Tell us about your wordsmith career path so far:
I’ve published lots of articles on Australian Literature also two books (one a complete Bibliography) on Judith Wright’s poetry. After I retired I wrote my memoir, Roundabout at Bangalow, published in 2001 by the University of Queensland Press. The Ghost at the Wedding is the story, or stories, of my husband’s family through three genertions and two wars, with especial emphasis upon the experience of the women in the family.
Since finishing The Ghost at the Wedding, do you have any plans for new projects? Or are you going to rest easy for a while?
I have another project, to be called The Disputed Plain. It deals with European myths of settlement in Australia. It’s centred on an English family, from Kent, who come as assisted migrants in the 1840s and live in a shepherd’s hut in a place which is in dispute between two powerful land-grabbing cattle barons. Neither has any concern for their indentured labourers or the indigenous people. The family’s hut is burned by one of these factions and the family is put out on the disputed plain to fend for themselves. I have lots of research to do before I can confidently put pen to paper (or even open a Word document).
You are a retired academic and an honorary fellow of UNE. How has your background in academia helped your career as a writer?
At least I know where to put the apostrophes! But, seriously, my study and teaching of the writing of others has hopefully taught me what works, what doesn’t. But it’s all trial and error, hard work, sorrow and disappointment, with occasional moments of rapture when you know immediately that, as a writer, you’ve managed to get it just right!
Your previous work was the memoir Roundabout at Bangalow. How was it writing your memoir, and then writing the tale of your mother in law Jessie? What did you prefer working on?
Writing a personal memoir is quite different to writing autobiography, especially when writing about one’s mother-in-law, a powerful family figure. My own memoir came straight from the heart and required little research, although I did carefully check my facts. Writing someone else’s story meant that I had to position myself emotionally and dramatically in that person’s consciousness. This was not easy, especially with someone who had been as reticent as Jessie. Descriptions of her paintings helped me to enter her mind, clarify her responses to her circumstances. Even a reticent, locked-in person can express her emotions in a different medium where even the colours, or the way the paint is slathered on, can be an expression of personality.
Which would you say was easier to work on and why?
Obviously the memoir Roundabout at Bangalow was easier. I had also, in writing The Ghost at the Wedding, to be careful about invading the privacy of various family members. Not my immediate family, but perhaps distant relatives of Jessie. That is why I changed some of the names.
The Ghost at the Wedding manuscript won the inaugural Penguin/Varuna scholarship. What was it like winning, and what did the process of turning your manuscript into the finished product involve?
I was quite astonished to win this scholarship as I knew that quite a few manuscripts had been entered. Part of the award was the editing of the manuscript by Penguin’s senior literary editor, Meredith Rose. Her help was absolutely invaluable and it was not long after this editing process that Penguin decided to publish The Ghost at the Wedding. Things moved very quickly then, and the book came out some six months later.
Did you struggle in terms of finding a publisher when you first started writing? What was that like?
It’s always very difficult for beginning authors to have their manuscripts read, let alone have them published. There are apocryphal stories of piles of decaying manuscripts in publishers’ offices waiting to be dusted off and read. Because I had published academic books through the University of Queensland Press, I knew, when I sent the manuscript of Roundabout at Bangalow to them, that it would be read, and read sympathetically. I would hate to have gone in cold. And similarly with The Ghost at the Wedding. The Penguin/Varuna Scholarship opened the door to the most prestigious publishing house in Australia. I have indeed been lucky.
What are some of the difficulties that you encounter when working on a big project such as a book?
The difficulty is in keeping the continuity and keeping the narrative flowing. Life keeps interrupting and it’s always hard to get back to the work and pick up where one left off. Because this book took a long time – five years – to write, I was concerned that my writing style had changed in that time. I certainly felt that, towards the end of the project, it was flowing much more easily. But I suppose that’s natural.
Were these difficulties maximised by the fact that you were writing history?
Yes, there was a considerable amount of historical research. I was writing about soldiers on various battlefields during two wars, and I had to make their experiences as authentic as possible, so you can see how much delving into historical records took place. I spent time in the research room of the Australian War Memorial and consulted their staff whenever I came across a problem. There are also wonderful historical accounts of both wars. For WWI there is Charles Bean’s many-volumed Official History; a copy is in most large libraries as well as online. Les Carlyon’s The Great War and Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs are accurate and detailed. For the New Guinea campaign Peter FitzSimons’ Kokoda and Peter Brune’s A Bastard of a Place were invaluable. I had to get each war episode absolutely correct and also try to capture the atmosphere of each battlefield. A visit to the battlefields of the Somme certainly helped to recreate the atmosphere.
As far as the home scene went, that was relatively easy. As well as Jessie’s stories my own parents’ memories are still with me. I’m also old enough to remember the ‘thirties and life in Australia during the second war.
Apart from letters, what else did you consult for facts when writing about Jessie’s life?
I knew the facts of Jessie’s life from her many stories and family documents such as marriage, birth and death certificates. I also consulted material in the local historical societies. Jessie left not only bundles of letters to and from the various battle fronts but also carefully wrapped parcels containing the ‘effects’ of dead soldiers, sent back to the relatives when the war ended. These were often quite pathetic. Can you believe that all a young soldier owned in the world was a small diary, a razor, a wrist-watch with a broken strap and a holy medal? Imagine my feelings when I opened the diary 90 years after it was written and found pressed flowers from the battlefield between its pages? A 19-year-old soldier paused in the middle of the most horrible war in memory to pick flowers and press them? Unbelievable.
In 1918, as soon as she came home from her honeymoon Jessie wrote a long account of her wedding to her brother Joe who was with the AIF in France. He didn’t receive the letter. He was already dead. The letter was returned unopened, stamped DECEASED. In it I learned the facts of her marriage, but I had to imagine the shock and grief of receiving the letter back.
Jessie lived in a time of hardship and suffering, but the fact that many emerged from it to go on with their daily lives is astonishing. Did you feel a sense of sadness when writing her tale? How did it feel to be writing about your own family, and then getting into your mother in law’s shoes through her paintings?
Whenever I think of what Jessie and her mother Janet went through I am overcome with pity and sadness. But stronger than that are my feelings of admiration for the strength of these two women.
There is always a distance between a mother-in-law and her son’s wife. It’s no wonder there are so many jokes on the subject. The younger woman has supplanted the mother and, according to the mother, doesn’t do anything nearly as well as she did. It wasn’t ever this difficult between Jessie and myself but I did find it very difficult to imagine her emotions, her inner feelings. I also had to overcome the feeling that I was treading on sacred ground in daring to imagine and describe her feelings. As I’ve said earlier the paintings helped.
What is a typical day in the life of Shirley Walker?
I am the full-time carer for a 90-year-old veteran of WW2, my husband and Jessie’s eldest son. This is quite a serious and time-consuming task but I feel honoured to do it. We have a big house and I have a large area in which to spread out the ‘mess’ of my writing. I try to spend at least three hours a day writing but much of this is re-writing. I’m a passionate and spontaneous writer but a compulsive re-writer. I try to get every word, every sentence, as perfect as I can. I envy writers who don’t need to revise so much but I don’t think there are many of them.
What are some of the perks associated with your job?
As I am retired on reasonable (but not too generous) superannuation I regard the rest of my life as one long (I hope) literary fellowship.
What are your writing goals now, in comparison to what they were before you were published?
Just more of the same. I’m very interested in history, the human aspects of history and hope, for as long as I am able, to continue interpreting history – especially from the point of view of the women involved.
What advice would you offer to aspiring writers and wordsmiths who want to follow a similar career path?
Read widely. Analyse good writing. Look at the way other successful writers have done it. Then write spontaneously and passionately. But don’t be afraid to re-write, again and again until you are completely satisfied. Good writing is never easy.
I would advise anyone seeking publication to work through an agent. If an agent likes your work she/he will push it with the publishers and hopefully find a home for it. Agents also know which publisher will be more likely to be interested in your kind of writing.
Ten in the Hot Seat:
1. Describe yourself in one word: passionate
2. Biggest accomplishment to date: My family
3. You wish you wrote: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
4. Can’t leave home without: Laptop
5. One thing you are currently writing: Review for Australian Book Review
6. First thing you wrote: Poem for the Children’s Page in the Lismore Northern Star when I was seven.
7. Addicted to reading: Everything
8. Top spot on your goals list: Next book: The Disputed Plain
9. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Young, sexy, beautiful, smart and totally unbelievable
10. The best thing about being a wordsmith: Holding the new book in your hand for the very first time. Rapture!