Lucy Treloar was born in Malaysia and educated in Melbourne, England and Sweden. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT, Lucy is a writer and editor who has plied her trades in both Australia and Cambodia, where she lived for several years. Her abiding love for Southeast Asia is evident in her editing work, which focuses on English language translations of the region’s folk tales and modern narrative forms. In 2012 she won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for her first novel, The Things We Tell Ourselves, and went on to be awarded a Varuna Publisher Fellowship for the same work in 2013. Her second novel, Salt Creek, was published to critical acclaim. It won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction, the Dobbie Literary Award, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. The ample success of Treloar’s writing originates from her fascination with the world; this interview attempts to explore that fascination.
Interviewer: Stephen Samuel
I’d like to start off by discussing the title of your recently published novel. What importance does the physical landscape of Salt Creek have on you as a writer, on the story and on the characters?
I often fret over titles, but it was different with Salt Creek. I came across the name while travelling the backblocks of the Coorong, a wild and still fairly remote wetland region on the coast of South Australia – a few years ago now. Again and again I came across road signs to the small town of Salt Creek, and much like the grand melancholy of the landscape that I was exploring, those words hit with a sort of psychological blow. It sounded like some place on the edge of the world, like hope gone bad, and for some reason I found that very compelling.
I’d always known of the Coorong through fragmentary family tales (an ancestor was the first European to colonise the area) and in a distant sort of way had seen its possibilities for a fiction. But it was being there, experiencing it as a place rather than as an idea, that jumpstarted everything. It was something like an electric shock.
We kayaked up the thin ribbon of water known as the lagoon that separates the mainland from the windswept peninsula and roamed the peninsula’s vast dunes to the site of the old family homestead, finally emerging onto the roar of the Southern Ocean. Immediately, I began making notes of my observations, desperate to explore more of that desolate world, to put my quickly developing ideas into words, and terrified that someone else would have had the idea first. I know now that place and my feelings about place are more important to me than any idea or plot and close to being as important as character; then, I only knew wild elation and a drive to get started.
Every part of Salt Creek is saturated with landscape. It creates the social and geographic isolation that leads to all the events that unfold in the book. It is key to plot in terms of travel, farming practices and their effects on Indigenous lands and people, as well as in terms of social constraints and possibilities. And beyond this literal level, the ruination of landscape is a metaphor for the loss of family fortunes, the fragmenting of family, and the erosion or mutation of personal principle in various characters. I wanted the grand melancholy of the Coorong to permeate everything. It changes characters as much as it does events, tempering some, while destroying or even killing others. Through the pressures it applies, I aimed for characters to reveal their truest selves, both weaknesses and strengths.
I can see these things now, the layered significance of landscape, but while writing each day it was my feelings about that world – a strange combination of sadness, wonderment, shame – and the memory of my first visit that helped to sustain the book’s tone. The metaphorical resonances only became fully apparent to me after the book came out. I am always fascinated by the work that the unconscious self does.
Can you describe the process of creating the characters that would inhabit this literal and metaphorical landscape? Was there an ‘electric shock’ moment as there was with the landscape?
Characters and how they come into being on the page are an ongoing mystery to me, each derived from strange combinations of ideas, niggling doubts, observation, research, brainwaves, serendipitous events, and idle wondering. There’s no pattern to it. In some ways it’s more like discovering than creating them. But there is very often a moment – something like the ‘shock’ I feel when connecting with landscape – when the character leaps to life in my mind. Instantly, their way forward in the narrative feels more certain, and the material coheres around them.
At first there are the bare bones of characters, the place that I start with them. For instance, with Tully, the Ngarrindjeri youth who eventually comes to live with the Finch family, I had in mind fragmentary family stories: of the ‘mixed race’ son of an Indigenous stockman who lived with my forebears, and of my great-great grandmother, Annie (the model for Addie Finch), who it was said ‘ran wild with the blacks’. There was also an historical Indigenous figure who interested me: Dick Cubadji, a charismatic Waramungal man and ‘cultural broker’ who took Adelaide by storm in the 1880s. In my mind, Tully was a little like him – a bridge between Indigenous and European cultures. But it was writing a scene in which Tully was walking a track of the Coorong observed by Addie, and understanding what Addie was noticing, and imagining the two parallel and contradictory worlds that they occupied, that made me see them both suddenly, and their trajectory in the world of Salt Creek.
The narrator of Salt Creek, Hester Finch, was a little different. She evolved slowly for quite a while. The letter of a distant forebear of the 1850s was a huge help with her voice, but Hester became more angry, determined, and intelligent, pulled between independence and duty, loving people and resenting them. Strangely, the moment that really unlocked her was finding her true name (she had been Emily Back). She leapt to life for me in that moment. In fact, finding her name was a turning point for the book as a whole. It clarified everything, and was incredibly exciting.
Of course, sometimes characters seem to have their own ideas about who they are. I had no idea that Fred, Hester’s younger brother, would turn out to be gay – quite a surprise when I connected the dots! And I wanted Papa (Hester’s father) to be a Captain Ahab-type figure in a domestic setting. But again and again he resisted my attempts to amp him up into some more dramatic person – someone who shouted and rampaged. It just wasn’t him. His menace is of a quiet sort: pleasantness and reason contrasted with hypocrisy, self-righteousness and implacable will. No shocking moment of recognition with him, just him having his way, as he does throughout the book.
Can you describe the writing process of Salt Creek? It seems like there is a lot going on, steps forward and then back again as the characters developed into their roles.
Now that I’m working on my second book I find myself wondering – often – how I ever finished Salt Creek. The pain’s receded a little, but it was something like this: I start with handwriting – first thing in the morning or last thing at night – in a dimly lit and very quiet place. This material is the jumping off point for working on the computer in my office (blinds pulled down to minimise distraction), where I stay until I have written at least one thousand words. More is good, but no less. With Salt Creek I was trialing something different, writing wherever I felt energy and connection with the world of the book. I didn’t care about plot or sequence of events, though I had some major plot points that I always knew would be part of the story. Most of the book was written out of sequence.
The first two chapters of the book are the origins of the structure. What is now the second chapter was initially the first, but the book just seemed to whimper its way into existence, so I thought of Hester recalling her time on the Coorong from some way into an opaque future in England. It made her adult perspective and nostalgic tone come from somewhere real, and that set a number of other structural elements, such as the dual time frame, in motion. I wrote a few more chapters set in England without any clear idea of how they’d fit. The second draft was made from all the components of the first draft – building blocks, quilting squares: choose your metaphor – which I shifted around to create something pleasing, that had narrative traction. I did it by feel more than anything, though I used a couple of different tables to keep events, dates and character development working together at this stage.
It occurred to me later that I structured the book to read in the way that I read. I pick up a book, read from the beginning, then the last page and a little before, a bit from the middle, then back to the beginning. I’m not much interested in plot, resent intrusive authorial manipulations (books like Gone Girl really annoy me) and approach everything by following character and thinking about how they’re growing and changing over time, and how they respond to and act on events. The major structural change during editing was the removal of Fred as occasional first person narrator, which meant I had to rewrite some action from Hester’s point of view. The third and final draft related to strengthening motivation and tension in a scene near the end. (I don’t like being upset, and I had tried to spare my characters to the book’s detriment.) The first draft was fairly gruelling to write, but I really enjoyed the engagement with the editing phase – such a pleasure working with the publishers on this.
Were you nervous about writing an Indigenous character into a colonising story?
Nervous is a massive understatement. I existed in a state of acute anxiety over the issue throughout writing, editing and well into the post-publication phase. I was desperately aware of the pitfalls, and the more research I did, the more the problems seemed to expand. Very early, I pulled back from my original conception of having a fictional non-fiction strand running through the book, intended to document a little of the richness of Ngarrindjeri culture (though its ghostly remains appear here and there, such as in a description of how to cook duck) and proceeded with the Ngarrindjeri at a greater distance. Having a first person narrator helped with this, creating a blinker that limited what could be observed.
It’s incredibly problematic working in this area. I had no confidence that I could get an authentic understanding of the Indigenous perspective, and was very uneasy about trying to portray it. Tully’s thinking and motivations are fairly concealed from the reader – a deliberate decision. Research threw up so many things I would love to have explored further, but in the end I left it at hinting at a few of them, and leaving the rest. I would love to read a book about that time and that world from an Indigenous perspective, but really felt, and still feel, that the story was not mine to tell. I’ve had only positive feedback about Indigenous representation in the book from Indigenous readers, which has reduced my worries a little.
I think you have received only positive feedback for Salt Creek, including being shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Does this affirmation of your writing propel you easily into your current project?
It’s a funny thing being published. None of it was what I’d expected. I think I was anticipating a sense of having ‘arrived’ in some way. But almost the moment the book came out, the goal posts began to shift. There’s always another thing to hope for, or to feel a sense of failure at not having achieved. I began to see that the positive critical response only matters up to a point. It’s lovely when a critic understands what I was trying to do and say (as well as noting things that were not part of my thinking at all), and I’m really happy for my publisher, but I can’t help being aware of shortcomings in the book and thinking of Samuel Beckett’s advice: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.
On a practical level, the reception of Salt Creek has made signing a contract for a new book easier, and it’s led to me getting an Arts Council grant that will cover a few of next year’s expenses: not insignificant factors in smoothing the path to writing. Now I’m facing the slight panic of early work on the next book: uneven quality, uncertain direction, vaporous characters, wooden voices. (I came across a really horrible early draft section from Salt Creek a few days ago and found it reassuring. Turns out comparing first draft material with a published book isn’t a good idea.) In the end though, like any writer, I’m sitting in my quiet room, calming my fear of failure and my busy mind for long enough to create something that feels true.
In a way it’s harder now, because I have some idea of the sustained commitment that’s needed. But it’s exhilarating too. The big thing I learned while writing Salt Creek, which I couldn’t know at the time, is that true engagement in the work of creation is the best part of the whole process (at least, for me), as hard as it sometimes seems. All of my thinking seems to circle back to the book, and my reading shapes around it. I start leaving little notes around the house from when I’ve had an idea. It’s when I feel most at peace.
Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek is available from Pan Macmillan
Stephen Samuel’s first novel, Strange Eventful History, won the Varuna Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript. His short fiction has appeared in Tincture, SoftCopy and Dark Edifice.