I have another author in the attic this week: my friend, Katherine Johnson. Katherine and I first met at the Tasmanian Writers Festival in 2018, where we were fellow panellists, and we’ve stayed in contact since.
Katherine’s post is about how fiction enables us to step in others’ shoes. She wrote it a few weeks’ ago, but it seems particularly prescient right now. So please read on.
Also, don’t forget to enter the book giveaway—details at the end of the post!
Katherine Johnson is the author of four novels: Pescador’s Wake, The Better Son, Matryoshka and Paris Savages. Her manuscripts have won Varuna Awards and Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. The Better Son was longlisted for both the Indie Book Awards and the Tasmania Book Prize, and Paris Savages has been shortlisted in the ABIA awards 2020.
Katherine lives in Tasmania with her husband and two children and recently completed a PhD on ‘human zoos’ that formed the basis of Paris Savages, which will be published in the UK in July 2020.
You can find Katherine at her website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
You can buy a copy of Paris Savages from Ventura Press.
Plotting Your Own Path:
Each novel is its own journey
As a child, I used to watch my mother, a talented artist, paint and sculpt. It appeared a magical process where something beautiful and tangible would emerge from something nebulous—a wash of paint or a block of clay. She didn’t have a dedicated studio, often sculpting on the veranda of our Brisbane house, or painting on an easel erected in the lounge room. She couldn’t ever really explain her method, and I think that made her art all the more wonderful to me.
I approach writing in a similar way, to a point. I research the subject in depth first, as well as throughout, but plotting and character development evolves through the writing. After talking with other writers—most memorably Nick Earls, during a very entertaining festival session—I tried to plot methodically from the outset, in the hope it might reduce the number of drafts. But magic writing moments elude me if I force myself in that direction. There’s something about the creative process itself that, for me, drives the story forward and rewards me with unexpected moments of revelation. Hard work on chronology, plot lines and character arcs are, of course, eventually required, and I’ve filled multiple notebooks and vast sheets of butchers’ paper sticky-taped together.
Such methodical planning and thorough research was especially necessary for my most recent novel, set in the late nineteenth century and based on a little-known true story:
Paris Savages is about a group of Aboriginal people from Queensland’s Fraser Island who were taken to Europe in 1882-83 for ethnographic exhibition. It was that time in history where scientists were formulating theories of ‘race’, when colonisation was in full and devastating swing, and suddenly, thanks to shipping and rail, there was the capacity to bring people from faraway lands to be viewed by mass audiences. It was a potent mix.
I’d heard about the subject on Daniel Browning’s award-winning ABC radio documentary Cast Among Strangers, and I went to a museum in Lyon, France, with my young family to see the full body plaster cast of one of the men, Bonny, who was shown in Europe. This was back in 2012 and, at the time, we were living in France for a year and I’d started researching the novel.
Seeing the cast with my children was incredibly moving. ‘Bonny’ was standing completely naked, holding a boomerang over his head, a serious but proud expression on his face. It was as if we’d all been catapulted back through time and were looking directly into the eyes of one of the people directly impacted by colonialism, for the Badtjala had already suffered brutal massacres.
The question that drove me was: What did this period in history say about the West, the audiences looking on?
The biggest challenge was how to tell the story respectfully as a non-Aboriginal person. I settled on telling it mainly through the character of Hilda, the fictional daughter of the German man who took the Badtjala group to Europe for show. I included all the historical facts I could find and, where there were gaps, I used my imagination. The project evolved into a PhD and gave me the opportunity to travel through Germany solo in 2017, following in the footsteps of the Badtjala group—from Hamburg, to Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin. I also went to Paris, a hotspot for such people shows or ‘human zoos’.
I pored over archives and was shown other casts of the group in Dresden. I was in touch with Badtjala representatives throughout, conscious that what I couldn’t do was tell the story of what it was actually like to be a member of that Aboriginal troupe. How could I possibly know?
But I don’t think fiction pretends to know. Fiction asks questions. It invites us to ask, ‘I wonder if this is what it would be like to be in this or that situation.’
All I could do was imagine, and to have Hilda, as the witness, imagine what it might have been like for the troupe to dance for audiences in Germany and France, to sing, to throw boomerangs and climb trees, and to be measured by scientists. Hilda cares deeply for her friends, indeed there is a love story, actually two, and there are moments in the novel of great strength and resilience, wonder and even humour.
Fiction asks us to try on another’s shoes and walk around in them, something the world is crying out for. Barrack Obama gave a speech in 2006, before he became president, in which he said:
‘If we hope to eradicate child poverty or AIDS or joblessness or homelessness … then I think that we are going to have to talk more about the empathy deficit, the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see the world through somebody else’s eyes.‘
Fiction is a pathway towards increased understanding and wondering.
But it’s scary stuff. We fear criticism, we criticise ourselves, we check our motivations and challenge our own prejudices, and sometimes it sucks us dry, but it also fills us up. Writing for me, I have to admit, is an addiction. I have literally turned blue at my writing desk. It feels urgent and important.
On the eve of Paris Savages’ UK release, my first overseas edition, I’m now looking down the barrel of starting my fifth novel in the knowledge that each is its own journey, and each makes its own demands. Interestingly though, I believe this COVID crisis is opening us all up to being even more honest in our writing. It’s about connection, authenticity and intimacy, about whispering into each other’s ears before we go to sleep, seeding images and ideas that will populate our dreams and accompany us through our days. For writers, it’s the connections with other writers and with readers that can help sustain us as we again step out into the unknown.
The fabulous book giveaway continues!
THREE BOOKS by Australian women authors
a TOTE to carry them in!
The three books are:
Fauna by Donna Mazza
Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson
The Spill by Imbi Neeme
And the tote has Katherine’s cover design on the front. (See pic below.)
To enter, just comment on the blog or social media posts. Your comment can be about anything—saying hello is enough! This post raises lots of themes—about human zoos and the treatment of indigenous people, about stepping into another’s shoes, about fiction helped you understand another point of view, or about a time you read a story and felt like someone had understood you.
The other authors participating in this giveaway have written or will write posts for the attic, too. (See Donna Mazza’s post here.) Each comment on a post by a different author will count as another entry in the draw. So, if you comment on one social media post per author, you’ll have three entries.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) on Thursday, 18th June, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but I can only post to an Australian address.