided that the horses would not be coming home, they shaved their manes and tails, pulled off their shoes and a veterinary officer walked down the line and shot them where they stood. The horses were so habituated to gunfire at that point that they didn’t even try to run away.
I tell that story to my university class and every time I pretend to be objective, though it’s an image that will always haunt me. Not just because of the loss of the horses but also because of what it must have done to the men that had fought alongside them. Nearly 136,000 horses left Australia between 1914 and 1918 and only one returned.
To me, horses are the most beautiful of all our domestic animals. The joy of watching them gallop and play never wears off, even after all these years. When you’re a horse trainer, their lives are tightly woven into yours. There’s this moment, every evening, just before I go inside for the night. The afternoon light is coming sideways through the trees and horses are quietly eating. I know then that I’m just one small link of a chain that stretches back for over five thousand years, all of us custodians of the horse. I’m grateful every single day that I can do what I do. It’s a job but it’s also a privilege. In writing Only Birds Above I really wanted to convey that sense and, in my own small way, to honour the thousands of horses that died during the war.
I really enjoy novel research and I like to think of myself as a method researcher—I want to live and breathe my subject. Luckily there are lots of people who are interested in the history of the Light Horse and I’ve been able to speak to many who are passionate about preserving that history. And people are so kind. When you tell them that you’re interested in their passion, they are incredibly generous with their time. I have been lucky enough to have been shown original equipment, ridden in a replica of a universal pattern saddle (the saddle that was used during WWI) and had many, many long conversations about the tiniest details of gear and equipment with people who have dedicated years of their lives to learning as much as they can about the Light Horses. A friend even gave me an old universal pattern saddle which had been hanging in the rafters of a shed for decades—it’s now been restored and is sitting in my living room. To me these things connect us to our past.
In the presence of death
Joining up was the right thing to do and like everyone says—it’s a chance to see the world.
When Arthur meets Helen, he is already in training at the Blackboy Hill Camp and there is an aching poignancy in his words to her. Is their hasty marriage, emblematic of many of that time, an act of naivety? Desperation? Hope?
PJ: I think the threat of death strips everything bare. All the layers of artifice that we paste between ourselves and the world get ripped away. I have a very dear friend fighting a serious illness and I’m often struck by how the threat of this loss has altered the way we communicate. It’s as though your skin has been rubbed raw—some moments have an almost painful vividness and clarity. It’s sad but it’s also beautiful.
You’re never more alive than when you’re in the presence of death. That’s why risk is so important, it makes you cherish your life. After my father died I sat down to try and write about it and the first thing I wrote was: ‘Why is everything so beautiful since you’ve gone?’ For weeks I’d have to stop and stare at the way the light fell through the leaves or the way the sunset coloured the dust. The sight of a mother lifting her baby from a car seat or a flock of parrots in a marri tree would take my breath.
When I was writing the novel I felt sure that Arthur and Helen’s marriage would have been informed by that same sense. There would have been an urgency to it, a need to hold onto what is real and important in the presence of so much uncertainty. In an era without videos, social media and all those other windows into other people’s experiences, falling in love must have been like exploring new territories. Amazing and yet also terrifying. Our ability to love is the most miraculous and beautiful aspect of life, isn’t it? [A million times yes!]
On the homefront
AC:For all that the novel takes us into theatres of war and the world of men and horses, it also brings us stories of the homefront, of women and children left alone during the war, and then inexplicably alone again when the men who return are morose, insular and unable to communicate with those who love them. Without giving away spoilers, could you talk about the longer term effects of the war on Helen, a new bride when Arthur leaves, and their daughter Ruth?
PJ: One of the things I encountered when I was researching my first novel is the prevalence of families with three generations of soldiers. Many of the Vietnam veterans who I met had grandfathers who served in WWI and fathers who had served in WWII. I am really interested in how this would change the dynamic of the entire family. What happens to intergenerational trauma when it is compounded?
I think it’s the role of historical fiction to fill in the gaps between what is written and the people who lived it. The experiences of women in war are rarely privileged by non-fiction historical narrative, though that is definitely changing. History doesn’t always tell us what ordinary people thought or felt and sometimes the numbers are too big to comprehend. Or maybe your mind won’t let you comprehend them because it’s too much. But having an insight into one person’s experience makes it easier to relate to. Listening to veterans speak about the experiences of their wives and families is often very moving because it takes great courage to love someone whose life has been impacted by war.
‘Almost as if it didn’t happen’
AC:Son Tom, working in Indonesia at the outbreak of World War II, becomes a prisoner of the Japanese and one of the slave workforce building the Pekanbaru Death Railway across Sumatra, which was completed on the day Japan surrendered and subsequently abandoned. Your own great-grandfather was among the thousands who died during its construction, and I noticed he appears briefly in the novel. Was it important to you to explore this terrible tragedy of World War II?
PJ: The novel started out as a story about my great grandfather. He was one of those aspects of the family history that no-one really knew much about other than that he’d died in Indonesia during the war. So a while ago I wrote to the Dutch archives just to see if I could find out anything and within 24 hours I had a copy of his death certificate and a photo of his grave. That was really the start of an absolutely fascinating journey.
My daughter’s Japanese teacher was able to translate the death certificate for me and I learned that Dirk had died very near to Pekanbaru, the start of the infamous Pekanbaru Death Railway built across Sumatra by both POWs and press-ganged Javanese labourers known as Romushas. When I was researching the railway online I came across a website put together by a New Zealander working in Sumatra who was fascinated by the railway. He mapped the length of the line with a drone and a GPS using the little information that he could find. In fact most of his information came from a single text written by a Dutch researcher.
I sent him an email and we started chatting and pretty soon he invited me to come stay with him in Pekanbaru (an experience that went way better than it might have done, in hindsight). The Pekanbaru Death Railway is not very well known. Around the town you can still see rail embankments winding through palm oil plantations and train tracks repurposed as farm fencing. It’s almost as though it didn’t happen, and I think that’s very sad. Standing in the place where my great-grandfather died, listening to the traffic and the call to prayer, was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.
I’m interested in representations of truth in fiction. I wrote my great-grandfather into Only Birds Above knowing only what I’d found out through the archives and the couple of stories and photos from my grandmother. Originally I wanted to include photos in the novel—I have photos of Dirk and I have taken photos of various things in the novel that I thought it would be interesting to include. But in the editing process we decided that the novel was better without them. But it’s that blurring of the line between truth and fiction that really interests me.
Piecing a story together
AC: Only Birds Aboveis structurally complex, moving between time-frames, generations, characters and places. This has the effect of creating a compelling narrative, with different threads to be drawn together so that the reader can see the whole. But I’m wondering how you managed the process of writing the story—whether you wrote entire strands and wove them together, or worked piece by piece, assembling them into that whole.
PJ: I wrote the first 50,000 words with great confidence but absolutely no plan. I wrote without any sense of continuity or cohesion and in totally random order. And then one day I sat down at my computer and realised with horror that what I had was not a novel but a seething mass of disparate fragments.
I had to call on the assistance of the always amazing Richard Rossiter to try and pull them into some kind of order. It was a bit overwhelming for a while; I thought it would never make any sense at all. But sense emerged in the end.
After that I vowed I would never write a novel with a complex structure again and that I would write in an organised and disciplined way. But maybe my brain is too chaotic for that kind of order because the novel I’m working on now is at least as complex and I’m no more organised. I guess that’s future-Portland’s problem.
AC:I love the novel’s title. Did it come early in the development, or, as so often happens, was it something you and your publisher agonised over?
PJ: I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with Georgia Richter as editor on this novel. I learned so much during the process; it was both fascinating and humbling. I’m sure Georgia had many hair-tearing-out moments when we were editing but luckily the title wasn’t one of them. It came to me very early in the writing process as it seemed to be a good way of describing a loss of faith. If there’s only birds above you, there’s nothing else, is there?
This year’s Perth Festival Writers Weekend program is out! Festival curator Gillian O’Shaughnessy has put together an exciting lineup of Western Australian writers, and those from further afield appearing in person or via live stream.
I love this quote from the program:
When we read, we aren’t simply informed and entertained, our world is made larger. Stories allow us to see new possibilities, to reflect and absorb challenging ideas and to lose ourselves in wonder. When we read, we are transformed. In keeping with Perth Festival’s 2022 theme of Wardan, Writers Weekend will dive into this idea of connection; so that as we emerge from tumultuous times, we might consider our hearts and values through the lens of books, stories and words and their profound and magical ability to expand our consciousness.
The venue this year is the historic Fremantle Arts Centre, and wow, does that take me back! The centre was the venue for the first Perth Writers Festivals I ever attended, and I well remember sitting on the lawn, listening to amazing Australian and international authors—some, like Dorothy Porter, no longer with us.
Maria Papas’s wise, moving, beautifully lyrical novel Skimming Stones is the most recent winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, which has been instrumental in introducing many exciting new Western Australian voices. It was published late last year, and an appreciative early review from Lisa at ANZ LitLovers does justice to the novel’s many qualities.
Maria works as an English teacher and sessional academic based in Perth, and her fiction, non-fiction and academic essays have been published in Australian and international journals. Skimming Stones is her debut novel.
Grace first met her lover, Nate, as a teenager, their bond forged in the corridors and waiting rooms where siblings of cancer patients sit on the sidelines. Now an adult, for Grace, nursing is a comforting world of science and certainty. But the paediatric ward is also a place of miracles and heartbreak and, when faced with a dramatic emergency, Grace is confronted with memories of her sister’s illness. Heading south to Lake Clifton and the haunts of her childhood, Grace discovers that a stone cast across a lake sends out ripples long after the stone has gone.
Connecting past and present
AC: Maria, Skimming Stones is narrated by your character Grace, across two main time-frames. We first meet her in her role as a nurse in a paediatric oncology ward, but the narrative takes us back to the child Grace, who, at the age of 13, also inhabits a paediatric oncology ward, in a very different role. Could you please begin by talking about this specific connection between the 13-year-old Grace and the adult she has become?
MP: There was a time in my life when I drew a lot of strength from asking nurses what made them choose their career paths. Commonly, aside from having parents or grandparents who were also nurses, many said that either they or someone they loved had once spent a lot of time in hospital. It wasn’t uncommon, I discovered, for children who had serious illness, their siblings, or even their parents to later choose nursing or care work as a profession. In a way, Grace’s experiences do shape her choices. It felt logical for her to become a nurse, and logical that as an adult she should go back to reflect on her past. Those connections did feel real to me.
Listening to a voice
AC: I adore Grace’s voice and her unique perspective on those around her. Did the first-person point of view come naturally to you as a way to tell this story?
MP: When I write fiction my most comfortable default is third person, present tense. With this novel, though, first person felt more honest. For many reasons, I needed to hear Grace’s story myself, so the writing of the whole book was almost an act of listening to someone like Grace. She’s strong, she’s knowledgeable, she has been through a lot, and she is reflective, so why not let the story come from within her?
At the most basic level, yes, her voice did come naturally. I am the eldest of three sisters, so the older sibling was one I could easily draw from. Having said that, writing from the perspective of a character who had witnessed her sibling’s cancer raised ethical concerns for me. Was I writing this voice well? Was the representation sensitive? I did second guess myself, but in the end, the first-person voice was the one that spoke most clearly to me.
He touched my mother. He rested his hands on her shoulders, kissed her crown, and then left for work as if there was no hole in the pantry door.
There’s such power in this brief observation. From a writer’s point of view, I admire the craft—the restraint, the metonymy—but I also admire it for what it tells us about Grace as a character, her quiet, observing eye, her struggle to make meaning from incongruent things. I’m going off track a bit because my question relates back to the substance of the sentence: the troubled relationship between Grace’s parents. What function does this play in the novel?
MP: One of my aims for the novel was to write about the way illness can impact families, but I didn’t want to oversimplify and focus on just the illness alone. Instead, I wanted to acknowledge that there are often many pre-existing concerns, and that these won’t go away just because something more worrying or pressing has arisen. In addition, I also wanted to acknowledge that people have different ways of coping with tumultuous emotions—some healthy, some unhealthy—and that such mechanisms are likely to continue and have an effect through difficult times. The toxicity between Grace’s parents impacts Grace’s worldview and, alongside her sister’s illness, has its hand in forming her relationships as an adult.
Sharing a language
AC: Grace’s friend Nate is an important character, and I found it interesting that the psychic space he occupies in the novel is far greater than his actual presence in the narrative. Could you please tell us about Nate?
MP: Nate and Grace each have shared memories of hospital and of being somewhat cast aside while the focus of parenting is redirected towards a sibling in crisis. Nate’s presence in the adult narrative and his relationship with Grace does conflate past and present, but it also provides Grace a space in which she is understood without having to explain her past. To Grace’s mind, she and Nate share a language. She doesn’t have to speak or think about her experiences because Nate already knows. Having said this, it is precisely this relationship that puts Grace at a set of crossroads and prompts her to revisit her past. So, in a way, while Grace’s relationship with Nate seemingly allows her to leave a difficult experience unexamined, it also inevitably brings that experience forth and insists it be examined.
Myths and boundaries
AC: For all that Skimming Stones presents an authentic, intimately rendered account of the experience of illness and how it affects those who live with and alongside it, it is broad in its concerns and resists any easy categorisation as an ‘issues novel’. Among the many things I was drawn to is the way a geographical place—Lake Clifton in Western Australia’s south-west—becomes not only a character in the novel but a character in Grace’s life. How did this come about?
MP: Years ago, I remembered an old childhood memory that I think is attributable to the thrombolites. Soon after, I visited the lake and it struck me how ancient and mysterious the thrombolites were. You can’t touch a thrombolite and you’re not allowed to enter the lake, and so no matter how much I wanted to know what those structures were like, I had to leave comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing. I am of Greek heritage, and something about the landscape put me in mind of mythological characters who cross boundaries into unknowable worlds. The lake was one of those boundary spaces for me. It was a place that allowed me to imagine, but not the kind of place I could ever fully understand. Grace has an ambivalent relationship with the lake. She exists on its edges. She is drawn to it, feels it as a healing place, but it is also a place of terrible drama. Metaphorically, the lake is central to Grace’s concerns. It urges her to consider how much we can know, and what we must be satisfied with not knowing.
AC: Is the novel a narrative of motherhood, or perhaps as much about mothering as it is about motherhood?
MP: I think this is my favourite question that I have ever been asked. The whole time I was writing, I thought Skimming Stones was a novel about siblings, but now that I look back, I see that it is absolutely about all the things we conflate when we consider the word ‘mother’ alongside the word ‘care’. The narrative represents mothering within a nuclear family, parental conflict, and then motherhood after separation and divorce. There is mothering under tense circumstances, the desperation of mothering a sick child, the fear of becoming a mother, of not knowing what that might mean. There is also the kind of mothering that many people do when they participate in the upbringing of children that are not biologically their own. Harriet, for example, is very much a mother for Grace. People think of her as a surrogate or ‘childless’, but she is not childless to me. Her experience of motherhood is highly tragic, but she is still a mother, and when it comes to Grace, she shows us a version of herself and a version of mothering that extends well beyond the typical family structure into the community. Motherhood is definitely an underlying theme.
A place called Cancer
Nate knew cancer like I knew cancer. We were both from cancer. We shared it like a password between travellers in a foreign country. Or that moment in a crowd when someone says something or another and they carry just the right inflection, an accent you recognise, the sound of home…He knew where I had come from.
You write with an intimate knowledge of the foreign country that is cancer, and I’m wondering about the experience of revisiting that place emotionally in order to create this powerfully moving narrative—whether it was painful, whether you felt compelled to go there anyway. Did it feel inevitable to you as a writer that you would wrest from that place you once ‘came from’ a narrative of some kind, or did this story emerge more by stealth?
MP: To be fair, I wasn’t revisiting when I was writing; I was firmly a resident. I had begun this novel as part of a PhD, and for about a year or so I was working on themes to do with the kindness of strangers. In these early drafts, the sisters, Harriet, the lake and the boy already existed but in more sketchy forms. Then, out of the blue, one of my children developed leukaemia. For a while, I couldn’t read let alone write, and later, when I did start writing again, I couldn’t engage with the story I had previously worked on. All I wanted was to begin processing the experience that had since changed my family, but I was tied to the PhD, and I am the kind of person who must finish what I start. At the time, I remember considering changing my project to non-fiction, but I also recognised that I didn’t yet have the distance to reflect well. In a way, creating Grace and Emma from the sisters within an already existing fiction allowed me to garner the strength to look at the spaces I had just occupied with my children, really for the first time. It wasn’t painful, no, but it was difficult to write, primarily because writing and researching became a teacher for me. I was learning while I was writing. Oddly, it was later, after I won the Hungerford Award and throughout this publication process that I felt I was revisiting this long-ago place, and that did feel disorientating at first. It took me a while to know how to talk about the connections between my novel and my real-life experience, but again I garnered strength from the place I had come from and all the people who had once visited it and since talked about it. Ultimately, I think that’s important: that we do revisit and talk. It helps us not just to make sense, but also to acknowledge what people genuinely go through. It can be quite releasing simply to acknowledge.
What an exquisite gem of a book with which to begin a new year!
Rashida Murphy’s collection The Bonesetter’s Fee and other stories was runner-up in the 2021 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award and has been published by Spineless Wonders as part of the award prize.
The twenty stories that make up the collection—a few short enough to be considered flash fiction—are clever, quiet, surprising. Some are wickedly humorous (e.g. ‘Strands of Jupiter’), others heartbreaking (e.g. ‘When the sky breaks’). Many tell stories of truths and lies about identity—what is lost, found, forged, inherited, what is clung to, thrown away.
While there is no continuous narrative running through the collection, as I thought about the work long after turning the last page I held in my mind the image of a endearingly quiet, intelligent young girl, watching the folly around her, learning the value of words and of silence, knowing ‘a girl’s worth is not in the symmetry of her bones’. Rashida Murphy has done her justice.
This year, like the last, has thrown up many things that have taken time away from reading, but I seem to have found more solace in books than ever before. Perhaps that’s attributable to what I’ve chosen to read; perhaps it’s also that I instinctively turn to books when the world around me makes no sense. I’m grateful to all the authors who have allowed me to travel vicariously and who have reminded me that one of the greatest gifts of reading is a fostering of compassion.
A few stats:
Books read: 26 (excluding the many read for research)
Women authors: 19
Australian authors: 21
Western Australian authors: 15
Indigenous authors: 2 (obvious room for improvement)
I’m never good at choosing one favourite anything, but I will admit to feeling bereft on finishing Donald Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, winner of the 2020Booker Prize, and it took me ages to recover from it. And Robyn Mundy’s Cold Coast took my breath away—literary historical fiction at its finest. One of the highlights of the year, for me, was the chance to interview Robyn live at Beaufort Street Books in November, her fleeting visit to Perth just squeezing in before the borders between WA and Tasmania closed.
This year I introduced a new series of author interviews, Talking (new) fiction, and featured six new novels that I loved, and loved delving into:
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...