It’s a little nerve-wracking talking with students that are studying one of your books.
I’ve been lucky that so many schools have picked up my novels as set texts. The feedback is always fascinating and listening to students discuss which characters they like most and which they like least is oddly thrilling. But I’m always aware that having to pick apart a book for English assignments risks taking away some of the pleasure of reading a novel.
Last week I spoke at two of Haileybury College’s campuses where the Year 8 girls are studying my novel ‘The Year it All Ended‘. The book seems to stand up to the challenge of being studied, perhaps because of the many layers of research that went into its creation, though I’m always aware that the studets didn’t choose it. I’ve talked to thousands of Year 8-10 students about researching that book; my travels
in South Australia, France, Belgium and Germany and there’s never enough time to cover everything. For the first time last week, I discussed the inspiration that Jessie Traill provided in the writing of ‘The Year it All Ended’.Now I’m sorry I haven’t talked or written about her before now. Conjuring her to an audience brought her back to me, bright and vivid.
Jessie Traill was a prolific and talented 20th Century Melbourne artist.She was a contemporary and friend of my grandmother and my father took me to visit her studio in Berwick in the 1960s, not long before Jessie died. We sat on a picnic rug laid down on the long, overgrown yellow grass in her wild garden and ate stale, sugary biscuits. I remember being in awe of Jessie’s fierceness, her beautiful art and her eccentric attitude to small children. I never forgot her.
Jessie was one of several independent women painters that influenced the creation of the character ‘Big’ in my novel ‘The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie‘. She was never adequately recognised in her lifetime, though the National Gallery of Australia honoured her recently with a retrospective of her beautiful prints, some of which you can see here: Stars in the River
The State Library of Victoria holds a collection of Jessie Traill’s papers, photos and postcards and I drew on them when writing ‘The Year it All Ended’.
Jessie served as a VAD in WW1 and her descriptions of being in Rouen in Northern France in 1918 helped me imagine what it would have been like for my character Tiney to see those landscapes. The SLV have made a video using Jessie’s writings and images as part of their ‘Writing the War’ exhibition that illustrates the power of Jessie’s gift for capturing the world around her in both words and illustration. Watch it here: Writing the War
Jessie Traill lived a big life. She was generous, adventurous and creative. Although I knew her only fleetingly, her story is deeply threaded into mine, her life has fed into my novels, her influence has stretched across generations. Students often ask me where do I get ideas for stories and I try to explain that each and everyone of us is surrounded by inspiring characters. Jessie Traill is only one of a legion of women who spent their lives loving, caring and making things of great beauty but whose stories haven’t been told often enough.
Yesterday I visited Camberwell Girls’ Grammar School to speak to the Year 8 students who are studying my novel ‘The Year it All Ended’. They had great comments and questions about the book and had obviously read it very closely. But during question time, a bright-eyed girl in the front row asked an impossible question, or at least one I couldn’t answer on the spot; had a real person inspired the character of ‘Ray”.
For an awful moment, I drew a complete blank. Ray? Who was Ray? The student prompted me – ‘Nette’s fiancé!’ Then suddenly, Ray came pounding to the front of my consciousness. Ray Staunton, husband of Nette Flynn, WW1 veteran who takes his bride to Cobdolga to farm marginal land courtesy of the Returned Serviceman’s Land Scheme. Poor gruff, tortured Ray with his damaged hand that’s missing three fingers, scarred in more ways than one, struggling away on his bleak acreage in the Riverland. How could I forget him? I invented him. I had even cried when I wrote the scene where he held his baby son for the first time.
It doesn’t happen often but, occasionally, I forget some of the minor characters from my novels. It’s excruciatingly embarrassing when it happens during a public lecture. How can a character I’ve created, someone that I have lovingly laboured to bring to life, someone for whom I have created character files and scenes and dialogue, someone who was so real when I was in the thick of the story, how can they disappear into the crowd of imaginary characters at the back of my brain? Other authors have shamefully admitted it happens to them, too, but that’s small compensation.
In the last twenty years I have invented literally hundreds of characters across eleven novels and many short stories and junior fiction titles. Sometimes I dream of them, long after the book in which they’re featured has been published. So there is always a particular sense of shame when I forget one of them. Sorry, Ray.
The Year It All Ended has been honoured by the Children’s Book Council of Australia in their 2015 Book of the Year Awards. It’s been listed as a notable book in the Older Readers category. This is my seventh book to receive a CBCA notables listing – my lucky number! You can read the full list of 2015 Notable Books on the CBCA website.