I’m happy to say that Writers in the Attic is back for 2018! To ease the pressure on myself a little, I’ve decided it will be more of an occasional series, but I promise it will be just as interesting and varied!
My dear writing friend, Michelle Johnston, is kicking off this year. You might remember Michelle from when she was a guest here back in 2016. She wrote, then, about being an emergency physician and writing, and it’s been one of the most popular posts ever.
Michelle returns today as a published author: her novel, Dustfall, was released by UWA Press last week. I’m intimately acquainted with Dustfall, as Michelle and I have been in a writing group for some years now. We’ve read and re-read each other’s works in progress, and I’m always awed by Michelle’s majestic prose. Dustfall is an incredible novel about what happens when doctors make mistakes, the tragedy of Wittenoom and the power of storytelling.
‘What such editorial pruning did however, was release the truth within Dustfall, one that even I didn’t know when starting out to write the manuscript.’
Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art and beauty within the sometimes brutal reality of the Emergency Department, and has dedicated her career to finding that sweet spot between creativity and critical care medicine. Books are her other oxygen, and writing her sustenance.
You can follow Michelle at her website and on Twitter.
An Unexpected War
I keep Virginia Woolf in my scrubs pocket. Almost every sentence of hers speaks to me with words of deliverance, and when I’m at work in the merciless Emergency Department, the salvation she provides is much needed. In addition, her insights on the writing life are piercing. She told her biographer, ‘Nothing has really happened until it’s been described.’ As a rather slow-learner, this has only come to me latterly – it is only through writing that I understand anything at all.
So, here I am with a book about to come out. Dustfall. A novel that took six years to complete. It was the culmination of exploring a million different ideas and thoughts and experiences which had been stored in this chaotic head over decades, many in the dusty restricted section of my brain, and it was only in the writing them down, getting them firmly pixelated on a computer screen, that these notions made any sense. Something magical happens when thoughts are transcribed into words – some alchemical process that gives these ethereal things unexpected shape and colour and wonder.
‘Something magical happens when thoughts are transcribed into words.’
This is what happened with the writing of Dustfall. But, as all writers know, all good writing is rewriting. Redrafting is where the real wizardry takes place. It’s a type of evolution, with your own set of biological rules and Darwinian regulations. Only the fittest sentences survive. But, like the dodo, it means there will be some horrible losses along the way. So this little piece, for the gorgeous Louise Allan is my eulogy to those forfeited passages, the extinctions, the failed snippets.
In many of the former drafts of Dustfall, there were stories and sidelines and characters that I mourn. There was the fictional town of Parmouth, a cinematic, technicolour teeming Wild West town which was an inverted version of Wittenoom. There was a night when nickel nuggets rained from the sky like hail, to be collected by the school children and taken home where they were heated up and moulded, emitting a green other-worldly flame, releasing the toxic nickel carbonyl which would poison the town, smiting hordes of children. And, lest I forget, there was the Rural Ladies Association. Our own CWA, not terribly cleverly disguised, full of well-upholstered and competitive women who went into battle over their jam competitions and stabbed each other in the back whilst pouring tea for the Mayor in his clanking gold chains. I lament them all, but they had to go. They didn’t serve the heart of Dustfall. Will they ever be resurrected, Jurassic Park style? I don’t know. I expect, like the dinosaurs, they’ve had their time. As the divine Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm said, ‘Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ I should learn from him, and let sleeping velociraptors lie.
‘This unleashed a rage inside me, a storm of anger about the neglect and the cover-ups that were part of the fabric of this time, and the attempts at compensation that followed.’
What such editorial pruning did however, was release the truth within Dustfall, one that even I didn’t know when starting out to write the manuscript. The heinous episode in Western Australia’s history. The twenty-three years of asbestos mining in Wittenoom. This unleashed a rage inside me, a storm of anger about the neglect and the cover-ups that were part of the fabric of this time, and the attempts at compensation that followed. Once the focus narrowed in on these aspects, an unexpected war emerged from the mess of the early drafts. Now, in its completed form, this book is something I can say I am proud to let loose. At the time of writing this I do not have the first clue how Dustfall will be received by the wider public. Perhaps it does not matter. If it only opens a few eyes, and gives a handful of people joy, then I will have achieved my aim.
My final thought is about how one can inhabit the god role in this process of book evolution. In a word? Feedback. My gratitude will never be sufficiently expressed to the beautiful hearted Louise Allan and Jacquie Garton-Smith, both of whom knew when to direct me to the rubbish bin. My writers’ group, my supports, my friends. There were many other people of patience and wisdom who helped me dissect and prune – Kathryn Heyman, Terri-Ann White, Clive Newman, all of whom without the book would not exist. So, I thank you, good blog reader, for permitting me a few elegiac words, for those words now buried.
PERTH WRITERS WEEK
Michelle and I will be speaking with Meri Fatin as part of Perth Writers Week. Our session is called Doctors’ Writing Club and it’s on Saturday 24th February at 12:30pm.
Tickets are free. Click here for more information.
My newsletter is on its way, I promise! It has lots of news, including the launch of The Sisters’ Song and more dates of where I’ll be speaking.
If you’d like to subscribe, please sign up here.
Dustfall sounds like a fantastic read. I’m adding it to my TRB list now! Thanks for sharing the intimacy of your ‘kill your darlings’ moments, Michelle. It was a lovely piece to start my Monday.
Thank you kindly Kirsty. Such poor, strange darlings to murder, but they had to go 🙂
Dustfall is a fantastic read, Kirsty! 🙂
Michelle, those darlings aren’t dead! They’re just taking a rest and one day will be resurrected. 😉
Whenever I see words written by Michelle Johnston, whether on twitter or a blog post or otherwise, the imagery of molten gold comes to mind. The rich, velvety texture of each phrase – pure magic.
You lovely thing Shanina 🙂
You’re right, Shahina—molten gold is the perfect image to accompany Michelle’s words! 🙂
And you would think I might have learnt to spell by now. Shahina 🙂 xx
Your book sounds like a ‘must read’ Michelle. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you kindly 🙂
I think you’d enjoy it, Susan. Especially if you’re acquainted with the history of Wittenoom.
I just bought this one on the weekend, it was on prominent display at The Bookshop at Queenscliff:)
Queenscliff Victoria? How magic!
Yes, it’s a beaut little indie bookshop on the main street (Hesse St).
Nice to hear Dustfall is spreading its wings! 🙂
Great piece Michelle, looking forward to reading ‘Dustfall’. Congratulations on its release.
Thank you most kindly.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading it, Dee! 🙂
I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a draft copy of Dustfall, and loved reading the gripping story so cleverly woven throughout its pages.
It’s a very clever story and it’s very beautifully written. xx
Dustfall sounds wonderful, will keep my eye out in store for this one 🙂
Yes, do! It’s well worth a read, even if you don’t know the Wittenoom story, just for the beautiful prose! 🙂
Only the fittest sentences survive. I love that.
I enjoyed everything about Michelle’s Attic Post and I imagine Dustfall will be just as enjoyable to read.
Congratulations on your debut, Michelle!
This is a tiny glimpse of Michelle’s writing—Dustfall is a whole novel of it! 🙂
Dare I read Dustfall? I lost a colleague and friend to asbestosis/mesothelioma when he was just 50 — believed to have its origins in the asbestos fibres he inhaled while helping clear a building site when he was a teenager. Dustfall sounds like a compelling way to remind us all of this terrible legacy, and my friend’s death is one of the many, many reasons why such stories need to be told. Thank you for caring and daring to write it, Michelle.
‘Dustfall’ is a tribute to all those who’ve suffered and died from asbestosis and mesothelioma as a result of corporate cover-up, so you might find it quite cathartic, Maureen. Plus, the writing is beautiful!
In addition to that, it’s a glimpse at the way doctors beat themselves up over their errors and perceived failures. It’s quite a redemptive story, really.