Searching for the Secret River (2006)

Searching for the Secret River is a memoir about the writing of Kate Grenville's international bestseller, The Secret River.

It tells the story of the research behind the novel – from the transcript of Grenville's ancestor's trial at the Old Bailey in 1805, to the information that contemporary historians are uncovering about what happened on the Australian frontier. It also takes the reader through the process of turning that research into living fiction – the false starts, dead ends and failures as well as the strokes of luck, flashes of inspiration and surprises.

It contains sections of personal memoir, the record of the research, and a journal of the evolution of the book from non-fiction to novel. It quotes sections of early drafts and compares them with the final version, and goes into some detail about technical issues such as point of view, voice and dialogue.

For anyone interested in the writing process – and in particular the writing of a historical novel – Searching for the Secret River provides a unique behind-the-scenes exploration.

The Secret River has proved to be a controversial book among Australian historians. They feel that fiction is an untrustworthy mechanism by which to understand the past. A novelist may alter, simplify or even distort the truth about history in ways the reader will not be aware of.

Kate Grenville has always had the same reservations about historical fiction. Even before The Secret River was completed, she was planning a book which would make transparent the process by which she'd adapted the historical record for the purposes of fiction, and her reasons for the decisions she made.

She says, "The subject matter of The Secret River is so important, and so politically charged, I didn't want readers to be able to say oh, it's only a novel –she just made it all up. The events and characters in the novel are adapted from the historical record. These things really did happen on our frontier, even if at a slightly different time and in a different place. I wanted readers to be able to retrace the journey I took in coming to terms with what I found about our history, and to see how I chose to adapt it for a novel."

Twenty years of teaching creative writing in universities, and three books about the writing process, were the other impetus for Searching for the Secret River. "Writing is such an enrichment of life – whether or not it results in publication – that I wanted to leave a record of my own process, so that others might not have to re-invent the wheel completely," Grenville says. "Historical fiction has its particular challenges for the writer – I would have loved to read a book like this one while I was writing The Secret River. It would have made the process a little less laborious."

Searching for the Secret River has become a classic for book groups, students and writers looking for guidance.

What Kate Grenville says about Searching for the Secret River

I’ve always been sceptical when writers spoke about stories “taking them over”, but  I’m hereby prepared to eat my words.  The Secret River took me over entirely for the five years of its writing – to the point where my children threatened to leave home if they heard the word “history” one more time. Searching for the Secret River, a memoir about the writing of that book, took me over in a more personal way – it brought me face-to-face with myself.

The whole thing started innocently enough, as a search into some family history. My mother had told me stories about the first of our family to come to Australia – my great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman was a lighterman on the Thames, pinched a load of timber and was transported for the term of his natural life. Within 6 years of arriving here, he’d become a free man and “taken up land” on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. He went on to make buckets of money, built a fine stone house, and was buried – so the story goes – in top hat and tails, with a box of sovereigns at his feet. (Unfortunately for his great-great-great granddaughter, the next generation proceeded to lose the lot.)

Once I started looking, it was surprisingly easy to find out quite a bit about his early life in London and his crime. Old Bailey trials were taken down in shorthand, and transcripts are online now. It was an astonishing feeling to hear my ancestor’s actual words as he tried to defend himself at his trial. From apprenticeship, baptismal and other records, I was able to reconstruct his London life and when I visited the UK I could walk the very streets and wharves where he’d been.

The picture of his life in Australia was much sketchier. I could find plenty of  information about his business wheelings and dealings, but not much else. 

It was all interesting enough, but my imagination wasn’t stirred by any of it – until the day of the “Walk for Reconciliation” across the Harbour Bridge in June 2000. This was a gathering of a couple of hundred thousand people to acknowledge the wrongs that had been done to the Aboriginal people in the past – part of a national movement called “Sorry Day”.

Near the end of the walk I met the eye of an Aboriginal woman watching the march, and we exchanged smiles. It was a warm moment. 

But that moment opened a door I’d never known was there. As our eyes met, I thought, “Her great-great-great grandfather was here when mine was.  They might even have met.”  That led to the next thought: “What kind of meeting would it have been? Would  they have smiled at each other, the way we just did?”

I thought that wasn’t very likely, and suddenly that bland phrase in the family story – “he took up land” – started to split open. He didn’t just “take up” land, he actually “took” land, from people who’d been living on it for forty thousand years. What had happened when he did that?

It was all very well to know about my ancestor’s business dealings, but what had gone on, exactly, up on that hundred acres on the Hawkesbury? In those days (about 1816) the river was the very limit of settlement – the frontier. Perhaps he’d been granted the land, or perhaps he’d just grabbed it and worried about the paperwork later.  He’d sailed up the river, he’d pushed the boat in among the mangroves, he’d struggled through them to dry land – and then what?

<>How had the local Aboriginal people taken the entry of this man and his family onto their traditional land? What had it been like, that very first day – what had happened when the Aboriginal people came out of the bush towards the Europeans? What had they done, and what did my great-great-great grandfather do? Had it been friendly (as of course I hoped) or distrustful, even violent?

That day on the Harbour Bridge, I decided to find out, and to write a biography of Solomon Wiseman – not the usual heroic-pioneer story, but one that would include the dark side of settlement.

But as I researched further, I found that there was no information whatever about Solomon Wiseman’s relationship with the people he displaced. That could mean that nothing happened: either that the Darug had gone from that part of the river by the time he “took up” land there, or that he found a way to co-exist with them. Or perhaps things had happened that it was in no one’s interests to record.

Either way, it was no good for someone who wanted to write a biography.

By now though, I’d started to see that my ancestor’s story was only part of a much bigger story – the story of white settlement in Australia. I realized that I could use what I knew of Wiseman, but turn his story into fiction so that I could tell the other part of it, the part I hadn’t found in the records.

The only problem was, I don’t much like historical fiction. As a reader, I find it frustrating. I want to ask “but how much of this really happened? Where does the history end and the fiction take over?”

The way I made peace with myself about writing a historical novel was to decide to write another book to stand alongside it – an account of what I’d done to the history as I turned it into fiction. Instead of hiding behind the sleight-of-hand of the novelist, I’d come clean about the whole process.

As I wrote the novel I took notes about what I was doing – how I was doing the research, what I was finding out, where I was coming to a dead end. I took notes about the “experiential” research I did – making a “slush lamp”, going on a small boat up the Hawkesbury in a storm, spending nights alone in the bush to get the feeling of what it might have been like there in 1816. I agonized about how to write it: should it be first person or third person? How was I going to fake eighteenth-century dialogue convincingly? I recorded all the false starts in the writing, the scenes that had to be thrown out, the awful lumpy bits of research sitting undigested in the story.

It was a little scary to be so frank, but liberating.

When the novel was finished and published, I got out all those notes and started putting them together. I’d imagined it as a simple record of the writing process but as I wrote it, it became something else as well: the memoir of my own internal journey. It was a journey into the past of my own family, my own childhood growing up in “white Australia” where Aborigines were invisible. Travelling into my personal past took me into the national past as well – all those tales of explorers and pioneers that had only told half the story, and left out the shadows.

It’s a funny hybrid of a book – sometimes booksellers don’t know whether to shelve it as memoir, or history, or as a how-to-write book. Well, it’s all of those. Whatever it is, it’s the ying to the novel’s yang – together they add up to a truth that neither can quite get to on its own.

Searching for the Secret River is published in Australia by Text Publishing.