Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Searching for the Secret River is Kate Grenville’s account of how she came to write The Secret River. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,who was the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people.

It is a fascinating book detailing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

She writes about reading. As a short-sighted child reading was her whole life:

I read in the bath, I read on the toilet, I read under the desk at school, I read up in my tree house, feeling the branches of the jacaranda swell and subside under me.

I can identify so well with this. I was a short-sighted child and read everywhere too, walking round the house, in bed under the covers with a torch when I should have been asleep, all the places Kate Grenville read, although not in a tree house – I would have loved a tree house!

She writes about writing. As a writer she couldn’t help examining how other writers went about their writing – seeing how books had been made. One book that helped her with writing The Secret River is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a novel based on historical events in which some of the characters are apparently versions of real people. She had come to the point in her book where she had written lots of notes, forty-seven folders of notes!! So she made lists to try to organise her writing and then began just writing scenes and descriptions of various aspects – about London and Sydney, the convict system, and what she called ‘elements of memoir.’ But she thought that lots of her writing was dry and dead.

Reading Anil’s Ghost, however she realised that she had to take herself out of the book and find a character to carry out the search for the story of Wiseman and his dealings with the Aboriginal people. To do this she had to see the scenes before she could write them:

The hard part of the writing wasn’t finding the words – they seemed to come reasonably easily. If they started to come reluctantly, I stopped writing and began with something else. The hard part was finding the picture. Once I could see and hear the moment, I could write it.

In her first draft some parts were in the first person, some in the third person, but always from Wiseman’s point of view. The first-person point of view seemed right but then she decided that that didn’t match Wiseman’s character and there were things she wanted the book to say that Wiseman couldn’t say – about the Aboriginal culture for one thing. So, it had to be in the third person, but the ‘third person subjective’ – ‘from Wiseman’s point of view but only partly in his voice.’

There is so much in this book – the research, the notes, the descriptive passage, the numerous drafts, finding the right voices, the characters, identifying the central drama of the novel, the right eighteenth century names, developing Wiseman into a character, renaming him William Thornhill and building a picture of the Thornhill family. Then the dialogue had to be right, to be convincing. She listened to a recording of Robert Browning, went through transcripts of Old Bailey trials, looked at how Dickens, Defoe and other writers put words into their characters’ mouths.She remembered her mother’s and grandfather’s sayings, phrases and idioms. In the end she decided that she wouldn’t try

to reconstruct the authentic sound of nineteenth century vernacular. My job was to produce something that sounded authentic. … I read all the dialogue aloud. If anything hit a false note, it was obvious straight away. This was a bad one for example: ‘That bit of land, he said. Remember, I told you. We’ll lose it if we don’t move soon.’

This sounded terribly drawing-room. I muddied it up: ‘that bit of land, he said. Remember he telled you. We’ll miss out if we don’t grab it.’

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

The whole book is compelling reading, not just because it’s about how she wrote the book and the enormous amount of work she put into research, but also because in itself it paints a picture of life in London in the late eighteenth century and Australia in the early years of settlement in the early nineteenth century. I was captivated from start to finish.

About Margaret

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