THE WORLD OF DEAR MADMAN

Laidley Corn Day

Laidley Corn Day

This is the world I’ve been living in for the past few years as I’ve been researching and writing my latest project, Dear Madman, a novel based on a tragedy that has haunted my family for generations. Laidley is a town in the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane where the story is predominantly set, one hundred years ago.

I love this photo because it captures just how “edge of nowhere” it was back then. I am especially intrigued by the girl on the pony in the middle on the far right. Pinafore and all. Who is she and where is she going? She could even be one of my great aunts.

For a long while I had this picture pinned up beside my desk to remind me where my characters were living. For them, this was the nearest big town.

I loved living in this quieter time and place where I could hear the thud of horses hooves and my own footfall, not the constant stream of traffic flowing past my home now in busy Brisbane.

I’ve finished the latest draft and have sent it off with fingers crossed and candles lit. But now I’m left, relieved in one way to be free of the madness and violence at the heart of this story, but sad too that I have lost this slower, simpler world.

WRITING THE BODY/EMBODYING THE WRITING

Writer dancer

Dancing the writing?

As a practitioner of both writing and yoga, I have long been fascinated by the challenge of putting the visceral experience on the page. For how do you accurately portray the experiences of the body in words alone?

Using specific sensory details is important, without filters such as “I could feel”, “I could hear”, “I noticed” etc. Not, I could feel the sun on my face, but The sun hit my face. Not – I started to cry, but My tears tasted of the sea.

However, when it came to expressing the deepest of human emotions, pure joy, the silent anguish of loss, words have many times failed me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been working with the performance dance students at the Queensland University of Technology. You couldn’t wish for better yoga students – incredible athletes, and determined, sensitive artists. I have nothing but praise for them and the art form of dance. Surely the most demanding of all the arts.

For it is there, through dance and music, that the rawest of emotions can find expression, through the body, through sound. In ways that are impossible with words alone.

Lately I have become intrigued by the idea of embodying the writing, rather than the other way around. I’d love to take the core emotional events from my current project, “Dear Madman”, and create some sort of narrative dance cycle. But where to start?

I’ve been talking with Jennifer Roche, one of the lecturers and choreographers at QUT and she’s willing to let me in on some of the secrets of choreography – the art of story-telling through movement. Can’t wait!

So, how do you write the body? Have you found a way to express those voiceless cries in prose, or poetry?
Any secrets you’re willing to share?

BACK IN THE SADDLE

horse pulling overloaded cart

how it feels some days

So what have I been doing all this time? Putting too many things in my wagon – that’s what!

Most days I sail along but others, I must admit, I feel a bit like the poor horse in this picture.
I’m teaching narrative at the University of Queensland, and yoga to the performance dance students at the Queensland University of Technology (yes I’m a yogi). I also teach both writing and yoga privately and edit other people’s work,as well as marking homework, looking after my family and keeping the household reasonably hygienic. And helping out my sisters with their small children and new baby.

I’ve also been busily organising a family trip to Europe to visit relatives – a first for all of us. Very exciting.

This has meant not much time is left for my own projects. I have a new short story half-written, and have gone part of the way through reading and marking up the draft of Dear Madman I wrote at Varuna. Oh how I long to return there to have some uninterrupted time to sit and ponder and immerse myself in the Madman’s world so I can better whip the manuscript into shape. A novel is a huge thing, you need time and space to hold it properly in your mind, to be able to figure out how best to bring it to life.

Today I have to agree with Toni Morrison,

“We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I’m not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for that.”

She’s right. I’d rather have an A+ for finishing Dear Madman. An A+ for prioritising my own work.
Find some time for your writing today. See how good you feel when you do!

Oh, and Child of Fortune (the Cambodian novel of many names), is being read at a few major publishers as we speak. Getting a major publisher and some royalties coming in is one way to make sure my own work comes first. So cross fingers.

THE MAGIC OF VARUNA

Varuna the Writers' House from the front

Varuna the Writers’ House from the front

I’ve just returned from a magical two weeks at Varuna the National Writers’house in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. For over twenty years, writers from Australia and around the world have been coming to Varuna to retreat and write. All made possible by Mick Dark’s generous donation of the house and grounds where his parents, environmentalists and writers Eric and Eleanor Dark, lived and worked.

After applying for Varuna’s many programmes for over eight years, I finally scored a 2nd book fellowship. I’d been waiting a long time to get there so my first day was spent in the blissful haze of a waking dream achieved.

Eleanor's Studio

Eleanor’s Studio

I was lucky enough to have been allocated Eleanor’s studio as my work-space and it worked a treat. A framed poem by Eleanor said it all in the first few lines.
“This is the excursion, interlude, respite
From the house, from the broom and the soapsuds
Foaming in the copper…” (extract from poem by Elanor Dark)

I arrived thinking I was going to be writing a memoir, and left two weeks later with the complete first draft of a novel, Dear Madman. My first morning in the house, I woke up with the madman’s voice strong in my mind and with a clear vision of how the book wanted to be. THANK YOU ELEANOR!

I was inspired to keep writing on by the following photograph of Eleanor with her massive manuscript for Storm of Time that looked down on me from the wall of the studio.

Eleanor Dark with Storm of Time manuscript

Eleanor Dark with Storm of Time manuscript

And also by this, which I found in one of the drawers under the bookshelves. It is a tradition at Varuna for writers who use the studio to leave a piece of writing behind.

You are NOT here to
sleepreaddrinkfornicatepontificate
(strike out inapplicable)
The whip crack! to your tower or
dungeon desk now. I command you.

There was no name attached. Would love to know who wrote it.

Inside the studio

Inside the studio

Whatever it was, a combination of all things, I averaged over 5000 words a day! It’s amazing how much time and head-space was opened up with all household demands removed. Joan took care of the cleaning and shopping and dear Sheila cooked up wonderful meals every evening.

Sheila and Jansis

Sheila and Jansis

Jansis, the director, Vera and Brian in the office took care of all the admin, keeping and protecting the space for us. Which brings me to the lovely writers I shared this experience with – The Francothropes – so called because of a mutual disdain for poor old deluded James Franco. It was a delight to go for a thinking break and stroll around the gardens and to look up to see everyone beavering away at their desks. A community of writers all working hard. LOVED IT!

It wasn’t all hard work however, every evening we sat down to one of Sheila’s beautiful meals and glasses of wine and talked and laughed and did readings and ceremonial burnings in the fireplace of Fifty Shades of Grey, until we even sickened ourselves. I cannot thank Sarah Schmidt, Vahdia Berborovic, Brett Dionysius and Jo Chipperfield enough for the pleasure of their company. If they’d stayed one more week we’d have had a musical up and running. Yes, all singing, all dancing – and bird watching too.

The Francothropes

The Francothropes

Ghosts? Did anyone say ghosts? Let’s just say a few “incidents” were reported, the clearing of throats, a pressure on the bed. And this turned up in my photos –

In the maid's garden

In the maid’s garden

It really was a magnificent time and I’m so relieved to have been able to come away with an entire first draft to rework over the year. Varuna has a special magic, so enter, apply, donate and go!

Inspired by our resident poet Brett, I even wrote my own poem about it.

VARUNA

There is magic in the walls here.
Not just Eleanor and the Dark’s great gift.
Not only the clouds floating past the window,
And a fire in the grate in the middle of summer.
Not the dance and call of the cockatoos,
Or the ghost gums,
and ripe plums in the garden.

It’s in the air,
The sweat of every writer who has ever sat at this desk
And poured words onto the page.
Writing like furies, building worlds,
Singing songs, telling tales, crying, laughing,
Healing ancient pain.
“Write!” they say. “Just write.”

Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark

THANK YOU VARUNA!

FIELD TRIP TWO – WARWICK

Thw White Swan
I had the best of intentions when heading out to Warwick, of descending upon old people’s homes and cold-calling people with the same surnames as the pioneers of the area I’ve been researching, but when I got to The White Swan and it’s hand-hewn sandstone walls, its magic took hold of me and all I wanted to do was sit on the verandah near the roses, breathing in their perfume and writing.

Hand-hewn sandstone

Hand-hewn sandstone

Just what I needed. When tackling a project as enormous as Dear Madman, I’m having to learn new ways of doing things. Not only the researching aspect, but the necessity of breaks – to contemplate, to let my mind find connections between all the disparate facts I’ve collected. To let the voices of my characters find me.

I took some drives and long walks in the countryside and absorbed the sounds and sights and smells. I tore off a willow branch and stripped it, felt the sting of it on my palm, to know what it had felt like for my dear madman, punished as a boy. I sat on bales of hay and imagined what it would have been like to sleep in a shed full of it. Inhaled the saltiness of cows.

Then I came back to The White Swan and watered the roses, and began to imagine a life spent primarily outdoors. Where the fields were more home than the barn you slept in. Where beasts of burden were comrades, not picturesque additions to a pastoral scene. I put my hand on the sandstone and felt the years between us fall away. Had these very pick marks been made by my madman?

This is a very different world I’m entering. How does a pampered twenty-first century woman, imagine life as a barely literate laborer over one hundred years ago.

I’m attempting to write my way into the past and make it, somehow, ring true and feel real.

he old cemetery and The White Swan

he old cemetery and The White Swan

FIELD TRIP!

lonely-girl-with-suitcase-at-country-road

On the road again!

Yes! It’s time for the best bit of research. Field Trips! Tomorrow I’m off to Kingaroy, a small town about three hours drive north-west of Brisbane – once home to Queensland’s very own despot, Joh. It promises to be an exciting adventure, meeting up with some very important people to help put all the bits and pieces of archive and internet research I’ve been doing for the Dear Madman project into perspective. I’ve done some detective work and found a very far removed descendant of my great aunt’s murderer who is willing to have a chat about the impact this tragedy has had on his family line over the generations.
He had no idea of the crime until I told him. Now that was some phone call.

So I’ve booked into an old-fashioned hotel for the night and will head out tomorrow. I’m very excited, but a little bit scared too.
Wish me luck.
Lots of love,
Edwina xx

MINING THE ARCHIVES

Nualla's funeral card

Nualla’s funeral card


Work has begun in earnest on my latest project – Dear Madman – a creative non-fiction exploration of the murder of my Grandmother’s sister as a child in 1912. For the past few weeks I’ve been trekking out to the QLD State Archives at Runcorn and discovering the wonders kept there. Court documents, prison records, maps and more. Not only was it enormous fun leafing through the precious old documents, all handwritten in styles varying from pristine copperplate to the hurried scrawl of police officers taking down witness testimonies, it was also a delight to have somewhere warm to sit on cold winter days. My home office is chilly at the best of times in winter and downright unbearable when the sun doesn’t shine. Not only that, the Archives staff were kind and helpful, as were other people I met there, especially Dorothy who, though in her eighties, travelled two hours each way on buses to help compile state school records.

I found some great information to help me uncover the truth of the family myths surrounding the murder but, frustratingly, some records were incomplete or missing. For example, the prison records for Boggo Road Gaol, where the murderer was imprisoned, are missing a chunk of thirty years from just before the turn of the century. ARGH!
They had two photos recorded of the murderer, but none had survived. Double ARGH!

However, just as I had given up hope of ever seeing his face, I expanded my search on the miraculous online resource of digitised newspapers, Trove, and found him. Not nearly as ugly as I had imagined, but if I stare at him for long enough, I see a definite glint of madness – or is it meanness- in his eyes.

And now, I am becoming obsessed with this story. It fills my mind during the day, steals hours when I should be cooking dinner or helping with homework or sleeping. I dream of it, and wake up wondering what new information I will find. The only book I want to read is the one I’m writing. But the finished version!