Elaine Forrestal

Novels Do Not Lie

Elizabeth Macarthur, in her eighties

At the beginning of Kate Grenville’s new book, A Room Made of Leaves, the long awaited follow-up to The Secret River, the editor explains that ‘this book consists of recently rediscovered notes towards a memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur, who is widely recognised as the founder of Australia’s wool industry.’

However, Kate Grenville’s Afterword proudly proclaims that this is a sham. ‘There is no box of secrets, found in the roof-space of Elizabeth Farm.’ Even though Mrs Macarthur spent much more time on the farm than her husband did and could easily have hidden her most personal and private  diaries and letters there. The author makes no apology. In fact she seems to relish the opportunity to thumb her nose at the hide-bound historians who have failed to recognise a truth that novelists have long acknowledged: ‘That all writers are liars. Biographies, by a necessary selection of facts, may be called lies. But novels do not lie. Having other purposes, a novel can effortlessly, even unconsciously, hold the truth in its shadows’ (Jessica Anderson, Sydney Morning Herald, 30th November 1996)

I know this is a favourite hobby-horse of mine, but I want to congratulate Kate Grenville on being brave enough to make this point unashamedly, in fact almost with glee.

Speaking to an Adult Audience

Rebecca Higgie, Dianne Wolfer, Elaine Forrestal talking about combining history and fiction

As a former Early Childhood teacher I am very comfortable with talking about my work to young  audiences. Speaking to adult audiences is a bit more challenging for me. I have been asked to talk about Goldfields Girl, for 30 minutes, to the members of a Rotary Club. The question, ‘What will I say?’ springs immediately to mind. ‘What will my audience want to hear?’

Having done the research and worked through countless drafts of the book I have plenty to say. But what will my audience want to hear? How will I keep them interested and engaged for 30 minutes? I can tell them snatches of the story, but it is 240 odd pages long, and in any case they can read all that for themselves in the book. What they will want to know is why, when and how I wrote about Clara Saunders.

I have already put together the mandatory Powerpoint – pictures only so that I can adjust the length of my presentation. Skip over bits that don’t seem relevant to this particular audience, dwell on the parts that interest them most, the parts they ask the most questions about. But how do I get started? In this case I have thought about my audience and decided that I will introduce myself, then ask them a question to break the ice. I will ask them to tell me, by a show of hands, how many of them have family members who lived in the Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie goldfields area? It seems that everywhere I go at the moment people come up to me and tell me about their relatives who were prospectors, so the ice-breaker question should lead to lots of interaction from the audience – I hope. Ahead of time I will write down and rehearse a sentence to follow the ice-breaker. Probably something about how Clara, at 14 years of age, travelled for three days out into the desert to live and work among a fluctuating crowd of rough and ready prospectors. After that I will have to let Clara’s story tell itself, being aware as I do of the atmosphere in the room and the interest level of my audience. In other words wing it, and hope for the best, always being able to adjust the length, to dwell on some parts and skip over others, as time dictates. Of course I will be slightly nervous, but I will tell myself to relax and enjoy the company of interested people. Wish me luck!

By the way the Fremantle Press podcast about combining history and fiction, with Rebecca Higgie, Dianne Wolfer and me, came out this week. Here is the link:https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/c/news/11615-podcasthistoricalfiction

What to Write when you Don’t Know What to Write

A single toadstool can spark so many ideas

I was staring blankly out of my office window, thinking about everything and nothing, and feeling like a kid in school again. Remembering that feeling of despair when the teacher has set your class the task of writing a story by the end of the period. ‘But Miss, I don’t know what to write about,’ I complain. ‘Of course you do,’ she tells me. ‘Everyone has a story to tell.’

I’m still gazing out of the window and suddenly there it is – a tiny toadstool. I’m sure it wasn’t there an hour ago. Or perhaps it was. Has it just pushed itself up, pristine white and shiny, out of the soil of my chaotic forest of a back garden?  Or has that heavy shower of rain we’ve had washed it so clean that it’s just caught my eye? That single toadstool standing perfectly straight, all alone amongst the leaf litter and wood violets, sends me off on a fairytale journey. There are so many questions in my head now. Like who lives in this single toadstool in the middle of a wilderness? Is it a tiny elf or wizard? Is it a crusader beetle setting off to do battle with a whole army of snails who are invading his territory? Perhaps one of those snails is on an impossible quest to find the perfect green leaf. Will it shelter for the night under the pure white roof of the toadstool. Or is that roof gleaming so brightly really a trap for weary travellers, luring all unsuspecting creatures into the poisonous interior of the toadstool?

So many ideas come from simple moments of surprise, if you let your imagination roam for a while and you are willing to try out the possibilities. The Tim Winton Awards for young writers are a great place to experiment with ideas. The annual competition is open for entries from Monday 20th July to Friday 14th August, 2020, at 5.30pm. For more information go to: www.subiaco.wa.gov.au

Love to Read Local Week – er, Month

In these strange and unpredictable times a week can easily turn into a month and a celebration can look very different from the one the organisers had imagined. Love to Read Local Week was originally planned to celebrate the work of authors on WritingWA’s Literati List. The team at WritingWA had lots of hands on and face to face activities in mind to highlight the depth of talent we have in our writing community. But, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men …’ as Rabbie Burns would have said if he had been here, ‘ … must surely gang a’wry.’ In marched covid-19 and took over  the known world. However, always innovative, WritingWA pressed on with their week of  celebration and it  blossomed – even expanded – into a whole month.

So check out the fantastic books of all the WA authors on the Literati List at WritingWA.org. including my new historical fiction, Goldfields Girl. In it you will find, among other things, the true and verifiable story of how 14 year old Clara Saunders gave up her own room, at a time when the Exchange Hotel in Coolgardie was already full, to an ailing Paddy Hannan. She could see that he needed somewhere to rest while he battled the deadly typhoid disease that had already killed so many of the prospectors in the town, which was itself barely clinging to life on the edge of the

Elaine Forrestal with Paddy Hannan and Love to Read Local logo

desert. This was in April 1893, before Paddy Hannan had made the most significant discovery of his life. The whole story is too long to tell here, but imagine how different the history of Western Australia would have been without the discovery of the Golden Mile.

Explore the Literati List, including Goldfields Girl, (Fremantle Press, 2020) and all the other fantastic stories by WA authors at: ltrl.writingwa.org

MYOB? What is it?

In a battle of the acronyms, MYOSB and TWA have defied covid-19 and are both hale and hearty, up and running and ready to support our young writers and illustrators. Their 2020 programs are delayed, but not defeated, and talented West Australians of school age have the chance to get their creative juices flowing again and enter both the Make Your Own Story Book competition and the Tim Winton Awards for young writers.

Anthology of the prize winning short stories from the 2019 Tim Winton Awards

And bring out the cheer squad for all those dedicated professionals who will once again, in spite of exceptionally difficult circumstances, run these two important competitions. Make Your Own Story Book entries involve both writers and illustrators. Illustrations for your book can be made by painting, drawing, collage and even photographs, as long as they are taken by the author or illustrator of course. Books must be complete with sturdy cover, blurb and author biog. Over the years that this competition has been running the judges have been amazed by the skills, the  innovation and diversity these young people have shown in producing unique handmade books – works of art in their own right. The Tim Winton Awards are perhaps better known, but in that case only the quality of the writing is judged. Of course the presentation of the short story entries also has to be of good quality. Surface features such as spelling, punctuation, grammar and neatness need to be of a standard that makes them easy to read and does not distract too much from the impact of the ideas.

So get out those pens, pencils, paint brushes and computers kids. There are prizes to be won and perhaps careers to be had. Shaun Tan famously won the MYOSB Award when he was 11 years old. And if you are a prize winner you will get to meet another world famous WA author; Tim Winton who is the patron of the Awards that bear his name. He presents the prizes to all of the successful entrants each year.

And, hot off the press, congratulations to Shaun Tan! He has just won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his picture book, Tales from the Inner City. This is one of the most prestigious children’s book awards in the world! You do us proud, Shaun!