'You have to do your own research: that's when you find the very thing you weren't looking for'
INTERVIEW:The novelist Kate Grenville tells EILEEN BATTERSBYhow her mother’s stories set her off on a quest to uncover the real history of her native Australia
THE AUSTRALIAN NOVELIST Kate Grenville smiles broadly on hearing that she looks Irish. “Funny you should say that. As I was sitting on the Aer Lingus flight coming over here, I thought that most of the passengers could easily pass for Australians. But then there is a huge Irish presence in Australia.” From the opening comment of the interview, history is a factor.
Grenville began looking for the real Australia at a time when it was not a popular pursuit. She paid the price by way of a minor spat with some historians but emerged not only as the truth-teller but also as something of a hero.
She is now established as an international literary figure. After winning the 2001 Orange Prize for An Idea of Perfection, she had further success with The Secret River(2006), the first part of the historical trilogy that continued with The Lieutenant(2008) and has now concluded with Sarah Thornhill. This most recent book returns the narrative more closely to the opening novel by focusing on the youngest child of William Thornhill, the convict turned wealthy settler who is the central character of The Secret River.
But there are two Kate Grenvilles: the other is the author of the remarkable debut Lilian’s Story(1985), in which Lilian Singer, a clever outsider, adopts the role of Holy Idiot, recalling her life with immense humour to mask her multiple humiliations. Later, in Dark Places(1994), Grenville returned to the Singer family to explore the mind of Lilian’s abusive father, Albion Singer, collector of facts, who never showed any mercy towards his daughter. The eloquent Dark Placesshould have won the 1994 Booker prize; instead it was not even shortlisted, and it disappeared quietly.
Grenville is well aware that Dark Placesis a fine book. “It is brave and I am very proud of it, but it just goes to show what happens when you write about things people don’t want to know about.”
The sparky, intelligent Grenville is direct and, though she remains on the polite side of blunt, a realist who speaks her mind. There is a likable energy about her and a curiosity about everything. Her daughter, Alice, has recently graduated from a combined arts and science degree – “Can you imagine? What a fabulous mixture of information” – and is currently minding baby sloths.
Grenville reads widely and carefully and misses little. “It’s not easy being a writer, it’s not easy being a woman writer and it’s certainly not easy being an Australian woman writer.” Her prose is deliberate and carefully weighted. She explains the difficulty of coming of age in Australia at a time when history had an official version that deleted many of the uglier facts. “We were horrified by the Nazis and by the Afrikaners, and yet we had our own crimes that we had not dealt with. And you have to remember that when I was young – I was born in 1950 – most Australians still regarded England as home. Imagine that: ‘home’ a place you had never been to. We were far closer to Asia than to Europe.”
She took an arts degree at Sydney University and, true to the ritual adhered to by generations, set off for England, where she worked at a number of jobs, including film editing, and even developed a short-lived version of an English accent. But, as she says, “I am an Australian”, and it seems she was fated to be a writer: her father had written three books in his retirement, and her mother provided a valuable legacy of stories, “stories that didn’t always have all the facts, so I had to find them”.
It does no disservice to Grenville to emphasise that her early books, Lilian’s Storyand Dark Places, are outstanding works that readers should track down. Her historical novels, meanwhile, are important quests that go beyond art; they are actively opening up the past. T he Secret Riverwas inspired by her mother’s stories about a great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, a Thames boatman who was condemned, initially to death and then to a life sentence, for stealing timber. He was dispatched to Australia.
“You’ve heard of ‘the taint’?” Grenville asks. It is a euphemism for having a convict ancestor. Many Australians share this taint, though not all of them are particularly interested in it. But Grenville was. She wanted to know more and realised that she needed to write a novel about her ancestor.
Before she began telling the story, she had to research it. The question of finding the balance between research and imagination is an interesting one, and Grenville knows that many novels have floundered under the weight of research.
Sometimes the writer’s desire to use all the details can scupper the story. I mention a writer who once thanked the three researchers who worked on one of her novels. Grenville shakes her head and says: “You have to do your own research: that’s when you find the very thing that you weren’t looking for.”
The work that went into arriving at a sense of the world in which she was to set her novel brought Grenville on a painstaking trawl through historical documents, church records and the hidden places in London’s docklands. Having found her ancestor, she then had to distance herself from him in order to write. All of this is brilliantly explained in an exciting nonfiction account of the research and writing process, Searching for the Secret River(2006).
NOT ONLY IS Grenville a novelist, she knows how to tell a story. She says she is a city girl but has no difficulty in creating a powerful sense of the open spaces of Australia. Interestingly, the place where her ancestor colonised a settlement is only 80km outside Sydney.
There is no romancing the reality. Grenville makes it clear that the settlers, having been given a desperate second chance at life, grabbed it with both fists. In order to survive and prosper they believed they had to destroy the native people who already lived there. Australia’s history is an account of conquest “that people didn’t want to hear”.
She concedes that by the time Robert Hughes published The Fatal Shore(1987), attitudes had begun to change, “and he is such a good writer”.
Solomon Wiseman became the fictionalised William Thornhill, a man with an obvious burden of guilt. Through her work, Grenville has moved backwards, plotting the slowly evolving suburbanised Australia before looking at its brutal origins. So Australia was built on blood? “Pretty much, but now we know and, more importantly, acknowledge it.”
As an Australian writer, she feels she owes a great debt to Patrick White. “He is the founding father. When I read The Tree of Manand Riders in the Chariot, I felt my world had opened.” White described Lilian’s Storyas “a dazzling fiction of universal appeal”. He was right. Grenville recalls meeting the 1973 Nobel literature laureate shortly after the birth of her elder child, Tom, now an architect. “He was in his pram and there was Patrick White, clearly not a man with views on babies. He studied him closely and then remarked, ‘He’s big, isn’t he?’ ”