Join us as we celebrate the release of internationally bestselling author Kate Grenville’s first novel in nearly a decade - A Room Made of Leaves.
In this special online event, Kate Grenville appears in conversation with award winning historian, author, broadcaster and public commentator Professor Clare Wright OAM.
This event is delivered in partnership with Text Publishing.
Kate Grenville Audio
*Speakers: Clare Wright (C), Kate Grenville (K)
*Location: National Library of Australia
C: Hello, welcome to the National Library of Australia where we are having a wonderful event tonight. I’m Professor Clare Wright and I am going to be in conversation with Kate Grenville, the author of the wonderful new book called A Room Made of Leaves.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which I am presently enjoying occupancy, the Gunai-Kurnai people of the land that is now called South Gippsland. This land was stolen and their sovereignty was never ceded. I pay my respects to elders past and present and if you’re wondering why I haven’t said emerging I’d like you to read Megan Davis’ latest essay in The Monthly called Reconciliation and the Promise of an Australian Homecoming. I also acknowledge that Kate is coming to you from Wurundjeri land which is now known as Melbourne and finally I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as the traditional owners of the geographic location on which the National Library of Australia is situated. The land we are all on now, the land on which we live and work and breathe and eat and sleep always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Now we have about 30 minutes today which seems hardly time enough to clear our throats but this is going to be all that we’ve got to get to the meaty bits of a conversation and so I’m just going to bypass the appetisers and hoe right in. But before I do that I just want to say, Kate, this is just simply such a marvellous book to actually read. It’s just so simply beautifully written and you have created such a captivating heroine in Elizabeth Macarthur, the woman we have known if we’ve known her at all as the wife of the father of the wool industry of Australia.
So before I do anything else I just want to congratulate you on creating such a beautiful book. I gave it to my mum and she loved it as well.
K: Thank you so much, Clare, I really appreciate that.
C: So let’s start with your epigraph, the first words in the entire book. Do not believe too quickly exclamation mark. This reminded me of the old adage, be careful what you wish for. So take us to the central ruse of your story. Why is A Room Made of Leaves a cautionary tale?
K: Thank you for that fabulous question, Clare, and how lovely it is to be talking to you and to everybody else from my little lockdown in Melbourne.
I was always interested in Mrs Macarthur, I’ve been writing this book probably for 20 years when I first found out about her when I was researching The Secret River which - it’s about 20 years ago. What I always thought though was that what we knew about her was not the truth and the business about her husband being the father of the wool industry was one of the many ways in which I think it’s fairly well recognised that she was in fact the mother of the Australian wool industry. When I read her letters and various other things I thought okay, she had no way of leaving behind a true account of what she thought about things or what her life was really like. So I thought okay, this opens the door for a novelist. I will pretend that Elizabeth Macarthur wrote secret memoirs that she never showed anyone and before she died hid them away in the attic at the house she lived in and that then somehow 250 years later by some miracle I came along, a mere novelist, and discovered them and I have now published them and brought them to the world. So it’s already a lie, it’s already a do not believe too quickly from the very moment that I introduce myself as simply the editor of this book.
C: It’s sort of lie upon lie, secret upon secret. There are many layers of what might be called the truth in this story.
K: Yes, as there are in life. I mean is there ever one truth? I don’t think so otherwise we probably wouldn’t need courts of law. The fact is that if any of us described any given moment in the world we would all be describing a slightly different moment and that’s really perhaps what I was interested in, this book. It seems to me that now more than ever we are living in a world saturated with misinformation that often comes in a very convincing form and that applies to everything from what the politicians tell us, to what advertisers tell us and it also resonates through the stuff we learn about for example in Australia the place we’re on and the stories that we’ve grown up learning about the first people who were here long before my lot, the settler lot. We have been told those stories, we’ve probably had to believe them because they were the only stories we had.
When Mrs Macarthur says, do not believe too quickly, that’s actually me talking. Do not believe any of those myths or stereotypes or legends, have a look at the logic of them and see if they could possibly really be true.
C: I want to get back to those stories of the first nations people a bit later. One of the things that does resonate as so modern and as you’ve suggested you’re picking up on the whole kind of fake news zeitgeist that we currently live in and one of the things that’s extraordinarily modern about this book even though it’s set in the 18th century is that the chapters are more like fragments. They’re very short and sharp and they’re not quite Tweets but I don’t think that any chapter goes for any longer than two pages. But this idea of the fragment’s important to you and fragment from the archive, the actual archive that first attracted your attention about Elizabeth Macarthur. Her words, I blush at my error. Can you tell us how those six little words act as a kind of portal for you?
K: Yes, they were my mantra. Every time I wanted to give up on this book which were many times through those 20 years I came back and read it again and thought yes, there really is a story here. Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters are generally very bland. I have described them elsewhere as boring. That's perhaps a bit rude but they’re very polite. They tell you nothing about the actual human being who wrote them and that’s because letters in those days were quite public things, you didn’t pour your heart out in a letter because it might be read aloud in a parlour of the assembled neighbours.
So generally the letters make slightly heavy reading and you read in vain, you think what were you really like? You were a remarkable record. Historical record shows that you must have been a woman of remarkable intelligence, resilience and I think cunning to have done all the things you did but who were you really? So the letters I think are a mask. Now and again the mask slips and those five or six words are one of the places. She had asked for some lessons in astronomy from William Dawes who was also in Sydney at that early stage. She had some lessons in astronomy but she says, I mistook my abilities. Obviously astronomy was as it is a bit hard for her. She says, I mistook my abilities and I blush at my error.
Now in that moment those words just blazed off the page to me and actually they have to other readers I know which a kind of erotic charge. Suddenly there’s a woman of flesh and blood, she’s blushing. That’s a very physical – it can be quite a sexual thing so I thought ah ha, I think she fancies Mr Dawes. That will be part of the story that I’m going to tell here.
C: Indeed with Mr Dawes Elizabeth discovers a new and more authentic way of being herself, to live in her own skin. The room made of leaves is a place that the lovers share but that special place is also a kind of room made of leaves of one’s own, to mix literary titles, where Elizabeth can express her true self. Is your story essentially the oldest story ever told, a liberation narrative?
K: Gee, what an interesting question. Yes, it certainly is that story. I think it’s perhaps several other stories as well. It’s also the discovery, the quest story. What is the truth here? Would be another aspect of it. What Elizabeth Macarthur discovers with William Dawes is not only a relationship with him but also a new kind of relationship with the place she’s arrived in. The room made of leaves is a very beautiful little clearing which I imagine on Dawes Point in Sydney where they would have met, a little clearing among the bushes and it’s there that they enjoy themselves in various ways. Beyond the obvious way that happens after you blushed another way is that Dawes opened her eyes to the beauty of the place and the kind of integrity of the place and the people who were already there. Like many migrants all she could see as a person from Devon, a little village in England, [Abridgeroll] 9:54 in Devon, a little village, all she could see was the ways in which Australia was not like England and in her immigrant eyes was ugly.
Through Mr Dawes who loved the place, who was a botanist, who was learning the language of the Gadigal people in Sydney Cove, through his eyes she learned a different way of looking at the place so that by the end of the walk where on her own she has another room made of leaves beside the river at Parramatta she realises suddenly or not suddenly, she has a moment of revelation that over those years this place has become home. She loves it, she has no interest in going back to England, this is home and of course that then opens the question which I think is a question that all immigrant or descendants of immigrant Australians have to face, what do you do with the uncomfortable fact that although this place is home it is actually not yours?
C: So it is an exodus but it’s a homecoming as well.
K: What a good way of putting it, what a beautiful way of putting it, yeah.
C: I’m an historian and one of the things that I know is hardest for an historian are women’s lives in particular, is working out what they think and they feel, their subjectivity for the reasons that you’ve said, because any kind of public writing, journals, diaries, letters, they know that actually they are, unlike today, they’re going to be public items, they’re going to be read around hearths in the village, passed around so as you’ve suggested there’s a kind of official version of themselves that they’re allowed to give.
But you’ve given Elizabeth Macarthur the most rich, cheeky, playful and as you’ve suggested sexy inner life. I mean your Elizabeth is hot. So as a novelist you can put your thoughts in her head in a way that an historian simply can’t because there’s no hard factual evidence. Suddenly your Elizabeth Macarthur is incredibly relatable. I’m wondering how you ensure that you’re not giving an 18th century woman a 20th or 21st century woman’s sensibility.
K: Yes, we can’t really know that. It’s a really good question, we can’t really know it. For the reasons you’ve said, they could not express their subjectivity, their sensibilities. You get a hint of it, though, and I think Jane Austin is one of the big kind of fingers to say okay, have a look at this. The only weapon they had was irony so they could say something which on the surface appears to be perfectly innocent and acceptable in the 18th century drawing room but if you twist it around it suddenly reveals something else altogether.
Almost every sentence Jane Austin resonates with that kind of rather grim irony and of course I think I found it in Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters, the fiction writer in me found it in her real letters. For example her husband was away for a very long time and frankly I think that must have been a huge relief to her because he was – well he was a ruthless bully, let’s not mince words. So he was away for four years and then he came back and she got word that he was about to come back to the house and she writes to a friend, you can imagine my feelings on the return of Mr Macarthur. Well, yes, it can be read perfectly innocently or if you just flip it over it suddenly reads in quite a different way.
So okay, that’s – may or may not be authentically 18th century but of course my interest in writing about the past is really because I wanted to illuminate the present. The present has been formed by what happened in the past or what we think happened in the past, the stories we tell each other. So the more we can deconstruct and enter the past the more likely we are to be able to make kind of informed decisions, really, about the present. So in a way for me as a novelist I feel for historians because I am allowed to do things that I think you are not and I’m very conscious of that privilege as a fiction writer. So I can give her a 21st century sensibility in order to try and tell us something about our own sensibility, how we are as women.
C: As you’ve alluded to there, Kate, you can’t understand Elizabeth Macarthur without understanding her relationship with John Macarthur who you’ve just described as a ruthless bully. It was really hard to read this book, particularly now in the year, an era that it’s come out in without thinking of Donald Trump and so many of the characteristics that you describe in Macarthur seem very applicable. So I wonder whether you ever had Melania Trump in mind, have you ever thought mm, maybe there’s more to her than meets the eye?
K: Oh it’s impossible to watch her without thinking what on earth is she thinking? But I have to admit that I didn’t ever think that until this moment, it’s a fabulous moment because you do watch her with that incredible cautious walk that she has, the controlled little smiles, the careful holding of the hand. The thing about Trump, I did start writing this book a long, long time ago and the bits about John Macarthur were the easiest ones to write and therefore I wrote them first, actually because there’s so much more on the historical record in the primary sources. One of the things about being a novelist is that some of us have had that spooky feeling that you have brought into existence something by writing it so I’m not going to take responsibility for Donald Trump but there is that awful feeling that life can imitate art so you’d better be careful what you write.
C: Of course this isn’t the first time that you’ve created a really strong independent, feisty colonial woman. Sal and Sara Thornhill were both those things but this is the first time you’ve created a female character like that who’s also a real historical figure. Do different rules apply?
K: That’s a tricky question. Look, I think perhaps every writer of what is called historical fiction, I just think I write fiction that’s set in the past, I really – I resist that title historical fiction but it’s a handy shortcut. I think all of us arrive at our own point of comfort between completely falsifying the historical record and completely sticking slavishly to it – well sticking to it, let’s say. We all find our own moment of comfort. Now mine in most of the books but particularly in this one was to stick to the historical record pretty much with everything. There are a couple of things where I very consciously for the purposes of making the book flow better - for example I’ve combined two governors into one because their effect on the Macarthur household was pretty much the same. They were not the same people but their effect on my characters would have been. So I took the liberty of combining Hunter and King, sorry. Of course I shifted some time things that didn’t matter all that much, exactly when the first merino sheep was bred, all that kind of thing.
But beyond that I thought okay, let me stick as closely as I can to the historical facts as they’re known which is not conclusively only because the actual facts are always more interesting and lead you to much more interesting fiction than it would be if you simply made them up out of whole cloth. There are always contradictions, strange things that don’t make sense and things that you puzzle away for weeks as a writer because you found them, they’re in the document, they cannot be denied and that always leads you into complicated, rich, much more interesting fiction than would be otherwise.
C: So let’s go to that place of potential discomfort. You have admitted that you take liberties and you’ve given a general apology there to the history gods. This might be your first historical novel or novel set in the past for a decade. It’s something of an understatement to say that The Secret River which is now 15 years ago, probably your most famous novel set in the past, got you into a lot of hot water with some in the academic history profession. Inga Clendinnen accused you not only of not writing history but of actually writing antihistory, that your book posed a danger to history, that you can’t take such liberties.
I’m wondering how much of that controversy affected you personally at the time and how hard it was for you to come back and write another book in which you’re using what you’ve called in the past the novelist’s empathy to try to penetrate the silences in the historical record. Did you have the ghost of Inga whispering on your shoulder?
K: You know when I wrote The Secret River I started writing that in about 2000 and it was at the height of the history wars which you would know about very well where there was one set of historians led I think by Keith Windschuttle who said there were never any massacres in Australia. Terribly sad that the first nation’s people have done so badly but it was all the fault of measles and influenza but there were no massacres. Prove that there were massacres, he said, and people like Henry Reynolds and many other historians said well actually here are the proofs. So that was the context in which I was writing The Secret River or researching it so on the one hand I of course needed to write fiction ‘cause that was the story that was going to carry the theme that I wanted in a vivid way but I also very much wanted to kind of gesture behind the text to say this is fiction but things very like this really did happen. I’ve got into a lot of trouble for using that word, really, which in my mind of course is in inverted commas.
Massacres really did happen in the Australian past. Let us not pretend they didn’t and here’s a bit of fiction that shows how that might have gradually evolved out of people who were just ordinary people fumbling along and some of them did very terrible things. So when Inge – what she really accused me of actually was claiming to have written history and when you looked at her sources, which historians need to be fairly careful about their sources as you know, when you look carefully at the sources on which she based that there actually aren’t any. I never claimed to be writing history. But what’s interesting about the Inga thing is that since she made that particular claim, that I thought I was writing history, in spite of the book being called a novel on the front page, other people have then taken that and run with it and it’s suddenly become this enormous bigger than Ben Hur.
Now in a way it’s not much fun to be attacked by historians, particularly when you respect them and admire them as much as I do but on the other hand it told me that I had touched a nerve, not just with historians but in the culture. This was stuff that we did not want to have a look at. We have come a long way since I wrote The Secret River and in those days brushing it under the carpet, denying it, finding excuses for it was the only way that a lot of people could feel comfortable, a lot of white people like me could feel comfortable with the fact that we were living on – as you so rightly said in the beginning – stolen land.
So on the one hand it was kind of a miserable experience personally but it told me that what I was doing was important, it mattered. It had opened stuff up and of course I got this tsunami of readers’ letters, emails and mostly they said the same thing, thank you, we have a hunger to know about this stuff and you have given us one way to start thinking about it.
C: I imagine that a lot of those letters came from teachers as well because of course The Secret River went on to be a studied text in schools and opened all sorts of conversations. So let’s get onto the Dharug people who appear in this novel. A Room Made of Leaves is dedicated to all those whose stories have been silenced and while the gendered implications of that sentiment are clearly centre stage in terms of Elizabeth as the central heroine it feels like cracking open the silence allows other previously suppressed stories also to enter the frame.
So the Dharug people certainly form a part of the intimate circles that you draw and I use the word intimate in a very positive sense. Why was it important to you to depict the humour and the goodwill that was involved in those relationships in those early colonial relations as well as the violence and the dispossession?
K: William Dawes for whom Mrs Macarthur blushed was the main character in a book I wrote after The Secret River called The Lieutenant and that book springs out of the real notebooks of the real William Dawes in which he showed us the path not taken, I think. He was a young man who was genuinely curious and interested and respectful about the Gadigal people that he came to know in his little observatory and he formed a relationship with them which I think is unlike any other recorded. In his notebooks the wonderful thing is because he was learning the language he’s left behind in his notebooks whole exchanges, whole little conversations with some Gadigal and Wangal people from the Sydney area so we can trace as is normally probably lost to the historical record. We can trace the fact that there was a thread of people who were able to recognise difference, respect it, respect the fact that the land was being taken from other people, who could acknowledge all that.
In a way I wrote that book in a balance to The Secret River which tells the opposite story, the story of people who cannot understand another set of people who have a different paradigm for living. So I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your question.
C: It really struck me that although obviously there’s an awful scene involving John Macarthur and the punitive raid that he goes on so you’re not shying away from the violence but there’s these moments of lightness and humour. There’s one in particular that is a blending of the humour and the sexuality that’s at the centre of the story and I felt that it humanised the indigenous people of that area in a way that made them even less cardboard cut-out characters than they might have been had they only been the victims of violence.
K: Yes. The wonderful thing now is that indigenous writers of course are beginning to tell those stories with an indigenous voice and that is fantastic because someone like me, well I feel that I can really only write about the white version of that story, that’s the story that I feel kind of entitled to tell. So one of the ways that I’m telling it in A Room Made of Leaves is not so much to talk about the events but to talk about the stories about the events and to try and take them apart. But I did also want to go further than I had gone in The Secret River in giving proper individual characterisation to some indigenous, particularly the women.
Years and years ago I was in Sri Lanka and I was on a train in the woman’s only – no, I wasn’t in the woman’s only carriage, I was with my male partner at the time. The other women in the carriage, the Sri Lankan woman, all were giggling among themselves and finally one of them said to me is he heavy? Is he heavy? And all the women of course laughing their heads off. It stuck in my mind, I mean that would be 40 years ago. It stuck in my mind, it was a wonderful moment of absolute understanding between women and a very humorous slightly mocking way of talking about me and my male partner there. So that’s the basis of one of the scenes that I think you're thinking of. So it is amazing how things from another place and another time can be fed in when you have a need.
C: Sex is cross-cultural.
K: It sure is.
C: Kate, the last time I interviewed you was at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival after the release of One Life which is the story of your mother’s life and that was based on fragments of a memoir that she’d written that you didn’t discover until after she died which is also the premise of A Room Made of Leaves. There’s a literary truism that all novels are semi-autobiographical writing but I’m wondering whether you think perhaps that when women write about other women, whether that’s in fiction or nonfiction, are we really always trying to understand our own mothers in some way? Is Elizabeth Macarthur a kind of cultural matriarch?
K: What a wonderful image. I think you’re probably right. I should just correct one tiny thing in case it goes on to be a misunderstanding. I always knew that my mother was writing her memoirs and in fact I was urging her on because I knew that she should do them so I had that great gift from her when she died. The matriarchs. I think so. Certainly when I was writing One Life I came to understand my mother as a woman as opposed to a mother and that’s a great privilege. I’m currently thinking about my grandmother who was born in 1882. I just think that men have a whole - into the distant past they have great line-ups of statues on pedestal, men on horseback, stories in the history books.
They have this incredibly rich – or particularly if they’re in the top lot – they have this incredibly rich history on which they can then form their identity as men. We lack that. What we have are these pale, polite, courteous genteel little pictures of the past or else even more sketchy, the kind that you often write about so brilliantly, the women who are a bit humbler than that and who were perhaps not capable always of leaving a very articulate written record of themselves. So we’ve got these great gaps, we’ve missed out on that depth of cultural stuff on which we can base our own decisions as women.
C: You’ve mentioned statues, an issue close to my heart and obviously something that is igniting the public debate at the moment. Fierce debate’s raging in the press and on our streets about statues, particularly of dead white colonial men and that impetus to tear down or relocate those statues is about acknowledging the impact and the legacy of colonialism. I’m wondering where you stand on this issue and in particular would you like to see a statue of Elizabeth Macarthur built in a prominent Sydney location? I mean funnily enough you’ve taken her from being this shadow in the past and you’ve given her flesh and bone and now I’m suggesting maybe we put her into concrete again and make her two-dimensional but can we honour her ambitions and her achievements in that kind of way or do you think that the racialised aspects of memorialisation mean that all colonial figures, even women, are going to be offensive if we want to show allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement? Is it a zero sum game when we come to statue equality?
K: Yeah look, I think the problem is the pedestal, for me that’s the problem and also as you say the kind of monoculture of statues, dead white males. There’s a whole lot of ways in which I don’t really like those kinds of statues, not only the obvious ones. You and I would have grown up thinking okay lots of statues of men, where are the statues of women? But those men – Captain Cook standing there holding his telescope or whatever it is, that’s not all he was, he was a man, he had a family, heaven knows who he was. But to reduce even him to just this person who the only thing we remember about him is that he was the first white person to spot Australia through his telescope, that is to impoverish our image of him as all statues impoverish whoever they’re memorialising. So I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of a statue of Elizabeth Macarthur because again it reduces her to – all sorts of reasons, actually.
Somebody asked me the other day, in Sydney there is already a statue of an indigenous – I think a Gadigal woman and there is some move now to have a statue made of Patyegarang, the person who William Dawes worked with to learn the language and who of course features in A Room Made of Leaves as a minor character but she’s there. Something in me, I think okay, terrific, as a counter to the white men on the pedestals put some black women on pedestals. I’m not sure that’s the way to deal with this. I think the idea of heroising - if that word can be coined - anybody is to deny them their full humanity. I think all those statues should be taken down, corralled somewhere in some big warehouse, each one with a big label telling the actual truth about what they did and at the bottom of each one say remember, we once thought this person was a hero, how wrong we were. We may be wrong again to be heroising the people that we now so deeply admire.
C: If we had more time I’d tease out that further, how we’re going to memorialise or remember our matriarchal lines and yeah also corral everybody over in the corner but we can’t do that, unfortunately. My last question, Kate. This is a kind of typical what’s next question in a way but I know that many people enjoyed The Secret River but enjoyed its companion volume, Searching for the Secret River just as much if not more than the novel itself and that was the nonfiction account of your research journey, basically, the documentary and the experiential scaffolding behind that novel. Will we see a Searching for Elizabeth Macarthur?
K: Oh look, possibly not. I feel I’ve actually done it in the book because the book itself starts with the primary sources. I’ve actually quoted and made clear where there are quotes from the actual letters of the real person, Elizabeth Macarthur, so in a way I’ve already embedded that in there. So no, I think perhaps not. But in a way the book itself is about that process of delving into documents, turning them inside out, rereading them, holding them up and turning them ‘round in the light so that they suddenly sparkle and reveal a completely different story. To me that is the interesting part about going looking in the past. The surprises that you find not because you found a cache of letters in the tin box but because you’ve read the thing differently, you’ve come at the document with a different frame of mind and discovered something completely new in it.
C: Well as I always say to my students, history is about the questions that you ask and Kate, you’ve asked some brilliant questions, you’ve imagined some extraordinary answers and even though you’re suggesting that the answers to your documentary search are within the story I agree with you but that makes it sound a little more postmodern than it actually is. It’s just a wonderful read and I’d like to conclude by what I would do ordinarily at an event like this, would be to say we thank you, we’d have questions which we’re not unfortunately today and then I’d encourage the audience to go out into the foyer and buy a book from the bookseller and have you sign it. In this new altered reality that we’re in at the moment I can’t encourage people to do that but I would encourage you to close your Zoom, Google up your nearest independent bookstore, get your credit card out and buy a copy of this wonderful book for yourself and maybe for your best friend as well, they will thank you for it.
Like most industries writers and publishers and booksellers are doing it hard at the moment and so if you have the means I guarantee you the pleasure of your purchase.
Thank you, Kate, very much for what’s been a wonderful conversation. I’d like to thank Text Publishing as well, the publisher of your book for sponsoring this evening’s event and of course the National Library for being our host. Thank you so much, Kate.
K: I’d like to thank you, Clare, for a truly fabulously interesting conversation, thank you and thanks to the National Library which I have worked in many times, for their hospitality and hosting us.
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