Elaine Forrestal

WA sliced off the map

The Ninety Mile straight stretch of the Eyre High­way now has an all-weather surface.

Revis­it­ing a story that I first tried to write twenty years ago is a strange expe­ri­ence. At that time the events on which it is based were rel­a­tively recent. There were news­pa­per reports of the actual event, back­ground mate­r­ial on the set­ting and some his­tor­i­cal, archae­o­log­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal mate­r­ial held in the Bat­tye Library. There was also my father’s account of a trip that he and my mother made across the Nullar­bor in 1951. At that time the Eyre High­way was an unsealed road all the way to Ceduna. There was a Road­house at Balle­do­nia, mostly ser­vic­ing trucks trav­el­ling over­land with goods like heavy machin­ery, live ani­mals, fresh pro­duce and some med­i­cines which needed con­stant and reli­able refrig­er­a­tion. Apart from that there were only the occa­sional water tanks, under a cor­ru­gated iron roof, where trav­ellers could re-fill their waterbags and radi­a­tors. The maps, detailed descrip­tions and black and white pho­tographs from that epic jour­ney have become part of our fam­ily archives and prob­a­bly deserve a story of their own, but I am not the per­son to tell it. When I look at those tiny black and white pho­tographs my imag­i­na­tion goes wild. I find myself search­ing out mys­ter­ies, adven­tures and strange pos­si­bil­i­ties to add to the already fas­ci­nat­ing facts.

The inter­net has made a huge dif­fer­ence to the way in which I go about this. Now I can go down below the sur­face of the Nullar­bor and explore six kilo­me­tres of tun­nels, caves and blow­holes that began to form there 15million years ago. Via YouTube clips and sci­en­tific video footage I can watch the sci­en­tists and palaeon­tol­o­gists squeez­ing through impos­si­bly nar­row crevices and dis­cov­er­ing the skele­tons of now extinct crea­tures. I can track the cyclone that cut both the Eyre High­way and the trans-Australian rail­way line back in 1995, effec­tively slic­ing West­ern Aus­tralia off the map. I can delve into the sto­ries of truck­ies, over­land cyclists and ordi­nary fam­i­lies who were caught up in the extended after­math of Cyclone Bobby.

I don’t know how this story will pan out, yet. But I do know that it will be a much richer and more com­plex novel than the one I tried to write in 1996.

SCBWI at IBBY

Meg McKin­lay, Jen Ban­yard, Frane Lessac, Elaine For­re­stal at the IBBY Quiz Night, 2015

The SCBWI pres­ence at the annual IBBY Quiz Night is grow­ing each year. From one table of eight SCBWI mem­bers in 2014 to three tables this year! And no won­der. The book quiz, with Glen Swift as MC, is always lively and enter­tain­ing. It is a chance to catch up with friends, net­work with col­leagues and even learn a few things we didn’t know about books, movies, writ­ers, illus­tra­tors and how to call an answer across a large table with­out giv­ing it away to the table next door. In the heat of the moment this is a very dif­fi­cult thing to achieve.  Inci­den­tally the quiz night is a fund raiser for the Inter­na­tional Board on Books for Young peo­ple. The acronym is almost as obscure and dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend as SCBWI itself, although it does roll off the tongue a lot more easily.

IBBY plays an impor­tant part in pro­mot­ing Aus­tralian children’s books over­seas. Espe­cially at the Inter­na­tional Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, each year. If you’ve never been to the Bologna Book Fair, think about fac­tor­ing it in to your next over­seas trip. Even if you can’t stay for all four days of the Fair, just vis­it­ing is a unique expe­ri­ence. Thou­sand of book lovers, pro­mot­ers, sell­ers and cre­ators from all over the world gath­ered in one place is mind-boggling.  But then so is the IBBY Quiz Night.

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next year now. But I’ll try to remind you ahead of time.

Clara Saunders and Bertha Lawson

Henry Law­son, a con­tem­po­rary of the Cool­gar­die bush poet, Dry­blower Murphy.

I have just been an arti­cle by Ker­rie Davies’ about her new book A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Law­son (UQP) and I find myself ask­ing the ques­tion, ‘Is the work of a writer of genius worth any less because of flaws in his or her character?’

We know that many of our most famous writ­ers were flawed human beings (as indeed we all are in some way). Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, Beat­rix Pot­ter and many oth­ers were noto­ri­ously alco­holics, manic depres­sives or just plain grumpy. George Robin­son of Angus and Robin­son, Henry Lawson’s pub­lisher, is quoted as say­ing ‘I knew Henry even then (before he mar­ried Bertha) was a con­firmed drinker: had at times a nasty tem­per, and all the other things that go to make a genius hard to live with.’ How­ever, is it not because of their tor­tured souls that their writ­ing is so pow­er­ful and speaks so directly to us.

It appears that Bertha was given plenty of warn­ings, but went ahead and mar­ried Henry in secret, in defi­ance of her mother, George Robin­son and other col­leagues. It is point­less ask ‘Why did she do it?’ She was in love with him, and he with her. They were con­sent­ing adults. Even after the mar­riage had bro­ken down irre­triev­ably Bertha would not malign Henry, espe­cially in front of their two chil­dren. She never remar­ried and asked left instruc­tions that she was to be buried in the same plot as he was, thirty five years after he died.

Although they never met the two women, Bertha Law­son and Clara Saun­ders, have much in com­mon. The Law­sons were mar­ried in 1896 when Bertha was nine­teen and Henry twenty eight. Clara mar­ried Arthur Williams in 1894 when she was six­teen and he was twenty eight. Both women died in 1957, hav­ing out­lived their hus­bands by many years and brought up their chil­dren, sin­gle hand­edly, in extremely dif­fi­cult times. There were no social secu­rity ben­e­fits to help them and they relied solely on their own intel­li­gence and a lot of hard work. Henry Law­son and Clara’s friend, Dry­blower Mur­phy, were con­tem­po­raries, com­pet­ing for places in the news­pa­pers and antholo­gies being pub­lished at that time. Dry­blower Mur­phy was the most famous of the Cool­gar­die bush poets and Clara was a great fan of the poems and sto­ries of both men.

I’m sure that if Clara and Bertha had ever met they would have had a lot to talk about.

Mentoring

Men­tor­ing is about encour­age­ment and shar­ing experience.

Writ­ers learn to write by writ­ing. Read­ing a lot helps. But there is no way to teach writ­ing to some­one who is not pre­pared to put in the hours, the care­ful thought, the intense con­cen­tra­tion and sheer hard work that writ­ing demands. Begin­ning writ­ers are often hor­ri­fied to hear that more than twenty drafts and redrafts may be nec­es­sary, at least in some parts of a man­u­script, before it is ready for pub­li­ca­tion. Unless there is com­mit­ment and ded­i­ca­tion on the part of the begin­ning writer then both teacher and pupil are wast­ing their time. There is no sub­sti­tute for prac­tise, expe­ri­ence, and then more practise.

What a good men­tor can do, how­ever, is give the emerg­ing writer the con­fi­dence to keep going. There are times when every writer feels like aban­don­ing the effort. A men­tor can read, com­ment, make sug­ges­tions and give encour­age­ment. Only the writer can decide whether all the effort will even­tu­ally be worth­while. Writ­ing, by its nature, is an expres­sion of the writer’s inner self. Each one must find, and use, their own unique voice. No one else has that voice. It is exclu­sively per­sonal and it takes courage to let it come out onto the page where it will be exposed to the wider world. A men­tor can empower and sup­port a writer through the process of find­ing and using their voice. But no one can teach you how to do it. It comes, as it must, from inside you.

Bon courage

Withdrawal Symptoms

This is the news­pa­per story that grabbed my atten­tion back in 1995.

When a man­u­script that has been dom­i­nat­ing my wak­ing life, and some­times my dreams, for at least six months goes off to a pub­lisher for the first time I do suf­fer with­drawal symp­toms. I miss the char­ac­ters I have vis­ited every day and have come to know bet­ter, in some cases, than they ever knew them­selves. I have laughed with them, cried with them and walked around inside their heads. Then the time comes to let them go. I am in a sort of daze for about a week after­wards, mulling over whether I have done jus­tice to their story. Should I have included this, left out that? And cru­cially, will my audi­ence love them as much as I do?

To dis­tract myself I start clean­ing out my office. I tidy up my files, which by then have loose sheets of paper shoved in to them in ran­dom fash­ion and odd things falling out — usu­ally things that should never have been there in the first place. Then, out of the blue, some­thing turns up. It might be some­thing I started and couldn’t get to work at that time. Or some­thing I read in the news­pa­per, or see on the street. Some­times a throw-away line that I over­hear will be enough to open a win­dow in to the next story. Then I will find myself rac­ing off, hel­ter skel­ter, to inhabit the world where the next set of char­ac­ters will intro­duce them­selves and even­tu­ally take over my life.

In my office last week I came across a Nullar­bor story that I had aban­doned years ago. It’s too soon to tell yet, but I’m dig­ging in to the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Who knows? Maybe the time is right for this one to come out, blink­ing and squint­ing, into the light of day now?

Stay tuned.