There’s an inevitability about your story, ‘What Has to Be Done’, published in The Lost Boy and other stories, in terms of the mutual pain and contentment that comes from familial love. Is such pain unavoidable within a family unit? Does ‘doing what has to be done’ ensure more or less suffering, do you think?
I think there is something to be said for being forged in the fire of the family. Pain may be unavoidable no matter how loving the family. Pain as each person seeks to establish their identity, treading knowingly or unknowingly on others. And the pain of feeling not understood.
‘It has to be done’, the mother’s constant refrain, could be a recipe for disaster depending on the wisdom of the speaker. I attempted to give the mother a simple, no-nonsense approach to life, founded on kindness. So mostly it works. For instance when Brownie has to be put down the mother, mindful of Valerie’s distress, ‘keeps out the cold’ with fairy tales.
Of course, doing what has to be done provides no answers when the world drops away and feet are left flailing. Innocence once lost, can never be restored. The mother knows this and so is reluctant to speak as the well-meaning teacher advises – because ‘once said it cannot be unsaid’. Similarly, when the father dies, Valerie never hears her mother utter again what has become a platitude, for in the face of death there is nothing at all to be done. What helps though, is the mother’s love and quiet dignity. And I tried to show how this gives her daughter a new sense of worth.
For all the complexity of its subject matter, it also seems a hopeful story. In relation to ‘What has to Be Done’ is there liberation, do you think, in simply letting go?
Yes, I think so. And somehow it is also tied up with dignity – graciously letting go and allowing mystery. I wanted more than acceptance. I wanted Valerie to have an almost mystical sense that life does have meaning and a continuance that is beyond explanation and has nothing to do with practicality.
In addition to your fiction, you’ve also written two books of imaginative non-fiction. Tell me a little about those, and the synergy between the written word and photography.
I wrote my first book, Out of this Whirlwind, because I had led an adventurous life grounded in books and travel, and was woefully naïve about some of the basics…read babies! Once I had a child I found myself grappling for answers about life’s meaning and how to get enough sleep and how to be a good mother. Obsessively I took photos, processing them in a ramshackle darkroom on the few occasions when my son was sleeping. I structured the text in terms of a dialogue between a particularly dim-witted mother (which is how I often felt) and an exceptionally wise child…blame Tennyson’s trailing clouds of glory. Do you know – after working as a newspaper journalist with its maxim back then, no-one wants to know what you think, and then as a nit-picking editor, it was sheer delight to give my imagination free rein. It had been kicking those walls for so long. Could I do this? Was it permissible to have such fun? The dialogue started in the womb and finished when my son took his first steps.
I like to think that the reality of the black and white images grounded the text. The final picture shows a naked child, standing on his little flat feet, and looking out into the world; his hand on the glass, like a dark star. This image continues to resonate with me and I have recently used it in a short story, The Promise.
My second book of imaginative non-fiction is Spirit of Noosa – another dialogue, this time between Noosa National Park and myself. The images are in colour. The text is but a few lines on the opposite page. The photos remind what is beyond the power of words. And how both are fragile.
Looking back on my work, images, and the magical way that photography stops time (does anything else do this except love and grief?)underscore much of my writing.
You also run your own writing consultancy, Writing from the Heart. What are they key lessons you impart to your clients? What keeps you going when running your own business consultancy?
Key lessons: I teach what I had to learn myself. As a long-term editor with Scholastic Publications and Deakin University I initially came to my writing embedded in the nit-picking editorial brain – attempting to write the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph before I had any idea what I wanted to say. I suspect my writing had as much feeling as a bowl of cold porridge.
I did not at the time realise but in my first book I was writing from my heart, not sentimentally, well, I hope not, but from the core of my being. This is of course the stream of consciousness technique. But the word ‘technique’ demeans what I feel is profound. So now I advise writers to dive in and write madly, without stopping and to write about anything at all. And they discover images and ideas they never knew they had, and often, swirling in that stream, they find themselves and their strong voice. But the job is only half done. Now you take this messy, often unwieldy material and apply your incisive editorial brain to make sense, shape, refine and polish.
Understanding this basic process gives the new writer something to stand on.
What keeps me going? Oh the writers – their courage and honesty and fortitude – their startled joy when they get to the nub of the matter, when they pin the right words onto the page.
How did you first find out about Margaret River Press, and how did you find the experience?
I read a reference to the Margaret River Press in the Australian Book Review. Good, I thought, Australia and short story writers need another committed independent press. I checked the website and liked what I saw. The experience was seamless and Estelle Tang’s perceptive editing made me think about this story more deeply.
Rose Allan is a writer and photographer living on the Sunshine Coast where she runs a writing consultancy service, Writing from the Heart. Her two books of imaginative non-fiction – Out of this Whirlwind (Heinemann, 1983) and Spirit of Noosa (Spectrum Publications, 1996) use both word and photographic image. Her short stories and poetry have won literary awards and are published in Australia and America. She has recently completed a novel and is currently working on a collection of short stories.