Monday, April 20, 2009

The Invocation of William Hook

(For those not tangled in my endless loopy skirts, I am writing an honours thesis on the intersection of fiction and history. This navigates the story of sealers and Menang Aboriginals in King George Sound in 1826. When Lockyer arrived here to proclaim the area as part of the British crown, there was already a small colony of reprobates, consisting of two African Americans, a Maori, two native Van Diemonian women, a 'Sydney Aborigine', a little girl and several European sorts, all living on Breaksea Island.)

I saw a man in the supermarket the other day, a shearer. Tall, scary, bags under his eyes, hook nosed, hard lived, dark. He flashed at me, "Is this your shopping?" This was William Hook, he was all there. I knew if I approached him on a real human level, he would just dissolve but the set of the shoulders and that kind of sailor/shearer arrogance said, "Do not transgress this."

Right now I'm enjoying Willian Hook too much in a creepy kind of way. And so the question: "What is it in sealer's mind that allows them to do what they did?" Well.
What is emerging is a process, a method of invoking character. It's witchery; like really good cooking. I begin with the story that Lockyer related in his journal and the testimony of William Hook. I read 'The Historical Records of Australia, Vol.3' and also found some extracts from D'Urville's journal, whilst he was anchored in King George Sound in 1826.

There are questions immediately - and not enough answers. No-one is here to tell me the tale. Most of my questions regard motivation - why they did what they did. Why did he do that? Why didn't they keep her with them?

To understand our unknown character, we enter our lizard brain, the reptilian recesses where all our formative experiences are stored. This is where the motivation lies, with supposedly dormant memories that have been subjugated into silence but manifest themselves through our state of mind and therefore, ultimately, our actions.

There is no better way than unabashed fiction to access the reptilian mind of a person who lived one hundred and eighty years ago, one who wrote nothing down for posterity. Fiction is the vessel of truth for a writer, assuming that the human state is universal and subject to the same outcome to stimulus and experience, as anyone is, in any era.

So, rather than research their genealogy right down to those little wriggly taddies, I do what B. T. told me once during her workshop on local history narratives. 'Speculate, elaborate, embroider.' Find out enough to write creatively, do the research and then leave it behind.

William Hook's background is on the page, my prerogative as blatant fictionista. Spending six months as an exchange student in Dunedin didn't hurt either. Wanting to know this man incited a William Hook infatuation on my behalf. It was the mystery of his motivation in testifying against his co-worker and sealer Samuel Bailey that hooked me in. All I had was his name and a nationality but now I have decided this boy is Ngai Otaku. In 1817, he watched Australian whalers saw 42 of his father's boats in half with cross saws. Then they burnt the village to the ground. (This bit is true.) And there you have a formative childhood experience.

I thought about William Hook a lot. I remembered the pitiful amount of Maori words in my vocab and found more. I discovered that the Menang girl could communicate with the Maori through the names of fish. I read an ethnography of southern Maori, published by the Dunedin City council and Otago University. I realised that whilst William Hook was in Albany, Te Rauparaha was tearing down the East coast of New Zealand on a nightmarish rampage, bloodying the waters of Hook's home.

And gradually, after a few months of falling in love with and mentally stalking this non-existant person, he is being built, gollem-like, into existence. He is almost here. Once he is fully fleshed out, made real again so many years later, William Hook will explain to me his motivations, why he testified against his sea-dog mate, his deepest fears and his greatest strengths.

At first, as I delved into this story, I worried a little bit about myself and my obsession with a man who has been dead one hundred years.
Mmm yes, still worrying but I'm beginning to get it. He is the first one and there are more. He has nearly arrived fully formed. Next is Samuel Bailey, then the little girl from the mainland of what is now Esperance (yes she has an origin now, thanks to the French explorer D'Urville's journals), then the Menang woman, stolen from inland Albany, perhaps in the region of Wilyung, then finally Lockyer. He turned up in the Sound with his son from his first marriage, his new wife busy halfway through birthing her eleven children to him.
There's a few heads to climb into ... My next project is Samuel Bailey. I'm beginning with this image. Whaddaya reckon? Pirate? Politician? Sealer? Child abductor and general all-round Bad-Arse?

(Actually he's from the History Collection. Apologies to anyone who recognises him as their uncle, father, husband ... sorry 'bout that.)


  1. Mmmmm.....a bit like channelling really. Invoking....dangerous ground from someone who has done the same and now been working with the 'drowning' thing for soooooo long. BUT, had to be in there in the first place I reckon so I look forward to learning more about your characters.

  2. he's a pretty scary character, he's going to try to push you around a bit, sarah. but you're up for it. and it's all in yr own head, in yr own control.
    it's getting very exciting.
    and you won scrabble!

  3. Your thesis sounds fascinating...and it looks like it's in good hands. So many details to get lost in ...lucky you have a map.

  4. Sarah, I'm so glad to see that all the Albany-ites are moving along full steam ahead with their projects. You and miChelleBLOG put me to shame at the moment! I'm sure everyone will soon be sick to death of hearing me talk about Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, but it is a good example to look at when considering the kinds of strategies writers employ when blending historical and fictional material. Read Junger's notes on how he wrote the book (in the Preface, I think... I gave my copy away, have to get another). He did something like using italics to differentiate the historically substantiated sections from the sections he imagined/fictionalized. Rather than appearing to be overly controlled, the outcome was a text that was rendered seamless by the power of the story.
    Thanks for the BT citation... glad to see you took notes. The plan for that workshop "Transforming your local stories" is in my MA thesis The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife, and other stories, a copy of which is lodged in the Albany History Collection, if you would like to revisit it.

  5. Hey thanks BT. I will have a look, at The Perfect Storm and your thesis , cheers!

  6. I have always been aware throughout your blog you have employed history into your stories and to be honest that is what makes it so rich and tasty (that and your incredible sense of language). But I didn’t actually know that you were doing a thesis on this. When I read, a few days back, what your focus was it made me think.

    The first was about the walk I did through the south west wilderness of Tasmania. A walk trail which was first cut in 1836 for ship wrecked sailors who became stuck in the inhospitable west coast mountains and marshes. It is supposed that the tracks themselves were already existing paths used by the natives. I remember reading sometime during my stay that there was three native tribes who lived on the west coast (God knows how). These tribes were later rounded up, and the rest is history… But after enduring a walk so primitive (the path was 30cm wide, weaving through mountain ranges in boggy button grass plains), I had the idea of what it might have been like. But to render a story about a ship wrecked sailor which captures the smells, the harsh silence and grittiness, the natives etc on 80+km long trip in a world yet to be recognized as anything other than:
    Forty miles due west of Hobart is a veritable “No Man’s Land”, where any lone traveller would be taking his own life in his hands. It is an inferno of mountains, gorges and impenetrable forests’ ~ ET Emmett, Director of Tasmanian Tourist Bureau, 1953.

    The second stems from the 70’s soul surfers who reportedly lived in caves on the mid western coast (west oz), swapping weed for supplies with travellers. This is one that I will endeavour to research some more for a story.

    Always look forward to reading your bloggings..

    We should chat more!