Have you ever wondered how historical writers bring life to characters of the past in a way that is eerily realistic?
That's the hook to the session when Sharon Huebner and I talk about writing historical characters back into existence, at Write in the Great Southern, next Monday.
It's taking place at the Liberte' bar. As a great southern barfly I well remember the old bar where our feet stuck to the crappy carpet at the end of the night and there were some nasty fights over which pocket the black ball went into. These days, the champagne is more expensive and the bohemian ambiance more contrived but the place still reverts to the whaling town it always was when a girl does a graceful slide to the floorboards in the witching hour. When she goes down, she can look like a heeling ship in slow motion. It's quite beautiful if you appreciate these kind of things.
Ahem, anyway ... back to historical characters and my gig ... close friends know that over the last week I've hit a wall when it comes to writing the lives of sealers and Aboriginal women in the 1820s. I have four people in the story that I've been recreating for four or five years now. One man possesses a moral compass. One man is entirely without a conscience and possibly psychopathic. One woman is grabbed in the middle of the night and taken to the islands. And the main character is a seven year old Aboriginal girl dropped off the edge of her known world.
Yesterday, I read the chapters in the thesis where I explain my 'novel'. It was the first time I've been able to read it for ages without despising it. Pedophilia, infanticide and Stockholm Syndrome. God, and I thought I was writing about blokes in boats and warrior princesses sailing across the Southern Ocean. Not so. My old predator dreams have returned and alerted me to something more serious going on. It is my own stuff, yes but I also feel like I'm awakening the dead and not all of them are happy.
A few days ago I sprung the question of invoking dead people to a heritage officer who was showing me some good fishing spots on google earth: "Look. This may sound like a whacky question but I want to know what you think from an Aboriginal perspective. I've been writing about these sealers for a few years now -"
"- oh those sealers, they were bastards," he said. He's aware of the work I am doing. The seven year old girl came from his country and we've talked about her before.
"I'm getting some really bad dreams. Nightmares. I'm wondering if you think I'm ... you know ... waking them up or something."
He was grumbling about the slow speed of his government computer but when I said that, he stopped and turned his chair towards me.
"You have to learn how to look after yourself, Sarah."
"I don't know how to. I don't even know what is going on."
"I have to do it all the time. Only a few months ago we were digging up the old peoples' bodies in the sand dunes a bit north of here and reburying them in good ground. For me, and I think I know what you are going through, it's different though, but for me, every week in this job it is a ... a ..."
"Yeah, yeah. I have to check myself emotionally, every week."
What I liked was that he was immediately on the same page as me. There have been a few other folk: MF, my phd supervisor, Cro and others who, when I tried to explain my own psychological cost of writing out the trauma of the girls and committing their experiences to writing, all stepped up and said "You're not going crazy, Sarah. This is real." I cannot go into everything they expressed here right now, only to say, thanks.
Later he gave me some sandalwood, saying, "This stuff is really nice. It's good sandalwood. I got it out near the place I was showing you on the computer. Smoke yourself, smoke your house. You've gotta fix yourself up every week, girl."
It looks like any old bunch of twigs and branches, slightly gnarled and a barked grey that scrapes away to brown under the fingernail. Much like any dried wood you would drag out of the bush when you wanted to make a quick cup of tea. That night I put a cigarette lighter under a frayed end of a branch, blew on the embers til they glowed red and waved the small piece of wood around my body. It smelled beautiful, like incense.
So it is kind of interesting that next Monday I'm going public to talk about bringing historical characters to life, while the same characters are crawling through my dreams wanting to either beat/rape/brain me with lumps of wood, or be saved from the same fate. Okay. I so want those psychopathic sealers and traumatised girls to just go back to sleep and leave me alone right now. There are other, nicer trajectories I want to go on: landscape, research and the archives: but the bad dreams ... the idea that I am summoning up people and at the same time accepting my own dark side ... it has to be acknowledged, otherwise my side of the talk would be half-arsed.
What to do. Just go there, I guess.
In Their Skin: Finding the Body and Soul in Historical Writing.
Feb. 25th, 3.15 - 4.15pm @ Liberte'