Leah Purcell, a proud Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman, is a multi-award-winning author, playwright, screenwriter, actor, director and producer.
The Drover’s Wife was first a play written by and starring Purcell, which premiered at Belvoir St Theatre in late 2016 and swept the board during the 2017 awards season, winning the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Playwriting and Book of the Year, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama and the Victorian Prize for Literature, the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Stage Work, Major Work and the David Williamson Prize for Excellence in Writing for Australian Theatre, the Helpmann Award for Best Play and Best New Australian Work, and the Sydney–UNESCO City of Film Award.
In 2019 Leah adapted her play to the novel form in the fictional The Drover's Wife (and we can expect a sequel).
The feature film adaptation of The Drover’s Wife, written, directed and starring Leah Purcell, is slated for a 2021 release.
ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Leah.
LEAH: Thank you.
ASTRID: You have built an exceptional career across many different industries and platforms. You are an actor, producer, director and showrunner. But today in this interview I'd really like to just focus on your writing. The Drover's Wife, of course, both as a play and a novel and very soon adapted for the screen.
LEAH: Yes. Absolutely. I wrote that too.
ASTRID: I know! And you perform them all. Now, the original play and the performance actually received too many awards for me to list. Normally I start out with lots of awards and it's truly exceptional. But as an easy question for you Leah, I'd like to start, why did you choose to write this story as a play in the first instance?
LEAH: Well, my mother would read the original story from Henry Lawson and she had the little book of his short stories, publication of short stories. I don't know why she read that to me. And then she would recite it, because we shared a room and I was a mongrel sleeper and I'd say, ‘Mum, tell me that story. Read me that story’. And then I'd always stop her and say the famous last line that the little boy says, ‘Ma, I won't never go a droving’. And for some reason it stuck with me for years. But I think as a child I had a wild imagination. I envisioned that my mother was the drover’s wife and I was that little boy, because my white father – my Mum's Aboriginal, my Dad's white. But he was never around in my upbringing, so it was just me and my Mum. So, I was there to protect her, she was there to protect me. She was my mother and father. We had a combustion stove, so we had a wood heap. She taught me how to split logs for firewood. You know, we boiled water in a copper pot. So, I guess it was the first story that I could see myself in. That and The Little Match Girl.
ASTRID: Oh, I used to love that yeah.
LEAH: I don’t know why, but I was always, I was always the little match girl too as I think about it now.
And so, it was just something that stuck with me. When my Mum passed away and I was leaving Murgon I remember grabbing that little book, and it's not until years later I go, ‘Thank goodness I did’. But it obviously meant something deep within me. So, I had it with me, I read it to my daughter when she was growing up, I left it on the bookshelf to get dust and cobwebs.
Then in 2006 I was filming the film Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains at Jindabyne with Ray Lawrence, the director. And on weekends and my days off I'd go for a walk around the National Park, me and my partner Bain Stewart. And I would go, ‘Gee, we don't utilise this landscape enough in our films and TV. And then we got up to the top of Mount Kosciuszko and I said, ‘Well, I'm putting it out there on Country. I'm yelling to the universe’. I said, ‘I'm going to come back here and do something. I think I'm going to write it, I think I'm going to be in it, and I think it's The Drover’s Wife’. Bain just sort of looked at me, and I went, ‘Yeah, that's what it'll be’.
So, jump to 2014. I was a director and I had been writing for TV at this stage, I'd written Black Chicks Talking – the book, play and documentary. I'm dabbling in that sort of thing. But I was at this writers workshop as a director, and I was a little bit frustrated with the writers. So, I said instead of taking my frustration out on them maybe it's my time for me to write my next play. So, I went home that evening and sort of looked at my bookshelf and I’d gathered a few more books at this stage, and The Drover's Wife book was just jutting out that little bit further, it had a red cover, so it was just sticking out. And I went, ‘It's time for you’. So, I pulled it off the shelf, laid it beside my computer and said, ‘I'm not going to reread it. I'm going to try to remember what my mother told me and what I remember of it’. And away I went. I wrote it in seven days. And I said to my partner – and this was the play at this stage, so it was two acts, the first act took me a week, the second act two days.
ASTRID: That's extraordinarily quick. Well done.
LEAH: And then I thought, ‘Oh look, it's going to be crap’. I said, ‘Can you read it? It's a basis, it's a start, it's somewhere to begin’. And he read it immediately and said, ‘No, there's something special about this. I think we're onto something’.
ASTRID: So, I mean you have a long career performing and as a director, and you’ve plays before, but I'm interested given what has subsequently evolved in terms of this story that you are telling, why did you choose the play format first?
LEAH: I think that's the actor in me. I think I wanted to… I wanted to act. I write my own lead roles, no one puts me in a lead role, so it was about employment.
ASTRID: I love that answer.
LEAH: I hadn't walked the stage, you know, the boards for a while. And if I'm going… I pride myself, and if I’m going to give someone a good role, so why not myself? But that was, whether it's selfish or egotistical or just desperation. But I said, well if I'm going to write a play then I want to be in it, it’s my work, what I come up with. So that was the real reason the play came first. And I guess it was what I knew. Like I – from Box the Pony, from Black Chicks Talking – I had worked on other people's plays as a script editor and you know, possible director, so I'd been workshopping stuff. And coming out of Play Writing Australia – that's where they hired me as a director and a bit of a dramaturge to work with younger people coming through. So, I think at that stage it was just because of the influence of the people that I was around and where I was at the time.
ASTRID: So, a moment ago you said, ‘I wanted to write myself a good role’. Now obviously that was for you to perform on stage and all of that entails, but also that role of course is Molly Johnson, this character that you have brought to life and embodied. What is it about her story that not only captivates you but everybody else?
LEAH: I think there's a couple reasons. She's a woman. She's strong. She's determined. She's vulnerable. But I also think it's got something to do with a mother's love, like no matter who you are you either have lived with mother's love or you lived without it. And I think you either want your mother to be like Molly Johnson, or you've experienced that with your own mother. And because I've been asked that question a bit now, and I think that's what I can put my finger on, the fact that everyone can relate to a mother and the mother's love, and the children, the love that they have for her.
And I wanted to play this strength – and I do play a lot of female roles that are very strong roles – but I also knew the vulnerability that she could have. And I guess I only ever had one child, and I helped raise nephews and nieces, and it's just this woman with these children, and so she's probably living a bit of my life that I didn't, playing the mum role, because when I was a little girl apparently I used to say, ‘I'm going to be a mother of ten kids’. So, my mother was my hero. She raised seven children, she looked after two nephews, and then she looked after two non-indigenous children in the community. So, she had just this massive nurturing heart and giving heart. So, I guess Molly Johnson was a little bit of an homage and paying respect to my mother and my grandmother. And I think that's why people relate to her, it's that mother aspect.
ASTRID: It is the mother aspect, and that does not come through in a lot of Australian literature. I'd like to talk about the title. Now, the most obvious link is Henry Lawson's original poem, ‘The Drover's Wife’. But both in the play and the novel and the forthcoming film, ‘the drover's wife’ means so much more than just a reference to where it came from. So, for the students listening, for the writers listening, we can pick apart this title. Because at first, you know, it's not her name…
LEAH: No, that's right. He never gave her a name. She was just ‘the drover's wife’. Exactly. I guess for me, The Drover's Wife, what it also does for the women of the time, of 18… what is it, 1893 and before and after, it gave them a status to be someone's, to belong to a man. It put them in good stead in society. And that's why it's only towards the end of the play, towards the end of the book, does she acknowledge her name Molly. And that was deliberate.
Before I came up with the name of Molly I said, ‘How do I get to play this woman? How can she be me?’ And I said, ‘Well, I could play just my white part. My Dad is white, I could just be…’ But then I've got such rich stories from my Indigenous side, I've always written about that and woven it into my work. And then of course in Henry Lawson's original writing, ‘Black Mary the whitest gin in all the land’ is what the district folks would call her. So, I took that name and said, ‘Well what if that was Molly's mother? Well that was the drover's wife's mother?’ And then when I was looking for names, I always try to have a meaning behind a name, so I went and looked up the top 10 Scottish names in 1890 and Molly popped up, and it’s meaning was pet name to Mary. And I went, ‘There is the link’. And to have the drama in my story I said, ‘She can't know who she is as a black woman’. So, Mary has to die so that Molly is brought up with her father.
And a good man, I made him a good man. I guess once again it was reflecting the relationship that I didn't have with my father and what I probably would have liked it to be. So, it was quite… I don’t want to say therapeutic, but it was nice to actually create these other worlds where the other side of Leah did have a relationship with her Dad. He did look after her, he did care. So, it was nice to sort of, to paint that world I guess for me, subconsciously maybe.
And that's what a few people have brought up. They said Henry Lawson didn't give her a name, but you did. And I said, ‘Well yeah, she deserves her own identity’. And I love it at the end where she does claim the name and who she is. And I brought that right out in the film. There's something where she makes a big statement about who she is and she's no longer Mrs. Joe Johnson, she is Molly Johnson.
ASTRID: Because of course for you know the reader or the audience, every time she refers to herself as a wife, as the drover's wife, as Joe Johnson's wife, it's often humiliating or it's a way of keeping the world at bay. It's a way of making her way in the world and very harsh conditions. But she doesn't enjoy doing it. She does it because it's practical.
LEAH: Yeah, absolutely. Henry Lawson made the drover to be a good guy. He did say, I wish I could give her the world and take her to the city. Of course, you've got to have character, have the good and the bad, so…
And I guess I also wanted to feature and focus on the domestic violence, it's an issue that I feel very strongly about. And you know, 100 odd years ago, you know, women were still dealing with that. And it was an everyday occurrence, and it was part of life and that's just what happened. And unfortunately, still to this day there are women – three women a day – dying from a domestic abuse, domestic violence, family violence. So, I just wanted to, where I can keep that in the forefront of our minds, saying that change has to come. It's ridiculous. And we have to make a stance on it, to weave that through the film.
So, she wasn't in this relationship for love. Her father knew it wasn't going to be love. He knew he wasn't going to be around anymore, he couldn't protect her. She needed status, she needed at least a roof over head and this guy was going to provide her with a bit of finance. But it was the children. She knew that out of this marriage she could find love through her children. And the love that she never had from her mother, that she could give to these children, and hopefully they were good kids and gave it back in return. And they do.
ASTRID: This tale, The Drover's Wife, has so many themes, an unusual number of themes if I can go out on a limb, and they all are so strong and interwoven. We've mentioned the strength of a mother's love, and a woman alone basically battling the world alone with her children. Domestic violence is another theme that goes all the way throughout. Not just from Molly's experience, but in a very different slightly intellectual way from Louisa Clintoff, who we meet later on. I mean, everything else is happening as well. It is incredible. You know, this is a place based, an incredible evocation of the Australian landscape where you filmed Jindabyne. Very place based. It's also just a devastating commentary on the impact of colonisation and importing a different civilisation just on top of everything. As the story progresses and as Molly understands her own story, you're looking at race relations, and the bureaucratic disaster that eventually became forced separation with Molly's children. I mean there are so many themes here [Laughter] and my list is still going on here.
All of these go well beyond the original. And I'm going to go on a limb and say, you know, these go for further than most works in Australia by dealing with all of these issues at once. And I guess as a writer, how on Earth did you do it?
LEAH: You know, if you gave me that list – I can see it and there are more – I would have ran a mile if you were to say, ‘Can you write me a story that's going to cover this’. But I guess that's just stuff that I've lived, that my mother lived, my grandmothers lived, my uncles have lived.
Yadaka is based on my Aboriginal great grandfather. And I read diaries that he was associated with and were written about him. And the disturbing thing is, when I and my partner and other Aboriginal people went to get access to those records, we actually weren't allowed.
LEAH: They were locked. It was just no-go zone. The dates were around a lot of massacres. The government just has files locked away under lock and key. So, we had to actually get the white relatives or in-laws to go in and say they were doing a thesis for something.
ASTRID: You're kidding.
LEAH: No. This is without a word of a lie. They went in and then found the history of my great grandfather and then brought it back to us. And then they wrote it up for us. And yeah, we just could not get in.
ASTRID: I just need to unpack that a minute because I am shocked. You, as a descendant, couldn't access your own great grandfather's records that were written about him.
ASTRID: But other relatives…
LEAH: Yeah, the white relatives.
ASTRID: … Could go and, you know, say they're going to write a thesis on it, you know say they are doing a PhD, make up a story essentially, and get access to it.
ASTRID: That is disgusting. And I am disturbed that that happened. And this happened in…?
LEAH: In Queensland.
ASTRID: In Queensland.
LEAH: And it was, gosh, it must have been… The first time I attempted it was probably around early 2000. I did get some family access, they did open up the files. But when you wanted to dive deeper and get in... The woman was almost brought to tears, she said, ‘I am so sorry. I just cannot. This is government locked files’. She said, ‘I just cannot’. So, we found other ways to get in and bring those stories out. So, that even made me more determined to write the truth from what I found in those diaries.
And with the stockmen, Robert Parson and John McPharlen, when they encounter Yadaka, what they say to him is word verbatim from the diaries of superiors, of white superiors, of the time, what they had wrote and what they had said. ‘So, don't debate me and tell me that this didn't happen or that could not have been said’, I said, ‘because it comes from your white superiors of this time, from their diaries’. Because my great grandfather witnessed it, lived it, read it himself because he did learn to read and write. So, it's been interesting.
So, you know as you said with those issues and the topics, I just wanted to make it clear where I can, where I've got an opportunity to tell these stories. But I just wanted to dive in and tell a good yarn. And I always base stuff (my writing) on fact. So, it was my family's stories or elements of, and I'm just, I'm kind of proud of myself I've covered so much.
ASTRID: And that's just what I came up with, teachers are going to come up with more.
LEAH: Oh, if I can put a heart and soul to these issues – because people died for this stuff, people were treated horrifically – and if I can put a heart and soul and move someone beyond the politics then I've done my job.
ASTRID: You've done an amazing job. I want to go back to how you researched your own family history. Now, I am still flabbergasted that you yourself weren't able to access you own records. Once you did get access to the information about your great grandfather, how did you go about taking that fact, that recorded history, and weaving it with the oral tradition and the stories that your family have told you and that you knew into words on the page?
LEAH: Yeah. Look I can only say, I let my imagination run wild. It was like reading the records, doing research, remembering stories, and I just filtered it, you know, allowed it to sit with me, take that in and use it as a platform to bounce off from. And then allowed my imagination to run wild with how do I bring these characters to life off the page? If I was reading this, how do I want to engage? And that's, I guess that's all I could truthfully say.
ASTRID: Now I read you describe the play version as, and I quote, ‘an Australian Western for the stage’. And I've also seen other people describe it as a ‘feminist frontier narrative’. Both of those are wildly different yet capture part of what you are doing. I want to go back to this question, because I am hoping people read The Drover's Wife with their family and in schools and give it to people who don't live in Australia. Why do you think it made such an impact? Not just because of all the themes we’ve gone through, but this is a page turner!
LEAH: Yeah, well that's great news to me, because it's very scary to write a novel and put it out there. In anything I've set out to do I’ve said, first and foremost – and once again it's the performer in me – I want whoever comes to see my work, who reads my work, that they're entertained first and foremost. Because we do, we buy books to read, especially fiction books, to be taken somewhere.
So, I wanted the story to stand out, to be as best that it could possibly be. And everyone that reads it will take something. As you said, I called it a thriller, a Western thriller. People look at it and see the feminist movement through it. And I think if you got someone else's interpretation they might find something else in there. And I think that's when it's a good book, I think that's when it's a good book when people can claim it, when people can grab something and make it their own and talk about that. I think that's great.
ASTRID: That's a fascinating word that you just used, ‘claim it’. One of my other questions in my scrawled handwriting here is as I was reading this and having my own personal response to the story and what you were teaching me, I felt like you were reclaiming a part of… You were giving me a better version of the books I read as a kid. I didn't like Henry Lawson's ‘The Drover's Wife’. Sorry.
ASTRID: Well, it was kind of boring to me. But I like your version, because you've given me a way in that I didn't have in the original.
Going from a play that you had performed to great acclaim to a novel – that is a huge task, and not just because the word count has gone up significantly. Did it require more research or just more of you?
LEAH: Yes, I did a little bit of both. So, what was, what was great, was to have done the play. I started out with a lot of monologues, and the theatre, Belvoir Street Theatre, challenged me and said, ‘Leah, we know you do one woman shows and you do monologues very well. It'd be great if you could put other characters and open that up’. So, I liked that challenge. So therefore, I had to create more. So, I wrote character breakdowns, I researched what they would have done in that time. So, all the stuff that didn't make it into the play I had in my little well, I call it, my little well of knowledge, of The Drover's Wife. So, I could utilise and put it in the book. And then also when I went through the film script I could go back to my research for the book and go, ‘Oh, I could put that in, or I can take that out’. So, it just sort of cascaded, you know, the waterfall started to flow and it just started to fill these wells.
ASTRID: Structurally, what did the novel form allow you to do, to explore, but also to give to your readers that you couldn't have done as a play?
LEAH: Well, as a play you've got your monologues that you can sort of be in the first person telling, but that was a lot of it for me, that internal thought process. And having written a lot for TV over the later years it was hard for me to get my head around having my characters talk to themselves, or talk through their thought process. And I did love jumping from the first person to the third person. I did like that narrator's voice and control and power she had, because they manipulate, you know, they manipulate what happens and where we go to. And the fact that they said for the theatre and the screen the pauses are important, or the silence is important, but for the novel you fill that. So, it was like I was a kid let loose in a lolly shop or a football field, and went ‘just go for it’. And that was really rewarding I guess, that and learning that and giving that hopefully to my, to my audience.
ASTRID: Anyone reading the play can never get the nuance of seeing the same play performed, because the actors are giving you something in their interpretation of the role. But now reading it we are getting the inner workings of all of the characters. It's not just Molly and her internal point of view, it's multiple characters that we go inside their heads and see what they're doing. It's beautiful.
Now I have a question. Setting aside Henry Lawson's kind of original, you have a play, a novel and a film. Now it's not unusual for a play to be turned into a film or a novel to be turned into a film, and I can think of some novels that have gone the other way and been a play and then a film. But I do think it's unusual for one creator, one writer to have adapted the story for the three different platforms, and to perform the two that can be performed. Are you aware of any other work that has had that happen to it?
ASTRID: Because it's extraordinary. [Laughter]
LEAH: Off the top of my head… I should look into that. But no, I don't, I don't think so. It's a good question. I think all the students need to go out there and do a bit of research on that.
ASTRID: I think you might be the only one. You might start a trend.
LEAH: I just might.
ASTRID: Now you are filming, and the film version of The Drover's Wife will come out at the end of 2020 or maybe early 2021. We talked about what you managed to do and what you could do moving from a play to a novel. Putting this on the screen, what else have you found? What else can you bring to this story?
LEAH: I guess you see the landscape with the film, you actually physically see the characters.
ASTRID: And you filmed on location?
LEAH: On location, yes. So, it's you know, that's where I was very blessed to be able to sit on that country, feel the dirt, smell the dirt, touch the tussock grass, touch the granite rock, walk along that riverbank that Molly encounters. I sat there on that bit where I've got her washing. And experience, that's how I knew the stabbing of those bushes. Because I had to pass something over and I got hit in the belly with the twigs on the bushes that were there, and I said, ‘You could hang clothes over this’. So, for me it was experiencing that land and putting that into the book.
So, it actually was reverse because in film you are limited, you know. Number one is budget. Number two it is a visual form, so it's about what you see. So, it was… the book didn't influence the film so much. The film influenced the book in the sense that I could really colour what I will see on the screen but place it within the book. But I do also want to make sure… yes, it's the same story, but it's different across those platforms.
In the play you only get one act, you don't get the third and fourth act that you will see in the film. And you get, you know, past and present with Danny in the novel, which you don't get anywhere else. But I was really happy that I challenged myself to find a different way to tell the story or describe a moment. But you get a different experience of it across the platforms which I think is important.
ASTRID: Given that you have embodied Molly onstage and now on the screen, did you find out anything more about her that you didn't know five years ago when you were writing the original play?
LEAH: What I did find when I was performing the film was that deep down she just she wanted to be a gentle woman. She just wanted someone to genuinely share things with. And that came through with the relationship of Yadaka and Molly.
There's, you know, there's a nice balance in the film. She's as tough as nails, she can fight with the best of them, but she actually just wants to be a gentle woman and to sit in a space and be heard and listened to.
ASTRID: Very much so. Her relationship with Yadaka helps us see some of the potential softness, some of the romance that she doesn't have in her life but maybe in a different story could have had. There aren't very many honourable men in this tale.
ASTRID: There is one and maybe one and a half if we include Nate Clintoff. But Yadaka is the only man who has a moral centre.
LEAH: Yeah. And I did that deliberately. But even though the bad guys are bad guys, you know, you hear their story. They've come from somewhere, because I tried to make them as bad as I could. But I wanted Yadaka to be the hero, because it’s only in the last 10 to 15 years, 20 years with Redfern, where we had Aboriginal lead male roles. And they were good blokes, you know, they were dads trying to have a go or brothers protecting sisters. And I didn't have that growing up, and I wanted my grandsons, you know, Baine’s Mum is Aboriginal and he's a wonderful partner in business and in life, and I've seen his uncles and my uncles, and I looked up to them. And a lot of… even my next door neighbour Uncle John Stanley, he was like an uncle and a father figure, and I would always say, ‘Hang on a minute, they're not just what society paints them (black men) to be. They're more than that’.
So, I wanted Yadaka to be the hero. And I knew it worked, because when you saw the play you know, he comes in, he's fearful, there's blood, he's masculine, he's athletic, he's strong, he's intimidating. And then as the play progresses and you realise he's soft and gentle and how humble he is, and a beautiful human being internally, he is, you know, we had grown men, white guys in the audience, big boofheads we call them, sitting there because they're women, their wives had dragged them along, not really wanting to see it, but when the incident happens and he, Yadaka is abused and then hung, they go, ‘No, no, no, not him. Not him.’ Like, they would be verbal, you know.
And I wanted to do that, to say we've got to stop judging people by their appearance, or their religion, or what we think we know about them. Until we sit down and hear a story and know where they've come from before we make judgment, the better we're going to be as a country, let alone just as an individual person. So, I wanted people to get that from Yadaka. And the play proved it. And then I could, you know, embellish it even more.
And even the romance between them, you know, in the play it's very limited. I thought it doesn't feel right, you know, I'm not a romantic kind of actor, and I balked at that, but in the book, I could go there, and it was beautiful. And that gave me permission to just subtly embellish it a little bit more in the film.
ASTRID: Yadaka is that figure. He is also the source of knowledge. He brings knowledge to both Molly and Danny. And he is the catalyst for Molly putting pieces of her own lineage into place. Without him turning up she never would have maybe put it all together. Now, you can tell me if I'm wrong here, but other people knew. I mean, Miss Shirley knew and goes on to start telling other people at the end. So, as we read The Drover's Wife the novel, you kind of feel like she's hiding something from herself.
LEAH: Yes.ASTID: And that is what has happened to her husband, but maybe also things that she doesn't put together from her own past until it's basically put in front of her.
ASTRID: So, he's the truth teller as well.
LEAH: Yes. And the reason I gave that job to Yadaka is because I deliberately made her black mother die in childbirth. So, she did not know. Her father did not want to tell her because she came out as a fair skinned little girl, and it was hard enough just being a woman let alone a black woman and a fair skinned black woman, because where do you fit? What world do you walk in? So, he kept that quiet.
And so… it is actually a little bit structured on the sense of blackfella oral giving of story, where someone experiences it, or someone lives it, someone witnesses it, someone receives it to hold and carry and to continue. And in this case, that person has come back to Molly to inform, and then by informing her she becomes more whole. So, she then gives her children a more holistic view on who they are, which would hold them in good stead for the future. But it's very… and keeping the circle alive, the energy of storytelling alive through generations.
So, Ginny May was Black Mary's sister. So, that's one generation. Then you’ve got Mary. But then Ginny May gives the story to Yadaka, who is an outsider. When I was doing research I found, Indigenous people were all about sharing culture. And when the clans all came together, they would deliberately have a song that they could give to another clan. So, if anything happened to that clan, then the other clan had one of their songs. And if anything happened to them there would be someone to go, ‘We know them. We remember them. And through this song we can respect and preserve them’. So that the song lines could be sung and connection could still be made across country. And so, I wanted Yadaka to be that story keeper.
And so that's why, because in Ginny May's family, when Black Mary ran away it was looked down upon. So, they wanted to silence her, they wanted to remove her. So then by Ginny May adopting Yadaka she could give him that story, because she couldn't give her the story to her own children. Whether she knew that one day he would run into Molly, who knows, you've got to just put it out there, and that's what you just got to do. And that's what Aboriginal people did. You just put it out there. And then he puts the story together for her and delivers her this story. She doesn't want the story, it is too much. ‘It's hard enough being a woman’, she says. But in doing that Danny then comes back to it.
And in the second book, the sequel, you learn more about what he's experienced and what a proud black man he is. So, I was excited to try to keep that Dreaming structure in this novel. You know, people talk about Dreamtime stories, but there's actually a structure and a reason why things are given. So, I hope that structure comes through in the book.
ASTRID: So, in the novel you know the first two or three pages and the very final pages are from Danny's point of view, in the future.
ASTRID: Now, the knowledge that Yadaka passed on is not only passed on to Danny, but it's also what saves Danny and his siblings. They get away physically across country, and they get away because their lineage has come out and the bureaucracy, you know, starts to use the words quadroon and octoroon, and that means missions and separations. Now a lot of Australians aren't going to recognise those words, used in America as well. They're deeply offensive and deeply bureaucratic.
ASTRID: Bringing them into the narrative is a shock, I think, to the reader. A painful one. It needs to be a painful one. Why did you go there?
LEAH: Yeah. Well, that's on my mother’s, my grandmother and my grandfather's papers. So… and that's why I want to do it, I want to bring that to the forefront. It was a government terminology to psychologically strip you away from whatever Aboriginal blood or heritage you had. So, when I received my grandmother's papers and my grandfather's paper, he was called an octoroon and she was called a quadroon, so that means that they had white blood in them. So, her mother was, to use their terminology, was a ‘full blood’. Her father was white. So, it's words that that the government used against them to say well you're not that much Aboriginal, it was the Government Assimilation policy, be white not black. And you know, and some people, you know, in society today have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, but you're only part Aboriginal, and what are you one sixteenth or something?’ And I went, ‘Well, I'm not a cake mix. And if you need me to justify who I am, then I am of Aboriginal heritage’. I said, ‘But I grew up black’. I said, ‘My white father had nothing to do with me. I only know my Aboriginal family’. And I said, ‘They're the ones that gave me love, nurtured me and held me and gave me culture and an understanding of who I am’. And I wanted, I wanted to bring that to the forefront.
It was funny you should ask me that question, because my makeup artist on set, she was reading the script and she said, ‘I feel silly in saying this Leah, but I want to say to you thank you, because when I was reading through the script I didn't know what octoroon was. She said, ‘What the hell is Leah talking about? What is happening to these children?’ And she said, ‘And then I googled it and looked it up and I nearly fell off the chair, that because they were given those titles and tags that they could be removed’. Because it was about getting rid of the black people. It was… because anyone my colour was supposed to cross over. That's what they say in America, if you are a fair skinned black person you could cross over. You leave your family behind, you won't be recognised as black, and they leave you alone. And I said, ‘But my generation came through and went ‘No, no, no, we're reclaiming. We are black people, our skin is not black but our souls are’. And I said, ‘We're going to stand strong and proud, there's nothing to be ashamed of’. And I think Australia's culture is black. If you call yourself Australian, if Australia is home, then Aboriginal Culture is your culture as well. It should be something we should be proud of. It's the oldest living culture in the world.
ASTRID: I do mean it when I say that I do feel like you are reclaiming a part of Australian literature. So many of these stories don't get told or aren't parts of popular Australian fiction. We can find them in non-fiction that doesn't sell very well, beautifully written as it is, but doesn't have a wide audience. The Drover's Wife across multiple platforms has an audience.
ASTRID: Well done.
LEAH: Yeah. And that's what I want to do as an artist, if I can. And you know, if this is the last thing that I do, I know that I have audiences across the board. One just because they might think they get, you know, a very close story to Henry Lawson’s version and that's fine. And once they get in, I hope, you know, that they stay with my version of the story. If I can reach as many people as I can then I'm justifying what my grandmother and my mother went through, because I've got, I've got an opportunity to have a voice. My grandmother was Stolen Generations on her papers, aside from being called octoroon and quadroon, when you read superior’s diaries and papers of the time, she was also considered subhuman. So, she didn't have a voice.
I call my mother the lost generation, because it's that generation that came after all the removals and culture was not allowed to be passed down, you would be severely punished for it if you practiced your culture or spoke language. So, she didn't have that. So, she was this lost world, this lost person going ‘Where do I fit in? Is it the black world is it the white world?’ I want to make audiences aware that that happened, but also that I can't sit on the fence, because it would be an injustice to what they went through. They went through the hard times. So, it's about me grabbing life. And I've been gifted from my family, I've come from a long line of storytellers, my mother was a great storyteller and I have aunties and uncles that were great storytellers, and I'm just… the right time to be born, where I can preserve it in novels, preserve it on the film screen, preserve it in theatre, where you can get the same story but various experiences of receiving it. It is a gift, isn't it?
ASTRID: It is. You do have a voice, a powerful voice, and so much of that comes through in the character of Molly that you have written and presented. Molly is a deeply moral character. And I say that with great purpose, because she also does kill three people with intent. And that is balanced extremely well. And I guess I wanted to explore how you kept that tension in the character and in the story. I mean, Molly does away with, with a shotgun and a knife, you know, three males. And as a reader I am still on Molly's side even when she is in the cell at the end.
ASTRID: Talk me through that.
LEAH: The underlying thing for her was survival and her children. And it was, it was when Joe went further with his violence toward Molly on this particular night, when he gave himself a weapon that was more than his fists.
But he took the whiskey bottle and made it a shard, breaking it on the chopping block, and was coming for her. And I think it was either take flight, fight or she's going to die. And then having young children, Molly herself knew what it's like to grow up without a mother. And she had four little mouths to feed, knowing that Joe, if he did kill her and take her life, those children would have been left alone to their own devices or given to someone and then lost and torn apart. And that's also through doing other research and other family members. Whole families were taken, and each child was… you know, the cord that kept them together was snapped because one went here, one went there, and you see the strain in the relationship when those families do try to come back together. It's never really the same because of the lost time. Molly had to do what she had to do, to survive for her children.
Then, I guess, in regards to Trooper Leslie she was just in a state. That was wrong. He was an officer of the law trying to come and do his job, but he could not answer her question. If he answered her question about what will happen to my children... She knew if she let herself go with him, it was downhill. And once again, she had to put her children first.
And then she ruthlessly said to Yadaka, ‘I need to blame you for this. I'm going to give you your freedom. You can go and you're going to go’. And you know, she believed that he would make it, and he believed that he would make it. And once he got on that highway, which were the mountains, he might've got home because, you know, apart from other Aboriginal people, whitefellas did learn that the trails were up there in the mountains eventually. But… You know, she said I need to blame you for this because of my children.
So, her decision to kill was driven with the safety of her children. And then with John McPharlen, she knows what he was capable of. You know, he raped her. Brutally. And a lot of people said, ‘Oh, it's revenge’. And I said, ‘No, no, no. It's not revenge. She's going to get her children’. She sends her children to safety while she's going to deal with him. I think at the time she had no intention of murdering him. She was going to lay with him, and hopefully he'd have his way and leave. But it was the little twinge that he had in his eye that she knew she might not come out of this too well. So once again, it was kill or be killed, whether she wanted to kill him or just stop him. She was a crack shot there too. But she, you know, circumstance happened. So, you know she had to take that into her own hands, and she did what she did to survive for her children.
ASTRID: She did what she needed to survive. Nate Clifford… Clintoff… Who is, you know, the ranking power in this town, the white man's power. He is really hesitant to have her in jail, and his internal monologues are trying to figure out how he can not hang her, how this can all not happen. That is driven by his own thoughts, but very much by his wife as well who is not onboard with this. I found Louisa an interesting character in no way strong like Molly. I mean, you know, she would flag a day or two in the bush, and she does. She is not a strong woman physically, but she is a crusader, a campaigner, a writer for women's issues and against domestic abuse and violence. And she does, we learn, have a really lovely role in Danny's future.
LEAH: Yes. It was important… like I didn't want to take away from Molly, the black woman hero. I didn't want Nate and Louisa to be the white knights in shining armour to save the day. I wanted my black heroes to stand on their own, and whatever demise came to them came to them because that's what happened in those times.
But I also based Louisa on Louisa Lawson. She was a big advocate for, an activist for women's movements, the suffragette. She wrote about domestic violence, temperance, women's education. So, I sort of wanted to cement Louisa in those facts. Louisa being younger, Louisa being naive to Australia, but was also caught up in the women’s movement because I made her mother part of that movement, and I just wanted to give her a purpose. I wanted her to be more than just a housewife or the wife of Nate Clintoff.
ASTRID: You mentioned a little while ago the word sequel.
LEAH: Yes. Well it was, it was a funny story. The editors said, ‘Leah, we’d love… Can you give us another paragraph on when the kids go up into the mountain?’. And I went, ‘Yeah, no worries’. So, ten thousand words later [laughter] I send it off and they go, ‘Stop. What? Oh, my goodness. This is really, really good’. And I went, ‘Yeah, that's good’. I said, ‘Are you going to put it in?’ And they went, ‘No, it's too good. This needs to be the sequel.
ASTRID: Do you have a title yet?
LEAH: No. Well, someone said, ‘Would you keep it along the lines of The Drover's Wife’s Son, you know, and I went, ‘Well yeah, maybe, or The Drover's Wife’s Daughter, or you know, whoever's perspective I come at it from. But it would be along those lines to keep Danny as our hero, our protagonist, and our voice to get us in.
ASTRID: I cannot wait. Thank you so much.
LEAH: Thank you very much, what a great chat. Thank you.