So some of you might know that Kate Grenville has a new book coming out this year. A novel. About Elizabeth Macarthur…
Kate Grenville is, like me, one of Text Publishing’s stable of authors and I’ve known for quite a while that this book was coming, and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.
The novel will be called A Room Made of Leaves and according to Books+Publishing,”This extraordinary novel takes as its starting point the story of Elizabeth Macarthur in the infant colony of Sydney, but breaks it open into a playful dance of possibilities.”
Magnanimous me thinks ‘I don’t own Elizabeth’s story – no-one does – so surely anyone who wants to write about her should go right ahead.’
Defensive me thinks ‘What can possibly be said that I haven’t already said?’
Churlish me thinks ‘Now that my little book has had it’s 15 minutes of fame it will be pushed even further to the back of the shelf.’
Optimistic me thinks ‘Maybe I’ll sell a few extra copies to people who read the novel and want to know more.’
And actual me just thinks there’s nothing I can do about it, so I may as well just watch with interest and see what happens.
Then I got a phone call from my publisher, and that NEVER happens. I’ve had one meeting with Michael Heyward, the publisher at Text, and he seems like a very nice chap but he and I are only on nodding terms. These days the only people I speak to at Text are the operational people (who help me to buy boxes of my book, which I sometimes hand sell when I give talks) and the publicists. These lovely people are always incredibly helpful, but our conversations are not of the variety that need to see Michael involved.
So when Michael Heyward rang me to say Kate Grenville had asked him to ask me if I’d like to have a coffee with her, I was surprised, to say the least. And of course I said yes, I’d love to.
And so it came to pass that a few weeks later I found myself in my favourite cafe (The Moat, which is tucked underneath Melbourne’s State Library) having a pot of tea with Kate Grenville, one of Australia’s foremost authors.
Readers, she was lovely. Also articulate (obviously) and kind and endearingly worried about what I might think about her new novel.
We spent a wonderful hour or so talking about Elizabeth Macarthur, cultural appropriation, gendered responses to books, research methodologies and I can’t even remember what else. I own quite a large stack of Grenville books, but I was too shy to take all of them along to be signed so I just took my favourite – a small paperback edition of The Idea of Perfection. Her inscription was typically generous.
Since then we’ve corresponded by email and I think it’s fair to say we’ve begun to be friends. What a joy.
I’ve yet to read Kate’s new novel, although I will over the next few days (she’s sent me a draft). From our conversations I believe Kate’s interpretation of the historical material differs from mine, and her Elizabeth behaves quite differently to my Elizabeth. I think that’s OK. If I learnt nothing else from all those years of research, I did learn that there is no single ‘truth’ and that none of us can ever really know what another person thought or felt. In Elizabeth’s case, there are so many gaps in the historical record that most of the time we can never really know what she actually did on a day to basis.
I’m also perfectly fine with fiction writers taking a story in a direction for which there is no concrete evidence. I’m much less fine with non-fiction writers doing that, but that’s a blog post for another day. In fact I strongly feel that fiction writers can do whatever they like. I don’t subscribe to the theory that fiction writers ‘ought’ to write this or that, or that for various reasons they’re ‘not allowed’ to write something. If they write badly, or disrespectfully, or inaccurately by all means call them out and hold them to account, but do let them write. Again, this is something I might explore further in another post, on another day. When it comes down to it, Elizabeth Macarthur doesn’t belong to me and frankly, put her on spaceship to Mars if that’s the story you want to tell. For the record, though, I’m pretty sure Kate’s story does NOT involve spaceships…
So what do YOU think? Have you had enough of Elizabeth Macarthur, or are you interested in reading more? All comments gratefully received.