The Lieutenant: Interview

An Interview with Kate Grenville

Q. Like The Secret River, The Lieutenant tells a story of a European newcomer's interaction with Australia's indigenous people. What drew you to return to this period of our history?

When I was researching The Secret River I was struck by how that period was full of human dramas of love, hatred, ambition and intrigue. The early days of settlement in Australia seem to have been "the best of times and the worst of times", bringing out both the glorious and the terrible in people. For a novelist, those powerful stories are irresistible - they cry out to be told in a dramatic form.

In The Secret River I told a rather dark story about that period in which settlers came into conflict with indigenous people. But there were many different kinds of settlement and many different kinds of settlers. The Lieutenant gave me the opportunity to explore a more positive side of that period - so that the two books form a mirror-image of each other, a kind of ying and yang.

In The Secret River, most of the settlers are unable to engage with the indigenous people. It's a story about a conversation that never gets off the ground. The Lieutenant is about two people who find a way to start speaking to each other and together make an indestructible bond.

One is a young lieutenant, a soldier with the First Fleet. The other is a child from the Gadigal people, a young girl who teaches him her language. In the extraordinary world of Sydney Cove in the first years of settlement, these two people forge a friendship like no other. When the young man has to make a choice between the world of His Majesty's service and the world of the Gadigal, he realises he's changed. There's no going back.

When I came across the germ of this story in historical sources, I knew I had to try to tell it - I wanted others to feel the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck excitement I was feeling about these two people and what happened to them.

Q. The story is a re-imagined account of the real life experience of First Fleet astronomer William Dawes. Can you tell us a little about how you researched Dawes' story and the process of weaving fact into fiction?

In Tim Flannery's marvellous book The Birth of Sydney I came across an extract from the "Sydney Language notebooks" of William Dawes. Dawes was a young lieutenant with the First Fleet. He was also the astronomer to the expedition, and set up the first observatory, on what's now Dawes' Point in Sydney. He was also something of a linguist, and set out to learn the local Gadigal language. He wrote down word lists and grammar, but he also wrote down verbatim conversations with the Gadigal - and especially with a young girl called Patyegarang. Between the lines of these conversations a most extraordinary relationship can be heard developing - affectionate and warm, but most of all, playful. Even when they only shared a few words, these two people were able to share irony and wit in a way that makes the notebooks electrifying to read.

When a settler was fatally speared, Dawes was one of the soldiers ordered to go out on a punitive expedition, presenting him with a terrible choice: to do his duty as a soldier, or to be loyal to a friendship that had changed his view of the world.

The challenge I faced was to keep the raw drama of Dawes' real story, while making a fiction that could enlarge its scope and significance.

Because the real story was so powerful, I kept the real names and the actual time-frame for many drafts. I found it hard to let them go, but when I did, I realised I could shift the story into another gear and enlarge its scope and significance.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing The Lieutenant was that my main character was an astronomer and mathematician, so I had to try to come to grips with enough Kepler and Newton and Euclid to make sense of him - although I myself can barely add two and two.

As I did with The Secret River, I spent a lot of time on the places where the story happened: Dawes Point (Dawes' observatory is long gone, but archaelogists have excavated what they think are the foundations) and Botany Bay, where the punitive expedition took place. In both those places I was very aware of the spirit of the first Australians. The story of Dawes and Patyegarang came to represent not just the past, but the present and future too, and the conversations we might all have.


Q. The Secret River is a book that has been embraced not only in Australia, but has been loved and lauded right around the world. How has the reaction of foreign audiences differed from that of Australians to this very Australian story?

The Secret River IS a very Australian story, but it's also a universal one about belonging. All over the world, communities are made up of people who were born there, and people who came there. The tensions, and also the riches of that mix are familiar to many societies in this global village of ours. How do you make place for yourself? What does it mean to belong somewhere? What happens if two sets of people want the same place? How do we learn to live together?

As I wrote The Secret River I wasn't thinking of it finding a readership beyond the culture in which it's set, but the book has been translated into many languages and finds a readership in cultures as different as Canada and Israel, Italy and Germany. That's made me think about my own culture in a different way - the issues we face here spring out of our history, but they're global too.


Q. At the end of the novel there is an incredibly poignant description of a ship leaving Sydney harbour, looking back at the country it is reluctantly leaving behind. Do you have any plans to return to the early settlement period of our history again in the future?

There are still so many amazing stories to tell! My family history gave me the starting-point for The Secret River and another family story is niggling away at me, wanting to be told, about that time. It may come to nothing - sometimes what looks like a great story turns out to be just a grand empty room when you try to bring it to human life. We'll see. I'm still on that ship, I think, still living with that lieutenant and his world. 

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