Elaine Forrestal

Hard Work and Imagination with a Bit of Gold Thrown In

It’s a little known historical fact that without Clara Saunders Paddy Hannan would not have survived to discover the Golden Mile

After the intense concentration of two major edits, when everything has to be revisited and all the details of characters, plot, setting, grammar, style and syntax must be agreed upon, it was great to take a break, briefly, and go back out to the scene of the action; to soak up the atmosphere and relive the original story. Of course the town of Coolgardie, where the events of Goldfields Girl happened between 1892 and 1894, is very different today. The magnificent stone Warden’s Court Building, which was not yet built when Clara was there, is now one of the few remaining signs of the fabulous wealth and prosperity that gold brought to the town. However, if you step inside this imposing building you will immediately be transported back to that other world. The one where red dirt, backbreaking work and the struggle to survive without water greeted Clara every day – and yet she thrived.

In spite of the fortunes being won and lost around her, Clara’s life was a constant struggle. And yet  she loved it. She love the freedom, the challenge, the camaraderie that shared hardship often creates. There were regular dances, sing-a-longs, picnics and poetry readings. And she made life-long friends. In spite of their hard working, hard drinking lifestyle the miners and prospectors had their own rules. For the community to exist the means of survival had to be shared. Everyone was in the same situation and it was taken for granted that none of the locals would be allowed to starve or die of thirst. Illness and death were regarded as inevitable, but with courage, determination and a little help from their friends, it would be thwarted for as long as humanly possible. Most sustaining of all was the bush humour that was born, and continued to grow, out of this harsh landscape and the friendship of mates.

Even visiting Coolgardie today in a  modern hire-car with its own air-conditioning, one can not help marvelling at the imagination and inventiveness of those hardy pioneers. When you remember that everything to sustain life had to be carried for 168 miles to the new diggings, initially over trackless desert, or improvised from whatever could be scrounged or salvaged. From the smallest kitchen implements to the largest tools for mining and building, things were made by hand, cobbled together out of packing cases, wooden boxes, kerosene tins. But their hard work and imagination laid the foundations for many of the mind-boggling inventions that have transformed life on the goldfields.

Deliberately Leaving Spaces

Even young readers can be trusted to make their own meaning from the stories they read

There is a difference between leaving spaces that invite the reader into the story, allowing them to make up their own minds about events and characters; and leaving gaps in the narrative.

Obviously different readers want different levels of ownership and involvement with what they read. The more imaginative they are themselves, the more they want the freedom and excitement of being invited in to be part of the story. They want to immerse themselves in the actions, the emotions and the lives of the characters without too many interruptions for extra details. They want to cut to the chase, and be trusted to either go back or pass over anything that they don’t immediately understand. Other readers want more spoon-feeding. They want everything spelled out in black and white with no room for questions, doubts, surprises. Catering for different types of readers requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the writer.

Every author and publishing house needs to sell books. And each book must have, not only a powerful story to tell, but a unique way of telling that story. To engage as many readers as possible there must be a certain amount of trust that develops between the reader and the writer. The spaces deliberately left in the text must work for as many and varied readers as possible. Those who want to enter into the story, and see at least some part of themselves reflected there, and those who would rather all the ends were tied up tight. For me it’s a tight wire act that requires, skill, restraint, passion and a good dollop of patience. The last thing I want to do is simply satisfy the expectations and conventions around stories for young people. I want my readers to finish the story with some questions still to ask, some scenes that stick in their minds, ones they puzzle over. At the end of the story I want them to ask ‘I wonder what happened next?’ That way those characters, and that story, will stay with them long after they have closed the book and put it away.

I am grappling with this at the moment, putting the finishing touches on my new book, Goldfields Girl. Wish me luck.

On Our Beach?

On our beach – the real one.

Who could imagine all the sights, sounds and physical sensations of a summers evening on Cottesloe Beach inside the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Short Street, Fremantle? Certainly not me.

In spite of seeing the Spare Parts creative team pull off many miracles over the twenty or so years I have been associated with them, I really struggled to visualise just how they could simulate an interactive beach experience for audiences, ranging in age from 5-95, in their latest show, On Our Beach. Having read the pre-publicity and noted that the audience would not  be seated, and that I would be asked to take off my shoes and socks, I was driving down the coast towards Fremantle with no idea how this would work. The wind was coming straight off the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Showers of squally rain were beating against my windscreen and the heating inside my car was turned up high. For the first time ever, I wasn’t looking forward to going to the Spare Parts Theatre. ‘What were they thinking?’ I was asking myself ‘Proposing a day at the beach in September when there is at least a 50/50 chance that the weather will be foul.’

An hour later I had watched the sun set over the water while resting on my beach towel, played beach volleyball, had a barbecue (inedible) and been ‘swimming’ along with about fifty other people, young and old, all totally engrossed in the shared experience. The Spare Parts team has done it again!

On Our Beach, at 1 Short Street, Fremantle until October 12th, has to be seen to be believed.

The Responsibility of Fiction to History

Historical fiction titles by Elaine Forrestal

As a lover of both fiction and history I am very keen for these literary siblings to live harmoniously together. But, as in all families, niggling differences of opinion get in the way of harmony and an unwillingness to compromise often prevents the insight needed to move forward. With one party insisting on hard evidence and the other side claiming that accessibility is the key needed to unlock any real understanding of that evidence, the arguments go round in ever decreasing circles.

Is it better to publish the bare facts and consign them to a life of gathering dust on a shelf somewhere? Or to tell the story, filling in the obvious gaps based on our thorough research into the character and the era in which they lived, in order that the essential truth of the story can reach a much wider audience? There are lessons to be learned from the mistakes of history, but it takes a sprinkling of fiction to bring those lessons into sharp focus and encourage a much wider spread of people to access them. In this way we can at least hope to learn those lessons and avoid, as far as possible, making the same mistakes again.

The questions posed by our past will not even be debated, let alone answered, unless history is told in a way that engages the young reader. These are the readers for whom the last century is already as remote as the Middle Ages. How will they avoid making those same mistakes again if the stories they need are trapped inside dry and dusty tomes. We must, at the very least, make them aware of the wealth of knowledge and information available in a fictional format. The same information – just in a different wrapper.

Letters from Readers of Someone Like Me

As I was preparing to celebrate Someone Like Me being continuously in print for 21 years with Penguin Books Australia (now Penguin Random House) I got out my Scrap Book file and started to re-read some of the letters that kids, and sometimes parents and teachers, have written to me. They are, of course, fascinating!

From quaint handwritten and illustrated ones to the more recent emails, some just a few lines long, others a page and a half, they are all precious. Some are barely legible, written in pencil with invented spelling or emailed in texting language, but I have made it a firm policy to reply to each one individually within 24 hours – if humanly possible. I value this interaction with readers. They so often have interesting things to say and sometimes give me ideas for future stories. Some of those letters have become the starting point for friendships  or mentorships that have lasted for months, even years. In one case a teacher from Victoria, who had been reading Someone Like Me to his classes each year for several years, was coming to Perth for a brief visit. He arranged to meet with me over coffee, and brought with him several copies of the book to be signed for himself and the school. He had also had requests from his students to bring back photographs, just to prove that he had actually met me and wasn’t pulling their legs.

I treasure these letters and bundles of them are now held in my personal archives at the Battye Library, where anyone can read them. But it wasn’t until last week that I became aware of just how many lives this book has touched in the last 21 years. Fingers crossed that it will continue to do so for many years to come.