Many of my friends are probably already sick of hearing that I will be releasing my self-published novel, ‘Estuary’, in 2013 but most don’t know what inspired this project. I’m feeling pretty relaxed about the process at the moment. The manuscript has been through a final edit. I’m already negotiating a cover with the designer and getting quotes from printers. I feel I’m on (or ahead of) schedule! It’s a comfortable space to occupy.
I’m a slow writer. I’ve been working on this novel since 2005, not always putting down words on the page but researching background and more often just ‘thinking’ about the story. At least sitting looking at the wall a lot is my excuse for not writing more quickly.
I was initially prompted to tell this story because of two relatives from both sides of my family. My working title for the novel was originally ‘The Waiting Girl’ and referred to my mother’s sister whom we called ‘Aunty Lalie’ or Eulalie Imelda Ahern to give her her full names. My aunt lived in Adelaide and was a talented woman who never married, possibly because she took on the role as designated family carer for my elderly grandmother. However, she was a fine musician and music teacher as well as an artist. I can still recall visiting her home in Glenelg in Adelaide and admiring the variety of paintings that adorned her walls. I also recall the tick-ticking of the metronome as her students banged out notes on the piano during their lessons.
My aunt’s life changed dramatically when she was admitted to what was then, in the 1960s, known as the ‘Parkside Mental Asylum.’ There she was drugged and given ECT or electroconvulsive therapy. Her creative life was destroyed and in her later years she seemed consumed with rage. She was for me ‘a waiting girl’, waiting for a time when her ‘differences’ might have been treated more sympathetically and her creative life enabled to continue.
An embryonic version of my novel, entitled ‘Great Expectations’ appeared in ‘Good Weekend’ on July 7th 2001 and as a result I was contacted by a former student of my aunt, herself now a music teacher and composer who confirmed that she would never have been a musician now, was it not for my aunt’s inspiration.
As part of my research into my aunt’s life I was able to obtain her medical records from the Parkside hospital and read in great detail the observations made by the medical authorities and even incorporate some of these into my novel. I also researched much detail about the conditions of the mental hospital system in those years, a time before we had a more sophisticated understanding of mental illness.
The second relative who influenced ‘Estuary’ was Thomas Bartlett, my great-grandfather, on my father’s side who settled in the Murray Bridge district of South Australia at the beginning of the 20th century. Something of an entrepreneur, he cut down and sold as much available timber as he could and established a stone quarry along the river. This quarry supplied stone to many of Adelaide’s prominent buildings during its early establishment and he became a wealthy man. The surviving railway station bears witness to the quality of the stone that came from his quarry.
Although I also grew up in Murray Bridge myself, it was only in later years that I was able to reflect on how my great-grandfather’s spirit of free enterprise would have displaced the Ngarrindjeri, the original owners of the land. As part of my research I have been able to visit the descendants of those people and been permitted to use some of their own stories as part of my own novel. A wonderful book by Diane Bell, ‘Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin’ was also a prolific source of information about the Ngarrindjeri culture.
However, to be perfectly frank, these two relatives were merely jumping-off points for my own story. The characters in ‘Estuary’ are totally my own creation and bear no resemblance to people living or deceased. Some strange creative process fortunately took over from these identifiable characters and recognisable facts and turned them into a collection of 60,000 plus words dreamt up by my imagination. I’m not really sure where some of the ideas originated and in October this year you can be the judge of whether I’ve succeeded or not.