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Kate Grenville on the Challenges of Family Memoir

July 18, 2015

kate-grenville_one-lifeKate Grenville is one of Australia’s best-loved authors. Her books have been published all over the world and have been shortlisted for, and won, some of the most prestigious literary awards. One of her early novels, Lilian’s Story, was made into a much-loved film starring the late Ruth Cracknell. Her historical novel, The Secret River, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and was recently made into a popular two-part series for ABC Television. Grenville’s most recent work is a beautiful family memoir, One Life, My Mother’s Story, created using fragments of her mother’s own memoirs. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a woman who saw enormous changes in her lifetime, her marriage and her family. Better Reading talks to Kate Grenville about her work, her research and how writing non-fiction, especially when it’s about your own mother, is more challenging than fiction.


1. Both your non-fiction, such as your recent book One Life about your mother, and your fiction, such as The Secret River, show the signs of meticulous research. Can you tell us a little about how your research?

I love research!  I especially love going to the places the story happened – whether for fiction or non-fiction, I find that is always inspiring.  I walk around, take photos, do amateur sketches, fall into conversation with people … you understand people so much more by walking the place they walked.  

But of course the written record is always a bedrock of research.  I often start these days with Dr Google & Professor Trove, and from there delve into the libraries.  There’s good stuff online but you certainly still need libraries and their actual books. 

I’m a bit haphazard as a researcher – I tend to plunge in and let myself go in all directions for a while.  This is a bit inefficient, but often the very best things come out of serendipity rather than efficiency or planning.  By accident you might come across something that sends you in a very fruitful direction. You can’t go looking for it – you just have to be open-minded enough to recognise it when it comes along.  For this reason I’ve never used a researcher – that serendipity is quite a personal thing between me and the research material.  I could tell a researcher what I thought I needed – but then I might miss out on the things I never thought of until I came across them. 

2. Your novel The Secret River was made into a two-part series that recently appeared on the ABC. What did you think of the adaptation? 

I didn’t have anything to do with the adaptation – I just handed the book over and hoped for the best.  I’m very pleased that the TV adaptation didn’t shrink from any of the confronting material – and nor did they sensationalise it. It strikes a very good balance, I think. I’m just so pleased that the story – I mean the real historical truths – have reached a whole new audience who might never read any book about Australian history. For so long the truth of what happened on our frontier has been glossed over or swept under the carpet, and the TV series, like the book, spells it out in terms of a very human story that people can relate to. 

The Secret River3. I heard one commentator say that reading The Secret River changed how they viewed Australian history. Why do you think it had such an impact?

I think The Secret River just happened to be the right book at the right time.  I wrote it because, for the first time in my life, I was urgently aware that there were a whole lot of things about our history that I needed to look at much more closely – another side to our history than the heroic pioneer image we’d been taught.  I think I came to that realisation at the same time as a lot of other people – a society moves in mysterious ways so a lot of people start to think about the same thing at the same time.  It was the time of the Reconciliation movement – that got a lot of us thinking. 

I also think that using my own family history ( at least to some extent) made it a personal and individual story – individual people struggling with events and moral dilemmas they didn’t know how to deal with.  It wasn’t an abstract story but one about particular people at a particular time and place. Using my own forbears made me get very close to the subject, I think – I wasn’t just inventing things out of thin air but basing it on things that had happened.  That made it a book about a family, about different personalities, and the setting was a landscape I know very well.  I think all that helped to make the story not feel like something that had happened in that foreign country of the past, but something we could still relate to today. 

4. Your recent book One Life is a story about your mother. How different is the process of writing non-fiction to writing fiction?

Fiction is so much easier!  In fiction, you have the right to make things up.  Writing my mother’s story, I was always very aware that I must be as true to her as I possibly could be, even when I had to flesh out some of her experiences beyond what she’d actually told me. Her life was so interesting – she lived through the most amazing century for women – and I wanted to convey something of those truly revolutionary changes.  She was representative of her time and class in many ways – a woman born in 1912 into the country working class ( her father was a shearer) who rode the waves of change in her lifetime – in which women were recognised as having the right to education, the right to work, the right to be paid the same as a man, and the right to control their fertility.  At the same time she was a pioneer – a pharmacist at a time when hardly any women had professional training, a woman who ran her own successful businesses, at a time when women were supposed to stay home, and a feminist before there was really a word for it.  

The challenge was to convey all that, but at the same time show the most important thing of all – what sort of person she was – her humour, her courage, what she felt and thought about things and why she made the choices she did. 

5. What were some of the challenges in writing One Life – a book about your own family?

Mum had left a lot of fragments of memoir and had already told me most of the stories she left about her life, so no skeletons rolled out of any cupboards when I started the book. That was a great gift – it was generous of her to make sure I wouldn’t get any nasty surprises.  So when I read in her memoirs about the affair she’d had, for example, it didn’t come as a shock or make me re–assess the mother I’d always known. 

 It was important to me that my brother ( my only close relative now) was happy with the book.  Far from just being happy with it, he urged me on many times when I was ready to give it up as too hard to write.  He remembered so many things I’d forgotten or never knew – his contribution to the book is enormous.  I was very lucky with all this, as I know that writing family stories can often be fraught with splintering family politics. 

Kate Grenville6. We’re noticing many emerging Australian writers right now. Do you think this is an exciting time for Australian writing?

All times are exciting for Australian writing.  Writers are always re-inventing what books can do, and readers are eagerly following. We’re lucky here, I think, because we still have so many important stories that have hardly been touched on in fiction.  Our past is one part of that, of course, but so is our unique Australian present.   Just when you think there’s nothing new to say, someone comes along and re-invents the wheel in some wonderful way.

7. Which classic and contemporary Australian novelists do you read and most admire?

Patrick White, of course, and Christina Stead, are the classics I go back to. Thea Astley is a daring, outrageous writer, passionate and in love with language.  In terms of contemporary Australian novelists, I am a huge admirer of Helen Garner – and in a younger generation, Carrie Tiffany. 

8. What’s next for you? A novel or non-fiction?

Ah, that would be telling…


See Kate Grenville talk about One Life here

Read The Sydney Morning Herald’s review of One Life here

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