Category Archives: Writing

In praise of the ordinary…

This week’s research reading unearthed a quote from James Joyce that I reacted to strongly in positive and negative ways.

I dislike the opposition it sets up. Joyce apparently did not accord much respect to journalists, and it’s clear here that he had an elitist view of who and what ‘writers’ were and were not.

Also, it’s a lofty, arrogant piece of ‘advice’—perhaps no surprise that Joyce was giving it to a female writer, Djuna Barnes. It made me wonder about who Joyce’s cosy little of club of ‘writers’ might actually be. I suspect that it would not include too many women.

And yet, and yet…Joyce’s words express something I believe about fiction, although not in the absolute and exclusive way Joyce seems to have intended it. They acknowledge the unremarkable, the quotidian, the minutiae of life as fundamental subjects of fiction.

A writer must never write about the extraordinary. That is for the journalist.

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2016 speeches #3: Battye Library’s 60th anniversary

Here is the last of the 2016 speeches I’m posting here, this one given on the occasion of the Battye Library of Western Australian History’s 60th anniversary…

 

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The staff at the Battye Library saw a lot of me in the first half of 2016. I am writing a work of narrative non-fiction about the artist Kathleen O’Connor, and I spent about four months of this year here, in the reading room, working through collected papers.

One day someone asked me about what I was doing and seemed surprised that I do all my own research. While it’s true that somewhere in the world there do exist those rare and endangered writers who can afford to commission others to put in the hours, I’m not one of them. But what’s more important: even if I were, I would still have been practically living in the reading room this year.

I can’t even imagine how I would brief someone else to do my research. While researching, I am not only gathering what I set out to find; I am also discovering what I could not have imagined was there. I am slowly, incrementally, forming impressions that guide what else I might do. I am making choices. Asking myself questions. I am beginning to make connections between disparate things. For me, the threads of research and creation are sometimes so enmeshed that they can only be disentangled with the benefit of hindsight.

An example: One of the stories in my collection Inherited (UWA Publishing) begins with a young woman, Paige, who becomes obsessed with the watercolour paintings of an artist referred to in the story only as The Famous Politician’s Wife. Western Australian readers may recognise her as Margaret Forrest.

My interest in Forrest began when I edited the late Frank Crowley’s biography of her husband, John Forrest, many years ago. Noting that Margaret Forrest was an artist, I was intrigued by this creative woman of a very different time, and came to the Battye Library to find out more.

In the manuscript collection are original letters written by Forrest. The experience of handling those fragile letters in her handwriting was profound; it was a physical connection to the dead. Those letters, cross-written across the page to conserve paper, told me things about who she was, and helped to contextualise the world in which she lived.

In the stacks were biographical articles that contributed fragments to the pictures I was building in my head. And then I found a piece of ephemera: a catalogue for Forrest’s only exhibition, which reproduced many of her beautiful watercolours. One painting particularly enchanted me: there was something ethereal about it. I was unfamiliar with the botanical specimen, a Byblis gigantea, but after more research, I discovered that the mauve of the flower in Forrest’s painting meant that it was fading, close to dying. It was that small piece of information that, in a circuitous way, created the framing character of my story, Paige, who, like the flower, is fading from life.

Circuitous is the right adjective to describe what I do here. I try to think how I could have made the leaps of imagination that transformed an interest into that story some other way than by being here, hands-on, and I can’t.

All libraries, all archives, are important to creative writers. This year I have also worked in the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and libraries in London, Bath and Paris. I have relished these experiences; I have been inspired by them. But this library means more to me because its purpose is to preserve our heritage, and while I often make creative forays into places and histories unconnected to me, I will always be a writer fascinated by the stories and people of my place.

I have several more projects that I am itching to begin, so the library staff is going to be seeing a lot more of me.

Thank you, Battye Library, and Happy Anniversary.

 

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7 weeks in 20 photos…

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National Art Library, V&A Museum (London)

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George Orwell and Dylan Thomas drank there… (London)

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On top of the world… (Lerwick, Shetland)

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The lovely Jeena McNab, McNab’s Kippers (Lerwick, Shetland)

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and Jeena’s mother, former herring girl Rita McNab

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The youngest reader I’ve ever signed a book for… (Shetland Library, Lerwick)

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and the first ladder I’ve ever signed (Edinburgh Book Shop)

 

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You can find a story anywhere… (Lower Slaughter)

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The Madhatter Bookshop (Burford)

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Bath Records Office

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Toppings & Co., Bath

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The closest I get to a selfie… (Brighton)

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When you look up, there might be wings… (Tours, France)

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or a wingless horse… (Tours)

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or lions… (Pont-Aven)

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Unforgettable… (Chateau Chenonceaux, Loire Valley)

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Forest art, looking down… (Concarneau)

 

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Don’t forget to read the plaques… (Quai Voltaire, Paris)

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and listen to what the birds tell you… (Paris)

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And always, always remember to visit the books… (Paris)

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Northern-bound…

I will be setting off soon, bound for a northern autumn—some familiar places and some I’ve never been to. The trip will be a combination of book promotion (for Elemental in the UK) and book research (for a work of creative non-fiction coming out in 2018, and my fiction-in-progress which is still, well, in progress).

As well as visiting various bookshops in Scotland and England, I’ll be doing a couple of author talks. One is at the Shetland Library, Lerwick, on 14 September, where I spent some time researching in 2007. As you can see, I still have my library bag!

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The other is at the delightfully named Madhatter Bookshop, Burford, on 19 September. How could anyone resist a shop that sells books and hats?

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Details and links are on the Events page.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favourite photos of the autumnal north…

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Inspired by time and place…

A lot of research went into the writing of my second novel, Elemental—and research is something I love. I remember missing the first half of a teleconference because I was so engrossed in something I was researching on the net that I forgot the time! But possibly the most exciting part was visiting places in the UK where the novel is set: the Shetland Islands, fishing villages in the north-east of Scotland, Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.

Here are a few photographs from those visits, along with some brief extracts from the novel they inspired.

Fishing villages

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I was born in a village as far north-east as you can go on the Scottish mainland, closer to Norway than London. Roanhaven was only two miles from the town of Gadlehead, and I’m told they’re all the one place now. But back then, oh, we were a folk apart, we thought Gadlehead as much a stranger-place as Fraserburgh to the north, Collieston to the south, and all those inland villages where Ma would sell fish from the creel on her back.

Pink granite

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That wind!…Every year it took a little more of the houses in Tiller Street, wearing them away grain by grain. Not the frames, no, for the pink granite of Gadlehead will survive more generations than I’ll ever know, but the soft matter between that yields to the elements.

Seaboots

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Jockel Buchan, an old fisherman, strode through the shallows to reach me. Waded in, he did, almost to the knees of his great seaboots.

The Knab, Lerwick

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The Knab is spectacular. You can see forever from its wild summit. Rabbits scamper this way and that among the gorse and marigolds, and the cliff face is home to hundreds of puffins hunkering down among the small mauve flowers…

Puffins

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Aye, they are the strangest little things, birds that look as though they’ve been put together on the Lord’s day off by someone with a sense of humour—a hodgepodge thrown together with the bits left over from other birds…

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In fine company…

Image-for-ECU-SW-student-news-Aug-2013The Mt Lawley campus of Edith Cowan University, in Perth, is currently holding an exhibition called ‘Celebration of the Book’, which showcases the published creative work of graduates of the university’s higher degree program in writing (PhD, Masters and Honours), as well as some of the academic staff involved in the program.

Candidates graduating from these programs undertake a major creative work plus an accompanying exegesis; my PhD thesis, for example, consisted of a novel (submitted under the title ‘Ellipsis’ and subsequently published as The Sinkings) and an exegesis comprising two substantial essays, one on the subject of ambiguous genre and the other on ambiguous gender.

Many of the graduates of ECU’s higher degree writing program have gone on to achieve publication; outstanding novels that spring to mind—products of that program—include The Alphabet of Light and Dark (Danielle Wood), A New Map of the Universe (Annabel Smith), The Nature of Ice (Robyn Mundy), Finding Jasper (Lynne Leonhardt) and The Albanian (Donna Mazza). Even that abbreviated list includes one Vogel Award winner and one T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner, as well as four short- or long-listings for other major awards. To quote from the exhibition catalogue:

From 1999 to the start of 2013, twenty-one writing students have graduated with a Higher Degree from Edith Cowan University. More than half of their projects have resulted in significant publications. Many of our alumni have carved careers as professional authors and academics, mentoring a new generation of writing students. From a small base comes an impressive collection of printed works. As part of our 2013 Celebration of the Book Exhibition, Edith Cowan University is proud to showcase a selection of creative writing publications, with supporting comments from the authors.

I feel proud to be included among the writers featured in the catalogue (you can download a copy via the link here)—writers whose work I admire, many of them friends, and/or colleagues in various capacities.

So congratulations to ECU, to exhibition curator Robyn Mundy, to all the writers exhibited (full list below), and to one supervisor, in particular, who has been thanked so often that there is talk of a fan club (he would hate that!)—Dr Richard Rossiter.

And what fine company it is!
Dr Suzanne Covich
Dr Fran Cusworth
Dr Maureen Helen
Dr Simone Lazaroo
Dr Julia Lawrinson
Dr Lynne Leonhardt
Dr Donna Mazza
Dr Vahri McKenzie
Dr Anne Morgan
Dr Robyn Mundy
Dr Ffion Murphy
Professor Glen Phillips
Dr Marcella Polain
Associate Professor Richard Rossiter
Dr John Charles Ryan
Dr Annabel Smith
Professor Andrew Taylor
Dr Terry Whitebeach
Dr Danielle Wood

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History, fiction and ‘truth’ in The Sinkings

History, fiction and truth seem to be on the agenda for discussion again in the wake of recent novels such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. Here’s a version of a talk I presented at the Perth Writers’ Festival in 2009, subsequently published on the website of the late (and lamented) journal Indigo.

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DSCN3520A discussion about history and notions of ‘truth’ as these relate to a work of fiction seems to demand some explanation from the writer of what is ‘real’ in the novel.

The inspiration for The Sinkings came from reports (recorded in many sources) that the remains of a murdered former convict known at the time of his death, in 1882, as Little Jock were initially identified at autopsy as those of a woman. This ‘fact’ comes from the historical record and is in that sense ‘real’.

Much of the historical narrative in The Sinkings—the events leading up to the murder—is constructed using names, dates, places, events and reportage found in archives. But I can’t claim ‘truth’ for these ‘real’ aspects of The Sinkings.

I’m a novelist interested in history, not a historian. My fascination with history always veers towards the ‘what if?’ questions, an imaginative connection with people and events as a way in to art, rather than an objective pursuit of evidence and facts—although the latter undeniably has its seductions.

Many of the named characters who inhabit the historical narrative did exist, but you can’t divine character from fragments of fact found in archives, and I’ve had to imagine these people into being. I tried, wherever possible, to be attentive to little clues I saw in the records, but being faithful to the record is not the same thing as being faithful to the person. What I’ve written is a product of my imaginative engagement with what I found.

Similarly, I have had to invent scenes and events to fill in the significant gaps in the story of ‘what happens’—things that are simply unknowable of a life seen from a distance of 150 years.

The subjective nature of how I’ve used and interpreted these ‘real’ elements in The Sinkings is, to some extent, transparent. The novel’s structure has a contemporary narrative (Willa’s story) documenting the process of research for a historical narrative (Little Jock’s story), so a reader can witness, from what Willa discovers and what eludes her, where the limits of ‘knowing’ are and where the inventions lie.

The voice of the historical strand, too, announces its own ambivalence, its invention, when it says:

Perhaps it begins with a lone carrion crow flying over a cabin.

It’s a version of ‘once upon a time’, clearly outside the realm of the factual. This ‘perhaps’ voice reappears from time to time, a reminder that although the inspiration for the story might be ‘real’, this is fiction.

History and truth are, in any case, uneasy bedfellows.

When I was researching The Sinkings, I happened to read about a device that landscape artists used to use for sketching, called a camera obscura. It’s a box-like device that captures an accurate outline of the landscape in front of the artist, who then uses this flat image a guide, or a base on which to create.

It occurred to me that in some ways, a writer’s research can be like this. We go to archives in search of facts, records, evidence to use as a base, later to be reworked into story, made three-dimensional. But then I realised that there’s a crucial difference. The evidence of the camera obscura—the flat image of veracity, of truth—is unmediated in the way that archival records are.

I don’t think I really appreciated this before I began my research, but I came to understand that sometimes the sources we value highly as ‘truth’ are subjective because they are mediated. They are the product of fallible human beings.

Here’s an example from my experience. In Scotland, there was no system of compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages until 1855; before this, people often just guessed how old they were. Many times in primary sources, I came across comments like ‘I am about 14’, ‘I think I’m 35’. So a census record giving a person’s age might not be true.

And there are also the matters of intention and accident. A scene in The Sinkings with a census-taker trying to get information out of Little Jock’s family shows how a process of questions asked and answers given might result in a fabrication. What if the person being questioned has cause to give a false answer? What if the interviewer has an interest in falsifying the record? Or is lazy or incompetent? Or simply mishears or misinterprets the answers? A hundred and fifty years later, we read the census data and accept it as truth, but, in the words of a learned philosopher, it ain’t necessarily so.

At Little Jock’s trial in 1857 for stealing a red woollen shirt, many people were supposedly telling ‘the truth’. Little Jock himself was one of them: And this I declare to be truth, he said, after telling the court, among other lies, that his name was Peter Lennie. Then came a raft of witnesses contradicting his account, all saying, And this is truth. Court officials then testified to his previous convictions in different names, each official declaring, And this is truth.

I imagined another kind of truth: Mary, the woman Little Jock calls Mother, watching all of this, knowing that these superficial lies are only the tip of the iceberg:

His name is not Peter Lennie, she thinks. He is not a native of Belfast. There is much else that is false in his declaration of truth—but then he knows for himself, and because of the pact between them, that truth is a servant, not a master. He is not Peter Lennie. He is not Patrick Lunney. But she weeps because he is hers. And this is truth.

sinkings_cover copyWhat I’ve brought to the page in The Sinkings is historical but not history, informed ‘let’s pretend’, not truth. I gratefully acknowledge the debt of the fiction to its sources without making any claims on them. But as Willa says in The Sinkings: there are all kinds of memorials. It mattered to me, and I would like readers to know, that in the view recorded by the camera obscura, there once really was the small, indeterminate figure of a maybe-man called Little Jock.

© Amanda Curtin 2009

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