Talking (new) fiction: Brooke Dunnell’s The Glass House

Unpublished manuscript awards such as the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and the Fogarty Literary Award have brought into the light many new writers with impressive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to introduce Brooke Dunnell and her debut novel, The Glass House, which won the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a WA writer aged 18 to 35.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.

Gaining momentum

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.

Mothering Evie

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.

Sinister dreams

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.

Genre hopping

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.

Towards publication

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!

The Glass House is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Brooke via Instagram, Twitter or her website

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2022 Hungerford Award winner

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.

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The short and the short of it

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.

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ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist

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.

The winners will be announced on 20 October. More information on the Historical Novel Society Australasia site.

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Historical novelists longlisted

The longlists for the 2022 ARA Historical Novel Prize, run by the Historical Novel Society Australasia, were announced last week, and I was absolutely thrilled to see several favourite writers listed.

Congratulations to…

Adult category

Children’s/Young Adult category

Thanks to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers for posting the news last week. Lisa has reviewed several of the adult titles.

The shortlists will be announced on 28 September and the winners on 20 October.

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Bonesetting…

Well, not quite, but I love the word, and The Bonesetter’s Fee is the name of Rashida Murphy’s 2022 collection of short and flash fiction. I began this year’s posts by talking about this one, and soon I have the great good fortune to be talking about it with Rashida in person, at Bull Creek Library.

If you’re interested in memory, absences and heritage, in stories of migration, in writing and publishing, in watching the world, then please do join us—we’d love to see you there.

Author talk with Rashida Murphy
Thursday 4 August 2022
6.45 (refreshments) for 7.00pm
Bull Creek Library, 24 Leichhardt Street, Bull Creek
Entry $5
Bookings essential

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WA Premier’s Book Awards winners

Congratulations to the winners of the WA Premier’s Book Awards:

  • Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer: Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (Magabala Press)
  • Premier’s Prize for Writing for Children: Shirley Marr, A Glasshouse of Stars (Penguin Random House)
  • Daisy Utemorrah Award for Unpublished Indigenous Junior/YA Fiction: Mariah Sweetman, Robert Runs
  • WA Writer’s Fellowship: Nandi Chinna
L to R: Shirley Marr, Nandi Chinna, Elfie Shiosaki, Mariah Sweetman

And to all of the wonderful writers who were shortlisted: congratulations on your achievements, too. You probably made the judges’ task of deciding winners very difficult.

I generally don’t like having my photo taken, but here is one from the awards night that is possibly my favourite ever: buying books, not facing the camera…

Photo credits: Sally Kelso, State Library of WA

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Talking (new) fiction: Sharron Booth’s The Silence of Water

Sharron Booth’s debut novel, The Silence of Water, is a beautiful work of historical fiction. I admire it immensely—as you can see from my endorsement on the cover.

In constructing questions to pose to Sharron, I think I was influenced by memories of my own exploration of Western Australian convict history for The Sinkings, and the ever widening circles of research that help a writer to understand the people, places and social worlds of the past. It’s evident from her responses that, like me, Sharron formed deep emotional attachments to those she researched, and to artefacts of the past—sometimes to be found beneath one’s feet.

Sharron emigrated from the UK (Yorkshire) to Western Australia as a child, and works as a professional writer. Her creative work has been published in literary journals and newspapers and broadcast on ABC Radio. The Silence of Water was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award—once again proving what a wonderful source of new talent this award represents.

It’s the turn of the century when Fan’s mother, Agnes, announces the family is moving to Western Australia to take care of Agnes’s father—a man they’ve never spoken of before now. Fan finds herself a stranger in a new town living in a home whose currents and tensions she cannot read or understand.

Resentful of her mother’s decision to move, Fan forms an alliance with her grandfather, Edwin Salt, a convict transported to Australia in 1861. As she listens to memories of his former life in England, Fan starts snooping around the house, riffling through Edwin’s belongings in an attempt to fill the gaps in his stories. But the secrets Fan uncovers will test the family’s fragile bonds forever, and force Edwin into a final reckoning with the brutality of his past

When you witness a different crime

AC: Sharron, The Silence of Water is a work of fiction, but it is partly based on people and events drawn from convict history. Was there something in your research into that history that immediately presented itself to you as being a subject for fiction or did you arrive at that point gradually, through the process of accumulating facts and impressions? What was it that lit the spark?

SB: I knew that I needed to write about these events and people, particularly the women, immediately after I read the medical reports and newspaper accounts of the crime that Edwin Salt committed. They upset me so much. I felt as if I had witnessed a very different crime to the one being reported. In the early days, I’d imagined I might write a fairly straightforward account of the life of a Western Australian convict. Those documents reminded me there was no such thing as a straightforward account and that archives always reveal the biases of their times. I didn’t have a clue how I would do it but I knew I wanted to write about the women I had read about, in addition to the convict.

Fragments, glimpses and whispers

AC: The novel is told from the alternating points of view of three characters: Edwin Salt, his daughter Agnes and his granddaughter Fan. Fan’s narrative anchors the present of the novel—the events of 1906—while Edwin’s and Agnes’s range between 1906 and earlier times. There are always challenges in using a non-linear approach, but could you talk about the opportunities such a structure gives a writer in telling the story of three generations?

SB: Before I did much research, my original intention had been to write a past/present dual narrative. Then I discovered that Agnes had left Western Australia at around eighteen years old and started a new life in South Australia. Based on the records, she didn’t seem in a hurry to return. Creatively, I liked the idea of the family conflict that could arise from a decision to move back to Western Australia after a long absence. Plus, moving states at a young age in the late 19th century seemed like a gutsy move for a woman. It made me want to give her a bigger role in the story.

The interwoven structure allows the reader to watch Edwin, Agnes and Fan as they grow up, struggle, make decisions, lie, behave badly. The structure lets the reader know parts of each character that not even other characters know about. It makes for a richer experience of the story.

It also allows the reader to go on the journey with Fan as she uncovers long-buried family secrets. I think it more realistically reflects the way we tend to find things out about our families: in fragments, glimpses and whispers, and almost never in an ordered, linear way.

Bad wives and mothers?

AC: The adolescent Fan is my favourite character—imaginative, independent, witty, and endearing in her fascination with the past and its secrets; a strong girl in the process of becoming a strong woman. But many of your female characters—Eliza, Mary Ann, Cath, Agnes—are strong women, albeit within the context of their times and socio-economic constraints. Were you conscious of foregrounding women’s stories in a novel that is to some extent shaped by the life of one man?

SB: When I read the archival material about Mary Ann and Cath (two of Edwin’s three wives), my emotions ranged from anger to compassion. Mary Ann was decried publicly as a bad wife and bad mother and yet contemporary understanding might suggest she was suffering from post-natal depression. Cath was arrested for using offensive language, an offence that was used almost exclusively against women. I wanted to bring both women out from under the weight of the records. I consciously looked for moments of resistance; they were hard to find but they were there. I used those fragments as starting points for thinking about character. For example, one of the most enduring features about fictional Cath is her voice. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind. People pay attention when she talks. Agnes remembers the sound of Cath’s voice long after her mother has died. I did this to ‘write back’ to the fact that Cath had been criminalised for using her voice.

Flowers on an unmarked grave

AC: Your research for the novel was wide-ranging, taking you from Western Australia to South Australia to various places in the United Kingdom, and from archives and libraries to the kind of experiential research that involves communing with the past through the physical remains to be found in houses and churches, streets and landscapes. Where did you find your greatest inspiration?

SB: I loved the archival research, but visiting the places where my characters had lived got me properly under the skin of this story. Two moments stand out: one in Semaphore and one in Edinburgh. I was walking along Semaphore beach, minding my own business, when in my imagination I saw a girl running over the dunes towards the ocean, her hair trailing behind her. She seemed to fly into the ocean. It was one of those between-two-worlds moments that writers sometimes talk about but I secretly didn’t believe in, until it happened to me. I knew this girl was Fan and that she was here to shake things up.

The second was in Edinburgh in a small church graveyard on a quiet, sunny afternoon. I laid some flowers on the unmarked grave of a woman to whom I had no connection except the privilege of having time and resources to pursue my interest in her life. I told her that I had no idea why this story had chosen me, but no matter what, I would try to do justice to her. The novel did not really come together for me until that afternoon.

Lucky charms

AC: As someone powerfully influenced by physical objects, I’m wondering whether you also acquired anything of this kind during your research, something that helped you to make emotional connections with your material. Was there a talisman sitting on your desk while you wrote?

SB: I also find physical objects inspiring. They ground me to the truth of my characters, and to place, through the fog of the writing process.

My desk was crowded with lucky charms while I wrote The Silence of Water. I collected shells and rocks from Semaphore beach. I pinned all my train tickets from the UK research trip on a cork board. When I visited York, Western Australia, via the old convict route from Greenmount, I dug up a stone from part of the original convict-laid road.

I cut my hands and broke fingernails liberating that rock from the ground. I could only imagine the effort it had taken to put it there more than 150 years ago. It inspired a scene in the novel where Edwin and his fellow convicts work on a road gang.

Watery places

AC: Could you talk about the symbolism of water in the novel?

SB: The ocean is a place of duality. It both separates and connects places. I read somewhere that the ocean symbolises ‘the terrifying sublime’: it’s spiritually uplifting but it can also kill you. In the novel, some characters find great solace in watery places and others meet their end there.

The ocean is essential to my spiritual wellbeing and so it was perhaps unsurprising that it found its way into my fiction. I can’t say I intended to write about water but that’s what happened! I’ve given my love of the ocean to Fan, although she is much braver than I am. For Fan it is a place of calm, compared to the soup of unspoken tension in her Fremantle house.

For Agnes, too, the water is important: she associates the sounds and smells of the river with her mother and the precious times they spent together. Agnes’s relationship to water symbolises her grief and how she deals with significant losses.

I found it interesting that Edwin, Agnes and Fan all made long journeys across water to start new lives. I wanted to explore how people respond to unfamiliar places by asking the question: is it ever possible to truly escape the past?

Silences and the forgotten

AC: Are you naturally drawn to the past, and to historical fiction? Do you see yourself continuing to work in this genre? Which I suppose is another way of asking if you are currently at work on something new!

SB: I’m particularly drawn to stories about how actions of the past, particularly in families, influence the present. While The Silence of Water is historical fiction, I see it primarily as a family story that just happens to be set in the past.

At a broader level I’m also fascinated by the role that secrets and silences play in narratives of Western Australia’s identity. Reading the archives is eye-opening, but so is the daily news.

I’m working on a non-fiction project inspired by some now-forgotten Western Australian women writers, as well as a novel that is set in the more recent past. It’s wonderful to be writing something new, now that the characters from The Silence of Water are making their own way in the world.

The Silence of Water is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Sharron on Facebook, Instagram, or via her website

Photo credits: author photo by Jess Gately; photo of artefacts by author

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WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlists

The State Library of Western Australia has just announced the shortlists for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Congratulations to everyone!

WA Writer’s Fellowship ($60,000): for a WA writer to progress or develop a project

  • Caitlin Maling—poet
  • David Whish-Wilson—teacher and author
  • John Mateer—poet, writer and curator
  • Julia Lawrinson—children’s and YA author
  • Nandi Chinna—researcher and poet 

Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer ($15,000): for a debut work by a WA writer published in 2021

  • Debesa by Cindy Solonec (Magabala Books)
  • Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor (Fremantle Press)
  • Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki (Magabala Books)
  • Locust Summer by David Allan-Petale (Fremantle Press)
  • Vociferate by Emily Sun (Fremantle Press) 

The Premier’s Prize for Writing for Children ($15,000): for a work by a WA writer published in 2021

  • A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • One Thousand Snapshots by Steve Heron (Shawline Publishing Group)
  • Stellarphant by James Foley (Fremantle Press)
  • Wednesday Weeks and the Tower of Shadows by Cristy Burne and Denis Knight (Hachette Australia)
  • Where do the Stars Go? by Katie Stewart (Fremantle Press) 

The Daisy Utemorrah Award for Unpublished Indigenous Junior and YA ($15,000 and a publishing contract with Magabala Books): open to Indigenous writers across Australia

  • Robert Runs by Mariah Sweetman
  • Jack Trials: Whistling Spider by Sean Owen
  • That one summer by Shirleyann Wilson  

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Talking (new) fiction: David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House

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.

Hard citizens

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.

Archival discoveries

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.

The Sawdust House is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow David on Twitter and Instagram, and contact him via his website

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

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