Category Archives: Historical fiction

Let’s hear it for libraries

This week, not for the first time, I was a beneficiary (with many others) of excellent support from a local public library.

Too often we tend to undervalue these institutions. We all know, of course, that public libraries provide resources to serve the general information needs of their citizens. We assume that any literate society has plenty of them. We may be aware that free lending libraries in Australia date back to the mid-19th century. Since then they have become part of our taken-for-granted social environment.

It’s easy, if we don’t give the matter much thought, to regard them merely as storage facilities for printed publications, electronic data and archival materials. But along with those basic functions and various other valuable services, they also give direct support to writers and readers.

The example foremost in my mind is the generosity of the South Perth Library in regularly organising events that bring together an author and a crowd of potential readers to celebrate a new book.

A couple of evenings ago it was my turn (once again) to have a novel launched in that congenial setting. It was part of the Library’s “Words with Wine” series. A large audience listened to local history librarian Anthony Styan interview me about The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth work of historical fiction. His subtle and stimulating questions ensured that our conversation flowed well. Afterwards a good number of attendees lined up to buy copies of my book.

I’m grateful to Anthony, epitome of the Ideal Reader; to Tamara Lampard, the Events Officer, who did a great job of arranging the whole show; and to the dozens of people who came along to hear about (and purchase) The Madwoman’s Coat. On such occasions, all the hard slog of creating a book seems wonderfully worthwhile.

“Go to another place”: artistry, insanity and more

The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth historical novel, is now officially released! (There will be a launch event later in the month — details at the end of this post.)

For an author, publication brings  elation — but also sheer relief that something so long in the making has at last found its way into print. Creating a novel is a protracted and painstaking process. Sentence by sentence, it’s all hard labour!  I can feelingly echo the words of Graham Swift, author of Waterland: “Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming and once I’ve begun one I know I may have years of work ahead of me.”

While I hope this new book will appeal to any reader who has enjoyed my previous stories, it differs from them in some respects. For one thing, its action is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women. Female characters figure importantly in all of my novels, but until now they haven’t dominated the narrative point of view. How risky is this method for a male writer?

Advocates of identity politics argue that fiction based directly on an author’s personal experience is the only legitimate kind — that if one tries to convey an imagined perspective of someone very different from oneself, the writing may become inauthentic and potentially offensive. I readily acknowledge the sensitivities involved in such matters. Certainly some stories are “not mine to tell.” But where should we draw the line? If we think it’s inappropriate for a writer to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are unlike the writer’s, are we missing the very point of fiction?

To quote Graham Swift again:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

For a writer of historical fiction, many potential challenges may be at least as hazardous as imagining the experiences of people whose gender or race differ from one’s own; e.g. —

  • I wasn’t alive in 1897, when The Madwoman’s Coat opens in Fremantle; so how can I know what it was like to live there at that time?
  • I haven’t lived in Staffordshire or Wiltshire, where other parts of the story are set; so how can I render them authentically?
  • Any artistry I could plausibly claim to possess is not of the kind practised by people at the heart of my story; so how can I depict their work with any confidence?
  • Though I may be a bit crazy at times, I haven’t (yet) been locked up in an institution for people deemed insane, as some characters in this novel are, so how can I hope to convey genuine insights into their plight?

I’m sure readers of The Madwoman’s Coat will be scrutinizing the story with many such questions in mind. But I take comfort from the words of Irish novelist Colum McCann:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

The book will be launched at a “Words with Wine” event at the South Perth Library (corner Sandgate and South streets) on the evening of Wednesday 31st March. All comers welcome but registration is necessary as numbers are constrained by social distancing requirements. To register, click here.

Sneak peek: The Madwoman’s Coat

I’m delighted to reveal here the front cover of my forthcoming (fifth) novel, The Madwoman’s Coat. Due for release in March, the book will be published under the Framework Press imprint.

Now is not the right time to disclose much about the story it contains. But despite the proviso that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’ potential readers may be able to draw a few inferences from this juxtaposition of images.

The human figure in the centre of the design is taken from an 1880 oil painting by Susan Macdowell Eakins, ‘Woman Sewing.’ As its placement here suggests, my novel also revolves around a woman, and needlework is one of the things this central character does — though she is no ordinary seamstress. She works creatively within the context of the Arts and Crafts movement associated with William Morris and others.

The strange pattern surrounding her on the cover may seem to offer a puzzling contrast: whatever it signifies, it evokes a different period and different culture from the late 19th-century world to which this female figure apparently belongs. It reproduces one of the treasures of the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, a 17th-century embroidered artwork known as the Riddarateppid (Coverlet of Knights).

What connection is there between this antique Icelandic bedspread embroidery and a woman such as the person whose image is superimposed on it here? That’s just one of the enigmas explored in The Madwoman’s Coat. Another is how either of those things may be linked to a lunatic asylum in the colony of Western Australia, where parts of the action take place.

More about this book soon, as its release date approaches.

OK boomer

The Pig in the Python, the Great Demographic Bulge, the Baby Boomers: however you like to describe us, those who grew up in the years following WW2 were remarkably numerous. Between 1945 and 1965 there was a 50% increase in Australia’s population— and we were it.

Ours has been in general a fortunate generation, experiencing more extensive and rapid changes (mostly beneficial) than any previous generation. Now that so much of our living lies behind us and so little of it remains ahead, memories loom large.

When remembering the past begins to slide into obsessive reminiscing, it’s especially likely to trigger — on the part of anyone too youthful to appreciate our vast repository of wisdom — the ironic response “OK boomer.” We try to treat such cruel dismissiveness with dignified forbearance.

For those who, whatever their age, are willing to test the possibility that boomers may occasionally have something to say that’s worth listening to, I recommend a noteworthy podcast series. Compiled by the writer Iris Lavell, it can be found at this site:
https://theaustralianbabyboomer.podbean.com

Episodes so far include informal interviews with a musician, a sailor, a painter, a soldier — and an author: that’s me. I talk particularly about some of the things that have shaped my writing of historical fiction.

Many boomers are drawn to historical novels — not, I think, as an escapist impulse but rather because the experience of imaginary time travel can enlarge our understanding of the present. Most of what we read in our newspapers or see on our screens is set within a framework of contemporary assumptions, and this is reinforced by the narcissistic preoccupation of most social media with updates among circles of friends who share the same outlook (or inlook). If our minds are not exposed to anything other than the self-absorbed here-and-now, we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture that the past can provide.

It’s a topic I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, for instance here.

Adult learners emerge from hibernation

Although the cold winds of COVID19 may return any day to rattle our ribs, anxiety has generally abated — at least for the time being, and at least in my corner of the social world. Various activities that have been suspended for months are now resuming. Among them are several informal education classes held in community centres.

MALA members at one of my previous talks

As groups of adult learners emerge from hibernation to participate again in programs run by organisations such as MALA and U3A, I’m glad to have been re-engaged as a speaker for a number of sessions in the coming weeks.

An earlier blog piece of mine — “In Praise of Older Readers” — expressed the enthusiasm I feel in engaging with mature-age groups of this kind. They bring a lively curiosity to each session; their questions and opinions draw on a wide range of experience; and they know how to be both thoughtfully critical and encouragingly appreciative.

Each Friday for the month of September, I’ll be presenting a lecture on some aspect of “Memory, Imagination and Writing” under the auspices of MALA (Mature Adults Learning Association). Memory and imagination are basic sources for many kinds of writing. Sometimes one or the other may predominate (e.g. memory for autobiography and family history; imagination for certain forms of fiction). But the most engaging literary works usually blend the two in creative ways, and this blend is part of the secret of writing successfully. I’ll discuss examples from a range of genres over the four sessions.

Then in October I’m due to talk to the Perth branch of U3A (University of the Third Age) on “When History Meets Fiction.” I’ll explore questions about the tension between fact and fiction in historical investigation. What options does an author have when evidence doesn’t tell us enough? This pair of lectures offers a fiction writer’s inside story of bringing the past back to life.

You may like to mention these courses to someone you know who could be interested in them. For more information, see the Events page of this website.

A story where past meets present

I’ve always tried in my previous historical fiction to raise issues relevant to our own times. So it’s encouraging when reviewers recognise (to quote one of them) ‘themes that speak to our present society’ in what I’ve written.

But I’m still aware that some readers see any stories set in the distant past as indulging in a kind of antiquarian escapism, looking nostalgically backwards instead of engaging with today’s concerns.

The book’s back cover

I hope any such misapprehension will hardly be possible for those who turn the pages of my new novel, A Thousand Tongues.

It tells a story in which situations from earlier periods are framed by a present-day setting, with characters in the here-and-now of contemporary Perth investigating characters from earlier periods and other places, discovering in the process that certain questions (e.g. about matters of conscience) are perennial even if they take different shapes as circumstances change.

Pleasant though it is to be praised for evoking authentic impressions of times gone by, my aim in A Thousand Tongues goes well beyond that – as the back-cover blurb asserts. In case you can’t see the text on the accompanying image clearly, here’s what it says:

Released from Dartmoor Prison in 1889, a black man soon breaks back into it. Interned in the same jail in 1917, a conscientious objector seems to invite trouble and seek punishment. On a present-day Australian university campus, a Muslim student is mysteriously murdered.

The suspenseful action of A Thousand Tongues reveals how these enigmas are interlinked. It explores racial and sexual tensions, twists and turns of conscience, the limits of historical enquiry, and legacies of guilt and shame.

“Ian Reid’s fiction is grounded in an understanding of how complicated character can be, how tragic fate can be, and how lives that might seem inconsequential carry the immense power of history and personality.” – Brenda Walker

Published by Framework Press, my novel is scheduled for release on the first day of the Australian spring season.

 

 

Ask an author – FAQ #2: Why imagine stories about the past?

IMG_5227Inevitably, writers of serious historical novels give this question plenty of thought. For me the answer is fairly simple: imaginary time travel can bring a distinctive kind of satisfaction to both author and reader, providing insights that are not cramped within the here-and-now.

Too often, literature that focuses on contemporary experience tends to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. The best historical fiction is still relevant to the world we live in, but in a potentially more illuminating way. Far from being an escapist retreat from the present into earlier periods, it can show aspects of our own everyday world in a new perspective. That, anyhow, is what I’m trying to do when I invent characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past.

For instance most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. My novel That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation grappling with the tyranny of distance. Perhaps this may illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wifi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.

Here’s another example. Almost daily the plight of refugees pervades the mass media, and so insistent is the pressure of images and stories about the current transnational deracination crisis that it’s hard for us to situate it within a longer timespan, and to think about perennial patterns of large-scale mobility. How, over the centuries, have traumatic movements of myriads of people been intertwined with social, economic and political changes? What enables some migrants to surmount hardship while others are crushed by what they suffer? Historical perspectives help us to understand these fundamental processes, and if shaped into the form of literary fiction (as in my novel The Mind’s Own Place, which follows several 19th-century migrants to the Swan River Colony) they allow us to imagine the corresponding tensions within and between people, as individual motives are linked to family dynamics and the cultural contours of a period that differs from ours but has contributed to the way we live now.

Having also written ‘pure’ history myself, I’m duly respectful of a disciplined fidelity to fact. On the other hand its constraints can sometimes leave a reader (and author) dissatisfied. Although historical fiction won’t be successful unless, on the basis of meticulous research, it explores themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated, ultimately it needs more than that. It should offer gripping stories with strong momentum and complex characters, related in memorable language.

In the parallel universe imagined by a writer of historical fiction, characters are revealed more intimately than is possible in a purely factual study. A novel can give us magical access to the inward experience of the figures who move through its pages, and episodes can be freely constructed to give meaningful shape to what happens. In contrast, the historian remains limited to verifiable evidence, which is often inconsequential and inconclusive. Fiction has more scope for resuscitating people from times past, bringing their minds and hearts back to life.

Above all, historical fiction depends for its impact on the quality of its language. For the author of a historical novel, reviving an earlier period and those who belonged to it means much more than marshalling facts and interpretations. It also means painstakingly yet creatively constructing an idiom, a texture of language, that will achieve two things: it will convey with a compelling illusion of authenticity the way people in that particular time and place used to feel and think and speak, and at the same time it will communicate powerfully to the modern reader. No easy task!

What would those convicts have thought?

 

town-hall-1I wonder what would they have thought, those convicts who built Perth’s Town Hall, if they had known that this feat of construction, along with their other work during the city’s early years, would be appreciatively discussed in a heritage forum held in that same venue a century and a half later?

I think they’d have felt some pride in their efforts, tinged perhaps with a sense of irony at the fact that the struggling Swan River Colony as they knew it back then did eventually turn into a prosperous economy – thanks in large measure to the labour they supplied.

This coming Sunday, 16 October at 12.30, as part of the weekend’s ‘Perth Heritage Days’ celebration, I’ll be on stage in the Perth Town Hall for a conversation about ‘Victorian Perth in Fact and Fiction,’ with particular reference to the colonial world represented in my novel The Mind’s Own Place. My interviewer/interlocutor will be the energetic Richard Offen, Executive Director of Heritage Perth.

If you’re in Perth this weekend, I’d be glad to see you at the event! Attendance is free but registration is requested for catering purposes. Copies of my novels will be available there for signing and sale at special cash discount prices.

The theme of this year’s Perth Heritage Days, ‘The Way We Worked’, is perfectly apt as a context for discussing The Mind’s Own Place. My novel traces the interlinked tales of a group of people, based on actual historical figures, who came separately to the coastal rim of Western Australia in the mid-19th century and contributed in different ways to the growth of settlement. Two are what we would now call ‘white-collar convicts’, bringing considerable skills to this corner of the world. One was trained as an architect and engineer; the other had a merchant background. Their experiences in and around Perth after their ticket-of-leave release into the workforce provide an illuminating insight into the world of colonial employment and commercial development.

Like death at the door

Unknown

In his book Untimely Interventions, the venerable Australian-born and USA-based literary theorist Ross Chambers (one of my mentors) discusses what he calls testimonial writing. He defines this as an edgy form of literature that bears witness to historical traumas, calling the dead to life and calling on the living not to forget them. Its subject matter can be any painful episode in modern social history that’s hard to confront, ‘haunting the periphery of our safe and protected world like death at the door.’ Testimonial writing insists on remembering what it would be easier for us to repress. Chambers observes:

‘National cultures, these days, seem increasingly aware of the sense in which they are haunted, both by past atrocities and by the continuing injustices those atrocities have spawned.’

The examples he lists include Germany struggling to deal with its guilt over the Holocaust and with resurgent neo-fascism; France trying to lay the ghosts of its Vichy past; the USA living with the long aftermath of slavery and the Civil War; South Africa facing the legacy of apartheid; Israel confronting the realities of co-existence with displaced Palestinians; Australia and many other countries still dogged by the consequences of colonialism.

1624165Remarking that ‘as the “original” witnesses and survivors age and die, new means of regenerating their witness will have to be found,’ Chambers discusses the instance of Pat Barker’s 1991 novel Regeneration, part of a trilogy set in England during the last year of World War 1. Its storyline testifies not only to the slaughter of huge numbers of soldiers on both sides, especially in trenches of the western front, but also to the difficulty of reporting back truthfully from the war zone to those in England. By incorporating episodes from the real-life wartime experiences of writers Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and depicting their attempts to devise a new poetic idiom that would express without lyrical evasion the horror of this brutal conflict and its lingering aftermath, this novel evokes the condition of ‘perpetually surviving a trauma that is never over.’ Much of the action takes place in a hospital for shell-shocked officers, which becomes symbolic of Britain itself, physically isolated from the battlefront but haunted by its pain despite strenuous efforts to forget.

Chambers sees Pat Barker’s Regeneration as exemplifying the increasingly important role of historical fiction in ensuring we retain the kind of cultural memory that testifies to what humanity has suffered. This insight helps me to understand why in recent years I’ve devoted most of my energies as a writer to novels set in times past, especially to experiences of bitter hardship.

Debut novelists – but hardly novices

800px-Lion_sculpture,_New_York_Public_Library,_New_York,_NY_07422u_original

A literary lion guards the NY Public Library
(source: Carol Highsmith – public domain)

As in previous years, this month’s Perth Writers Festival (PWF) will bring together assorted literary lions from several corners of the world and put them on platforms for three days of intensive talking. No doubt some will exceed expectations and some will disappoint. Not all authors turn out to be accomplished speakers, deep thinkers or charming personalities. Nevertheless this annual event continues to attract large audiences. What are they looking for?

Most people who scan the PWF program booklet with a view to attending at least a few sessions will hope to find not only a mixture of lively topics but also a good number of newcomers along with well-established writers. If the planners do their job well the big names will be balanced by relatively unfamiliar names. Although a festival such as this would seem incomplete without some literary lions, it’s also an occasion for emerging talents to join the parade.

The session I’ve been invited to chair (‘Reimagining’: Sun 21 Feb at 10am) will feature three writers whose first novels (all historical, based on real people and events) have recently appeared – yet none could be considered a novice storyteller.

Two of them are Australians. Remarkably, both had already won significant national and international recognition before these books were published. Lucy Treloar, whose debut book is Salt Creek, was previously the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. Shirley Barrett, author of Rush Oh!, has an enviable reputation as a screenwriter and director whose films have won awards not only in Australia but also at Cannes.

Their fine novels share some features. Both are family stories told by first-person narrators who are young (teenage) independent-minded women with wilful fathers. Both novels reimagine periods of Australia’s past: the first decade of the 20th century in Rush Oh! and the mid-19th century in Salt Creek. Both evoke a strong sense of place through coastal settings: the Coorong (Sth Aust.) in Salt Creek and Eden (NSW) in Rush Oh! Yet in tone, plot and theme they differ substantially.

9781743533192

The location named in the title of Salt Creek is remote and lonely, an area newly opened to pioneers willing to develop the harsh land.

For the Finch family, which has recently come down in the world, it’s a hard-scrabble existence. Financial difficulties are compounded by rash decisions and troubled relationships.

As a local Aboriginal boy from the dispossessed Ngarrindjeri people becomes drawn into their lives,  values are sorely tested, secrets emerge, and young Hester Finch begins to question the assumptions held by her family about the very nature of civilisation.

 

9781743535943

One of the surprising qualities of Rush Oh! is that much of it is humorous in tone, despite the often painful and sometimes gory subject matter. It’s told by Mary Donaldson, eldest daughter of a family whose father dominates the small-scale whaling operations on which their town depends. Men in little boats work in deadly yet affectionate partnership with pods of orcas to bring large migrating whales within harpoon range. Magnificent animals are slaughtered, brave men perish, but there are also moments of whimsy and hilarity, adolescent romance and disappointment,  bafflement and insight.

Mary’s portrayal of her family and community members is always lively, producing many memorably individualised characters, but it is her own equable temperament that holds the story together.

51e6iX-kllL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

The other writer participating in this PWF session on ‘Reimagining’ is from England. Guinevere Glasfurd, like Lucy Treloar and Shirley Barrett, already has an aura of success to enhance her debut as a novelist. On the basis of her short fiction she has won awards from the Arts Council of England and the British Council. What’s more, although her novel The Words in My Hand has just been released in English, a German translation of it was published six months ago to great acclaim. In one notable respect, The Words in My Hand resembles Rush Oh! and Salt Creek: it is in large part the story of a teenage girl’s yearning for love, seen through her own eyes. Set in the 17th century and based on fact, it explores the relationship between a Dutch maid, Helena Jans, and the renowned French philosopher, René Descartes.

While all three novels are first-person narratives, the storytelling method in The Words in my Hand takes on an additional challenge: through the medium of English it tries to create the idiom of someone whose own language is actually Dutch, whose lover’s language is French, and whose rudimentary literacy is hard-earned.

In our festival conversation I’m hoping to hear what each writer thinks about the pros and cons of her chosen voice and point of view. There will be no shortage of other topics, too, and these are all fascinating novels, so if you’re in Perth on Sunday 21st February do come along to this session. It’s a free event.

By the way, I’ll also be appearing in one of the Human Library sessions devised for PWF by the UK’s Empathy Museum. The “books” in this library are individuals with stories to share: visitors will hear from and talk with three living books over an hour-long session. My session is on Sunday 21st at 2.30 in the Sunken Garden (UWA campus), one of a series on the theme of “age.” This is a free but ticketed event – bookings can be made here.

 

“Polluting the well of history”? Writing fiction about times past

In a preface to his historical novel Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott wondered whether purists might have misgivings about this kind of writing. Would it raise a concern that by “intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age which I describe”?

Scott wasn’t seriously anxious about this, but two centuries later the genre of historical fiction still troubles some historians. Paul Lay, editor of the magazine History Today, declares sternly that it’s “no substitute for the real thing.” He adds this dismissive harrumph:

There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it.

I’d like to think – but of course I would, wouldn’t I? – that my own fiction does reveal some of the complexity of ‘real’ history. However, I recognise that certain questions shouldn’t be brushed aside. Do novelists have a right to modify facts drawn from times past? If real people and events are involved, shouldn’t there be constraints on the freedom to invent? What is a writer of historical fiction trying to achieve anyway? Is there a presumptuous intention to surpass the work of scholars and offer a superior kind of truth about the past?

Old Mill

The Old Mill c. 1890, showing Satan Browne’s renovations

Exploring issues such as those was one aim of the research project on “History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill”, for which the State Library appointed me the 2015 J.S. Battye Memorial Fellow.

During my tenure of the Fellowship I’ve dug around in various archival materials (including sources for some works-in-progress), read various Western Australian publications, and reflected on the processes of writing historical fiction – my own (The Mind’s Own Place in particular) as well as that of several other authors.

One outcome of the project has been an illustrated public lecture, now available on the website of the literary magazine Westerly. This version doesn’t include the lively panel discussion with Amanda Curtin, Jenny Gregory and Davis Whish-Wilson, which followed my presentation; but you can access the text of the talk, with a selection of accompanying images, here.

History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill

Libraries are a valuable resource for any writer – and research libraries are vital for a writer of historical fiction. So imagine my delight at the news that I’ve been awarded the J.S. Battye Memorial Fellowship for 2015.

James_Sykes_BATTYE

James Sykes Battye, Chief Librarian, State Library of Western Australia,1894-1954

The Battye Library, as many readers of this blog will know, comprises a wonderful assortment of archival riches within the State Library of Western Australia (SLWA). The purpose of the Battye Fellowship is to support projects that will enhance understanding of this State through research based on the Battye collections.

Over the next few months I’ll spend a lot of time happily immersed in those collections with the aim of producing a substantial piece of work on the process of writing historical fiction. I’ll present a public lecture on this topic, and the finished outcome – an illustrated essay – will eventually be published on the SLWA website and/or in print.

Fiction-writers who incorporate imaginary characters and episodes within a factual framework from times past are often asked what they are trying to achieve. This recurrent question incorporates others. What constraints, challenges and opportunities should such a writer recognise? Why include invented content anyway? Why not stick to facts? If a narrative goes beyond the discipline of pure history, what research protocols are necessary to convey a credible sense of authenticity?

In exploring such questions through this generous Fellowship, I hope to increase public awareness of how diverse and deep the Battye resources are, and how relevant they can be not just to history specialists but to a broader range of writers and readers as well. Many who use historical resources, or might be encouraged to use them, are not professional historians. I want to show how the Battye’s documentary and pictorial collections serve a wider literary community.

421045003_4103e95bb3_z

Various Battye collections are well known to me. As a writer specialising in stories about Western Australia’s past, I’ve made grateful use of the Library’s holdings of early photographs, newspapers, private archives, ephemera, maps and various official records. Some of these were especially useful in the groundwork for my forthcoming novel The Mind’s Own Place, which incorporates a range of events, places and personages from the colonial period in Western Australia.

My project’s title is ‘History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill: researching and amplifying stories of Western Australia.’ This alludes to a paradigm case of blending archival research with creative writing: the Old Mill in South Perth, which figures substantially in The Mind’s Own Place. Using as a point of departure the Battye Library’s treasure trove of material on the Old Mill, I’ll develop an illustrated essay on the process of writing serious historical fiction. I’ll draw not only on my own experience but also on the work of several other novelists to discuss a range of examples of research-based historical fiction set in Western Australia, clarifying similarities and differences between pure and fictionalised history.

I can hardly wait to get on with it. And perhaps I’ll glimpse in some shadowy corner of the library a ghostly trace of its venerable namesake, James Sykes Battye, inaugural Chief Librarian, who began shepherding the State Library in the 19th century and continued in that role until the second half of the 20th. Now that’s a career of substance!