October 9, 2015
Though it isn’t usual, this story isn’t entirely unusual, so therefore it’s a successful story even without the red carpet at the end. It started where it always starts – childhood. Mine happened to be in a country town of 800 people. Not much happens all at once so you see most things.
Sometimes Mr P. would simply walk handsomely past our house on his way home, a tall, striking man, his trousers held firm with pale braces. Usually he mumbled deeply to his imaginary foes, sometimes he was abusive. I once watched him implore a lamppost to pick up a loaf of bread, then our neighbour emerged, handed him the bread and Mr P. went on his way. His hallucinations, we knew, were “from the war”.
There was a flat-earther who wrote imploring letters to the mayor (!?), and a witch who lived by the creek. Turns out the witch was just a nice lady ageing into lonely dementia, arthritis, dehydration, malnutrition, failing eyesight and hearing loss. Much easier for her to stay at home, and I guess her health problems made the branches growing through the cracks in her walls inconsequential.
We kids played in a shed where the undertaker kept his coffins and thought nothing of it, but there were travellers who stepped off the Greyhound bus with a suitcase who were considered weird because they dressed differently. Depending on the story that eventually circulated about these travellers, they either left on the next bus, or are still there.
Sometimes, when I’ve delivered a talk on my novel, The Dressmaker, at a local library and the conversation is declared open, the attendees tell me about the unusual types in their home town: “Our cross-dresser was called Lou Lou, he ran the local frock shop.”
“We had a man who took his pet cow to footy, never did anything without it, actually…”
We hear about the suspect paedophile, the “swingers” and the happily married couple with the middle kid who’s a dead ringer for the neighbour’s kids. There are blokes who wear drag to every fancy dress party and spinsters who have lived together since they “lost their fiances in the war” (“…but you only ever saw one set of sheets on the line”).
In some small communities, when the audience fails to rouse after my talk, I know the snowdropper is in the room, and that the vacant chair next to the woman in the front row is actually occupied by her dead spouse. In the city, it’s always the country-born audience members who tell us about the local idiosyncratics. City folk don’t usually believe that there can be that many non-usual people in one place. You just don’t see them so much in a city. But when I woke up in my town as I kid, I woke up to the entire population. I didn’t see all of them every day but of those I encountered, I knew their occupation, ancestors and sins, triumphs and failures, tragedies and secrets. You can’t hide in plain sight like you can in a city, so it’s rare anyone lies dead for more than a day on the kitchen floor, even if they did sleep with their cow. But secrets are spread like pollen. We kids knew why young couples suddenly married and we also knew where the adulterers met. Those were the secrets no one ever mentioned because secrets are ammunition as well as an Achilles heel, but the whole town benefited from knowing who the town kleptomaniac was.
Holding all that knowledge keeps a community humming and it all seemed perfectly normal, or usual, until I left. Seeing something from a distant perspective means you actually see it. So boarding school was an eye-opener. I sometimes travelled there with a girl called Sue Maslin. Back then, the trip to school took five hours or so. These days the trip Sue and I are on is a bit more adventurous.
Post-school, my journeys took me to other cultures and continents and confirmed that there are small communities all over the planet, and in those small communities, normalcy is relative. And when the familiar landscape of my childhood drew me home, I rushed to university because Gough Whitlam made it possible. I rediscovered reading and I studied a subject called drama. Since I wasn’t beautiful (or talented?) enough for a lead role, I spent the hours waiting to deliver my line, watching. I saw the spotlight ignite the flame of fame, watched people elbow others out of the way to get to the twinkling star, but I knew to say nothing, keep the equilibrium humming. And it was also the play, the story, that ignited my flame and so off I went to TAFE, which was affordable back then, to study novel and short story writing. Screenwriting and playwriting classes were full and so I found I could be many characters and deliver my own lines when I wanted. And I could utilise, dramatise the secrets and knowledge I was dutifully holding.
When facing the blank page, some writers think about the adage, “Write what you know”, but it’s all about how you use what you know. I knew I wouldn’t write a story that gave away the ending two chapters in; “I love and adore my wife; she is everything to me” just tells me that she’s going to die. So I dramatised the childhood activity of chopping up plague mice with a piece of downpipe but no one believed it – too weird to relate to, so I let that scene go, and turned my attention to the verities. I started with love, beauty, compassion, honour, pride, but the story was wandering along in the usual way, so I thought about drama school and ambition, lust, betrayal, jealously, envy, hypocrisy and revenge. Feedback told me it was the darker truths my fellow writing students responded to. So I skewed a few accumulated secrets and wrote a novel that was a bit weird, not predictable but not that unusual, and at the end of three years we students sent our manuscripts off to publishers.
I anticipated the rejection letters because some readers fail to recognise my humour (they can read other books). I love that my readers can find irony where comedy and tragedy meet … the tragedy being the most dramatic of our verities. But what’s most important in this whole story is that my first plays were performed because community theatre backed me, and I wrote my first novel because I was given the gift of university and then TAFE. I was able to flex my writing muscles and write that abnormal is normal. My ambition was to take readers somewhere else for a while, give them a bit of a laugh and allow them to make decisions about what I’d held up for them to see.
Happily, a small publishing company liked The Dressmaker. Duffy and Snellgrove no longer publish new books, and I worry about the possible changes to arts funding and the subsequent impact on artists out there trying to create something unusual, something different that confronts who we are and what we do today.
In a very timely way, Sue Maslin, who hadn’t changed a bit from school, re-entered my life in the guise of internationally renowned film producer. She’d read my novel and recognised her own childhood (and me), and she also recognised the potential the setting and the warm and nasty characters in The Dressmaker held. She decided to put the story on a huge screen in colour so that everyone could watch, have a bit of a laugh, go somewhere else for a while and wonder. Jocelyn Moorhouse adapted the novel with flair and enthusiasm (she also directs). Then Kate Winslet said she wanted to be in it and so did Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobsen, Sarah Snook and many more fine Australian actors. And so they built the township of Dungatar I invented all those years ago at TAFE and cast the extras – me and some friends and family from the same community on the same landscape Sue and I roamed as kids. And one night we extras stepped off a bus into Dungatar, where we met many of the locals. It was odd, but all pretty familiar, and we watched the actors set about dramatising the usual community secrets, the universal truths of love and vanity and revenge.
As extras, we had all of the joy and none of the responsibility, and though a lot of what we did lies curled on the editing room floor, you can see fragments of us up there on screen, acting out fear and pity and loathing like old hands. And my fellow Dungatar locals will now watch for glimpses of Sue and I on our journey along the red carpet, which started at last month’s gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. I’ll be in the small crowd behind the key players who put that story on screen, and the past and its stories shared by Sue and I (and some extras) is the reason we’ll all be there, but without the “stars” and Jocelyn Moorhouse and the talented others, Sue and I wouldn’t be there. And now the story will go to many communities in many countries and they’ll all see something in Australia that’s familiar but different, and no one predicted any of it would happen, which makes the story so far a damned good story.
The Dressmaker opens on October 29.