#AWW2016 Review – Searching for the Secret River by Kate Grenville



I’m reviewing another memoir this week – this time a writing memoir – the story of Kate Grenville’s journey to writing her historical fiction – ‘The Secret River’.

Kate didn’t set out to write a historical fiction. In fact, the journey began not as an idea for a novel, but rather through a brief connection with an Aboriginal woman, the realisation that Kate’s great great great grandfather had been in Australia at the same time as the Indigenous woman’s great great great grandfather. Next, of course, came the question: how had Kate’s ancestor treated the Aboriginal people?

So the search began for her family history. She describes well the frustrations of genealogical research: frustrations I can well relate to after spending untold hours down the rabbit hole that is my own family history. The hours upon hours of searching for something that is not there, only to find it in the least expected place, or worse, not find it at all. Luckily for Kate she seemed to find all that she searched for (or if she didn’t, she didn’t write about it in her book!). Unlike Kate, I had no concerns with being labelled a ‘family historian’ even as a 20 year old in  a ‘hobby’ dominated by much older women.

It was not until much later in the research that Kate realised this research was not leading to the writing of a family history, but a novel.

Kate’s journey was so easy to read, peppered as it was with funny anecdotes and interesting tales.

“I knew I’d left the city behind when I passed a pile of bulgin bags on the roadside outside a farm with a big handwritten sign: POO $2.50”

Reading Kate’s experience in writing a historical fiction was immensely helpful to the writing of mine, despite that I found it so late in the process. It seems she struggled with the same things I have struggled with: presenting accent without making it difficult to read, writing some sections of the first draft in 1st person and some in 3rd, and how to connect with the past – how to bring it to life and treat it’s inhabitants with respect.

“I didn’t want to get inside the Aboriginal characters, but I needed to see what Thornhill would have: people of unmixed Aboriginal descent, living in traditional ways.”

Kate’s research for the book involved not just time spent in dusty archives, but also time in the landscape exploring the setting of her novel, and she writes much about this.

“The place was speaking to me as I sat listening, and although I couldn’t hear it properly, and didn’t know how to tell its story, I knew I was going to try.”

But the best help I received from this book, which replicates advice from many other people, comes in these few paragraphs:

“I thought of the book that I was circling around, that I’d been trying so hard to control. It was the problem with having written a few books. You got cocky, thought you were the boss. You thought it was your book, to squeeze into this shape or that. Non-fiction. Memoir. The fictional quester.

How puny and little-minded all those plans seemed from the perspective of this ridge-top, in this vast room made of leaves and air. How presumptuous I’d been, thinking that this was my story alone, to pummel into shape as I saw fit, a story I understood enough to force into the form I wanted.

The breeze had picked up. The bunches of leaves whipped against each other, whipped at the air. The was speaking. It was a language I didn’t know, but even so I was starting to understand.

How could I know what kind of book this was going to be? My job wasn’t to take what I’d learned and squeeze it into the shape I thought it should have. Before it could be a book this was a story. That story was somehow part of all this–these trees, these rocks full of language that was lost. I didn’t own that story. It had to be allowed to speak for itself. My job was to get out of its way.”

In many of the drafts of On Demon’s Shores, I let my fear about certain things get in the way of the story, and I tried to change it and adapt it as best would suit me and cower to my fears. In this most recent draft I’ve given the story control (as best as I can), and it’s certainly a better story for it.






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