Lucy Treloar’s first novel, Salt Creek, is in the running for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. One of five novels to be shortlisted this year, Salt Creek tells the story of the Finch family, Australian settlers who move from the luxury of town-life in Adelaide to the wild and harsh Coorong in South Australia. What follows is a compelling account of their struggle to survive in an extreme and remote environment, Stanton Finch’s misguided efforts to civilise the local indigenous population and his daughter’s efforts to escape his increasingly unreasonable actions. We spoke to Lucy Treloar about her reaction to her place on the shortlist, her heroine Hester Finch – “highly intelligent, outwardly sensible and inwardly seething and restless” – and the blending of historical fact with fiction.
Better Reading: Congratulations on your well deserved place on the Miles Franklin Award shortlist for Salt Creek. How does it feel to be in the running for what’s generally considered to be Australia’s most prestigious literary award?
Lucy Treloar: It’s a strange and startling thing even to be longlisted for the Miles Franklin; having a place on the shortlist is beyond anything I could have hoped for. I’m grateful, and delighted for my publishers, but also aware of the many fine books that came out this year. My main hope is for Salt Creek to shed some light on a hidden corner of Australian history, and to express my sorrow and shame at the part my forebears played in the ruin of Ngarrindjeri culture and land.
BR: There’s a sense throughout the novel that the Finches are stuck in the middle of nowhere, where not much happens, and yet so much happens to this family. How did you manage this?
LT: The Finches really are stuck in the middle of nowhere, yet when I came to doing research about this location it became clear that things happened there often enough at the time Salt Creek is set. I couldn’t see how the Finches wouldn’t have been aware of and sometimes affected by these events, so I just had to keep making room for them, if only in passing. There are elements of my family history there too. Controlling these things in a way that didn’t make the book seem too crowded was sometimes difficult, but keeping character rather than plot at the front of my mind seemed to help.
BR: Hester Finch is a complex character, starting the novel as she does a dutiful daughter and yet her views on marriage and women’s independence are forward thinking for that time. Did your approach to her change as you wrote the novel?
LT: Although Hester’s views were forward thinking for the time, they weren’t unknown. There was a great flowering of education of middle and upper class women in the Victorian era, even if there were generally few uses for it. Stereotypes only express a very limited truth. It’s true that there were many constraints for women, but these were not always absolute or universal. For instance, one distant grandmother of mine was a prominent education writer who published many books during the early 1800s. Hester’s reading of the great proto-feminist novel Jane Eyre influences her views on marriage and independence, and I see her coming from a long line of independent spirited women, hence the reference to a great grandmother of hers having been a member of the Blue Stockings Society, a proto-feminist movement of the mid-Eighteenth Century. I’m interested in the ways that women carve out space for themselves despite societal constraints. Not all can, but some do.
I don’t think my approach to Hester changed, though she did herself in some respects. I just tried to stay close to her, watching her grow up and develop in response to her father’s increasingly obsessive and intransigent behaviour and to the events unfolding within the family and around them. The essence of her – highly intelligent, outwardly sensible and inwardly seething and restless – doesn’t change.
BR: Charlotte Brontë’s 1947 novel Jane Eyre features in Salt Creek, with Charles Bagshott gifting a copy to Hester that she has to hide from her family. How much did this novel influence your writing?
LT: Jane Eyre is one of those books that I keep returning to. Jane is a wonderful character, as vivid today as she was on first publication. Brontë’s book is rich in subtext, not only as a proto-feminist work that acknowledges that women have their own drives and wishes, but also as one that portrays women as sexual. It was widely criticised on first publication as improper, and for what was seen as its undermining of the traditional domestic ideal of Victorian womanhood. One of the criticisms often levelled at historical fiction is that being filtered through a modern sensibility compromises its truth. Although I’m not very troubled by this criticism (doesn’t every writer explore the world subjectively?) I thought it worth including the Jane Eyre references as a reminder that some women of the Victorian era were thinking of and resisting the limits that society imposed on them and that Hester would most likely have been exposed to such ‘subversive’ notions.
Other than that, its influence is everywhere and also nowhere in Salt Creek. From it, I might have absorbed a feeling for inflections, speech contractions and mood arising from landscape. But Hester is a very different character from Jane, as is her situation, and I very much wanted to avoid writing a novel built around references to another work, especially one so beloved.
BR: The dispossession of indigenous Australians, in particular the Ngarrindejeri people, and the destruction of indigenous culture, is at the heart of Salt Creek. How much does the Finch family’s settlement in this area reflect what happened in Australian history at that time?
LT: South Australia began in very different circumstances from other states: its origins were idealistic, and it never had a convict population. Officially, the aim was to uphold the rights, freedoms and traditional lands of aboriginals, but self-interest tore away those ideals with extraordinary speed. The destruction of aboriginal life and culture that followed, often in the same horrific circumstances as in other parts of the country, was inevitable and, despite those ideals, the outcome was much the same as elsewhere in Australia.
Although there were incidents of Ngarrindjeri being given poisoned damper towards the lakes end of the Coorong, there weren’t the large scale massacres that occurred in the even more remote north of the state. But the impacts of fencing, the introduction of sheep and cattle which fouled the water sources, the spread of introduced diseases, and the work of missionaries in destroying language and culture, were as destructive as any massacre, if slower.
BR: Salt Creek presents a departure from the much-presented narrative of brave pioneers taming the harsh Australian land, with the Finch family ultimately defeated by it. Do you think this is a new approach in Australian literature?
LT: I’ve seen this mentioned once or twice, but the idea of subverting the pioneer narrative wasn’t something that I gave any thought to in the writing. I knew of my ancestors’ early business successes, and that they had lost their money and failed in the Coorong, but on a conscious writing level I was interested in exploring was the way one man’s obsession could play out, corrupting his values and the foundations of family life, destroying it from the inside out. Counterpointed with that was how a young woman might maintain a sense of autonomy and identity, and ultimately escape. The harshness of the landscape was more important for its emotional and symbolic resonance while I was writing than for the challenges it presented to a farmer.
So, in terms of Salt Creek being something new, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is in terms of the failure being integral to the main plot arc in a substantial novel. Henry Lawson’s short stories reveal struggle, hardship and failure, as do subplots in other historical fictions set in Australia, Kim Scott’s superb That Deadman Dance among them.
BR: There’s a strong sense of place in Salt Creek – it transports the reader to the harsh yet beautiful country of the Coorong in South Australia. What is your own connection to this region?
LT: The setting for Salt Creek, the Coorong, has always had a mythical status in our family. My parents are from South Australia and on our many journeys there from Melbourne we always passed the Coorong’s inland margins. We’d look out of the window at that amazing landscape of rolling saltbush and shimmering sky and my mother would tell the story of an ancestor of ours, and his large family, moving to these wilds in an attempt to recover the family fortune.
BR: We understand that some of the characters in the novel, including Stanton Finch who moves his family from Adelaide to the remote Coorong, are loosely based on real characters in your distant family? Can you tell us a little about that?
LT: Fact and fiction are blended to varying extents in the characters of Salt Creek. My great great great great grandfather, John Barton Hack, was one of the founding fathers of South Australia, and his background and business ventures – their early success and subsequent failure – are loosely given to Stanton Finch. But as characters, the two men are quite different. Hack seems to have been well liked and generous, if a little imprudent. Finch’s daughter Adelaide (Addie) is loosely based on my imagining of my great great grandmother Annie, though Annie’s life unfolded quite differently from Addie’s. And I’ve borrowed one or two events from the lives of my ancestors, such as the death of my great great great grandmother while being rowed across the Coorong lagoon in childbirth.
BR: The character Tull straddles the world of indigenous Australians and white settlers, and there would have been many like him. What was the inspiration for Tull?
I had always wondered about the Coorong as a child, but as an adult I became curious about what had happened to the Ngarrindjeri tribe, whose land my forebears effectively stole. There is a fragmentary family story of the ‘mixed race’ son of an indigenous stockman living in the house of my forebears, which, connected with the family’s idealistic aims and the family legends of Annie who it was said ‘ran wild with the blacks’, I found interesting. Tull is my imagining of the circumstances in which a Ngarrindjeri child might have lived with a settler family. The family stories contain very few references to the indigenous population that my ancestors displaced and I was curious about what the silence might conceal.
I had read accounts of indigenous people who tried to negotiate cooperative agreements with Europeans, and wanted to create a sense of indigenous people trying to negotiate a place for themselves in this new world rather than being merely victims. Tull’s brilliance and his uneasy straddling of two cultures are not dissimilar to those of David Unaipon, the Ngarrindjeri who appears on our fifty-dollar note. Unaipon was not a model for Tull, but he is evidence that culture was not an insurmountable barrier to a different mode of learning. In fact there are numerous references to what excellent and quick students Ngarrindjeri children were.
BR: With the novel set in a real place and against some real events, how did you conduct what must have been vast and in-depth research?
LT The research was the most fascinating part of the process for me. There was a huge body of literature to read, which I imagined would simply provide a sort of window dressing to the plot to give events and characters authenticity. But it was as if that world was trying to discover itself to me; the research began to shape the work, and in the end the story and the research grew together, intermingling and supporting each other.
For instance, while looking for contemporary images of the Coorong, I came across the sketchbook of Charles Babbage, a teenager then travelling with his father B. Herschel Babbage, who was a noted South Australian explorer. The Babbages were the basis for Charles Bagshott, who Hester falls in love with, and his father. I delved a little further and discovered that before migrating to Australia Herschel Babbage was commissioned by Patrick Brontë (father of Charlotte and Emily) to advise on sanitation in Haworth, Yorkshire, and that Babbage’s father was a friend of Darwin. Before discovering these connections I’d already written of the importance of Jane Eyre to Hester, and of Darwin to Fred. Such finds were very exciting. I gave the Finches their family name as a reference to the Galapagos Islands finches that were so important to Darwin in his thinking about the nature of evolution. Questions about what or who survives and thrives in a landscape and how we evolve were key in my thinking.
LT: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a book I return to again and again. It’s endlessly rich and fascinating in its exploration of the human condition (not only male, despite the absence of female characters). It was particularly important in the writing of Salt Creek; from the beginning, I pictured Papa as a Captain Ahab figure, albeit in a domestic setting, a man who would drag down all around him.
I like books that are not afraid of emotion and some lyricism – as long as it’s in the service of the book and not the writer’s ego. I admire asceticism in writing (Ernest Hemingway, M.J. Hyland etc.) but I don’t love or reread it in the way I do Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy. In terms of historical fiction, it’s hard to go past Hilary Mantel, though any of her writing’s worth reading.