Elaine Forrestal

Uncle Wilbur’s Whiskers

There are three bearded members of the Chandler family in these pictures, circa 1979

Some years ago I submitted a picture book text about a man shaving off his beard. At the time beards were not in fashion and many of the children in my friend’s Pre Primary class were fascinated by the shaving cream she had introduced to one of her art activities. My friend and I often tossed around new ideas to engage her lively, active group and teach them some science, history, maths etc along the way. Inspired by the children’s interest in shaving cream I went home and wrote a story.

My story was about a 5yr old whose uncle, an archaeologist, had been working in the remote Kimberlys for over a year. When the boys mother heard that her ‘baby’ brother was coming to stay with them for a few days she was very excited. The boy had only rarely seen his uncle and had no memories of him, but he went with the rest of the family to pick him up at the airport. There were the usual delays to heighten the anticipation. Finally his uncle arrived. The boy took one look at the 186cm, re-haired, bushy bearded man embracing his mother, and freaked out. They managed to calm the boy down and when they finally arrived home, the uncle headed straight for the shower. He washed off the red dust, then shaved off his beard. The boy, still tentative but fascinated, was unable to resist peeping around the bathroom door.

In the text the shaving process is graphically described. What the boy doesn’t know is that his uncle can see him in the mirror and decides to have a game with him. With his face half shaven the uncle suddenly turns around and a running, squealing chase through the house and garden ensues. Needless to say the boy and his uncle become friends. When I submitted the story to my publisher, however, one member of the commissioning panel asked, ‘Does Elaine Forrestal have something against men with beards?’ I was gob-smacked! How could a family story about a small boy, scared but fascinated by the shaving process and ending in a fun chase through his house and garden, during which they become friends, possibly be seen as an inditement of men with beards?

The story has never been published, but I’m over my shell-shock now. Once my Clara Saunders story is finished, I might fish Uncle Wilbur out of my bottom drawer.


‘Memories’ by C.Paton, which, after much research, turned out to be Clara Saunders

Writers, editors, publishers, we all talk a lot about voices. The authorial voice, the character’s voice, the narrator’s voice. In one of my books I even use the log-book voice. And of course each character has an interior voice and an exterior, or public voice. No one ever pretends that writing is a simple, straight forward task.

For years I have stressed to students of creative writing that each character in their story must have their own distinctive voice and body language which is part of their personality. No two characters can have the same voice. Mannerism and body language are also a part of voice. But ultimately both the reader and the writer can only breath life into characters through what is there on the page. Punctuation, even spaces, help to give atmosphere and convey personality. Pauses between words are part of a person’s unique way of speaking.

When I set out to write the story of Clara Saunders I was already familiar with her voice. It was there in black and white in her ‘Memories’ (transcribed and bound in the Battye Library). It should have been easy, right?  All I had to do to bring Clara to life was some research into the times in which she lived. Wrong. When I talked it all through with Cate Sutherland she opened my eyes to the fact that the voice in the ‘Memories’ is Clara’s ‘lady voice’. In other words it’s the voice she developed during her eighty-year lifetime of pioneering in the early days of settlement in Western Australia. It’s not her 14 year old voice. Not the one that will bring to life the excitement, the hardships, and the camaraderie of the headlong rush out into the barren desert country that became the town of Coolgardie in 1892.

The latest draft of this story is, for me, just as exciting as Clara’s own journey into womanhood.

This living language of ours

How about a pantsy picture?

I have always been a fan of character based stories, as opposed to plot driven ones. But I had decided I should try and learn more about the plot element of story. And I did.

Not only did I learn a lot about plot at the excellent Plotting Workshop run by Annabelle Smith, I also became aware of just how fast a living language can acquire a new word. ‘Pantsy’ – as in flying by the seat of one’s pants’. It’s the direct opposite of Planning, as a way of describing how authors of fiction go about the writing task. The English language has so recently acquired this word that there is no official spelling of it, as yet. Certainly my auto-correct doesn’t recognise it and wants me to write ‘patsy’. It is only quite recently that I have begun to hear the writing process categorised in this way and yet already this new word has become so commonly used as to be accepted by academics, editors, workshop presenters and others working in the field.

Of course all living languages change over time as words are added, change their meaning, or fall away from lack of use, but I have never known such an unlikely word to bounce into common usage so quickly.

Do you think Miss Llewellyn-Jones is pantsy, or a plotter?

Armistice Day

Voluntary Aid Detachment 503, Subiaco, 1935. My aunt is first on the left in the second row.

With so much focus, this weekend, on the armistice that ended WWI it is almost inevitable that we as individuals will give some thought to how an event that happened 100 years ago has had such a profound and lasting effect on our lives.

For my generation, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, our memories are indelibly coloured by the experiences of our parents. For the adults in my family the expression ‘after the war’ came to mean after both WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. These three catastrophic events seemed to roll into one long nightmare in their minds as so many of our relatives across two generations served in the armed forces both at home and overseas. Many did not return.

Although I did not witness any of this directly, it left  my mother with an habitual austerity that the relative affluence of the years that followed could never erase. This, in turn, rubbed off on me. I could never be part of the throw-away society. To  waste anything is akin to a criminal act. Every sheet of paper with a blank side must be saved and re-used. Every piece of clothing, crockery, cooking utensils, every drop of petrol, watt of electricity. Even the peelings from the fruit and vegetables we eat can not be simply thrown away. After all, why would I buy fertiliser when the earthworms will convert these scraps into food for the garden? In spite of that, I have always marvelled at the generosity of such frugal people. I remember once asking my mother how they managed to survive the deprivations of food rationing, shrinking pay packets or no pay at all, for such a long time. She shrugged. ‘We helped each other out,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Everyone was in the same boat. We shared what we had and just got on with the business of surviving together.’

If only we could just get on with the business of surviving together today.

Stories in Paint

Le fete by Paula Rego

I came home from France ten days ago now, but the thing that still haunts me is the collection of images I saw in an exhibition at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As the name suggests, the building, which is situated in the Tuilerie Gardens, was once a hot house for growing oranges. It is now one of my favourite galleries in the world. Normally I go there to see the incredibly restful and evocative waterlily paintings that Claude Monet donated to the French people. Two connecting rooms at the heart of the building, specially adapted for the purpose, display these massive art works which wrap around the walls and enclose the viewer in a garden full of light and colour. Long padded benches run down the centre of each room and invite us to sit and contemplate the lilies floating gently on the ripples of the dappled pond. Sometimes I sit on these benches admiring the paintings for so long that I begin to feel as if I too am floating on that deep blue-purple water.

But this year it is a temporary exhibition on the floor below which has stayed with me longer. It’s a collection of paintings by Portuguese artist, Paula Rego and it’s  anything but restful. The paintings, and some of  the 3D models the artist constructed to work from, tell Portuguese folk tales traditionally told to children. Like the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, they are confronting, challenging and unforgettable. While I admire the way Paula Rego’s unique voice comes through in the pictures, her honesty is brutal. There are strong parallels to some of our own cautionary tales and  nursery rhymes. Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosie, Little Miss Muffet and Red Riding Hood come to mind, although others are unfamiliar. I don’t think I’ll be discussing any of these pictures with my grandchildren, even in Portuguese. But I do think there is a mysterious beauty, even sympathy and courage, in Paula Rego’s way of telling the traditional stories of her own country in paint.

Come to think of it we all survived Halloween last week. Kids are tougher than we think.