In choosing, often, to write about people who are “the other” in some way, I hope that the fiction enlarges readers’ idea of their own selves. If we can recognise in “the other” some part of ourselves – perhaps a hidden or unrecognised part – our understanding is deepened. It’s much more difficult to fall back on simple (and falsifying) categories of “good and evil” or “them and us”, if we’ve come to see that we also contain both good and evil without ourselves and that we are also both “us” and “them”. It’s something stronger than intellectually understanding it, and it’s not the same as “compassion” – it’s about making the leap into empathy, into finding “the other” in oneself.
Making that leap can be difficult and confronting. It requires a suspension of the simplifying structures we assemble to make life manageable – our ideas, our stories about ourselves, the opinions we think are unquestionable truths. There’s a lot at stake in making that leap – on the other side of it you can find that all those safe certainties have evaporated. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable place to be, so familiar ways of thinking have a powerful inertia.
It’s not a leap that can be made by “thinking”. Some other, less defined experience has to take place – as it does when you look at an astonishing painting or hear a piece of music that speaks to you so that you have a moment of intense recognition. In my view, art isn’t about “communicating”. Part of the point is that you don’t quite understand what’s happening to you in that moment of intense feeling (and the artsist may not fully understand what he or she did in the making), but you can acknowledge that it’s happened, and something in you has shifted slightly as a result.
(Which is not to devalue intellect. There’s a place for abstract ideas, for logical argument, for rational understanding. But I don’t think they belong in the moment of either experiencing or making art. They belong, if you like, to the afterglow, when you try to understand, retrospectively, what the art did to you.
For me, fiction’s job is to take you (by which I mean both reader and writer) out of your comfort zone into the deep space of the new. There’s a natural resistance to that. That means that the texture of the prose, the moment-by-moment experience of reading, has to do everything it can to sneak past that resistance. In one way or another it has to amaze or delight or intrigue the reader enough to shake cracks in the wall of certainty. It’s not enough for the prose to get the reader from A to B. Every sentence has (ideally!) to carry a little jolt of energy that can’t be resisted, propelling the reader out of old habits of thinking and into those dangerous new places.
“The Secret River brought you to the attention of an international readership. Why do you think it was that book, rather than any of the earlier ones, that achieved that?”
The Secret River is about puzzles that people all over the globe are having to deal with in one way or another – who belongs where, what does the idea of belonging mean, how do we share this slightly-too-small planet? The history of humanity is the history of people moving from one place to another, frequently displacing another set of people in the process. It’s a painful process and one with no simple right and wrong. If we’re truthful, we should all be aware that our sense of belonging is fragile.
Dealing with that puzzle in a direct way can activate our protective shields – the “position” we take on, for example, asylum-seekers or Palestine. But a novel, safely set in another time and perhaps another place, is a way of slipping around behind th shield and coming to it freshly, beyond the deadlock of political debate.
“Some commentators have seen moral ambiguity in The Secret River and feel that you’ve let William Thornhill “off the hook”. Can you comment on those readings of the text?”
In my view, morality is usually “ambiguous”. Life must be gloriously simple for those lucky souls who can be sure of what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. But that kind of tidy polarity isn’t my experience of the world.
Moral polarity, in any case, doesn’t get you very far in trying to understand, and understanding is the only thing that might possibly change things for the better.
In the case of Thornhill, and all the early colonisers he typifies, to declare him simply a bad man would be to evade the hard task of understanding what happened on the Australian frontier. Seeing him as simply “evil” is as false as the idea (as taught in my schooldays) that the white colonists were pioneer heroes who did no wrong. Neither of these crude positions gets close to the reality. Both of them shut off any possibility of further explorations or understanding.
There seemed no point in writing a book about a monster, an unequivocally bad man. That would let us off the hook. Oh, we could smugly say, I’m not like that, I’d never do that. Then we turn away and there’s been no enlargement of understanding.
But the reason for writing the book was to delve into exactly that tricky area: us: that is, white Australians like me, who’ve benefited from what our ancestors did. Where can we stand, morally?
Exploring that question takes us far beyond easy labels. It takes us into understanding why a man like Thornhill might do what he does. That’s a complicated knot of many threads: his own past, his feeling for right and wrong, pressure from the culture around him, love for his family, self-interest … In the end, I felt he was a man neither better nor worse than most, but had been acted on by all those factors to do somethiong that was deeply wrong and which, in his heart, he knew to be deeply wrong.
It also takes us right into the present, back to us, where there’s no simple way to accommodate the wrongs that our ancestors did. The more I explored this troubling subject, the less sure I was of any simple answers. One thing I could see, though, was a moral imperative to try to tell the story of what had happened on the frontier – to tell it as truthfully as I could ( within the necessary shapings of fiction) and to tell it as fully as I could ( not leaving out the parts we flinch from). Acknowledgement seemed a necessary first step, without which nothing better was likely to happen.
I don’t think of myself as writing “historical novels” but as writing literary novels that happen to be set in the past. I’m not interested in the past per se ( the way a historian might be). I’m mainly interested in the present and its puzzles, and I’m trying to use the past as a prism through which to see those present puzzles in a new way.
This interview was with Susan Errington for Wet Ink, the Magazine of New Writing and took place in 2008.
“You’ve had a long and illustrious career as a writer, winning a number of prizes and developing a strong following. What keeps you writing now?”
Prizes and a following were never what made me write in the first place, so what keeps me writing now is what always did. Writing fiction seems to be the way I think – to take some kind of question and set characters and events off into that question. In seeing what the characters do, and what events start to emerge, the original question is explored, even if never answered. The question in The Secret River, for example, was: what was it like – moment by moment – to be one of the early colonists? Behind that was a bigger and more contemporary question: what does it mean to be a white Australian in the twenty-first century? What do we do with that colonial legacy of dispossession of Indigenous peoples?
“Your books are filled with fascinating characters, like Lilian, or William and Sal Thornhill. What do you enjoy most about creating characters?”
Enjoy might not be quite the word – I find it difficult and frustrating creating characters – there are exhilarating eureka moments, but not every day. It’s an exploring into an unknown land – I usually start off with a broad idea of a character but it undergoes a gradual morphing over the period of writing. Sal Thornhill began as a kind of party girl who deeply resents the life that her husband has imposed on her by his crime. In early drafts she got off the boat in Sydney, the wife of a convict, and started complaining – and didn’t let up for the next 300 pages. By the published version of the book she was a much richer and I hope more interesting character who’d been through a journey in coming to terms with her new life. Writing her character, experimenting with different responses she might have had, I felt I was learning a lot about how people behave, and why. It’s a kind of extended empathy, always surprising.
“Are you a writer for whom the characters are more important than the intricacies of the story?”
Stephen King says that plot is the last resort of the mediocre writers, and I think he’s right. It’s probably the least mind-expanding dimension of fiction. However – as King knows very well – a story does need a plot as well as characters and beautiful writing. The urge to follow a narrative thread is a powerful one in all of us. Fiction writers ignore it at our peril, I believe. I wish I’d realised that earlier – I would have made my first novels not just character-rich but also given them a stronger momentum of plot. King also says that a writer is well advised to start with a character and a situation rather than plot, and I’d agree with that. To get the machine going, I think you need character above all in early drafts. But to keep on going (in later drafts) plot is pretty important.
“In a 1994 interview with Publishers’ Weekly (US) you said that you were attracted to “harmonic characters”. What did you mean by that and how are these “harmonic characters created?”
What I meant was a rather pretentious image of a string instrument, where the string has a primary note, but by touching it lightly at other points on its length you get many other notes as well – harmonics. My idea was our “personalities” are a bit similar – we might have a primary personality, but we also have many other latent or secondary personalities which we can tap into when we write. So we might think of ourselves as “gregarious”, and that’s not wrong, but we can also, at the same time, be “solitary”, given different circumstances. Character or personality (in life and fiction) isn’t a laundry-list. Fundamentally there’s a mystery about our interior selves, like the essential mystery of our powerful response to music. Thinking things out too much and making characters too “consistent” impoverishes real understanding, I think.
“Some writes say they write for lovers or family. Others, like Tim Winton, describe themselves as middle-brow Australian writers. Who do you write for?”
I’d agree with Tim – my hope is that people who aren’t necessarily interested in highly “literary” fiction will read and enjoy my books. One of the best things about the success of The Secret River is that it seems to have escaped the “literary” ghetto. My feeling is that the things I’m asking questions about and not understanding (e.g. the issues raised by our indigenous/non-indigenous shared history), are the same ones that many people are asking. I’d hope that my explorations of those questions open up the ground for many others, not just readers of high culture.
“In the early 1980s, you went to the US where you studied Creative Writing at the University of Colorado. What did you gain from this experience as a writer?”
I learned to be much more adventurous about writing and to understand it as a process rather than an end-product. The course was about extending, experimenting, being prepared to fail, pushing yourself beyond what you thought you could do. It wasn’t at all about markets or getting published. Certainly, writers have to deal with markets and publishing and try to find a place within that world if they want to go on writing, but those things don’t have anything to do with the writing itself. At Colorado I also taught writing to undergraduates – that probably taught me more about writing than anything else. You can disappear in a black hole, endlessly mulling over your own work – coming to grips with what other people are attempting is hugely energising.
“You’ve now written a number of books on the writing process, and you also reach creative writing. What’s the most important piece of advice you would give would-be novelist?”
Two pieces, really, although they amount to the same thing. One, write out of an urge to write, not a desire to be “a writer”. That is, write about things that are important to you rather than things you think will “find a market”. Two, find some kind of paid work that will free you from the need to make a living from your writing, while giving you some time to write. (My own solution was to work for years as a temp in offices, dipping in and out of the workforce.) Very few Australian fiction writers make a living from their work, because of our small population/market. That’s a reality that’s not going to change, so as a writer you have to take that as a given and if you hit the jackpot, it’s a bonus.
“Since writing you last novel, The Secret River, you’ve been through a tumultuous time of debate about the purpose of the historical novel. What is your view on the place of the historical novel in Australian writing life and society?”
Historical novels give people who will never read history a chance to think about some of the issues that history raises. The Secret River is fiction – I’ve never claimed otherwise – but I worked hard to make it reflect the issues brought up by our colonial past. There seems a great hunger to think about those issues at the moment – reflected in the Apology by Prime Minister Rudd this year – and there are many ways to do that thinking. History (in the sense of the academic discipline) is one way, novels about the past are another.
“Do you think there are special sensitivities about the subject of Australian history and are these sensitivities the source of the impassioned debate we’re now having?”
After 200 years of denying the dark parts of our history, or whitewashing it, as a nation we are finally willing to look it in the eye. In many ways it’s not a pretty history, so of course that’s going to be confronting at times. I think the debate about “what is history, what is fiction” is displacement activity – a way of avoiding thinking about the real issues, because they’re uncomfortable. An abstract debate about literary forms is a lot easier to deal with.
“Searching for the Secret River is a companion work to The Secret River and details your searching and researching in writing the novel. Why did you write Searching for the Secret River?”
The Secret River is a novel inspired by and largely based on history, so I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about where the “history” ends and the “fiction” begins. I wanted to show the way that a piece of historical fiction is built up our of the sources, from research, without being history. I also felt that it might be useful to others wanting to use the historical record as a source for fiction. I thought that, if there was record of one writer’s mistakes and dead ends, as well as the good luck and eureka moments, it might be useful to other writers, who wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel.
“You once said that writers are like barbarians taking whatever they want from the historical facts and using what they take for their own purposes. Do you still agree with this remark?”
Well, I was looking for a laugh in a talk to a conference of historians when I made that comment. It was a bit of a throw-away line and the historians present enjoyed the joke. It’s not untrue, I don’t think, but it’s brutal (humorously, I hoped) in a way that I don’t think reflects the more complex reality. The relics of the past – documents, objects, places – are there for all of us to use in whatever way we think might open them out to further insights. That’s not really the act of a barbarian – it’s an act of respect and humility towards the past and all the others who are investigating it through their own different disciplines. We all use the past as a way to understand the present – even in our own lives.
“Some writers and some historians have said that the sole purpose of the novel should be entertainment. What’s your response to this comment?”
It’s probably the same as saying that history should stick to the facts. History is a lot more than facts and fiction is a lot more than entertainment.
“Where do you see your work going next?”
I’m just on the last lap of a novel inspired by the story of William Dawes, who was a lieutenant on the First Fleet and was befriended by a young Gadigal girl. It’s a story about an alternative to the violence of The Secret River – the path not taken by our history – and is like a mirror-image of The Secret River. Then in the back of my mind is a novel about the generation that came after The Secret River – a book about William Thornhill’s children and what they do with the dark legacy their father has left them.
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