Lilian's Story: Readers' Notes

Lilian's Story tells the story of a woman born at the turn of the twentieth century who begins her life in a respectable middle-class family, and ends it as a famous eccentric on the streets of Sydney.

Where the idea came from:
Lilian's Story
is very loosely based on a famous Sydney eccentric, Bea Miles. She was an old woman when I was a university student and from the safe distance of a bus I often saw her sprawled massively on the church steps at Railway Square in army greatcoat, tennis visor, and split sandshoes.

Like everyone else who grew up in Sydney at that time, I know a few things about her: that she was from a respectable middle-class family and had gone to one of Sydney's top schools; that she had briefly gone to university and dropped out under mysterious circumstances; that she had been institutionalised as insane; and that on her release from the asylum had made money by offering recitations from Shakespeare ( sixpence for a sonnet, a shilling for a scene from a play).

There were enough contradictions in these stories about her to be intriguing. A nicely-brought-up university student with a love of Sakespeare had somehow turned into a huge, loud, uninhibited eccentric bag-lady, with no fear of what people thought, and no sense of what she "should" be. What story could make sense of that shift?

I wasn't terribly interested in the real person of Bea Miles, but the few things I knew about her seemed to provide a framework through which I could explore other issues, such as:

What was it like to be a clever woman born at a time when women were not even supposed to go to high school, much less university? What effect would that limitation have on you?

What does it mean to refuse the life-story that has been prepared for you, and choose another of your own making? Bea Miles should have grown up to be a conventional wife and mother but had forcefully re-written the script for her life.

Once you step outside society's norms and aims, what alternative structure can give your life a sense of purpose? What might you put in place of motherhood, comfort, the trappings of a pleasant middle-class life?

I didn't do any research about Bea Miles before I wrote the book because I felt I didn't want to know too much about her - I was only using her story as a catalyst. I was afraid that if I knew too much about the real person, I wouldn't be free to explore the issues I wanted to, and to invent whatever I needed for that exploration.

The book took about two years to write, part-time, around a part-time job. During that time my first book, a collection of stories called Bearded Ladies was published.  Lilian's Story wasn't quite finished when I submitted it to the Australia/Vogel prize, but the prize has an age limit which I was just about to exceed, so while the judges were deliberating I finished it.

When I won, I could hardly believe it. I'd written several other unpublished novels and published the book of short stories, but this book was different.  Rather than planning it in detail beforehand, I just plunged in to a subject that had captured my imagination, and let the subject lead the way.  It was an immensely enjoyable book to write - it was the first time I'd written a book "just for me" - without any thought of doing it according to the how-to-write books, or pleasing a readership.

Paradoxically, a book I thought i was writing just for myself has found a wide readership.  It's taught in schools and universities as far away as Italy, from where I often receive student letters about it. When the film of the novel was made it had a good run, partly because of its three great stars - Toni Collette, Ruth Cracknell and Barry Otto.

The writing process
With earlier books I'd made a plan in advance, but I'd found that although a plan is reassuring it can also stifle your imagination. With this book I decided to write in a much more unstructured way and see what happened. I used the few facts I knew about Bea Miles like navigation points - peaks of known events - and I'd invent a scenario that would make the journey between them convincing.

I didn't start at the beginning. Each day I'd write another "fragment" based on whatever trigger I had found that day - a photo of Sydney at her time, my personal memories of the places she'd frequented, stories people told me about her. I also found I could use some details from my own life and give them to her - for example her schoolyard has a lot in common with the playground of my own primary school. I discovered the great freedom of writing about things I knew about, without having to write about myself.

Taking a real person and the events of her life as a starting-point proved to be a tremendously energising way to work.  It freed me from the question "What happened?" and let me explore the more interesting one of "Why did it happen?" As I wrote, I had to imagine answers to that question that would be plausible, and would at the same time suggest the larger issues I was interested in: ideas about women and their power - or lack of it  - in the world. 

The answer I arrived at ( and I was now completely in the realm of invention) surprised and rather shocked me.  Looking back at the book over twenty years later, I can see that it explores issues that recur in all my other books: ideas about power - who has it, how might you get it, and what price you might have to pay for it.

It's also about the way each of us constructs a narrative, a picture of ourselves. When I'd finished Lilian's Story, I realised I'd only told one side of the narrative, only one part of a bigger picture. 

With something of a sinking heart, I realised I was about to embark on the other side of the story.  Lilian's life is shaped by an act of sexual abuse perpetrated on her by her father.  The real mystery, I began to see, was not those who survive incest, as Lilian does, but those who commit it. What narrative are they telling themselves, by which they justify what they do?   Exploring that most difficult and confronting world would be the task of my next novel, Dark Places. 

Lilian's Story was an intensely enjoyable book to write.  Although Lilian is bent by what is done to her, she is never broken.  She re-creates herself, not in the image her culture expects of women, but in the image she chooses for herself.  She seizes  with both hands every joy and adventure offered to her, and in the end she, not her father, is the powerful one.  At the end of her life, after experiencing love as well as hate, delight as well as despair, she can say "I am ready for whatever comes next".