By Shelley Burr
From 21-25 Aug 2019 the Canberra Writers Festival returned for its fourth year, with a line up of national, international and local authors, politicians, academics, activists and journalists.
The panel Wonder Women was held in the spectacular Peninsula Room of the National Museum of Australia, with views of Lake Burley Griffin. It brought together three Australian authors—Meg Keneally, Kate Forsyth and Penelope Hanley, moderated by Canberra Times journalist Sally Pryor. The theme of the panel was that all three authors have released a historical novel in 2019 featuring a complex leading lady.
I had some reservations about the panel’s theme—it seemed very broad, and I’ve seen panels with vague terms become stilted, as the participants failed to find common ground and get an organic discussion going. Pryor seemed conscious of this too, emphasising in the introduction how different all three books were. However the resulting discussion was robust, covering topics from the process of getting into a character’s head, the way social media has changed interactions with readers, and how much authors love it when you take pictures of their books and put them on instagram.
Keneally released her debut solo novel this year, Fled, after two collaborations with her father Tom, The Soldier’s Curse and The Unmourned. She spoke about the difficulty she had finding success with a solo project, and how she felt for a long time that it wasn’t going to be an option for her. She also spoke of the benefits of growing up with a writer for a father, as she grew up knowing that writers were just human beings who slogged away.
Fled is a historical adventure novel, based on but not directly fictionalising the life of Mary Bryant, who famously escaped from the New South Wales penal colony in 1791. Keneally chose to create an original character, Jenny Trelawney, rather than ascribe thoughts, feelings and beliefs to Mary when she could not know if she had them. She discussed reaching the point where she had extrapolate what the characters were experiencing, because the accounts didn’t say what kind of condition they were in, physically and mentally. At some point you have to put yourself in their shoes and think, what exactly would this have been like?
Forsyth also comes from a family of writers. Her sister, Belinda Murrell, has written 33 books, and her brother, Nick Humphrey, has written ten. Forsyth released her 44th book this year, The Blue Rose, making her the winner. The Blue Rose is set in Imperial China and France at the time of the French Revolution and was ‘inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose’. Forsyth spoke about learning the story of this rose, the specimen from which most red roses in Europe are descended, and the seeming incongruity of a rose being taken from China at a time that the country severely restricted outsiders, and propagated in France during the turmoil of the ‘Terror’. She said that when she read that she knew it had to be a book.
Penelope Hanley’s After She Left is a family saga, following three generations of women in Sydney from the 1920s to the 1970s. Hanley spoke of being inspired by reading a review copy of a biography of Camille Claudel, and wanting to get her out of the asylum and put her on a boat to Australia.
She also talked about the generational difference she has noticed in the responses to her book—women her own age who lived through the feminist movements of the 20th century found the focus on the history didactic, while younger readers are appreciative of the level of detail, because to them much of it is new information.
The three teased some details of their upcoming work. Both Forsyth and Keneally noted that because it takes roughly a year from when they finish a book to when it is ready for promotion, they have had time to nearly finish another book already.
Hanley is working on a sequel to After She Left, and a short story set in Canberra that is showing signs of expanding into a novel.
Keneally is working on a novel exploring the wreck of the Dunbar outside of Sydney. It has a split timeline, focusing on the sole survivor of the wreck and a woman in 2020 writing the survivor’s history. She was enthusiastic about the modern day element, as it allows her to write about diving, another one of her passions. She also plans to write about Australia’s first female pirates, Charlotte Badger and Kitty Hegarty, who were involved in a mutiny aboard the Venus in 1806.
Forsyth is collaborating with her sister to produce a book for the National Library of Australia about their great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Atkinson, who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia. A Mother’s Offering To Her Children was published under the pseudonym ‘A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’ in 1841.
A question from the audience asked if the three had ever met their own characters in real life, drawing three very different answers.
Keneally spoke about the optioning of Fled, and the actresses she could see playing Jenny.
Hanley discussed trying to find a female artist like her character in the historical immigration records, but finding that most women who came to Australia at that time were domestic servants. She found one silversmith, but that was a man.
Forsyth described meeting a woman who was a perfect physical match for a character she was trying to get a handle on, and ‘stalking’ her while she got the details down.
Those disparate answers, like the rest of the hour, made it clear that my doubts were unfounded. The broad theme of the panel just left more room for three fascinating women to share their stories.
The Canberra Writers Festival ran from 21 to 25 August 2019.