I have just returned home after visiting Hobart to launch Danielle Wood's brilliant new collection
'Mothers Grimm'. As Danielle and I were saying goodbye at the airport, after a blissful weekend of family dinners and theatre and the launch and children and animals and the sparkling beauties of Hobart, the wonders of Cleburne B&B, we began talking about the colour green.
This reminded me that I had spoken about 'green' in a lecture I gave on my writing in Granada ages ago (2008).
I had a look at it and decided to post it here.
THE WRITING OF FICTION
AND OTHER MATTERS
I was a child living on the island of Tasmania, which is south of Australia. The time was just after the Second World War. The culture and society of Tasmania was predominantly English, but was just beginning to be changed by the arrival of people from such European countries as Italy and Holland. These newcomers had a dramatic effect on Australian culture, and I have sharp memories of my impressions of them when I was a child.
Modern Tasmania began life as a colony of the English in 1804. Before that it had been the home of native Tasmanians who were soon brutally dispossessed. The story of this dispossession has always affected me strongly, and the influence of this story can frequently be seen in my fiction, even if it seems to be just a brief and passing reference. The English wanted Tasmania as a place to establish prisons so they could have a place to send prisoners from English jails which were over-crowded. Tasmania seemed to be ideal as it was thousands of miles away from England, and was an island on which prisoners could be contained. There was also good land for agriculture in Tasmania, so there was the possibility of establishing a profitable colony.
I had the sense, as a child, that Tasmania was of no importance in the world, and that I needed to escape in order to experience life. You must realise that at that time, and even today, the journey from the extreme south of the southern hemisphere to the exciting parts of the northern hemisphere is very long. When I was a child the only way to get to – say – Spain – was to take a long sea voyage. I became obsessed, as a child of about nine, with the idea of going to France, and set about preparing myself to do so by studying the French language and all things French. I was keen on the art and literature and culture of France in particular, but also of Italy and Spain. I read the book that Washington Irving wrote about the Alhambra in the early nineteenth century, and the images in it still inform my ideas and feelings about Spain. It might surprise you to hear a brief quotation from his book:
In the afternoon the young women of Granada put on their gauze and vaporous silks and promenade among fountains and roses, and lingering melancholies of love. Afterwards, they fill up on cakes and chocolate bon-bons. Granada's social life is filled with poetry and lyrical decadence.
The court of the Alhambra is laid out in flower beds and surrounded by light Arabian arcades of open filigree-work, supported by slender pillars of white marble. The architecture, like that of all the other parts of the building, is characterized by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste and a disposition to indolent enjoyment.
All that sounded very attractive to me as a child in Tasmania.
I should tell you that remote Tasmania is in fact a very beautiful place, with lovely beaches and mountains and rivers and wild flowers and forests and birds and fish and butterflies and strange animals. You would like it. But as a child I read about Europe and I figured I wanted to be there – not in Tasmania.
Of course I had to tolerate being there for a long time – and anyway I enjoyed it too – and at school I was encouraged in my pursuit of French, and also in my love of reading and writing. I planned to be a novelist. I remember winning a school writing competition with a story I invented about the Spanish artist Murillo.
When I was sixteen, in my English Literature class we studied a short story by Katherine Mansfield, a writer from New Zealand, which is not really very far from Tasmania geographically and also culturally. This short story was the first real example of the short story form I had ever studied. Before this time I had not been aware of the short story as a form. The story was called The Fly, and it was almost the last story Katherine Mansfield ever wrote. I now find it a very nice juxtaposition – that it was my first experience of the short story, and was one of her final pieces. I grew to admire her work very much, and perhaps she has been an influence on my own writing.
With regard to influences – I am never quite certain how much of the writing I admire from other writers has an effect on my own work, but I realise there must be subtle and not so subtle influences. I remember a long time ago that I sent a short story to a journal and the when the editor accepted it he commented on the fact that it was obviously influenced by the writing of an English woman named H.D. I was very surprised because at the time I had not even heard of H.D., and I had not read any of her work. But strange to say there were some images and expressions in my story that were very close to some of those in the work of H.D. I have since read the work of H.D. and I often find it sympathetic, in particular her memoir ‘The Gift’.
When you look at the work a writer has produced over a long period of time, you often see patterns that can appear to follow a conscious plan. Sometimes such a plan exists. In my own case there was no plan in this sense, but the patterns are certainly there. One of the most obvious motifs is that of colour, for you can see from some of my titles – The Bluebird Café, The White Garden, Red Shoes, Red Hot Notes – and the novel that will be published next year – The Green Language** – that I have a preoccupation with colour and the significance of colour. For argument’s sake I am classifying ‘white’ as a colour. I remember that when I was a child one of my favourite WORDS was just the word ‘colour’. I loved to say it and I loved to hear people say it. And a phrase I adored was ‘coloured pencils’. Actually, I realise I also loved the words ‘pastels’ and ‘chalks’ and ‘paints’.
One of my favourite possessions was my tin of coloured pencils, and drawing and colouring a favourite pastime. Few of my artworks have survived, but in the books I have saved from my childhood there is evidence of colouring. The line drawings are all coloured in, and even my old piano music has its illustrated sections carefully filled in with the beloved pencils. I suppose none of this is unusual, but the adult labelling of my novels and so on with colour tags seems to invite examination.
Among my short stories one of my favourites is called ‘Kay Petman’s Coloured Pencils’. It was written in 1987. The title sprang into my mind as a fully formed phrase recollected from childhood – there really was a girl called Kay Petman – I loved her name, and I also loved the way she said ‘coloured pencils’. So I just started to write a story. I realise that it can be a bit maddening when I writer says that: so I just started to write a story. But that is in fact how these things often happen, in my experience.
The story follows the teenage life of an Australian girl in the 1950s, focusing on her dilemma – will she become an artist, dress-designer – or will she marry and live a life similar to that of her stay-at-home mother – a life that is represented as being wholesome but rather uninteresting and uneventful? The catalyst in this decision-making is the Italian woman who teaches art at Kay’s school. This is how this character of the art teacher is introduced: ‘Francesca Battista was exotic. She was little, thirty, dark, beautiful, unmarried, mysterious, artistic and Roman Catholic. She also drove a car.’ She comes whispering into Kay’s life, holding up before Kay the glamorous possibilities of life outside the circle of being a debutante, marrying the right local boy, having a proper house and family, and never having a real job or vocation (outside the home). You will notice that the introduction of the ‘outsider’ is consistent with my own experience of the coming of the Italians after the war. The reference in the story to a black image of the Virgin Mary is a significant marker. Images of the Virgin in Tasmanian churches of the time were predominantly pink and white and very serene, perfect. They were not dark and damaged like the picture in the story. Another point to consider – the dominant religion in Australia at the time was not Catholic. So Miss Battista is very much ‘the other’.
I noticed, in my recent reading of the story, that the pavement in the Petman garden is described as ‘crazy paving’. At the time pavements made from irregular shapes of stone were popular. They were called ‘crazy’, but I realise that the word ‘crazy’ here carries over as a comment on Kay’s mother.
Miss Battista has decided to try to ‘save’ Kay from her dreary suburban fate. It will be done through art, through colour. There is a sense of the presence of watching deities or angels, and there is also the matter of the icon of the Black Virgin Mary that Kay glimpses at Francesca’s house. Kay is being lured out of the comfort zone of the life that has been planned for her, through education, art, mystery and colour, into the danger zone of other and even foreign possibilities. What will she do? The story never states how she decides, but the opinion of the narrator as to what Kay ought to do for the sake of her soul is never in doubt.
She must break away from the crazy paving and fly out into the world of true colour.
Incidentally, if nothing else places Kay’s mother as the demon of the piece, the fact that she HOSES THE LEAVES from the crazy paving will these days in Australia in these days of global warming would be enough to have her commit a criminal offence. This woman is personally responsible for the global shortage of clean water.
Now I could go on and on as a reader analysing this story, but I confess that as the writer of the story I worked virtually unconsciously. So a reader sees all the clues such as the crazy paving and the mother goddess and so forth, and is quite right to read them for what they are, for the service they are doing to the meaning of the narrative. But I can assure you that as the writer I gave no real thought to the purpose and significance of them – they, as I said before, arrived in the story in response to the story itself.
IN RESPONSE TO THE STORY ITSELF
This is really very tricky to explain. Such matters are in a sense beyond my control, as is the manner in which colour keeps surfacing in my work. I can explore it and I can analyse it, but I can’t really explain it. As a READER of my own story, reading as if it had been written by someone else, I can discover the structures and significances after the fact, but I assure you that the STORY came first and brought with it its own structures and significances.
I will now read the story to you. (read)
I now want to return to the idea of colour and its presence in my work. I will engage in an exploration and perhaps some analysis of the role of the colour chart or the colour wheel or the palette in my writing.
The first novel, published in 1990, that had straight colour in the title was The Bluebird Café. And I can’t really recall why I wanted to call it that. I do remember that this was its title from the beginning, but it just seems to have been visited upon me, upon the novel – I don’t know. As I said about the Kay Petman story, the story seems to come first and to attract its elements and features to itself. But I do remember how much I loved it – the title of The Bluebird Café, and how inspiring I found it to work from. I do remember also that for a long time in the writing the first line of the novel was: ‘You can imagine the Bluebird Café’.
But late in the writing I realised that this was not the first line, it was in fact the LAST line, and so I shifted it. I can tell you that the work of Maurice Maeterlinck who wrote The Bluebird (made into a movie with Shirley Temple) has always fascinated me. And of course to take his title and reduce it to a rural Tasmanian roadhouse is probably both irreverent and admiring in one gesture. I think there is something in that way of looking at it.
At this point in the construction of this talk I am giving you – I thought – why did I pick this way of discussing my work – this question of colour – it is just the hardest thing to do. I have set myself one of those awful problems.
What made me fix on a café, a little old Bluebird Café, as the central place and central image of the novel? I don’t know. Does the blueness signify? If so WHAT does it signify? And WHY? Now it is one thing to talk about what ‘blue’ might mean to readers in general – different things to different people – but I think it has a broad appeal as the colour of hope (I know it also signifies despair and depression which are the other side of hope) which is I suppose why the bluebird is a carrier of happiness and hope. Green also is a signifier of hope, but I will come to green later. In The Bluebird Café I wanted to place a powerful and lyrical image of hope and joy at the forefront of the reader’s mind. And after all the awful things that happen in the narrative, hope is in fact all that is left, and the last sentence ‘You can imagine the Bluebird Café’ passes the responsibility on to the reader, and passes on also the hope.
‘If you can imagine …’
I speak of the ‘awful things that happen’ in the narrative, and I possibly need to clarify that my literary novels – the ones I am discussing here, as it happens – colours don’t seem to have had the same role in my other novels – my literary novels are concerned with dark events that disrupt the pleasant lives of the characters. Fiction – and much storytelling in general – is concerned to some degree with such disruption. Take the story of Cinderella – a reasonably typical storyline – the good child’s life is made miserable by the stepmother – the child perseveres in hope, and with the intervention of magic she triumphs and finds love – a love fortunately characterised by luxury and comfort in the form of a prince and a palace etc. If the trajectory of the story was that once upon a time there was a good little girl who grew up to marry a prince and live happily ever after – there would in fact not really be a story.
This is what currently bothers people I suppose with the story of Princess Mary of Denmark. It is not STORY enough for the readers that she was a commoner who married a prince – that’s a good START for a story – but the readers, faithfully fed by the magazines, long for her to SUFFER some kind of dark deeds before she can emerge again and live happily ever after. This is what stories DO. The story of Princess Diana is particularly attractive for its utterly dark and tragic ending. I am sorry to have drifted into the narratives of the princesses – but they are very useful when discussing the ways stories work, what stories are about, and how they develop. You need the deep-darks troughs in order for the highlights to function as part of a story. Otherwise the highlights are just a string of bright beads.
Even the simplest kind of baby story will tell a child that to begin with a little dog had no friends but ended up through various manoeuvres with at least one friend. Human beings yearn for some kind of happy element in the end. Romeo and Juliet may end with the deaths of the lovers, but it seems that with the death may come peace among the warring families.
In the novels of mine that I am discussing, terrible things do happen – crimes and disasters – but there is a level at which the narrative is searching for equilibrium and beauty. And to me, it seems, colour is a marker of this, a signifier of the good and the beautiful, even though the white and the red and indeed the black and the green are also made use of in the text for dark and evil purposes. The red shoes in my novel Red Shoes are the shoes of little children who have been stolen, in various ways, by a religious cult for the purposes of establishing a new world order. The colour red itself carries a powerful range of suggestions from rage to love and many qualities in between. Similarly white – there’s innocence and there’s death, to begin with.
I did not set out as a novelist to take my readers through the colours – moving in the titles from blue to white to red to green – but that is how it has worked. Between red and green there comes, chronologically, a novel called Cape Grimm. Now if there were a colour embedded in that title, I would see it as black. Again, taking black as a colour for argument’s sake. By the time I was writing Cape Grimm I saw the three novels – The White Garden, Red Shoes, and Cape Grimm as a trilogy working in no particular order under the alchemical colours of black and white and red. But I could not shift my use of the title Cape Grimm to take in the word ‘black’. It would not shift. I know that sounds strange too – to say that a title has some sort of will of its own – but this was the case.
I spoke of ‘setting out to take my readers’ somewhere. This in itself is a rather misleading idea. I do in fact set out to examine and perhaps to solve a group of problems I set myself, or problems I perceive as being worth my attention. Of course there is the hope and expectation that I will in the process render the problem and the resolution engaging enough for readers to enjoy exploring it with me. I suppose I am to an extent talking about inspiration here – what INSPIRED me to write Cape Grimm, for instance?
Well it was a series of events in the history of far north west Tasmania – from way back – up to about the year 2000 – taking in shipwrecks, massacres and so forth. There was a modern massacre at a place called Port Arthur. Port Arthur had been, long ago, an English prison on the south coast of Tasmania. This massacre was a kind of touchpaper that set the novel going, although the narrative does not examine Port Arthur in any literal way. When I was creating the character of the man who was responsible for the massacre, I had a mental image of photographs of him, a strange looking young blonde man with pale eyes, but I also had thoughts of Jonestown and Waco and other modern religious cult tragedies to guide my imagination.
Cape Grim is a real place on the far north west of Tasmania, like Finesterra. Its name – Cape Grim – a terrible and doom-laden name – has inspired me since childhood. In fact it has nothing to do with the Brothers Grimm who are known for their German fairy tales, but in my mind there was a connection.
To return to where I spoke of the search for equilibrium and also beauty – I should explain that I see fiction, at some level, as a search for order and meaning. That sounds rather lofty – but if you think about it, it isn’t just literary novels at the high end that seek meaning and order – the simplest and most banal love story or adventure story with no pretensions to high art or literary glamour or whatever it is – the most basic novel is usually bringing a view of order into the chaos of existence in some way or other. Crime novels, fantasy novels – they are all working in the service of finding an order and a meaning – even if the meaning turns out to be meaninglessness.
You can see that once I set out to examine my own work I can get myself into the middle of a maze. At that point I can begin to panic. Keep calm and think of bluebirds. Now that is not really a careless comment. For there is often – sometimes – a fairytale reference in my work, and there is a wonderful old French fairytale called The Bluebird. It works somewhat along the lines of Cinderella, with the Prince spending much of his time as a bluebird until eventually after many ups and downs he is restored to human form – and the evil stepsister is turned into an owl. There is a depth of human wisdom and poetic truth in such fairytales that appeals to me so profoundly that I find I make conscious and unconscious reference to such stories and their details quite often in my work. I am not particularly interested in constructing modern versions of the old tales, but I sometimes find pleasure and satisfaction in recalling elements of them as I write, even if nothing obvious or overt from the old story makes its way into the story I am telling. I suppose that as well as seeking order, beauty, equilibrium and meaning, I am also seeking some kind of wise calm – something that informs the folk and fairy tales that attract me.
The English writer Angela Carter was also attracted to the genre of the fairy tale, and her modern feminist workings of them are some of my favoured reading.
In fairy tales there is the puzzle and bewilderment at the heart of the magical. Sometimes there are no answers to the mysterious. And that idea appeals to me too.
Perhaps it is in counterpoint to this fantastical thread that I have a great interest in the factual backgrounds to my narratives. Such is this fascination that in some of my novels – in particular The Bluebird Café, Red Shoes and Cape Grimm – I have provided the text with a substantial glossary which is integral to the novel, yet gives the reader the option of reading it or ignoring it. The glossaries work like an old-fashioned form of the hyperlink. My next novel, The Green Language, has escaped this treatment, incidentally. Again, this was not a conscious decision – things just didn’t develop that way.
I think that green has been my life-long abiding favourite colour, the colour of youth and the natural world. It is the colour that rushes through the heart and blood of poetry.
Lorca wrote a whole poem in praise of green – it is a poem very dear to my heart. I also love the complimentary colour to green on the colour wheel – being red.
I doesn’t surprise me that I have written a novel called The Green Language – but as I have said, I can’t truly explain why this is so. I have a feeling that to explain or try to explain these things is in some way to traduce them, to falsify them. Perhaps I am working my way through the colour chart, but then, I have to work my way through something. That is what a writer is, in one sense, doing. Working the way through something in search of something – the second something being, as I have suggested, some form of meaning.
The medium everybody works through on the meaning project is their own life. Everyone will have a different way of expressing this to themself. Writing fiction is one way. Only one. Writing memoir is another, probably more obvious but not unrelated. Perhaps the main puzzle everyone has is something like: who am I and what am I doing here? The answer can be as short or as long as you like.
** This became Child of the Twilight because the publisher's Marketing Department said The Green Language suggested a text about green politics.