Sunday, 25 August 2013

On Meeting Alice

Last week, I was asked to MC a joint forum for the Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women's Network and the National Council of Women of Queensland in a small hall in a small town outside Kingaroy. I love the South Burnett because - although I grew up in Bundaberg - that's where I consider my "mob" to be from, with fond memories of school holidays with cousins and favourite uncles and aunties. So, of course, I jumped at the chance.
The guest speaker was Alice Greenup (pictured left) author of Educating Alice. It was great to meet the dynamo behind the memoir - a Melbourne girl who overheard a conversation about a governess position on a remote cattle property in western Queensland. It was there where Alice caught the eye of a young jackaroo, got married and lived happily ever after, but not before Alice had to master the art of driving and learn the difference between a steer and a heifer.
'... in my world all of these brown-eyed, four-legged creatures were just called "cows".'
 It was on this property where Alice also came to learn where girlfriends stood.
'A girlfriend should know her place, Alice. First comes the mates, then the ute, then his hat, dogs, horses and last of all the girlfriend. Get that right and you might stick around. Jump the queue and you're history.'
Fortunately, it wasn't the handsome jackaroo who famously said this, but one of his mates - a little scorned, I think, by Alice's attentions elsewhere.
Educating Alice is a great book, full of action, drama and humour. But it is, above all, a most sincere memoir of hardships and triumphs on the land. And it's for this reason, that I was most keen to meet Alice - the Melbourne girl who, through sheer hard work and determination, became 2003 Australian Young Beef Achiever and won the Meat and Livestock Australia and Australian Women's Weekly Search for Australia's Most Inspiring Rural Women in 2006. Not bad, hey?
Alice enjoyed meeting students from Murgon State High School (pictured below) and Nanango State High, lovely young people, who Alice said were "the future".
The forum was designed to get rural women talking about issues that affect them, coming up with ideas and solutions and then hopefully get those ideas to the ears of policy-makers. For example, how rural women stand to benefit from the coalition's paid maternity-leave scheme, how to support one another in times of crisis (the South Burnett region is still recovering from two devastating floods in January 2011 and 2013), environmental and other issues.We also got to hear from Nanango author Liz Caffery who shared incredible photos and the story behind her magnificent coffee-table book Reflections: The Story of the 2011 South Burnett Floods and Recovery.
I got to meet some wonderful women, and the two men who were there, and took home a bounty of local produce and not one, but two, raffle prizes. I'd say it was well worth the drive.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

For Pete's Sake .. Really?!

Yesterday, I realised a long-held dream and listened to Peter Carey at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. I joked on facebook, before I drove down, that I felt like I did before I went to my first-ever Kiss concert - all judgments about my music tastes aside - I was that excited. (Photo courtesy of The Age.)
Peter, dressed in Johnny-Cash black, used a slide presentation to talk about the 'Madness in the Method' -in particular the madness and mess he created when he came up with his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda and his latest The Chemistry of Tears.
I've been a fan of the twice-Booker Prize winner since discovering Bliss in Senior English. But anyway, back to what the great Peter Carey said last night. He said a river is a good image. That is, a writer must dredge up the 'mental mud' (which can be messy and chaotic on the page) to come up with the 'necessary madness' in order to write a good story. Oscar and Lucinda came about when Carey lived in Bellingen and a church, which no longer paid its way, was under threat of demolition. He started with an idea and from it, created characters - asking himself questions until he thought about Pascal's Wager and eventually held the premise of the novel - that is that 'a bet is a good explanation of something silly' - that is, as 'silly' as transporting a glass church 400 kilometres from Sydney to Bellingen over land and up the Never Never River during the Victorian era.
In his talk, Carey kept harking back to his formative years in Bacchus Marsh where his father, and his grandfather before him, were car dealers and the damage the internal combustion engine has done to the planet over the years. (His brother and sister were involved in the family business, but alas, Carey was told there was no room for him - just as well for us, hey?) And as difficult as it is to escape our past, this beginning - and the sparkling view of an energy-dependent Los Angeles at night - planted the seed for The Chemistry of Tears.
This one is set over two time periods but connects the protagonists, Henry and Catherine, through Henry's notebooks on how to make an eating, pooping mechanical duck. The intimacy that comes with Catherine reading Henry's notes and the fact that both (in their own time) are in 'heightened emotional states' and the connection that surpasses the years is what makes this book really, truly beautiful.
I got to ask a question about how Carey came up with the title: The Chemistry of Tears - he said he googled it because he wanted to know what tears do (after all, he failed first year science at Monash University - once again, just as well for us) and thought it would make a neat title. But when writing Oscar and Lucinda, Carey said he had a whole page of different titles, and when he was in a difficult patch, he thought, wrongly, that coming up with the 'right title' would make the book better. He needn't have worried. (This was particularly instructive as I struggle with my own title for my historical fiction. Something that sounds good in my head, sounds really stupid when I say it out loud.)
Some of the other questions asked of Carey, weren't so helpful in my opinion. For example: 'What do you think of D.H. Lawrence?' and 'Did you ever stop to think that a 13-year office romance could remain undetected?' which was coupled with a follow-up question! And then, when there were valuable (once again in my opinion) questions left unasked, someone asked and proceeded to want to chat about: 'Who do you think will win the federal election?'. I mean, for Pete's sake, this wasn't a dinner party!
Clearly, I was affronted and sad that the session was coming to an end and anxious to race out the front to get my hard-cover (I'm that much of a fan) copy of The Chemistry of Tears signed before tumbling out of the Byron Bay Community Centre into the freezing winter air and start the two-hour drive back home to Brisbane. Clearly, Peter Carey - 'I kiss your toes'.