Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Her international bestseller The Secret River was awarded local and overseas prizes, has been adapted for the stage and as an acclaimed television miniseries, and is now a much-loved classic. Grenville’s other novels include Sarah Thornhill, The Lieutenant, Dark Places and the Orange Prize winner The Idea of Perfection.
In 2020 she returns to the first years of European settlement in Australia with A Room Made of Leaves, an alternative memoir of Elizabeth Macarthur.
Kate has also written non-fiction, including One Life: My Mother’s Story and The Case Against Fragrance, as well as three books about the writing process.
In 2017 Grenville was awarded the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature.
ASTRID: Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best-known writers. The Secret River was shortlisted for and awarded too many Australian and international prizes to list here, but that said, all of Kate's works not only made their mark in the world of literary prizes they are popular with and loved by readers everywhere. For listeners of The Garret, Kate has also written three books on the craft of writing itself. Kate was also awarded the Australia Council’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature a few years ago.
Kate, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to The Garret.
KATE: Thank you, it is lovely to be here with you.
ASTRID: Now, you have been writing for a very long time and you understand the craft of writing, which I think is something that we all really want to do. There is so much I feel and I want to ask you, but today if it's okay with you Kate I'd like to focus on your approach to historical fiction because of course it is a particular way of writing, including of course your new work A Room Made of Leaves.
KATE: That sounds great. I'm delighted to talk about both those things because they're both passions of mine. Every author's latest book is a passion, but I do feel quite evangelical that writing is such an enrichment of lives that everybody should have a go of it. So lovely to talk about that.
ASTRID: Oh, that is music to my ears. Now, before we get into A Room Made of Leaves, which is of course your retelling of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, can you tell us what draws you to historical fiction?
KATE: I really am interested in the present. I'm not that interested in the past per se, but I'm also aware that if you write about the present people's guard immediately goes up. Their radar goes up, they try to suss where you are on the political spectrum and whether or not they're going to agree with you. Whereas if you write historical fiction that looks as if it's set 250 years ago but is actually, at a slightly deeper level, about exactly the issues we're facing today, you kind of get in under the radar, or at least that's always my hope. So, you write a book set in the past and people think oh is this has got nothing to do with me, but hopefully at some possibly unconscious level they go away and they realise they have been given the information or the sense of the reality of the past that shaped the present we live in today, and therefore they're in a better position to f understand today.
ASTRID: That is so sneaky, Kate. So, when you sit down to tackle a new work, do you think about what you want to comment on in terms of the present that we are experiencing? Or do you find the story in the past and through the writing you end up exploring maybe what we might be thinking about these days?
KATE: Yeah, very much the second. I always start with a character basically and a situation, which actually is exactly what Stephen King says you're supposed to do. When I read that he said that I was terribly pleased.
So, I started with Elizabeth Macarthur, who is… the little we know about her is interesting because her husband left her in charge – this is in the 1800s or so – left her in charge of a gigantic enterprise in Australia, it was a sheep farm, but she had to do what no women of that time had to do: single handedly run a gigantic enterprise with hundreds of employees. So that is already interesting. She must have been, you know, quite a character to have done that. And at the same time she... Well, I suspect she had a little dalliance let's put it mildly with William Dawes, who was there at the time, a member of the First Fleet who I've written about in another book.
So I started with that intriguing woman about whom various myths have grown, and I thought, ‘Okay, this is enough to be going on with. And she's in this situation and she's meeting this astronomer and she's got this awful husband, so that's enough to start with’. I started there, and it was really, I mean I wrote – I probably I know this sounds absurd and crazy I shouldn't admit to this – I actually wrote about 30 drafts of this book. Now they're not all, every word wasn't rewritten, but many of them were. It took me that long to actually discover my real subject, which was the subject of myths, stereotypes and stories that mislead us. So, for a very long time, the whole of the writing, the working title of the book was Do Not Believe Too Quickly.
ASTRID: Oh wow.
KATE: I really want this to be a book about saying, look, we live in a world of misinformation, don't believe everything, think it through for yourself. Don't believe myths about the women of the past, for example, that they were these really happy compliant goody gumball characters, devout. Many of them probably were not, some of them probably were. Don't necessarily believe the stories that early settlers tell about the Indigenous people that they encountered. That's one side of the story. Always think ‘Who is telling this story and what is their agenda?’ So that came much later at about draft twenty, I suppose I began to feel that that was my real subject.
ASTRID: Oh, draft twenty. I love that you admit that in public. I have come across many, many writers that think that if they edit their first draft everything is done. And then I always feel like I'm the one to break their heart and be like, ‘No, it's not ready yet’.
Kate, what you just said is fascinating, and I think that's kind of where I wanted to start really unpicking what you've done in this novel. So, this is historical fiction and I have no doubt you have done a huge amount of work across your career but specifically for this book as well – research, I mean – but the way the narrative is actually structured prompts, immediately prompts, some of those questions in the reader. So, for example, you actually open the work with an editor's note and you sign this editor's note with your own name and you call yourself the ‘transcriber and the editor’. And the premise is that you literally uncovered a bunch of Elizabeth Macarthur's personal writings, her personal diary, and you are now publishing it to the world. That's a piece of fiction.
KATE: That's right. In a way the way I began to see this book like those, you know, those nested Russian dolls. It's kind of a fiction within a fiction within a fiction within a fiction, but the ultimate joke is that it's actually quite closely based on the real facts of history. So that layering effect of what do we believe here, I wanted that to be the experience of reading. So as you say the book opens with this thing which is called an edit note, I think, and it begins by saying, you know, ‘I'm Kate Grenville and by an amazing unbelievable stroke of luck I came across these old papers up in the attic of an old house. And what do you know, they turned out to be this secret somewhat scandalous lost memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur. Well fancy that, I think I'll publish them.’ So, I'm hoping that from the go get people will think, ‘Oh okay, I realise what sort of book this is. I'm being told not to believe too quickly.’
ASTRID: So, I racked my brain and I have to admit I couldn't figure out what this was called. Does this as a literary device have a name?
KATE: That's a very good question. Look I have... I mean there's this thing called the Unreliable Narrator, but that tends to be a narrator who is pretending to tell the truth and in fact telling you a lie, whereas this is kind of more complicated. This is the unreliable author, I think one could say. I think there might be some books of Nabokov, it's vague in my mind but I think he did something similar. He's written a book called The Real Life of Sebastian Knight , and I have a feeling from a very distant memory, that it does something similar. It is pretending to be a biography of somebody, and there's some sort of slippage between fact and fiction. So, I think one could call it the unreliable author.
ASTRID: I like that you just given us all reading to do as well, Kate.
Now, when you take somebody from the past, somebody who is long dead but was kind of left out of history, right. We all know about Elizabeth Macarthur but she's not necessarily the Macarthur that appears in the textbooks. I was, you know, as I was reading this picking it up for the first time, Kate, I had vague memories of my Year 4 history class and drawing sheep and something about John Macarthur, and honestly that's all I learned at the time. But what are the ethics of taking the story of someone in the past?
KATE: Okay, look first of all let me refer to that thing of learning about these people at school. The problem with Elizabeth Macarthur, and one of the reasons it took me so long to get to this book, is that she comes across in those books as deadly dull, absolutely yawn enforcing dull. And even her letters when you go and read them are pretty boring. They're very bland, very vapid. They don't complain about a thing, even though she had a lot to complain about. And when I read them, I thought actually she's constructed this enormous fiction herself. She's left behind these letters, which are not the truth at all. And we've got this myth of her as a really boring person, which is interesting that that happens to women, how often women's stories are silenced by being made boring or appear to be boring, because really what I'm interested in is that question of silenced stories and women have been silenced more than anybody else.
But you asked me about the ethics and that is a very good question and a tricky one. Look, I think when people are long dead – and I mean Elizabeth Macarthur was born in 1766, that's a very long time ago. There are some descendants, but it was a long time ago. They probably will not like the book. I have actually written to them, and I've sent them an advance copy to say, ‘Look’ I don't expect you to like this but I don't want you to be taken by surprise’. So I understand that, but I also think that when writing about the past – anybody who writes about the past in any context – you have to be allowed to do it. I think that if you writing about real people that are close at home, let alone if they're still alive, I think I wouldn't do that. I did write a book about a woman born in 1900, that was my first novel and that was kind of a bit close to the bone. But she didn't have any children, so I kind of… I mean the real question is first of all is somebody going to be hurt by this? And secondly if so, if the answer to that is yes, the next question is is there another way that I can tell this story without it necessarily being specifically attached to that person? So that's why some historical novels use the real characters’ names and some don't. It's like we're all struggling with what is in fact a rather difficult ethical moment.
ASTRID: Thank you for that explanation, Kate. One of the selfish reasons I asked is not just because I have the great pleasure of interviewing you, but I recently read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, which is about Hillary Clinton. Now Hillary Clinton is very much alive and it's an alternative history and Hillary comes out well, but the whole time I felt a bit icky thinking I don't quite know why you're doing this yet and I feel a bit uncomfortable.
KATE: Yeah, that's interesting. I mean public figures – as Hillary Clinton certainly is – they are in a slightly different category. They have made that deal with the world that they're prepared to be talked about. There's a grey area, which includes writers I think, who are not quite public figures but some people treat them as if they are. So that's a grey area. The other thing is that if people are still alive it's very hard to get far enough back from them to kind of see any kind of big picture. And you know, the close picture can be interesting too.
Yeah, I would share your feeling I think.
ASTRID: Now the idea of an autobiography, which of course you are ostensibly the transcriber and editor of, means that we get a very close… we are in the mind of Elizabeth as you imagine it, and it's her interior life. It's not just the historical things that she did and where she lived and, you know, what successes she had. It's her thoughts, it's her feelings, it's her choices. Can you explain how you took your research and your knowledge of this time and really found and imagined the woman?
KATE: Yes, that's the other reason it took me a long time, twenty odd years actually from the first idea to having it published. The thing about the women of the past is the only way we know them is through very bland letters. Letters were public things in those days, they were not private, you could not pour out your heart in a letter, because it would be read aloud to many people who couldn't read. So, read aloud to all the friends and neighbours. So, you know, those letters are public documents. You could only publish a novel if it appeared to be blameless and reinforced the stereotype. So, there was no voice for those women, and yet their lives were totally lacking in any kind of power. If they had money it became their husbands as soon as they married. They didn't have any control over their fertility. If they wanted to leave their husband they would have to leave their children as well. Now, I thought you know all this is it would be intolerable to us. It is like the worst kind of slavery. It's slavery plus possibly having to go to bed every night with someone that, you know, it wasn't kind of working with. I can't imagine any more hellish existence.
And I thought, well, could those women have been that different from me? I think not. So really I harnessed my own experience as a woman. A little example of that is towards the beginning of the book a man comes in and Elizabeth has done a bit of a study, just as a hobby, of the local grasses. And somebody says, ‘Oh, Elizabeth knows all about grass’. So, this man stands up by the mantelpiece, legs apart, hands folded, and said, ‘Oh yes, miss, very interesting. And have you ever heard of viper’s fescue?’, which is a very obscure kind of grass. And of course, Elizabeth has to say no, whereupon this guy, then ticking the points off his fingers as he speaks, delivers himself of a disquisition about grasses. And Elizabeth is silenced, her little conversational thing has been stolen from her. I think it would be a rare woman who hasn't experienced that hijacking of a conversation, not always by men but very often.
ASTRID: I would agree I don't think there is a woman alive who hasn't experienced a similar thing.
Now, Kate you've obviously done a huge amount of research – both primary sources, you know, those of the time, the letters et cetera. I was also wondering about secondary sources and where you place your work – I mean, I know it is a novel – but where you place your work in terms of the reclamation of Elizabeth Macarthur and bringing her back to the forefront of our colonial history?
KATE: Look, I think what I would like to say is that I wouldn't make any claims about Elizabeth Macarthur, but what I would say is in general, look at those women and assume that they are not that different from us. In other words, don't believe too quickly about them. Elizabeth Macarthur – I am of course convinced that my Elizabeth Macarthur is probably quite close to the truth – but I make that… I mean, I'm her creator. I'm very fond of her. So of course I'll say that. No one should read this book as history, that's for sure. They should go and read the real history. But at the same time, I think sometimes history appears to be very boring sometimes. Let's face it. And so, if a historical novel can open the door to a whole period of history, for example the women of the past, and say look actually, there's more to this than meets the eye. Don't give up on this. Go and read the history having been primed perhaps by the fiction, that would be a really good outcome I think for everybody.
ASTRID: Now you've written about this time before, Australia's colonial past. You did write about William Dawes in The Lieutenant, as you mentioned before, and he is of course now a significant character in your latest work. What reactions are you anticipating if any about your characterisation of William Dawes?
KATE: Look, William Dawes is interesting. You know, Elizabeth Macarthur got some lessons from him. When she first got to Australia she was bored, so she said, ‘Can you teach me a bit of astronomy?’, because he was the resident astronomer. So, she did and she writes to a friend, ‘I had a few lessons from Mr Dawes but I mistook my abilities and I blush for my error’. Now there is an unmistakable – in the context of her otherwise very dull letters – there is a physicality about that, and I am not the only person to have picked up the little erotic voltage in that. Most versions of Elizabeth MacArthur's life that I've read have commented on it. And when I had written… and there are several other novels that refer to William Dawes, always as quite a slightly mysterious but very attractive person. And when I had written The Lieutenant I actually got a letter, a long and rather sad letter, from another writer who said, ‘You know, I've kind of been in love with William Dawes for years, and I've been wanting to write about it and you've pipped me at the post’. So I apologise to that woman, I've done it again in spades this time, because this time William Dawes has a fully fledged, you know, love affair with Elizabeth Macarthur which may or may not be historically based. Who knows, we'll never know.
ASTRID: We will never know, but it gives it gives a different insight into the Elizabeth that you have brought to us Kate.
Now, Elizabeth – for everything else that she was, in including an incredible business woman – she was also a white woman of European descent who found herself transplanted on the other side of the world, and I'm very much aware Kate that we had two white women sitting here talking about her life two centuries later. Elizabeth lived through and was present for colonisation in Australia, you know, the start of terra nullius, and her story and her land doesn't exist without the Aboriginal people who were there before her. She ended up owning a lot of land. So, I guess I wanted to ask you how did you wrestle with that and bring that part of Elizabeth's story to the page?
KATE: That is such a good question, because it was it is the main reason why the book took me twenty years to write, because Elizabeth, as you so rightly say, she went to Parramatta. And in the beginning they were granted a chunk of land at Parramatta and then much more at Camden. So, they were given vast swathes of Indigenous land. Now how they dealt with the Indigenous people whose land it was, there is very little on the record and very little that's reliable. So, she and her husband owned vast swathes of land that they had stolen from the various Indigenous clans that were in the area. Now, of course that had to be a big part of the of the story. But the problem was that I've already really told a version of that story in The Secret River, which was based on my own convict ancestor who did a similar thing in the Hawkesbury River – went up and pinched a whole lot of land from the local people there. So, I'd kind of told that story.
So I thought okay, but there's another aspect to this, which is not about the actual stealing of land and the actual relationship with the people, although there is quite a bit of that in the book, what it's about is the stories that the white people have told themselves to justify what they did. You mentioned terra nullius, that's one of the many stories that white people have told themselves, that there was nobody here, it was okay, we could just move in, see there were no fences, no houses. And when you look at some of the specific stories about specific events with a sceptical eye, you think okay this is probably part of the truth but it's the white person's version of that story. And were you able to go back and say to the Indigenous people, ‘What's your reading of this of this event?’ It would be entirely different. So there's a particular moment that I've taken as a sort of example of that, which is the thing that's become known as the Battle of Parramatta, a very grand name. And it's about an attack by a lot of warriors on the township of Parramatta. They attacked apparently in broad daylight in a mass, spears against many muskets, because it was a garrison, so it was madness. And it's the only time that Indigenous people did that kind of folly of directly attacking. They were much too clever to fight that way, they did guerrilla war and they were pretty much winning. So, I read the one account of this and I thought okay this doesn't quite make sense in any way. And if you think about it in terms of the logic of what we know about the bigger context, it can't be true. It just can't be true. And that applies to a great deal of what we know about the Indigenous and white relationship. We only have one side of the story. There would have been of course oral traditions, but we have managed to disrupt the oral transmission from generation to generation so thoroughly that many of those stories have been lost.
So, all that I have given to Elizabeth Macarthur – that's my way of addressing it in this book. So, she hears this unbelievable story about the Battle of Parramatta. Her husband of course was the military commander at the time, that's the connection there. And she thinks look the real story has been erased, I will never know what really happened, but what I can say for sure is that the version that my husband is telling cannot be the truth.
ASTRID: Was there anything you were able to discover in terms of oral traditions? You do refer to assistance that you received from the Darug Custodian Aboriginal Corporation and the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. Does anything still remain?
KATE: Look, I'm afraid that there are scraps and there some traditions, but they don't differ enormously in their acceptance of the basic events, at least in the case of the Battle of Parramatta. You know, we disrupted that transmission of oral tradition very thoroughly, and it is a bit like the coronavirus – if you test and isolate it sufficiently, you can you can kill it, you can make it you can eliminate it, and that's what we did to most of that oral history. Those groups that I've thanked very sincerely in the book for their consultation, they were so generous and open and welcoming to me, which is not to say that they necessarily agree with everything in the book, I wouldn't want to say that, but they welcomed the idea of consultation and being consulted about what is their history.
ASTRID: How many years did it actually take you from when you decided you'd found the way in to write?
KATE: Okay, so I first came across the I blushed for my error letter in probably 2002. I then wrote three novels The Secret River, The Lieutenant and then Sarah Thornhill, which were part of a trilogy, so one just grew out of the other without me really planning it. And then I took a bit of a side thing into two works of non-fiction. I think it really wasn't… All that time I had been thinking about it in a kind of a meditative way not a practical way, I hadn't written a word. I had done a lot of reading and I had also visited the place – to me that's the heart of writing historical fiction, to spend as much time as you can on the place where the events happen. And so for example, I had gone to Bridge Rule, which is where Elizabeth Macarthur was born and grew up, spent her first twenty years there. I spent some time there. So, it was all kind of mulling away. I'm a great believer in the unconscious, not planning too much. Not all writers would agree with me, but it works for me. You put the ideas in, you put all the research in, you go to the place with a kind of open mind, and then you kind of hope that something magic is going to happen in your unconscious. In my experience if you trust it, it does. So, when I moved to Melbourne, which was 2017, that's when I first put pen to paper. So, the actual writing was probably three years.
ASTRID: That's pretty good for a book, although you have been doing the thinking almost for 18 years.
KATE: Yes, that's right. But I have written a lot of books in that time, five books in that same period of time.
ASTRID: Oh absolutely. Kate, my final question for you. You are a very accomplished writer and a very well awarded writer. There are lots of writers who listen to The Garret and on behalf of them I would like to ask you what is the best piece of advice that you think an emerging writer should take on board?
KATE: Okay look, the first – and many people who are listening will not agree with this, but as I say this just worked for me – the first thing is not to think about what you should write, what the market will want, what this year's fashion is, a subject that should be written about, you have to write about something you are genuinely passionate about. And it's all to the good if you don't understand it too well, as I didn't understand Elizabeth Macarthur, because what gets you at the desk every day that needs to be a very powerful engine, and the engine of curiosity is really good. So, if you yourself need to know where the book's going to go, that's likely to get you at the desk. Whereas if you know where it's going, well, it's probably not so interesting. So that would be the first thing, to write out of passion. And trust that if you're interested in it and if you're writing about it with passion, your readers will be interested in too. And the other thing is very simple – not to start at the beginning. Start at the part of the book where you're really interested, don’t think, ‘Oh, when I get to that bit I'll be okay’. Start there and work up from that.
ASTRID: That is great advice Kate thank you so much for your time today.
KATE: Thank you, Astrid.