Di Morrissey wanted to tell stories from age 7. Now, she looks back on her years in the Australian media and publishing worlds and speculates on the future.
Di Morrissey has worked around the world as a journalist in newspapers and radio and on television. Since publishing her first novel in 1991, Di has written 24 bestsellers, four children's books and also publishes a community newspaper, The Manning Community News. Di is known for her environmental activisim and has also established a school in Myanmar.
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Transcript of 2016 Harold White Lecture: Di Morrissey Reflects
Speakers: Robyn Oates (RO), Di Morrissey (DM), Audience (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
RO: Good afternoon ladies and gentleman. My name is Robyn Oates and I am the Chair of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. It is my great privilege to welcome you here this afternoon.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and pay respect their Elders past and present for caring for the land on which the National Library stands.
Sir Harold White CBE was a long serving National Library staff member, who began his career as a cadet in 1918, and rose to become the first National Librarian, a role he held for 23 years until he retired in 1970.
Sir Harold led the process of building of the great collections that now make up our National Library and that attract scholars and researchers from around the nation and around the world.
Sir Harold is also largely credited with gaining the support of Sir Robert Menzies for the magnificent National Library building that we’re in now. In fact 2018 will be the 50th anniversary of this building and it’s such an institution in Canberra, isn’t it, and it’s one we all love very much.
The Friends of the National Library are very pleased to present this year’s Harold White Lecture. The aim of the Lecture is to provide the opportunity for a prominent Australian writer to make a significant statement on a broad subject of particular interest to him or her. In addition, it provides an opportunity for the Friends to support and promote Australian culture through our national writers and their writing.
Since publishing her first novel Heart of the Dreaming in 1991, Di Morrissey has delighted us with twenty-three bestsellers and the 24th is hot off the press, plus four children’s books. Di is a passionate advocate for environmental protection both in Australia and overseas. She’s taken part in many worthwhile causes including Toad Busting in the Kimberley and Save Ningaloo Reef protests in Western Australia. Di also formed the Golden Land Education Foundation in 2012 to support the work of Burmese monk, the Venerable Vijja Nanda in Myanmar.
There are very few writers who can publish a novel a year – and have those novels consistently reach the bestseller list. The skill that’s required should not be underestimated and Di’s sales figures are actually second to none, second to no other woman writer in Australia. Di’s readers love the strong and complex plots – I’m sure I’m telling you nothing here, you know this – and they love the settings that range from, well from Broken Hill to Burma, and the history that she shares in her narratives. I am sure her new novel entitled A Distant Journey, which is set not far from here, in fact in the Riverina, will also delight.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Di Morrissey to deliver the 2016 Harold White Lecture.
DM: Thank you so much for such a beautiful introduction Robyn.I’d forgotten about the toad busting, I much add that to my list of credits. It is such an honour to be invited here today, following in the footsteps of my friend Hannie Rayson, who spoke here last year at the inaugural Harold White lecture. And being here means more to me than you know.
I have to say that I think we live in very perilous, sardonic and selfish times. The government cuts to arts funding, the threat to diminish wonderful enterprises like TROVE here at this marvellous institution, our National Library, the Productivity Commission’s dangerous idea of lifting the parallel import restrictions on books, and reducing creators’ copyright from 70 years after death to 15 years after creation, is not staggering, and it diminishes our society. To shoot down a 2.2 billion industry which employs 25,000, is not subsidised, pays its taxes, in favour of tax payer handouts, making it open slather for allcomers, and is something the USA and UK refuse to do, is an experiment in economic rationalism, gone mad. What would Sir Harold think? When we dismiss and demean our culture, we and our children are the poorer for it.
All children dream. And if we do faintly remember the ambitions of our five and ten year old selves, such as …Ooh, I want to be a fireman. A knight. A ballerina. A train driver. A princess… it is often swiftly dismissed by the adult dreamer.
But wait, don’t you remember? The door to dreaming is the cover of a book. Once opened, we step into many kinds worlds, dreamed into being by its author, welcoming us through the magical corridor to another country. Rather like the lands at the top of the Faraway Tree, which was an early inspiration for me, where we can all visit all manner of places and genres, read about people real or fantastical, worlds made from words which can tug at our hearts, cause us to laugh, to shake our heads in wonder, to feel fulfilled, comforted, inspired. Or infuriated, or brought to anger. That is not always a bad thing, as with awareness comes perhaps a desire to help, to bring about change. Because, through a book, you have learned something.
Within the quiet yet energised space of a library, people quietly searching for a name, or discovering a book jacket, where a random title catches their imagination, are actually all very busy embarking on a journey.
As a child, and still today, the thrill of picking up a book and beginning at the beginning, never loses that quickening sense of expectation, of, where am I going? With whom and to where? And it’s something I carry to my desk each morning when I begin my day’s work with the mantra, “And then what happened?”
Libraries are rich spaces, guarded and guided by men and women who lead us to fresh fields and dangerous addictions by, perhaps, putting a book in our hands that we might well have neglected or overlooked.
The joy of seeing a shining-eyed child leave their library clutching riches buried in books, where the delicate stringing together of letters into words and sentences, illustrated by an artist’s pen, is to hopefully see that child infected with the disease we call ‘the love of reading’.
As an only child, money in our house was super tight, and books were a twice a year excitement, birthdays and Christmas. Being read to by my mother, and later sounding out the words for myself, the voices of our own were just as Australian as the books.
Pixie O’Harris’ Marmaduke the Possum, May Gibbs’ Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie, Lindsay’s magnificent Pudding and also his lesser knows, and my favourite, Fly Away Highway, were relatable, and they resonated. And wandering through the bush, to my neighbour Dorothea Mackellar’s house,
I kept an eagle eye out for Marmaduke, and Bunyip Bluegum, and the creatures and plants who came to life in the pages of books.
And so today, we must cherish that Australian voice which tells our stories, and interprets the world through the prism of Australian cultural awareness. Without the gutsy and strong Australian publishing industry, which battled its way from under the yoke of colonial domination into the sunlight of a fairer playing field, thanks to energetic and enthusiastic Australian publishers, editors, distributors, and booksellers, many loved voices of Australian writing would never have seen the light of day. And we must keep it so, and not fall under the bulldozers of a foreign publishing domination where Aussie books, authors and readers are the losers – just due to some bureaucratic stroke of a pen for no good reason. Through the pages of our books our national heart is mirrored back to us… leading us to destinations we might never have considered venturing.
Now when I was part of the mob who decided to set up a Writer’s Festival in Byron Bay twenty years ago, it was unanimous that we wanted only Australian authors to attend. A few expats were welcome of course but, even as recently as this, there was the tendency to kowtow to the foreigners. And you know what? As the festival began to get a following, it was the Australian writers that audiences flocked to hear. Voices previously only occasionally heard, were now given the freedom to let rip in a flapping tent, no holds barred. The festival was held in the winter, and I can’t really remember why now in Byron Bay, in a run-down beach resort where we utilised tents in the grounds, a rec room, dining spaces, the bar and the garden as venues, and everybody was accommodated on site in draughty wooden cabins, partying into the night, often falling into the scrub and wrong cabins, where arguments were fraught, and dear old Bob Ellis fought and fronted everyone.
It’s a far tidier and grand affair these days, now so big they do invite foreigners to attend, but to my mind it’s lost a bit of the magic. But publishers came by the busload, to court a new Aussie voice, and to poach established Aussie authors.
I had published a couple of books, which had done well because, in his wisdom, my publisher at Pan Macmillan, James Fraser, had sensed that the time was right at the beginning of the 90s to promote Australian writers telling Australian stories. He’d been searching for an Australian novel to kick off this brave gamble and he read a synopsis of a TV outline I’d written. So he knew I’d been on TV, he knew I had worked as a journalist, so I could probably string a few words together. He decided to take a punt and in 1989 handed me a contract to turn my TV treatment into a novel.
Now I had to put my money where my mouth was! I quit TV. I had spent eight years on breakfast TV, with one of my colleagues present today, Laurie darling Oakes. But I thought, now this was a job which would support me while I tested my dream. I was facing forty and I still wanted to see if I could write a book worthy of being published.
So, I figured starting at 3am, live television show from 7-9am, the first breakfast television show in Australia, that would mean I’d be home by 11am and spend the rest of the day writing the great Australian novel. So for 8 years I worked from 3am till often very late at night, covering premieres, first nights, celebrity events as a reporter, presenter, producer, often editing my own stories, then going back on camera live at 7am. Forget a life, let alone write a novel!
So one day, fed up with the current chauvinistic executive television producer who made my life hell, I knew I had to leave. So I was there on Friday and absent on Monday. Gordon Elliot stayed on for a while as anchor before taking off to the USA, and Kerri-Anne Kennerley, who’d hung in there through a retinue of male co-presenters held the fort. Kerri-Anne to this day remains a good friend. We share much in common as women battling stereotyping.
So quit my job. I left my second marriage. I moved to Byron Bay clutching a modest advance and a contract stating I would deliver a novel in 12 months’ time.
Looking back, I accept that I am one of the tribe infected with the dreaming disease, which can be a curse. And it’s never cured. It is the desire to write. To tell stories, to share episodes, real and imagined, to bring characters to life, to change lives, bring hope and wonder and knowledge, and most of all, to carry the reader - the eternal audience around the cave’s fire - into another realm. That of the imagination.
Growing up, as I reached the age when people were asking me what I wanted to be, or do, when I left school, I began to became aware of tight smiles, and a faintly raised eyebrow, and an indulgent look when I answered, “ Oh, be a writer.” My mother had always looked pleased, but came the day when we both knew there was an obstacle, and that was, as a war widow she couldn’t afford to send me to university which, to her mind was a perquisite to becoming a writer. And she did raise the other question, “But how are you going to make a living as a writer anyway?”
It was my beloved uncle - a foreign correspondent with the ABC - who came to the rescue, marching me into the HQ of Australian Consolidate Press during the final reign of Sir Frank Packer. On my first day I got into the lift with a rather large man in dark glasses and double breasted suit who said, “Push number 6.” To which I brightly replied, “Oh, do you work here too?” Several months later Sir Frank passed me in the corridor and growled, “Oh, you’re still here, are you?”
So I started as a copy girl on The Australian Women’s Weekly and went on to be granted a four year cadetship before going to London and working in Fleet Street. And it was the greatest grounding I could ever have wished for to make a career as a writer.
My life has been a journey of detours, mostly accidental, but tantalisingly in the distance always hovered the dream of a book with my name on the cover. And when it finally eventuated the thrill was all that I imagined, and continues to be, for I feel just the same awe and wonder with each and every book when I pull it from the box.
It is perhaps a given that after 25 years of writing books which are, I hope, enjoyed, that I have arrived at some magical peak, with perhaps only a few pinnacles left to climb. I have it sussed.
No way. I’m sorry to tell you that, even now, I flounder in the marshes, lurching towards a desert, or the mirage of a misty peak seemingly unattainable - a distant journey indeed. There are, along the way, however, occasional pauses at a serene oasis, a chance to drink in some small success, before resuming the writer’s journey.
Sometimes you think you’re getting closer, but, as in all good stories, there lurks the evil one, the black hat, the bad guy, the villain, who is swift to strike you down, trip you up, cause you to doubt. Even still.
Writers are thin skinned and vulnerable on the whole. A race relegated to trapped spaces, chained to a pen or a machine, pouring out their dreams, their stories, a desire to imprint some part of themselves upon the page with their blood, sweat and tears. A story grows within you like a child, a small seed you want to see born and grow and take on the world.
Writing is a disease, a passion, a fierceness that demands to be let free. Words are wrangled into sentences, dragged from your head and your heart and your guts, demanding life. It’s psychologically and physically draining at times. And if the gods align, you may get published.
And then, there it is. Your book. Name on the cover. And like a hovering mother at your child’s first day of school, you are reluctant and nervous to let the child step out on its own. Conceived in privacy, your book is thrust into the public gaze.
Now, your creation may then fall into the hands of people who have been called from above to hasten to the alter and to be conferred as “A Book Reviewer”, or those who scratch away behind doors marked “Journalist at Work”. These people - who quite possibly harbour similar dreams of being published - cast judgement, sometimes by either a casual flip of pages, if not of the actual book, of the press release, or else they wallow forensically through every line. Or in my case, as one erudite member of the fourth estate suggested, ‘that, like hairspray whooshed across the page, her books are churned out.’
Many writers abhor exposing themselves to the publicity machine, to summarise years of work in seconds, to qualify or regurgitate in a few sentences – “so what’s your book about then and why did you write it?” – which has to fit between the commercials and the newsbreaks, as the interrogator glances at the clock, having never read a word of your book. But this is admitted cheerfully, but, “Hey, could you write happy birthday mum in the front for me.”
Anyone who has tried to write a book, their family history, a short story, a letter, be it to the bank manager or a note of condolence, knows that constructing even a simple sentence to convey something you feel, is no small task. It is frustrating - and hurtful - to give agonised birth to a book, whether it took one year or ten to produce, to have it summarily and flippantly dismissed. Of course, if one is fortunate to have their work published, one has to accept there will be slings and arrows as well as, hopefully, some praise and love. And sales.
So it never ceases to amaze, encourage and give me succor, to receive emails, or people coming up to me, to tell me how much one of my books has meant to them. That a particular book gave them inspiration to get on with their life and move forward, that my books gave them an escape from a painful present, be it in hospital or dealing with a tragedy. Or that they were entertained and informed. And I include men.
My novel Monsoon, which touches on the Vietnam war, specifically the battle of Long Tan, has encouraged vets to return there and face their ghosts, and for their wives to understand why they came back changed men. Many of the men themselves have paid me the highest of compliments – “Di, it’s like you were there with us.” “I never thought I’d read a book by a female, but you got me. You were writing about me so now I’m reading all your books, girly.” Said with warmth and humour that I find humbling.
Hairspray? I don’t think so.
Now, the most common question I’m asked, is “So where do you get your ideas?”
Until my books were published and I was confronted with this question, it had never occurred to me that one had to “get” ideas. I have a mind that soaks up sights and sounds and snatches of conversations, scraps of detritus from people and places, which settle, in no order at all, in some cupboard in my brain to be sifted through, or until one stray item floats to the surface and it occurs to me, “Ah, that’d be good for a story.”
I’ve learned to trust this erratic system, that when a thought steps forward, it’s doing so for a reason and so it leads me to the next book.
And it is always place that is my inspiration, and so, when a location or a landscape suddenly jumps into my mind, I know, “Oh, so this is where the next book is going to be set.” And off I go. Literally. I live for weeks in that place. Australia has always been my - and my publisher’s - preference, though I have managed to sneak abroad to include places that have a special meaning and connection with Australians.
I quietly lob into town and stroll around for several weeks, absorbing the attitudes, the ambiance, the local history, the current issues, and especially the smells and colours. The sights and sounds. Locals love to yarn to visitors, and I have a patient ear. I hear and feel the pride, the pain, the frustration and the anger of a community when they sense a willing listener. I carry this home. And each day as I begin work, I close my eyes and I am swiftly back there in that place, hearing, seeing, smelling it . . . Broome, Lightning Ridge, Da Nang, Cape York, Burma, the Kimberley.
Sometimes it’s just a chance meeting, an idle comment, that will set me on my journey to a story. I’ll just tell you a brief example. A number of years ago in the early, mid 90s, I was coming out of a shopping centre in the Gold Coast and a woman came through the door as I went in. I hadn’t seen her for about ten years, and she is a very highly significant woman in the Kimberley, a pastoralist, called Susan Bradley and I’d done a film story on her on good Morning Australia many years before. I said “Susan, what are you doing?”, because I know that Susan is always doing something extraordinary. And she said “I’m on my way back to Darwin, and I had two hours waiting for the plane, so of course I’m here shopping”. And I said, “Well, let’s have a coffee” and I sat down with a coffee, and I said “So what are you doing?”. She said, “Well funny you should ask. But my friend, the great lawman, philosopher, wiseman, elder of the Ngarinyin people, the late David Mowaljarlai [but at that time he was very much alive] has asked me to find a group of significant white fellas, to sit down with his elders and wise people, around his campfire on top of the Mitchell plateau at his summer camp, and work out how Australians can go forward to come together.”
I looked at Susan and I said “Oh cripes, how are you going to do that?” And she said, “Well that’s what I said to Mowaljarlai, and you know what he said, ‘Susan, they will find you’.” So Susan says, “You found me, you’re coming!” And that was how I ended up in the Kimberley.
And so that visit, at that very extraordinary special time, which I also shared with my daughter, changed our lives in many ways. It cemented in Gabrielle’s heart the knowledge and love of Australia, that being half Australian, she has ownership here. That our roots are here, that we can share, and are welcomed into an ancient culture. So that we care about the future of Australia, which we inculcate into my grandchildren.
And so the ensuing book became The Songmaster. James Fraser, my publisher, was nervous about the setting and the story delving into Aboriginal culture and characters - even as encountered by a group of whitefellas. This was before the word reconciliation and the first rising of Pauline Hanson. But by the time The Songmaster was released, reconciliation was on-going front page news. James always said I seem to hear the whispers in the long grass and tap into the zeitgeist, which is why I’ve learned to trust my instincts and my heart.
Now some places have always been lurking. The first time I stopped in Broome in 1984, filming for 48 hours for Good Morning Australia, I knew I would go back, though at the time I didn’t know it would be the setting for my most successful book, Tears of the Moon.
And my grandfather, a great Kipling fan always sang to me ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ and he talked about this mysterious country of Burma and the exotic city of Rangoon, so I always wanted to go. Years later I became a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, and as soon as she was released from house arrest I was able to at last get a visa and go there. Inevitably I realized this was to be a novel, The Golden Land, but what I didn’t anticipate was that my life would be inevitably linked to Myanmar. As Robyn mentioned, long story short, a monk asked me to help him start a school in his small village outside Sagaing near Mandalay. I had the privilege of meeting Aung San Suu Kyi who said that education would be the way forward for her country. So I agreed to help the monk, although, I have to say not as a journalist recently described me, as simply “whipping out my cheque book”. There were no banks in Burma. It meant hands on work for months, getting the villagers to help clear the land, with shovels and their hands. Week by week after I returned home, emails shuddered through the shonky internet with plans and designs for the simple building and then palm leaf classrooms before we were able to buy the deserted building next door from the monastery. Raising money from donations was difficult, although The Golden Land Education Foundation is a registered charity. There were no banks so it meant finding trustworthy people to carry the US dollars cash from my home to Sydney to a traveler to Yangon to give to the Burmese friends, who then took it to the monk on a 16 hour bus trip.
I rounded up secondhand laptops from my accountant, and my Myanmar travel agent in Sydney coerced willing tourists and travelers to take a laptop with them to leave at their hotel in Yangon for friends to collect to deliver to the school.
The school opened in 2012 and is now flourishing. It is very hands on but extraordinarily rewarding.
My books have changed my life. Not as an author but as a person. In following the path to each story I have discovered entrancing places and wonderful people. Most of whom I remain in touch with and count as pals. I think maybe, being an only child, I cling to friendships.
The road to one’s dreams is rarely smooth and straight. My father and baby brother drowned when I was seven. My mother struggled on a war widow’s pension and, having only worked briefly during the war driving a truck, she reinvented herself to become Australia’s first commercial TV/film director. She was a strong and inspiring role model. My daughter tells me that for her, I am too, having witnessed my struggles as I wrote my early books.
It was hard to be at my daughter’s twenty-first birthday in Lake Tahoe, Nevada with, by the end of the evening, having forked out for expensive photographs at the venue to commemorate the occasion, to find I only had two dollars to my name. I did not own a credit card, and had to wait for a relative or friend to drive me back to my motel.
I lived from hand to mouth for years in Byron Bay as I wrote my first books, in a rented wooden cabin, supplementing my diet with eggs, avocadoes and mangoes from my landlord’s acreage. I was divorced, alone - my kids were in college in the US - and I led a monastic life for nine years, concentrating on producing a book a year, building an audience, and hopefully eventually a bank balance.
I suffered through invasions of journalists, writing about my ‘romantic lifestyle’, giving the impression also that I was a romance novelist. I had a reporter come down from Brisbane on the pretext of a story angle, which was a front for her to rip me to pieces, and, while she sent me into the garden with the photographer, she went through the drawers in my bedroom.
I was the victim of a conman who sold his story to a sleazy TV current affairs show, saying I had stolen his idea for my first book. The film crew landed on my doorstep of the wood cabin, cameras rolling, when I was stripping paint from furniture, looking as you can imagine a treat! I refused to let them in. They waited in the driveway so I was trapped. Then the girl reporter came to the door, begging to come in and use the bathroom as she had her period. I let her in. She was on the mobile in a minute. “Ok I’m in… send in the troops.”
The footage went to air that night and bookshops started dumping my book, refusing to sell it in case of litigation.
I went to court and Justice Gummow threw the case out, finding in my favour as the conman never appeared - although many women, other victims of the same conman, contacted me with their horror stories. My supportive young lawyer reduced the firm’s fee to as little as possible and allowed me to pay it off in stages. Living on a ten thousand dollar advance for twelve to eighteen months in those first years didn’t leave a lot of spare cash. Though now, in these perilous times for publishing, that seems a hefty advance.
Year after year, with each book, I clawed up the ladder, fighting for recognition, that what I wrote had substance as well as being ‘popular fiction’. In the media I was dismissed as an aging TV hostess bimbo who’d turned to writing romance novels. The literary establishment ignored me. So I spent weeks travelling to shopping centres to sit at a card table with pen and unsold books as shoppers passed by. I went around the country on trips to promote my books for various groups carrying boxes of books into RSLs, community centres, someone’s home, to talk and smile over tea and scones, and then carry the unsold books back to the car and set off to the next town. They’d all enjoyed having a real live writer visit, never occurred to them to buy my book.
I was on the point of refusing to accept any more invitations to travel to a rural community, chat to lonely wives in the hope of selling a couple of books. Or, at least, to persuade them to buy one of my books some time in the future. But I plugged on when a friend offered to drive me round NSW to flog my books.
After two and a half weeks on the road, I arrived at one RSL, and carrying the boxes of books I looked at the hideous tartan carpet as I trudged upstairs and said, “Eve, no, I’m not doing this ever again. I am over it.” I had also been invited to give the prizes at a country function, including one to a Quite Important Personage. The QIP, rolled up at the last moment in his posh car, graciously accepted the award and refused to sit with us to have tea with the gathered country women, instead rolling off into the countryside with his gong. Well, I wanted to leave also, but of course I didn’t. But I told my friend Eve to rescue me as we as soon as she could – just say we had to get to the next town by dark.
I found myself surrounded by stalwart, strong, no nonsense country ladies who ploughed straight in with some home truths over the tea and the bikkies, with anecdotes and their own stories, which had me laughing and crying. Women are amazing. I realised what great hearts they had, how tough many of them were doing it, but their strength and humour made my issues seem trivial to say the least. Each one of them had a story better than any novel I could write. Eve had to drag me away from their company to hit and road, giving me a confused beady-eyed look like … I thought you wanted to leave? It was a salutary lesson. Reinforced a few weeks later by seeing my dear friend and neighbour, Morris West, sitting at a card table outside the Avalon Bookshop on a Saturday morning signing copies of his latest book. “Surely Morris, you don’t have to do this?” I exclaimed, “You are famous!” He shook a finger at me. “Darling, you’re never too important to stop doing things like this. You need your readers.”
And so when magazine and newspaper people – I so choke on the word journalist, they’re never trained - write snide asides about my life, my home, my partner, my clothes, my partner, my makeup, my accessories, and the fact I might have a flower in my hair, and then quote some fatuous remark or a shallow review about one of my books, which rarely, if ever, have been seriously reviewed, or even read properly and or completely before passing judgement, in many instances, I have to comfort myself with the thought “but they don’t know me.” And I remember the messages and emails from readers. So, please, never hesitate to tell a writer that you enjoyed their book.
And, over the years as I became a bestseller, I wished to see my books reach an international audience. We are imbued with American culture - movies, TV, music, books . . . why not return the favour? Alas, the Americans came back with, yeah they liked the book, but you know, could you move the story to Iowa. And maybe make the characters more American? The bottom line soon became clear - we’ll publish you over here if you sign over to us your profitable Australian rights. That meant, Pan Macmillan, my Australian publisher, who took a punt on me in the first place, who has nurtured and supported me through years to get established, would lose out on all future sales to an American publisher. I felt that to be morally wrong. I couldn’t walk away and sell out and take what might seem to be a better offer.
My Australian stories would be raped and reinvented. I wanted American, and come to that, English audiences, to appreciate and come to learn about us…our country, our people, our land, our stories. The Poms think they know, and the Americans know they don’t know, and don’t care – possibly a trip Down Under one day would be nice. But God help us, they are ignorant of their own culture and history. The mid-west, the south, are vastly different countries to the west and east coast. They are a sadly divided country.
If there is one thing I am proud to acknowledge, it is that my books are universally Australian. We get who we are and what we have. Aussies read my books and go … “Struth! Karumba, Broome, Cooktown, Lightning Ridge, the Riverina…they sound like places to go and visit. Let’s go there.” And I get emails and photos when they do!
Over the years, I realise that I have also been given an opportunity to not only speak publicly and promote my books and encourage other writers, but that I have a voice with access to the public. And with that voice, through my books or public speaking, comes a responsibility. I do not use my position to endorse products or attach to my name to frivolous ventures. I don’t charge a speaker’s fee at any time, but if one is offered and it can be afforded, as opposed to schools and public institutions, I’m grateful for a small donation to my Myanmar school.
However eighteen months ago, in my home town, I felt it was time to take some action as the state government, yet again, was using rural and regional Australia as scapegoats to fund and prop up city enterprises. There was a plan to build quite unnecessary huge electricity power towers through our valley, where the population was going off the grid and power demand going down. I gathered a group of locals together for morning tea in my sunroom from which emerged a community action group, The Manning Alliance, and was led by a clever strategic campaigner, Peter Epov. And we fought off the supposedly inevitable development and stopped a 262 million dollar grab by Transgrid power company. The then Council was not amused, as they had supported the sale. But to read our local papers was to hear a very different story from the truth. I felt that it was time for an alternative voice, and so I started our own local newspaper.
The Manning Community News is a free monthly newspaper, six thousand copies in print, and it’s online around the country. Acquiring advertising is still a tricky business, due to pressure from the former Council –I didn’t actually knock off the Council, we had to amalgamate, much as I might like to claim so. So local businesses were too scared to advertise in my paper. But I think we’re winning hearts and minds and the demand keeps growing. I wish I could pay my mates to write for me, as it’s a heavy workload myself but, hopefully, that day will come. And, once again, it has proved e the power of the pen.
Which brings me back to where I began… if we don’t protect, cherish and continue to support our Australian book industry, our libraries, our few remaining bookstores, and that includes Australia’s terrific online bookstore - Booktopia - and other online book outlets like the Big Country Book Club catering to far flung readers… we will all be ‘rooned’, in Hanrahan’s words. Use it or lose it. But more importantly… we have to call on our politicians, that likes of the dolts at the Productivity Commission cannot get away with what they plan. Speak to your local members. In these fragile, sometimes frightening and downright frustrating times, we DO have a voice. Use it. People power is potent. I don’t like to see our nation divided by prejudice, fear, greed and corrupt power-mongers, and feel shame at what Australia is becoming. We, the people, have lost our voice somewhat. We might be feebly heard, but we are not listened to, nor our opinions heeded by those who can make changes for the better.
So it falls to our authors’ voices - Tom Keneally, Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, Claire Wright, Charlotte Wood, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner - there is a great tribe of our thinking writers who can speak for us. And there are the great institutions, preserving and protecting the relics and history of who we are - such as here at the National Library of Australia.
I might write simple books to illustrate my love of my country, but it will fall to the written word from many to show us the way … from where we’ve been, who we are…and where we’re going. And that must never, ever, be jeopardised.
RO: Thank you Di, that was wonderful. And thank you for sharing that strength and initiative, and muscular follow through, that’s fabulous. I think we’ll take all of that away with us, an additional energy.
I am certain you have questions for Di that you would like to ask. The lecture is being recorded, so we ask that if you have a question will you put up your hand, but please wait until the microphone arrives to you before you ask the question. Do I have a first question? Yes, the lady in red.
A: Thank you Di, that was a most wonderful narration. You are a wonderful storyteller.
DM: Thank you
A: You were talking that it was a place that inspires you for your next book. But when one looks at your books, there is usually some public concern you are talking about, and being in tune with the zeitgeist. What place, or what present concern or development, might be woven into your next book?
DM: Oh, I’m glad you asked because I actually have decided what I’m doing next because I have to move on to do a book a year. And I write a book as an entity, I never have ever planned to write a sequel. But my first book did so well that a couple of years down the track I did write Follow the Morning Star. And then my really great big success was Tears of the Moon which was, as they call, my breakout book. It got me into hardback, it got me published overseas. But I had never planned to write a sequel, and that was published in 1995. But pressure was there and so I did publish a sequel in 1997, called Kimberley Sun, which had something of a theme or so at the beginning of refugees coming here, in the second coming, who are coming from Afghanistan. And so I hadn’t planned to write, you know, Follow the Morning Star was it, 1997.
And then I get emails every morning, and then just something again, this email came, and it didn’t say anything out of the ordinary except that they just did really wanted a sequel to Tears of the Moon to make a trilogy. And then two weeks ago I went, oh, that’s what I’m going to do. So I’m going to write the trilogy of Tears of the Moon because when I thought about it, the Kimberley Sun ended in 1997. And because I have a lot of contact with the Kimberley and Broome, and the issues that have happened since 1997, particularly the mining - gas and offshore and great coal mines in the Kimberley - is just ridiculous. So the hope that I had when I wrote The Songmaster, because as a result of Songmaster we started Bush University, which was to take indigenous kids down to Perth, they went into an interim school and they were then placed in significant schools in Perth. The Bush University, everyone read that book and wanted to have the experience that I had of sitting round the camp fire with elders to really come to see the rock art, understand culture. I mean it was humbling … raising children, all sort of issues.
And so we started Bush University, we had elders, we had groups that could go up and spend time. But once Mowaljarlai died 3 years later, you know, it all just kind of fell apart. And if I was to write a sequel now that would be an absolute tragedy. We’re still recognizing the first Australians, it is really important. So that is a very significant part of the country that I know very well, but it reflects the issues, I think, all over this country, which is the sale and loss and the shortsightedness of what we’re doing to our environment, let alone addressing climate change. And coming to terms with recognition for our first Australians, as well as the whole refugee debate. So I have a lot of material to work with - as well as, I hope, as an adventure and relationships as I always write about.
A: Hello, thank you for coming today.
DM: Thank you for coming.
A: I’ve greatly enjoyed your books over the years. What I wonder is, given that you are so engaged with our society, is there any chance you might ever weave a story around the way we’re currently treating asylum seekers and refugees, and the contribution they’ve made to our country in the past, and how that’s now being denied by successive governments who are just determined that we won’t have asylum seekers or refugees, that they’re the other that we don’t want anything to do with.
DM: Yes, it’s shameful. I think Rain Music, the book before this one, just as an example, was set in Far North Queensland, and I happened to mention to my, I assume, educated lawyer, that “oh, there’s so much material up there, you know there’s the blackbirding, and all of that” and he looked at me and said “What’s blackbirding?” He’s fifty. And no one else knew either. I said, “Well, it’s actually Australia’s slave trade but don’t worry about it, you’ll learn about it if you read my book”. I mean, what are we teaching? And there’s great gaps, the younger generation don’t realise the waves that have contributed to Australia. So I did touch a little bit on the first refugees coming from Afghanistan in Kimberley Sun, but I think this book - while my essential idea is to entertain, I don’t want to preach and be polemical - but I really think there’s a lot of rich material that you have alluded to that coalesces in the Kimberley, the fight in Broome, West Australian government, so I think we have quite rich pickings. Yes, I’m sure that will be woven in.
A: Laurie Oakes, your fellow pioneer in breakfast television.
DM: I’m being interrogated by Laurie Oakes! How fabulous!
A: You’re obviously quite disillusioned by journalism and I don’t necessarily blame you. But I’d like to hear a bit more from you about what you think is wrong with modern journalism and what can be done about it.
DM: Why are you asking me? Why don’t you start?
A: Well, I’ve done a bit though the Walkley organisation, but I’m interested in your opinion.
DM: Well frankly, I’m appalled. I was trained. I think first of all, there’s no real training. You weren’t just given a cadetship, you had to earn it. And the people who were a floor above me were people like John Pilger and people who were working in the hallowed halls of the Daily Telegraph and such. But when I went into The Women’s Weekly I was hired as copy girl, which meant running messages, making cups of tea. But also learning and watching and hearing and then trying to write little stories and slipping them under Chief of Staff’s door. You also had to learn to do Pitman’s shorthand.
And you had to earn that cadetship, it just wasn’t given to you. If they didn’t think you were going to be any good, you didn’t get it. And you couldn’t become a B grade journalist, C grade journalist, till you had done your four years of cadetship and proved yourself. So I think there was the thoroughness. And it was not only that basic training.
See, The Women’s Weekly was quite a unique organisation, of powerful, strong, warm, caring women. I was so privileged to be there at that time. But you were taught things like ethics, and how to deal with people. And it was not you that was being thrust forward, your opinion didn’t count. It was the same when I went into television.
Now it has become the journalist’s view that we hear and the cult of personality, as opposed to just get the facts, your opinion doesn’t matter. That’s gone. They didn’t have journalism courses at university in my day, or creative writing courses, or any of that. And I think it was a matter of people learning on the job and being mentored by wise, experienced, dedicated journalists that you aspired to be like. I don’t know how they train journalists now because every time I’m interviewed by a young girl they have not done their homework, they’re, “So, tell me about yourself?” and they would ask questions and I’d say, “Well actually if you wanted to save our time you could actually read about all of that on my website, or you could look in Google”, which is the equivalent to going to the cuts in the Library.
So they know nothing, they want to do the quick and easy way out, copy the trunks out of the press release , and it’s just like, “Why have I bothered? Why are you here? Just do it without me.” It’s laziness, it’s the ‘me’ personality. I don’t know Laurie, but I think we need to go back to – I mean there are exceptions of course, but they’re gems in a pile of trash. It’s awful.
[Laughs] Maybe I should start a journalism school.
RO: One more question. This will be our last question.
A: Hello Di, thank you so much for your talk, thoroughly enjoyed it. Toad busting in the Kimberley. Is that one of your environmental activities and can you update us on that very important threat?
DM: Oh, you wait, they’re coming this way!
Cane toads are one of the great threats Australia has been subject to, a species being brought in and invading us, quite unnecessarily. And the cane toad was another prime example which they thought would eat the problems that were in the sugar cane fields. And the cane toads just took one look and said, I’m not climbing up that sugar and I’m heading out of here, and they were gone. And I lived in Byron Bay, and they’ve come down from the north. We had to go out toad busting each night in the garden because they could kill your dog or cat, the birds die from the poison on their back, and they’re just ugly monsters. So you had to go out at night with a plastic bag, and everyone had their own form of euthanasia for the toads, some ranged from golf clubs to freezers. Anyway, they will be a disaster in the Kimberley, and there are two amazing groups of people over in WA and they have a line in the Kimberley, so they started the Toad Busters. And they just get volunteers to go out and pick up the toads. It’s really been the only way to get rid of them because they will be – we’re losing so much of our country’s species. So if you see a large ugly brown frog, it’s not one of the local residents, it’s a cane toad.