The Centre for Youth Literature‘s Mike Shuttleworth asked me some questions about The Push. They were published in the CYL’s mag last month, and are reproduced for those of you who stopped reading after the article on Shaun Tan.
Can you tell me about the research you did for The Push and what drew you to the era?
I researched by reading all of the Sydney Morning Heralds and Women’s Weeklys of the period (the Women’s Weekly advice for teenagers column is where the chapter headings come from); devouring everything I could lay my hands on about the Push, and particularly women’s experience of it, which was entirely different to that of the blokes; asking the local historians for stories about Glebe; getting 1957 racing information from the Australian Jockey Association; having a drink in The Royal George; and sending Duncan Ball to climb over fences to tell me what type of trees there were in particular alleyways. (The trees didn’t make it into the final version, but I’ll be forever grateful to Duncan for the injuries he incurred for me.) Oh, walking the streets of Sydney until my toes bled.
What’s a Perth girl doing writing about a very Sydney set?
The ideas that I came across at uni in the 1990s had percolated down from the Push, so although the location and times were different, the philosophies were the same, and I want to look at where they started. Also, I was interested not so much in the Push per se, but the friction that existed between the radical and the conservative, working-class and middle-class, women and men, young and old – the friction that sparked the 1960s.
Was writing a novel set outside of WA an attempt to escape being pigeon-holed?
What? I’ve been pigeon-holed?! [Jumps off edge of cliff.]
What surprised you about The Push and the people who were part of it?
I was surprised by the contradictions that made the Push such an exciting place to be, which is why it produced people like Paddy McGuiness on one hand, and Germaine Greer and Eva Cox on the other: libertarian philosophy could be stretched to serve any number of purposes. I was also amazed at the risks the women took to be around such an exciting mob: it was not an easy time to support the concept of free love if you happened to be female.
Both The Push and Bye, Beautiful are concerned with the status of women and girls as they move into the adult world. What reactions have you had from female readers, both younger and older?
Bye, Beautiful has been incredibly resonant with girls and women; it’s a box of tissues book. The Push is not such so serious book, but I hope it will cause readers to reflect on what has changed – and what hasn’t.
Are there any barriers for teenage girls and young women now? Is it all possible?
One glance at the boardrooms and senior executive roles in Australia will answer the first question. Having said that, I am one of only eight female Sergeants-at-Arms in the world in my day job, so I know it’s possible for things to change. But, like the light bulb in the joke, people have to want things to change.
Can you say something about the session It’s Different for Girls? What was it like talking to an (almost) all female audience?
Oh, it was glorious. The fact that fiction readers are 80% female gets completely overlooked and/or taken for granted, so it was great to have something targeted at those very enthusiastic readers. Jane Burke, Sue Lawson and Maureen McCarthy are wonderful women in their own right, and I think it’s great for young women to have that kind of modelling. Plus, I got to talk about crocheted blankets*, which never normally happens. *You had to be there.
The Push is set an era that immediately pre-dates Bye, Beautiful. I understand the next book is set in the 17th century. What do you feel you get from writing historical fiction?
I love the way that certain thoughts and ideas are off limits in historical fiction. So, for the 17th century Italian one, for example, I have to try to imagine a world where not believing in God was impossible, where religion was part of the fabric of life in the same way that television is today. It’s mind-bending. And the second big challenge with this one is to make it accessible – so it’ll be back to a first person narrative. Fun, but scary.
Any thoughts of a contemporary expose novel set in Perth? Any more comedies in the bag?
I don’t want to be sued, so the Perth expose novel might have to wait until I’m independently wealthy. And after I emerge from convents, inquisitions and purgatory, a comedy will definitely be next on the list.