On the morning of the launch I woke up from a bad dream about H going to the doctor for a checkup and being diagnosed with leukaemia. This did not bode well. I don’t dream about H (or other family members) dying as often as I used to, but it’s still disturbing, and I went to work accompanied by the most dreadful, morbid feeling. I was also abysmally tired and so struggled through the morning, misinformed various students about various things, then went home and slept.
Fortunately in the evening it wasn’t too cold, otherwise my legs (which my frock only half covered) would have done their unappealing mottling thing. However my gold, sparkly shoes, which I’d only worn once before, turned out to be another of those beautiful pairs that come from hell. By the time I reached the venue they had cut away a lot of skin, leaving coin-sized weals, and I had to ring C- to ask her to bring bandaids. Will this stop me from buying gorgeous-but-crippling shoes? What a stupid question.
The room was lovely, with big windows and comfy furniture, and it was wonderful to see so many London people there. To go from knowing no-one but my brother when I arrived 2 and a half years ago, to being friends with this roomful of people, was a really nice feeling.
I- (looking more splendid than usual in all black) gave an excellent introduction, apart from his joke about my doing good work only when I applied myself to it. I gave him a rather sour look at that, as it’s a sore point and my sense of humour fails me when it come to sore things, especially as pleasing I- is sometimes my sole reason for working as hard as I do. I was impressed by him referring to the novel as having sheer 'hard, feminine muscle' at its core; I liked that a lot. Then I got up and said my speech, which I’d finished writing on the bus, and I made people laugh, which always makes me happy. I’ve put the speech after this for those people who weren’t able to make it, and for those who are in Oz.
There was lots of chatting to do afterwards, and like the last launch it felt like a wedding with not enough time to talk to the people you want. For my mother’s sake, I forced myself converse with the B’s, who we’d known back home. Mr B is nondescript, Mrs B is a disgustingly outdated snob, whose hair was the colour and texture of straw. As we stood outside, discussing dinner, she brayed out options like ‘Hakamana’, which I can only assume was her version of Wagamama. M, leaning against a signpost, gave me a wink and I had to fight to keep my laughter from spilling out. We ended up going to my favourite Thai restaurant, and H, due to his foot-and-mouth disease, insulted the waiter within earshot again, so he isn’t allowed to go there anymore. Then we found a nice pub, which I’d been to once before. M entertained me with his witty banter and I borrowed some more bandaids off H_ in order to totter home.
So here’s my speech.
I need to start by thanking I- for his introduction, and for being the best supervisor I could ever have hoped for. His unwavering support and consistently positive attitude helped me to get through my darkest days in London, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t still be here without him. He’s also been very patient, because I was editing this novel for the good part of a year, and in that time I was supposed to be writing my thesis, so am just a little bit behind now …
Anyway, I’m very glad to be having a second launch. The first was in Sydney and I was so nervous I was hyperventilating – the manager of the bookstore made a recording and on it I sounded very breathy. Also, I wrote my speech in the taxi on the way to the bookstore on a tiny scrap of paper, but this time around I’ve been organised enough to actually type it up and print it out, although I wrote half of it on the bus on the way here.
The novel is selling very well back home. It’s going onto its second print run, less than six months after it was published. This edition has 2 mistakes in it – one was found out by a friend back home, who pointed out that a property couldn’t be west of Busselton, because if you went west from Busselton you’d end up in the sea! So if you buy a copy tonight you might be buying a collector’s edition which will be worth millions when I follow in my relative Patrick White’s footsteps and win the Nobel Prize. Not that I’m a megalomaniac or anything like that.
So on my interminable bus journeys to and from work, I thought about what to say to an audience of Londoners. I do a lot of thinking on buses: I think about my life, about the lives of people who get on the bus, about my constant state of sleep deprivation, about things that make me laugh and, most frequently, I think about home. And so it was that yesterday I remembered my bus trips from our farm near Boggabri, to primary school, which took about half an hour over gravel roads through the scrub. Every morning and afternoon, five days a week, I would switch off my hearing aid to cut out the sound of screaming kids and concentrate on my book. Every now and then I’d look up and see my cousin punching my brother, or another cousin (at one point there were nine of us Whites at that school – that was almost one-tenth of the school’s population) sawing away at the plastic seat with a nail file, but I would ignore them and stare out at the landscape. And so it was that for all of my childhood there were journeys, the bush, and words.
These three things are now the foundations of my life. From becoming an avid reader of books, I became an avid writer, and now I can’t seem to be able to write about anything without referring to the Australian landscape. As the poet Dorothea Mackeller, who grew up not far from me (in Australian terms), wrote, ‘Core of my heart, my country’ and her words could have been my own.
In this novel, the landscape is one of the most prominent features of the book. It defines Ingrid, who is a botanist looking for specimens, it moves the plot along and it represents the central themes of growth and acceptance. At first, Ellyn, an Englishwoman, finds the Australian flora disturbing, because it’s nothing like the flora of England, whereas Ingrid, an Australian born and bred, thinks its strangeness is delightful. In this she was mirroring the views of English settlers in Australia, who were horrified by the bizarre flowers and animals that they encountered. However, as they settled in the country, they came to love it. This then became a metaphor for acceptance of what seems different, whether it is a flower, an individual, or a minority group such as lesbians.
And this brings me to the theme of growth. The characters of Ingrid and Ellyn were based on myself – Ellyn is as I used to be – shy and not very confident, and Ingrid is who I am now – headstrong, demanding, passionate and opinionated. You’re probably wondering what happened in between … and you can blame my mother. I’ve been deaf since I was 3 and a half, when I got meningitis. I have no hearing in my left ear and half in my right. Since it was so difficult to communicate with people, I was happier being left alone with my book, but mum forced me to go out and socialise. I absolutely hated it – and sometimes I still do – but because I loved my mother and because it was a challenge I wanted to beat, I did it. Which is why, now, people don’t realise that I’m deaf until I tell them. And during this process of gaining confidence – which took something like two decades, I learned to accept myself, just as Ellyn – and other English settlers - grew to love the Australian flowers. This doesn’t mean that it’s been easy. When Ingrid says to Ellyn, ‘Predictable people have predictable lives, but for the rest of us, it’s terrifying,’ I was drawing directly on my own experiences.
But why lesbians? people have often asked. Aside from the fairly obvious motivation that no-one had really written about two women in the bush before, I wanted to show how two women could exist on their own without the need for a man. People who know me – or more accurately, people who have heard me rant – have been tempted to accuse me of disliking men. On the contrary, I find some of them very appealing – and the relationship between Ingrid and Ellyn was also based on a relationship with a man back in Australia. However, I am a very strong feminist and I believe that, as a writer, I have a duty to write about - and for - those who don’t have a voice – not just women, but other minorities like Aborigines, people with disabilities, and immigrants. I’m aware that to be so outspoken is to run the risk of being disliked – particularly as feminism is becoming a dirty word, and particularly where a woman raising her voice is seen as something ugly – but frankly, I don’t care.
And what has all this to do with bus journeys and with London? It’s to do with travelling. It was through travelling, and exposing myself to new people and places, that I learnt to become self-reliant, and grew from that small, deaf girl into the woman you see before you now. Likewise, it was no coincidence that Ingrid travelled across the country on her own.
Writing the novel has been a journey too - one that I’m very glad to have finished because I was utterly sick of it by the end. When I describe the writing process to people, I tend to use botanical metaphors. The idea began with a seed – the question of what a woman does when a man leaves her. I planted into the soil of my mind and began to write. It grew for a while, and then it grew out of control – at one point it spanned 130 000 words, so I had to prune it severely, hacking out the first third of it. Then the voice wasn’t right, so I took it out of the soil of third person and put it in the form of journal entries – one written by Ellyn and one by Ingrid. However this still didn’t feel right so I transplanted it again, into the soil of first person, written in Ingrid’s voice, and that time it worked. For at least another year I trimmed and rewrote and trimmed some more, until I got to the point where I just wanted the whole lot to burn in a bushfire. Fortunately though, that didn’t happen, and now I have a beautiful novel to show for my pains.