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Author Talk with Meg Keneally
21 May 2019
Already optioned for a film, Meg Keneally's first solo novel, Fled - based on the extraordinary life of convict Mary Bryant - tells the historical adventure of the only female convict to successfully escape the colony.
About the book, Fled
Jenny Trelawney is no ordinary thief. Forced by poverty to live in the forest, she becomes a successful highwaywoman – until her luck runs out.
Transported to Australia, Jenny must tackle new challenges and growing responsibilities. When famine hits the new colony, Jenny becomes the leader in a grand plot of escape, but is survival any more certain in a small open boat on an unknown ocean?
Meg Keneally - Fled 21 May 2019
*Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Meg Keneally (M)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Welcome to the National Library of Australia this evening and welcome back to the National Library to Meg Keneally. We’re here tonight to celebrate this fabulous new novel, Fled, which I think has one of the most beautiful covers I have seen in a long time. Just it almost makes you want to go off and sail the seven seas but once you read it you’ll never want to step in a boat again, I can promise you that.
For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favell and I have the very great privilege of being Director of Community Outreach here at the National Library. It gives me a wonderful excuse to occasionally read some great literature.
To begin tonight I thought I would just read a tiny bit from Fled although it’s not really from Fled, it’s before Fled starts but much of the Australian portion of this book takes place on the country of the Eora nation. Mary Bryant and her family would have interacted with members of the Wangal people, the Gadigal and many others. They may also have had contact with the Awabakal and the people of the Torres Strait Islands among other groups. We, Meg Keneally and Echo Publishing – and I’d like to add the National Library of Australia – acknowledge the traditional owners of country on which this story unfolds and those throughout Australia including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose land we’re meeting tonight. We recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and we pay our respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
Meg, I think that’s the first time I’ve read an acknowledgement of country at the start of a book.
M: There was one other, there’s a book called – I can’t remember the title but it was published a few years ago and it’s about picnic at Hanging Rock, it’s another look – and there was – I pinched the idea from that.
K: All good ideas should be stolen, I think. So Fled is about – well it’s based on the life of Mary Bryant. Tell me how you came to discover her and how she became a part of your life that just wouldn’t let you go.
M: Well I enjoy blaming things on my father and this one was definitely his fault. When we were kids Mum and Dad took us around America in a campervan for six months and this was the days before iPads so people had to be – parents had to be a lot more creative to stop their kids killing each other in the back seat. So Dad would tell us story after story after story as would Mum and some of them were about children who rode on the backs of bees and some of them were about talking volcanoes and mixed in with all of these were real stories from history. Ben Hall was a big one I remember but Mary Bryant was another one that I recall was mentioned. So I was always peripherally aware of her and then when Dad and I were researching Soldier’s Curse which is the first book of the Monsarrat series we were having a restorative glass of wine at a riverside pub after a day of traipsing around –
K: As you do.
M: As you do and we were talking about some of the extraordinary stories you find when you start scratching the surface. Dad looked at me and said someone should write a book about Mary Bryant, wink, wink. I thought yeah, maybe and I started researching her and after that she wouldn’t leave me alone. When it got to the point where my friends were avoiding me ‘cause they didn’t want to hear me talk about Mary Bryant anymore I thought it’s time to exercise this ghost story.
K: Had she been just quietly sitting in the back of your mind all that time or did it really take a conversation to remind you of those stories in the back of the car and start the itch?
M: Yeah, it’s funny. I was aware of her, she had been sort of lurking around in the back of my mind along with my other favourite colonial Mary, Mary Reibey, the crossdressing horse thief on the $20 note. Both of them I love and I want – Mary Reibey shows up as a character in the book I’m writing at the moment. But it was – I was sort of so focused on this fictional world that Dad and I were building together set against the factual backdrop of New South Wales in the 1820s but it sort of – when he said that it sort of jolted me and I went oh yeah, actually yes so yeah, I get all my best ideas from my father.
K: And you’re not saying that just because he's in the front row.
M: No, that’s right.
K: I was going to ask you how – what was different for you? You’ve been writing as part of a team, writing four books now in the Monsarrat series with the fifth coming. What was the greatest surprise for you in being – in writing on your own on this occasion?
M: Well it was - I guess it felt a little bit like flying without a safety net even though Tom very kindly – and my mother, Judy, who’s also here tonight read the manuscript or the first two-thirds of the manuscript before it was published and gave me some invaluable feedback. It was kind of like taking the training wheels off but it was – I mean it was a fascinating process. It was a little bit hard to keep track of things because I wrote half of it then I wrote I think The Power Game which is the third book of the Monsarrat series and the way Dad and I work on the Monsarrat series is that we plot it together then I write the first couple of drafts in consultation with him and then we rewrite it together. So I was flipping between the two so there were some days when I wasn’t quite sure whether I was writing by myself or with Dad and what time period I was in and whether it was Mrs Mulrooney or Jenny Trelawney, I wasn’t quite sure what was what. But yeah, it was certainly a very interesting experience.
K: It must have been quite a brain shift, actually –
M: Yes, yeah, it was a a bit of a change of gears.
K: - to move not only between stories but between writing practices.
M: Yes, it was but I mean it was invigorating, certainly.
K: Now Fled is based on Mary’s life but you’ve chosen to write a novel rather than a history or a biography and I wonder what led you down the novelisation path.
M: I wanted to – one of the things that really drew me into the story was wondering what things must have been like for her, thinking why would she put her children at such risk for example? Why did she feel she had no choice? What kind of person was she that she was able to achieve this remarkable escape? What kind of person was she that she was able to be one of the drivers or the driver of this endeavour? And I do believe she was and I believe there’s significant circumstantial evidence that she was which I’ll go into later if you like. So in order to answer all those questions I had to get inside her head and given that she was illiterate she didn’t leave any journals, any letters so it was really hard to – I mean you can tell – she’s a tantalising figure to research ‘cause you can tell more about her by the hole she leaves than anything else. I really wanted to give a sense of what she thought and felt and believed and we can certainly tell from her actions that she was no shrinking violet but beyond that I didn’t want to ascribe feelings and thoughts and beliefs to a woman who actually lived when I didn’t know whether they were hers.
So that was the main reason why I decided to give her a different name, make it a fictional story based on fact together with the fact that I changed a few basic facts of the story just for narrative reasons. For example there were actually 11 people in the boat, I’ve got six but when you’re writing a novel every character needs to have a reason to be there, they need to earn their place on the page and if I gave every – if I gave each of the 11 people in the boat a backstory and a reason to be there people would have sued when they dropped the book and broke their toe. So I made a few changes like that but the main reason was so that I could really get inside her head without feeling like I was verballing someone.
K: It’s occurred to me that we have just dived straight into the middle of a conversation which I feel like I’ve kind of been having with Meg for the last few says as I’ve been reading Fled but you may not know the backstory of Mary Bryant who’s become Jenny Trelawney in the book. Do you want to just give us Mary Bryant’s life in a nutshell?
M: Mary Bryant’s life in a nutshell. Mary was born in May 1765 in a small Cornish town called Fowey which is just across the river from Bodnick where Daphne du Maurier grew up. Her father was a mariner, she by all accounts was very, very good on the water as well and we don’t know why she decided to or felt that she had to turn to crime. No doubt poverty was involved because in the book the pilchards disappear and they actually did. All of a sudden this entire community whose staple diet was pilchards couldn’t get them and couldn’t salt the ones they had because they were being taxed out of existence and one of the commodities that was being taxed to pay for the war of independence was salt so they couldn’t salt the ones they had. So they were in dire straits.
We know that Mary robbed a woman called Agnes Lakeman together with two other girls with whom she was transported. She took her bonnet. There was some question of physical assault and she was charged with felonious assault and robbery on the King’s highway. She gave her address as forest-dweller so I’ve sort of – when you’re writing historical fiction you really grab onto details like that and squeeze as much as you can out of them so I have – I’ve made up a lot simply because there’s nothing concrete to go on – I’ve made up a lot about her descent into crime and the reasons behind it based around a few little nuggets of fact like the fact that she was a forest-dweller, like the fact that she was arrested with two other girls.
Anyway she was sentenced to death, commuted to transportation. While she was on a hulk waiting to be transported she fell pregnant, we don’t know who to. She gave birth on The Charlotte on the way to Australia. When she got to Australia she married Will Bryant who was, like her, Cornish, who was a fisherman who was arrested for resisting a revenue officer which means basically he was a smuggler in all likelihood. They married, she had another child to him and ultimately they and other convicts nicked the Governor’s cutter, sailed it to West Timor over 69 days with monstrous seas. They discovered coal in Newcastle, they were the first Europeans to walk on the Great Barrier Reef, they ate turtles on Lady Elliot Island. After 69 days they reached West Timor and every single one of them was alive which to me is a feat of survival which is up there with Shackleton.
K: And amazing when you think that some of the people who were alive were two small children.
M: Yes, absolutely, a one-year-old and a three-year-old.
K: It’s extraordinary. That sounds like a really good moment, though, to ask you to read a little bit from the beginning of the book to put us right into the middle of that voyage.
M: So there are certain people who I write with who occasionally think I start things too much in media res, you know what I mean, in the middle of things but this book, I couldn’t resist starting right in the middle of it. Somewhere in the Tasman Sea off New South Wales, April 1791. She never slept, not here. Even if she had this wave would have woken her. Elongating up to the sky and then bending its force down onto their small boat she gripped the children before her eyes were fully open, she lived now with the humming fear of one of the ropes she had used to tie them breaking, awaking to find a child gone and realising they had probably already travelled halfway through the blackness to the sea floor. They were both there.
If Emmanuelle was making any sound she couldn’t hear it, not above the wind. She couldn’t hear Charlotte either but the little girl’s mouth was open and stretched by terror. She was probably crying but it was impossible to tell as the constant spray claimed all tears. Her husband gripped the tiller in the fading light sitting in water that stopped only a few inches from the gunnels. He was grinding his teeth trying to keep the boat pointed into the waves, probably worrying that the sun would betray him by setting and that the boat would suddenly find itself side on to a salt monster.
Jenny had been dreaming of Penmore, its stillness, its muted deadening light of the family’s narrow cramped house. Now though its door was splintered, its remnants hanging open on one of its hinges as though somebody had enjoyed pulling it out of its frame and destroying it. She had called or tried to but it was a whisper. She inhaled, tried again but no matter how much breath she added to it the sound would not increase. In any case there was no answer but someone was there. Her father was lying in front of the fire where they had put him after the wreck, still pale and swollen from the sea. Her mother sat in the same chair as always.
Had she moved? Had she spent in that chair the years which had propelled her daughter over impossible seas to an implausible country? Her mother started to speak but her cheeks cracked from the side of her mouth to her ears and instead of speech she ejected a blast of wind that sent Jenny back down the hill into the dream sea from which she surfaced into consciousness and the chaos of the waves. It must have gathered quickly, this storm. There had been some chop when she’d gone to sleep in the late afternoon and since then the winds had been pummelling the water into a new substance altogether, a landscape of moving mountains where no boat had any business existing. And it wouldn’t, not for long, not if they didn’t start bailing.
Carney was at the sail trying to get it down before the wind punched a hole in it but Harrigan was no use, he had retained enough consciousness to lift himself from the bottom of the boat when the wave hit. Sitting up so that he looked like a duchess in a bath but he still had that stare, still looked as though he was viewing a different world from the rest of them, one far more horrific.
Bruton meanwhile just sat there hanging onto his bench, his eyes flicking from Jenny to her children. No doubt he was resenting them, useless passengers who contributed nothing to his survival. She rolled her lips together, why in God’s name did she always have to harangue the men? Why couldn’t they see what needed doing and just do it? She kicked at the privy bucket, its edges sticking up from the water inside the boat. Bail, for God’s sake, we’ll founder and soon, you have to bail. But Bruton kept staring, not the type to take orders from a woman who’d tied herself to a bench.
The boat was slowly grinding up a wave which disappeared underneath them, sending them crashing down. The impact dislodged some of the water but then added more and when Jenny wiped her eyes she saw Bruton, stubborn but not stupid, frantically bailing with the privy bucket. Somewhere beyond these waves was a place where their choices extended beyond drowning or starvation, where she wouldn’t have to clench her arms around the children and tell the sea it couldn’t have them but they hadn’t reached it yet. Sometimes when the sea was at its worst she wondered if they ever would.
So that’s the -
K: It’s a lovely beginning because I think it brings together quite a number of the concerns of the novel for me as a reader anyway and one of the things that I think surprised me once I got to the end was how many women there are in this story. I don’t know about you but I’m very used to the stories of the early settlement of Australia being very male, it’s all the blokes, Philip, Bligh, Watkin, Tench, stories about the fellas, James Ruse, Governor McArthur. It was terrific to read in Fled a book that encompasses a whole lot of women’s lives from Jenny’s widowed mother right at the very beginning through to Mrs Titchfield who had her own tragedy in life but has become a housekeeper to a very wealthy man, nanny to a very wealthy man. There’s such a diversity of lived experience of women in this book. How important is it for you to be recreating these stories of the early women of this country that we now live in?
M: I think women’s history has been under-told to this point and part of the reason for that is that many women were illiterate of course so they didn’t leave any journals and so on to base things on but I think it’s just – it used to be assumed I think when I was a kid – not by people I knew but the world more generally that it was the men who made history and the women who made the tea. I’m fascinated by stories of women like Mary Bryant because not only is what they achieved remarkable and would have been remarkable even if they were male, the fact that they had to stretch that much further because they were female and there were very few people in the world more powerless than a female convict.
So that fascinates me and what fascinates me as well is the wit that they needed to use to navigate through the world, to ensure their survival and the survival of their children. There are a great many women who did extraordinary things like Mary Reibey. You can’t blame her for the Royal Commission but she was one of the founders of the Bank of New South Wales. Like a woman I want to write about next called Charlotte Badger, Australia’s first female pirate and her friend, Kitty Hegarty. Now Kitty Hegarty is a troublemaker’s name, isn’t it? I’m really looking forward to writing that one.
K: There is, there’s a lovely little moment in Fled where you reference The Taming of the Shrew and at that moment my brain went into excitement because it is one of my favourite plays. But I loved the idea of Jenny as this very strong-willed woman trying to be forced to be tamed by the society that she lives in. There are lots of tensions in the book between the needs of the individual and the needs of the society and the government. Was that something you were consciously teasing out?
M: It sort of was. I think probably – what I was most interested in at a conscious level was a couple of things. The idea of resistance to female power and to female leadership. The – as I said the concept of precisely what women had to do to survive and to ensure their children’s survival. I was also really interested in looking at the world in which Jenny lived because I think it’s important to have a sense of how people lived then because there are people in the world who are still living like that so in a lot of ways it’s not history.
K: Yes and that reminds me of an article that you wrote for The Guardian drawing parallels between the boat people who were the convicts and the asylum-seekers now too.
M: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely and I feel very strongly that our treatment of asylum-seekers is inhumane just as the treatment of convicts then was inhumane. But there was a review in The Australian of Fled recently and the writer made another point that I was also very interested in which is like this is what the world looks like without welfare, this is what the world looks like without the social cohesion necessary to lift up those who need it. People just die. I think it’s -
K: That’s a really interesting point.
M: It is, yeah and I think it’s always good to – it always bears remembering what the world is like once this thin veneer of a sort of – once the rights that we take for granted are taken away we would devolve very quickly if they were to be taken away. I think it bears remembering that it’s not that far back that this was what life was like.
K: That raises some really interesting questions about what fiction can do in our society now, what’s its role? What do you – are you telling a good story or are you motivated by something else in writing?
M: I think the first thing you have to do is tell a good story ‘cause that’s kind of your job and no matter what other points you want to make they won’t be received if you’re not telling a good story. But I do think fiction has a role in illuminating things, I think historical fiction which is my sort of fan box, particularly, is important because it illuminates the fact that there are universal human experiences over centuries which in turn makes it easier for people to understand that there are universal human experiences over cultures or over races and so on. Also as I said the idea that there are still people living in the conditions that these people lived in.
K: One of the things – so the second act of the book is really set in the early years of the colony and one of the things I think that you do very beautifully and sympathetically is depict the Eora people. They are some of the most wonderful characters in the book, I think, they just leap off the page. But we know that today writing about indigenous lives is quite fraught for those of us who aren’t indigenous. How did you tackle that part of the story?
M: That was probably the hardest part of it for me because – and there were times when I wanted to just back away from the whole thing because of that because it’s very, very painful history and for many indigenous people it’s not really history because they’re still living with the reverberations of that day. So in the end ‘though I mean I thought am I going to write this or am I not? Yes, I am and so the next choice was - which wasn’t really a choice was do I include indigenous characters? Of course it would be ridiculous not to, it would perpetuate the whole terra nullius myth like that miniseries Banished which just had no indigenous characters at all and lots of convicts with all their teeth and clear skin. So having made the decision that I was going to include those characters – because Mary and her husband, Will, were friends with Bennelong.
There’s a scene in the book where the boat capsizes and it’s rescued by the Eora and that actually happened. Will Bryant used to take Bennelong’s family out fishing and presumably picked his brains about tides and currents and where the best fishing spots were. Mary knew Barangaroo. So I wanted to portray those relationships but at the same time they’re very – they’re a little arm’s length because they’re – obviously the book is being told through the – one woman’s perspective and the indigenous people in the book are seen through that perspective because I don’t feel I have the right to write about colonisation from an indigenous perspective, that’s not my story to tell. So I really – as I was saying to you before I hope I got it right. People will let me know if I haven’t, I’m sure.
K: What’s the editorial process like when you’re writing about indigenous people now, though? Do you go to Beta Readers or -
M: Yeah, I mean there’s no sort of set in stone process. I was able to find a [Darryl Gelder] 26:59 which is the next sort of group to the west who was willing to read it. I tried to approach various people from the Eora nation and wasn’t able to find anyone willing to read it and it occurred to me that maybe I was being quite incredibly insensitive asking them to read this story about the day everything changed for them. So whether that was the case I’m still not sure but as I said it’s living history for them so the [Darryl Gelder] who very kindly read it didn’t flag any issues with any sensitivity concerns and I haven’t had anyone do so in the month and a bit it’s been out. But I certainly think if you’re going to be writing about indigenous people there is still this gap of understanding and you really do need to get someone to run the ruler over it.
K: Help you close the gap.
K: One of the really strong themes running through Fled for me is the importance of reputation and public perception and in fact I found it quite contemporary at times as there are a number of characters who explore what it means to be famous. There’s a beautiful little comment from a character, Richard Aldred, where he talks about the need to constantly be feeding fame, his fame all the time, he has to do the next stunt almost, it’s very reality TV in that way.
M: Yes, it is.
K: But also the role, the book explores the role that your reputation and people’s perceptions have on your life and in fact much of Jenny’s good fortune comes through the way people perceive her. Were you thinking about – how much of that exploration was conscious ‘cause - or has it been driven by the story and then you look back at it and go wow, I’ve got all of these little dots connecting up?
M: Yeah, it’s funny, your subconscious does a lot of the work for you. So you do sometimes write something just because you think it’s a good story or just because it’s based on something that happened and then you step back and go oh well, that’s actually all reverberating and singing together nicely. So I hope my subconscious doesn’t ask for part of the advance but my subconscious did a lot of the work on that. I was really interested in that concept of we tend to think of fame as a relatively modern concept but Mary Bryant when she got back to England was the 18th century equivalent of an Instagram star. James Boswell on whom Richard Aldred is based, her saviour, was essentially an 18th century Cleaver Greene. He was a lawyer, he was obsessed with justice but he was also a huge drinker.
His journals talk about – I was reading one of his journals and he talks about what he’d had to drink the night before and he started with claret and then he went on to some malmsey and then there was some port involved and then they went on to sherry and then they finished off the night with whisky so he was a big, big drinker. He kept scandalising people by showing up in England with French aristocratic ladies when he had a faithful wife tucked away in Scotland. So he was a larger than life figure himself. He was Dr Johnson’s biographer, of course. It’s thanks to both – her fame when she got back to England attracted him to her but it was his fame which enabled him to save her from the gallows.
When Mary Bryant got back to England she was basically – she basically became a cause celebre. She was called the girl from Botany Bay, people were amazed by what she and the other survivors had been through but particularly her ‘cause she was a woman and there was a general feeling that she’d suffered enough and Boswell took up her cause and the cause of the other surviving convicts.
K: There is a strong sense that you get of how fickle the justice system was and -
M: Oh extremely, no rhyme or reason at all. I mean to be honest Mary Bryant who committed a violent robbery did pretty well to get transported under the mores of the time where pickpockets were sometimes hanged and it was very haphazard. As were the people who were put onto the first fleet because those ships were supposed to be loaded with stonemasons and carpenters and farmers and fishermen and really useful people and Will Bryant was the only trained fisherman in the entire first fleet. James Ruse was one of the only farmers so they were pretty light on for the kind of expertise that they were supposed to have in bucketloads. Yeah so both – who was spared the noose, who was transported, where they were transported to, it was all – I don’t think there was much coordination, it was all pretty haphazard.
K: Yeah, pretty random -
K: You’ve mentioned looking at diaries and researching the historical records. Geraldine Brookes said - in fact I remember her saying it here years ago – one thing about research and writing where she said you have to let the story tell you what you need to know, that there comes a point where you need to stop researching and start writing.
M: I think that’s true, yeah.
K: For you – and there is a huge amount that you need to know from how to fish in the 1790s, the way the currents and the wind move up the coast, how to salt pilchards. At what point does the research stop and the writing start for you?
M: I think there comes a point – you get to a point where you think if I read one more thing about this I’m going to explode. Me with my limited mental capacity, there’s only so much I can retain with the immediacy that you need to weave a story out of it. So you actually need to – or I find that I need to have the information in my head at the time that I’m writing. It doesn’t really work for me if it’s on a notepad or in a book next to me or on the internet. So you get the information that – I tend to sort of read – do a general read about what I'm going to write next while I’m writing the previous thing and get a sense of the shape of the story but then when it comes to actually writing it you read what you need to read for that scene – or this is what I do. I read what I need to read for what’s coming up next and then I just go splat.
K: So that suggests you're a really good plotter as well and you have a good structure to start with?
M: Well I was lucky because this came with its own prebuilt structure and very considerately Mary Bryant’s life fell into three acts and I’m struggling a little bit more with the current novel I’m writing which is a lot more fictional and has two main characters over two different time periods. So I wish I was the kind of – I wish I had the kind of brain that Peter Carey does and he sort of plots out every chapter, bullet points before he writes it. Or Jane Harper who I interviewed once in an In Conversation who writes chapter 2 and then she writes chapter 10 and then she goes back and writes chapter 5 and so on. Orwell did it that way as well. I would love to have that level of mental organisation, I just don’t, I’m afraid.
K: But do you need that - thinking about Monsarrat series where you’re solving mysteries do you need that kind of plotting in that sense or do you go back and insert the clues along the way?
M: There’s a lot of retrofitting. We figure out the plots on the walks ‘cause Dad and I both think better when we’re in the bush and walking and then I sort of write up a bit of a three-page synopsis or whatever and that’s my little roadmap but it always changes. There’s always okay, he can’t do that here because then that means he won’t be able to do that there or he can’t know this here because he’s not – that isn’t revealed – so things do present themselves as you’re writing and I think – I used to think well maybe I should just plot a bit more before I start writing but I think people’s minds work in different ways. The way my mind works is that I sort of – in the first draft is a process of excavating the story and things pop up as you're writing it and can’t pop up without your writing them, you know? The process of you writing them is what brings them to the surface.
K: Do you write by hand or onto a computer?
M: I – anyone who’s seen my handwriting would know that me writing by hand would be a bit of a disaster. I write onto a computer but I also dictate a lot which increases your output and the kids are used to me wandering around the house going comma, close quotes, he said, full-stop, new paragraph.
K: I love that you can punctuate out loud as well.
M: Sometimes it’s hard to switch gears and I’m like clean your room, comma, close quotes, she said, exclamation mark.
K: Now we’re going to open the floor to your questions because I have been hogging Meg, it’s been a very great privilege. Katrine and Millie have microphones and we are recording tonight so if you would wait for a microphone that would be great. While you’re thinking of questions could I ask you, Meg, you’ve given us a lovely little insight into your writing process, you’re churning out quite a number of books at the moment, there’s lots of things on the go -
M: It’s the mortgage and the cat has expensive tastes.
K: Are you a 9 to 5 writer or a 9 to 3 writer or a 9 to 10am and then have a drink writer?
M: I’ve got a – oh gosh, yeah, I’ve got a day job which starts at 2am and ends at about 8 and then I pretty much settle down at about 9:30 or 10 and go until various critters get home from various educational institutions at about 4 at which point family life sort of takes over and makes writing a bit difficult.
K: I’m never complaining about my day job again. I don’t know that I could do 2am starts every day.
M: Sometimes I need a bit of a nap but yeah, I find that having a routine is really, really important so I basically do 1,000 words and then have a break and then 1,000 words and then a break and so on so in a first draft I’ll probably do about 3 to 4,000 words a day once I get into the roll of it. Second drafts, I try to edit 20 pages a day but gosh, sometimes -
K: How many drafts would you do? I was at a book launch -
M: Four I’d say on average.
K: I could cope with four. A friend of mine admitted to doing 40 of his book that’s just been published and I thought that’s too much for me.
M: Well Dad, who was it who said books aren’t so much finished as abandoned?
Male: I forget his name but he did suicide.
M: So abandoning is not a good idea.
Male: [unclear] 40:00 suicide.
M: I mean you do get to a point where you think I just can’t stand to look at this thing anymore so for me the first draft is getting it all out and onto the page and momentum is really important for keeping you going. Second draft is fixing all of the massive problems that emerge during the first draft. The third draft is doing more of a line by line edit and looking at the language and the fourth draft is a bit of a polish. Then it goes to the publishers and then they come back with a structural edit and then a copy edit and then first pages so I’d probably touch each book seven or eight times, yeah, in total, I’d say.
K: It’s a labour of love after a while, isn’t it?
M: Well –
K: Or maybe it’s a labour of love for hate.
M: It’s funny, it’s either transcendent about 5% of the time and the rest of the time it feels like you’re itching the story onto granite with the bloodied stumps of your fingers and there’s no sort of in-between but we do it for the 5% of the time it’s transcendent.
K: So who would like to ask Meg a question? Has anyone got some thoughts, stories, comments? I need to have a bowl of lollies for those who go first.
A: Thank you. I absolutely love the book. I’m interested in the character of Jenny. She’s a person who’s very admirable and you – fantastic strength, extraordinary woman but as a personality a bit hard to like, quite gravelly in lots of ways and I was just interested in whether that just emerged or that was a deliberate decision on your part?
M: No, she just presented herself that way and I always find you know when a book is working when the characters completely ignore you, give you the middle finger and go off and do their own thing and she just – as I was writing her she just emerged as a sort of hard-edged, tough woman. I think also I don't think - I think she probably needed to be to survive. We’ve all encountered the type of personalities who show their love through toughness and she was – I saw her very much as somebody who would be like that with her children. Those who – at least Jenny is a character - I see her as someone – those who she loves she fiercely loves but she’s not afraid to whack them over the - upside the back of the head or whatever as well. But yeah, I – she just showed up like that and said write this story or else. So –
K: I’d be interested to know, there are moments where she reminded me very much of Lindy Chamberlain when Lindy Chamberlain was going through –
M: Oh it’s interesting, yeah.
K: - when we first saw her, actually, after the death of Azaria and we all thought she was very self-contained and tough and heartless but there was a lot going on.
M: Yeah, absolutely and there was a moment like that in the book for Jenny as well and some people have said to me that life was cheaper then, infant mortality was higher, perhaps people – not so much didn’t care but were more prepared for their children to die. I don’t buy that for one second because I think fierce maternal love is one of the things that has allowed our species to get to this point and I don’t think people in the 1790s loved their children any more than we love ours today. But as you say, you’re right, actually, there is something of the Lindy Chamberlain but inside she’s been scoured out.
K: Thank you for your question. Has anyone else got a question? This gentleman over here. Thanks, Millie.
A: Thank you, I haven’t read the book yet, Meg, I’ve got a bit of a cold at the moment, sorry about that. The relationship in real life between Will and Mary and how that fed into your story, what sort of relationship did they have and how strong a character was Will compared to Mary?
M: Well they had I think you could say a fraught relationship. We don’t know the circumstances around which Mary convinced Will to marry her but he was a bit of a catch for her because he was an important man as the only trained fisherman in the colony and she had a young baby by someone else. We do know that after they married Will went around saying to people this marriage – no banns were read, this marriage isn’t valid anywhere but here and they were married very early February 1788 along with four other convict couples. So we know that he was chafing against it and that he was threatening to sign on as a mate on the first ship he could as soon as his sentence had expired but we also know that he was quite indulgent and affectionate to Charlotte, Mary’s child by we don’t know who and that they did seem to have a degree of partnership. I mean there’s a lot we don’t know, of course. He was said to have been possessive of her but yeah, I think it started out essentially as a transactional relationship but would have been – I think there would have been some camaraderie there, some affection but it’s by no means the – it’s by no means a romance of the ages, I don’t think.
K: Thank you. Anyone else got a question? If not would you tell us what you’re working on next? You alluded to it and –
M: Yes. Yeah so at the moment I’m working on a book called The Wreck which is set in Sydney in 2020 and 1820 and the 2020 portion centres around a shipwreck I’ve always been fascinated about. I’m a bit of a shipwreck obsessive and ocean obsessive which you might have potentially guessed.
K: That scuba diving gives you away, I think.
M: Yes, exactly. This wreck in this book is a fictional wreck but it’s based on a wreck that actually occurred a few decades later called The Dunbar and The Dunbar has always fascinated me because it was wrecked just a little south of a place called The Gap, basically a kilometre or so outside of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Having come all the way from England it basically ran into the cliffs and what was – it was midnight and I think they were trying to get into the harbour. They – we’ll never know what really happened but they mistook – it’s thought they mistook The Gap for the entrance to the harbour and of course it being dark didn’t realise what peril they were in until it was too late. The force of this impact must have been extraordinary, it was terrible, terrible weather. The lighthouse keeper at Macquarie Lighthouse at the time reported that his dog kept on running to the cliff barking, running back, running to the cliff barking, running back but he couldn’t hear anything above the roar of the storm.
The next morning Sydney awoke to big slabs of ship floating into the harbour, dead cattle, dead horses, pieces of human. It was such a fierce impact that people reported seeing dismembered limbs being thrown up on the waves. There was one survivor, one man survived. He ultimately became a lighthouse keeper and never went to sea again, oddly enough. To do – my modern character is a maritime archaeologist and I did a maritime archaeology course at the National Maritime Museum and they brought out tray upon tray of artefacts from The Dunbar, buckles and buttons and I always find it quite heartbreaking to see these everyday objects and think when that person put the belt on which that buckle once was – on that morning they didn’t know it was the last time they’d ever fasten the buckle, that sort of thing. I held in my hand some of the nails and bolts that held this ship together and they were in S shapes and sort of absolutely compacted just by the force of the impact of the ship against the cliff so yeah so that wreck has always interested me.
I am putting it a few decades earlier because I want it to coincide with another event in England called the Cato Street Conspiracy which came after yet another event called the Peterloo Massacre so –
K: That’s come together.
M: - all part of the story, yeah.
K: Well let me show you what I found in our collection ‘cause I did read that you were interested in the wreck of The Dunbar.
M: Oh look at that.
K: This is a little bit of ribbon and I think it was actually our Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, who came across it. There are many things hidden in our collection that you don’t quite realise what they are until you look at them. The catalogue doesn’t quite describe them well enough. This little piece of ribbon was found by Mrs Rita Specter in an antique market in London in 1965. It had on it a little note that said it was from the wreck of The Dunbar and bless her socks, she came home and she sent it to the National Library of Australia as a gift so we now have it in our collection. I think we had it in our Treasures Gallery not too long ago but if you're interested in the story there’s – Nat Williams has written a little article for Unbound which is our online magazine. If you Google Dunbar NLA Unbound you’ll find the piece that he wrote about it but it’s quite an extraordinary little piece of ephemera of a tragedy that you just don’t know the full story of, who was wearing that ribbon or –
M: I find it very moving to see things like that, I really do find it extremely moving when you think that that wreck is still New South Wales’ deadliest maritime disaster. Extraordinary. By the way researching this I relied on Trove a lot because there are a lot of reports from the Sydney Morning Herald of The Dunbar and also on Trove I found this booklet that was published at the time. It’s sort of a newspaper supplement and it sold for one shilling and it had a description of – various descriptions of people of the scene that greeted them when they raced up to The Gap, up to Watson’s Bay - over from Watson’s Bay on that morning. It had an account by the survivor, it had the transcripts of the inquest, various media reports. So I mean I’m a Trove nutter, I love Trove, you find all sorts of fascinating things like that and when you’re writing a book you’re like –
K: Have you been sucked down the hole of text-correcting yet, though?
M: Well –
K: If you do that you’ll never write another book again ‘cause you’ll be too busy.
A: Meg, you’ve – I just want to make sure you let the interested audience know that you’ve dived on some wreck sites and that you’ve been – you’ve dived on The Dunbar and that adds a dimension to your writing, I find. I’m reading the new book now and it’s passable but it’s certainly immensely better for the fact that you are yourself a diver and you know a lot of stories about dive salvage and the tension between people stealing things from wrecks and the heritage value. So just wanted to make sure you made that clear to our brethren here.
M: Thanks Tommy. But yeah, I mean that obviously is really, really useful when you’re writing about ship wrecks to have some experience actually diving on them.
K: Yeah and then you’ve got the pirate girls coming.
M: Yes, yeah so this is - I can’t wait for this. After I finish The Wreck – Mum’s rolling her eyes. She gets this in stereo – after The Wreck and after The Valley of the Swirls, which is going to be Monsarrat number 5, I am desperate to write a book which I’m going to call The Venus Mutineers about two women called – did I mention Charlotte Badger and Kitty Hegarty earlier?
M: Yeah so I want to write their story as well so –
K: So there’s lots for us to look forward to.
M: Yeah, Australia’s first female pirates.
K: I think we might be seeing Meg again before too long but for now I think that’s probably a lovely spot to end our conversation down here. We are going to go up to the foyer and enjoy some refreshments so we can keep chatting about wild women and the wild seas that they sailed on.
M: I love a ballsy convict woman in a boat.
K: If you know of any let Meg know. The bookshop’s open so if you’d like to buy copies of Fled at a 10% discount tonight now’s your chance, you can get it signed by the author. I’m pretty sure we’ve also got books 1 to 4 of the Monsarrat series and of course you can get both authors to sign that tonight if you ask very nicely but thank you, Meg, for a wonderful book and a wonderful conversation and thank you all for coming. Please join me in thanking Meg.
M: Thank you, thank you very much.
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