Writing the true story
When I sit down to work on an essay about how I wrote The True Story of Maddie Bright, I am astounded I ever thought I could stitch the novel together, let alone make it work for a reader. Creativity always requires an enormous leap of faith, but it seems preposterous now that you might base an entire novel on a train derailment, that you might include a famously reclusive author who suddenly has a second novel (yes), that there might be, within your own novel, extracts from the reclusive author’s novel, a war romance called (Oh God, the title) Autumn Leaves based on the real people in your novel (as if the people in your novel are real), that you might add a prince and princess into the mix (Edward, the blond one, and half a century later Diana because, after your own last novel, you’re interested in celebrity and what we do, and journalism and how it’s changed, and they were the most famous people for being famous ever, and you yourself have had a recent taste of that and you don’t much like it, and also, Edward had the train crash), that, as an add-on you might have a British journalist about to marry a Hollywood film star, with complicated moral and emotional issues of her own, and then you might set the novel in three time periods, 1920, 1981 and 1997 (also 1918 but don’t mention the war), and add a prefatory chapter that’s the first chapter from the new novel by the author, the reclusive one, and it’s called (Oh God) Winter Skies. A child is lost.
You see? And yet, I think it’s all right. In 1920 H.R.H. Edward Prince of Wales (the one who later abdicated as King) was twenty-six when he visited Australia to thank the troops for their service and had a train crash. It was in Western Australia. I read about the crash more than ten years ago while researching my last novel, Swimming Home, which has a journalist as one of the characters, based loosely on my great uncle the journalist, who (shivers) worked for Edward after he abdicated as King, when he was Duke of Windsor. Swimming Home is a novel about the remarkable women who first swam the English Channel. After their pictures were published in the paper in their swimsuits, they also became the first celebrities and it destroyed them because they lost their real selves, a lot like what happens to other famous people.
I remember thinking, when I read about the train crash, that it would make a great scene in a novel, that you could have everything leading to the crash and the crash would of course be devastating. I constructed an entire world around the train crash in my head.
The first stumbling block was that the real train crash was a non-event. No one was hurt and really nothing much happened. Historical fact is such a pest in this way. So I had to create something that would make the crash a crash. And I did but I can’t tell you.
While I was still working out who was on the train with the prince and what happened, there was the hoohah about Harper Lee’s ‘new’ novel. Here she was, a reclusive writer in her nineties, the sister who had protected her from interference her whole long life now gone, and a hungry lawyer saying there’s a new novel. The new novel wasn’t a new novel. It was an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, the draft Harper Lee may have preferred for all we know because her editor was the one with the civil rights interest, but it was not the novel as published, nothing like it. I didn’t read Go Set a Watchman (good title, better than Autumn Skies or whatever it is). It felt wrong, shameful, like looking at an ultrasound scan of a baby, and not even my own baby. This was not only a betrayal of the writer. It was a betrayal of writing itself and they should all be ashamed of themselves.
But I did take this notion of a writer who’s done one book, a big book, and no others, who’s been famously reclusive, and I threw that into the mix, so I should probably be ashamed of myself too, while we’re taking the high moral ground.
As for fame and journalism, my last book was a thoughtful nuanced story from my own life, at the centre of which is the awful, gutwrenching experience of the loss of a child. That loss got lost somewhere in the book’s journey from my heart to the world, and for a time I became the Brisbane writer who fell pregnant to her teacher’s husband, the sexually abused teen who, by the Daily Mail’s account, ‘ran away to a convent’, an idea that will stay with me. My lovely nuanced story got turned into a kind of shorthand we now use. It was the days of the royal commission on child sexual abuse and the beginning of #metoo, and so a complicated story of betrayal and faith and motherhood was reduced to sexual abuse and grooming at a Catholic school near you. Still, none of that changed the story, at the centre of which is a mother who loses a child and a child who loses a mother and that is profoundly sad and important.
While we’re telling true stories, what saved The True Story of Maddie Bright is that I sent the first draft to my editor at Allen and Unwin who is Annette Barlow to see if I had actually managed to make it work (shivers again, just like Harper Lee must have done with GSAW). My novel was a mess in that everything was flimsy and kitsch, but the shape was there and I wanted to know whether it was worth working up. I wouldn’t normally send an early draft, but I was pretty sure it probably couldn’t work for all the reasons aforementioned. What Annette did was to reach into the guts of the thing and pull out the one storyline that could make the novel cook, her hands all covered in entrails (too much?) that could pull all these notions together (pie) and give us a clucking great story that would make us feel satiated at the end. She trussed the bird. She cooked the chook. No, nothing like that. There was this letter in the first chapter, she said, and if we made more of the letter…
I already had a character I loved. At seventeen in 1920, Maddie Bright (I hope you are starting to see that ‘true story’ is used metaphorically in the novel’s title) is idealistic and adventurous. She has five brothers and her father is a poet and he has taught her to write. She gets a job as a serving girl on Edward’s train, the one that hardly crashes. She is telling her story from many years later, in 1981, when she’s living a small life in Paddington in Brisbane, shouting at the television news about the royal engagement and suspecting everybody of swindling her out of her savings except her drunken neighbour Ed. I love Maddie’s ability to see the truth of a thing and speak it, and I love her jokes which are funnier than mine. Maddie couldn’t care less what people think of her and it gives her great power. She has enormous heart.
And then the present of the novel shifts to 1997, where Victoria Byrd, a thirty-six-year-old journalist with a lot happening in her own life, is following a lead which might take her to the reclusive novelist M.A. Bright. But not yet because overnight, there is tragic news from Paris.
I loved writing Edward, the most complex and damaged and fascinating royal family member of the twentieth century before Diana joined them. In fact, Edward and Diana are eerily similar. When you read about the way they affected others, they’d have been able able to fill in for one another. If you look at the two of them long enough, they even come to look alike, their great beauty, their charisma and charm, and the woundedness that meant they appeared to understand the wounds of others. They were immensely popular, loved by the people and hated within the family.
I’d like to say I immediately saw what Annette meant and revised the novel willingly, chirpily. But I did neither. I didn’t see it, and once I did see it, I resisted mightily, just because. I had shied away from exactly what Annette was suggesting because I was not confident these characters would do these things. Anyway, to cut a (very) long story short, I did what Annette said, the characters did what they were supposed to do, and we have the TRUE story of Maddie Bright, writer Mary-Rose MacColl’s sixth novel.
Swimming Home - the writing process
“The lone swimmer, turning over now to switch to a perfectly executed back crawl, wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, wasn’t a man. It was a woman, a girl. It was Catherine. Of course it was Catherine.”
I write in notebooks or on index cards. Often it's quite vague and the story I start writing is rarely the one I keep writing. I keep scratching around like a chicken until something starts to happen fast enough that I want a computer screen. Sometimes this takes years. I have a number of pens I'm fond of. Currently, my choice of notebook is the unlined moleskin with the plain cover, quarto or a little smaller.
With Swimming Home, I started with the idea I'd write a novel with a journalist as the main character, based on my great uncle. I thought he'd fly around Europe the way my great uncle did. But that's not really a terribly engaging plot. And anyway, I kept writing about the aunt.
The aunt just sort of turned up one day and starting bossing everyone about. She soon became a doctor, and researching 1920s women in medicine I came to the wonderful Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman doctor in England .
Of course, my Louisa Quick is not the real Louisa Garrett Anderson (my Louisa is much more difficult) but I hope Swimming Home honours those early women doctors who took that difficult path for those who followed. I loved writing Louisa. She's just so beautifully flawed.
Catherine's character took longer to emerge, so long I nearly gave the novel away. She grows up as a European among Australian Torres Strait Islanders, one of Australia's two indigenous peoples, their home the islands of the Torres Strait between the Australian mainland and New Guinea. Catherine feels more at home with her Islander adopted mother Florence than with her stuffy old feminist aunt Louisa. When she moves to London, she is simply lost to herself.
Like me, Catherine is expelled from school. But unlike me, she has no understanding of what she's done. She is totally unprepared for the curve balls life throws at us all. I came to love and admire her. I suppose she represents part of us all that was once free, the freedom of a child.
I wrote much of Swimming Home in two coffee shops, Merlo Paddington in Brisbane, and Wild Flour Bakery Cafe in Banff, both of which I can recommend to artists of all kinds.
In 1904, a paddle steamer caught fire in the East River in New York. A thousand people, mostly women and children, drowned just a few hundred metres from shore. The reason? Women couldn't swim. They weren't taught as children and they feared water.
Coming from Australia and spending my childhood in swim squads, I can't imagine not being able to swim. Neither could Charlotte Epstein, a New Yorker who was passionate about women's rights, not just the right to vote but also the right to swim. Epstein started a women's lifesaving group which became the New York Women's Swimming Association. She battled the President of the Amateur Athletics Association and the President of the Olympic Committee, both of whom didn't want women in sport. Her swimmers blitzed the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. They followed quickly behind a generation of women who refused to be stopped from moving their bodies in water.
Australian Annette Kellerman, who learned to swim to help recover from childhood polio, was arrested on Boston beach in 1907 for wearing a clinging one-piece swimsuit that was considered indecent. It was a time when police patrolled beaches and measured hems, when women were supposed to swim in dresses and bloomers which pulled them down into the water, making swimming impossible. Kellerman told the judge at her trial that she couldn't be expected to swim if she was dressed up like a washing line. The judge agreed and threw the case out of court.
In 1926, the Women's Swimming Association's Gertrude Ederle, a nineteen-year-old from New York, became the first woman to swim the English Channel, smashing the existing record held by a man by over four hours. Gertrude swam a crawl, what we in Australia term freestyle, whereas the men who came before her swam a trudgeon, a sort of side-stroke.
I wanted to write a book that would honour these great swimmers. You couldn't not love Aileen Riggin, the youngest Olympian at just 13 and four feet ten, who lived and was active into her 90s, or English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, who finally crossed the Channel in 1927, after eight attempts.