Kate Grenville is a doyenne of Australian literature. She’s the author of 16 books, and her awards include the Orange Prize for The Idea of Perfection (1999) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for The Secret River (2005), which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her novels, which include Lilian’s Story (1985), Dark Places (1994), Joan Makes History (1988) and The Lieutenant (2008), her three works about the writing process, co-written with Sue Woolfe, and her many discussions about the challenges of writing historical fiction have made her a familiar name to Australian readers. She was given a Lifetime Achievement in Literature from the Australia Council in 2017 and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2018.
She chose to speak about the influence of her mother, Nance Russell, and the stories Nance told Grenville about their family.
So Kate, out of all the things you’ve encountered in your long career, it’s interesting that it’s your mother’s work that comes to mind.
When I look back at all the books I’ve written, many of them spring directly out of the family stories my mother told me as a child. Like most children I glazed over as she led in again to the stories about her great-great-grandfather, et cetera, et cetera – I might add I see the same glazed faces on my own grandchildren! Now I realise how much I owe my mother for that and what a great influence she was. I’m lucky Mum wrote down a lot of fragments: they’re mostly back-of-the-envelope jobs. I also tape-recorded her. Thank God I did, because for many years I didn’t care about her stories. One of the things that interests me now is not only the stories themselves, which are valuable to have, but also the whole process of what we keep, what we tell, how we tell it and, very often, how we pretend not to know, for example, about a family story. But we do know, at some level.
Certain stories come down to you and they shouldn’t be lost. Particularly when they’re family stories. It’s the kind of family whose families are never normally recorded: rural, working class, illiterate until the late 19th century. As I got older I realised how valuable that is. Women were not allowed to write down, record the reality of their lives. Not only would they have got into shocking trouble, there was also internalised stuff about who they had to be. Just now and again you get a flash. We have to rescue them not just from oblivion but from the false stories.
I can remember from my earliest days Mum being triggered to tell me one of the stories about one of our ancestors, and I felt from her a kind of urgency. She wanted it recorded: she had a real historian’s instinct,
I think. Mum actually wanted to be a teacher, probably of literature and history. She had no idea I would be a writer, though later on when I started to go in that direction I could see how pleased she was and how her own desire to be a writer made her really pleased I was actually going to be able to do it. Whereas she had longed to, and had not been able to do it.
So it’s among my earliest memories: Mum telling me, yet again, about Solomon Wiseman, our convict ancestor, and how no one knew what his crime had been.
She was a story-shaper like you, a curious and thoughtful one.
Mum was quite proud of having a convict ancestor, long before it was fashionable. This was in the days when people used to go to the Mitchell Library [in Sydney] where the convict records are kept and cut out the page with the name of their ancestor. I think when she said he was transported “for an offence we don’t know about” it was maybe to leave a space into which somebody else, for example a daughter, might step.
Tell me about her love of literature.
She’d quote from poetry, usually Keats or Shakespeare. If you dropped something on the tablecloth she’d launch into “out, out, damned spot!” She’d know not just that phrase but the whole speech. All that old literature had become part of the grain of her being. The vocabulary she drew on when life required a response. She was a writer manquée. When she died I realised how much of her memoirs she’d written, in a very haphazard way. A lot of the fragments start with something like, “I have always wanted to write a book, but I’ve never had the right pencil.”
In 2015 you published One Life: My Mother’s Story. You were able to tell the tale she couldn’t.
I’ve used most of the phrases and words she used, but I’ve done it in the third person. So there’s a kind of distancing thing but at the same time I’m not completely outside it. Her words are embedded in every paragraph but it’s also not quite her story: I’m telling it. Taking in her influence but also turning it into myself. I think it was a very important part of growing into myself, into adulthood, to do that.
A lot of my mother’s stories were about her own mother. She really felt that she’d never loved her. When I was researching her book I began to think that actually Mum got that wrong. Now in my current project I’m looking at my grandmother as a woman who was born in 1880 with the misfortune to be extremely clever and dynamic. I can see something about her mother that she had not seen. This process of incorporating my mother’s influence and then stepping beyond it: it’s a lifetime journey, isn’t it?
What of your own stories?
When you’re a writer, you’ve left this unexploded bomb for your children. I’m starting to think, what would my children find in the filing cabinet? What will they think, how will I explain it to them? I’ve destroyed quite a bit of stuff.
But you’ve relied so much on documentation! And you’re destroying your own?
It’s been very, very difficult. I only do a little bit at a time. It goes against every grain, but I won’t be here to explain to my children what it was all about and I don’t want them to have to wrestle with puzzlement and surprise. I’ve often thought about what would have happened if my mother had done the same, and it occurs to me that she probably did.
Do you think your mother wanted you to write the narratives that she wasn’t able to?
She’d have said, “Well, you got that bit wrong there”, but she would have been delighted that those stories were recorded: her own and the ancestors’. Almost all my books are set in the past. The effect of all those family stories, and the sense that Mum had a richly complicated, not always happy past, that she was managing: that gave me a great consciousness that it was her version. We have this huge power as writers, and with it comes this huge responsibility. Don’t forget: this is not the truth, this is someone telling a story. We have to remanage those old stories over and over again. That seems to me okay.
I’d published a few books before she died and she used to come along to my readings. She was immensely pleased and proud; she worshipped Shakespeare and Keats. For her, writers really were the most important people in the world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Kate Grenville".
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