If you were a youngster in Perth in the 60s, how was it for you?
Perth writer Marcella Polain was there, and she has bitter-sweet memories of the time.
In her new novel, Driving Into The Sun (Fremantle Press) Marcella re-visits that era.
The book, which she began writing 10 years ago, is about a child coping with the death of her beloved father. It’s a topic this talented writer knows only too well; having lost her own dad as a young girl.
Marcella, an award-winning poet who also lectures in writing at ECU, talks to The Starfish about the book.
When did you decide to write it?
Do you want the short or the long answer?
The long answer is fine!
I remember when I was about 15, I thought I’d like to write a story like this; it’s been with me for decades.
Then when I was writing my first novel, The Edge Of The World (published in 2007) two things happened quite close together.
Firstly, I was at a cafe and I overheard some women talking about how when they were children, in the 60s, “how much safer Perth was.” I was taken aback. It’s not my memory of Perth in the 1960s, when I was a child. They grew up in the western suburbs, unlike me, but that’s where Perth serial killer Eric Cooke was preying on people.
I decided, I really need to tell this other story about the past, and of nostalgia for the past. When people talk about the past being better, for whom was it better?
The other thing that happened for me, was that a writer friend lent me a book, re the effect on children when losing a parent at a young age. My father died when I was a child. This book was so interesting to me; it was the first I’d read about children having an ongoing relationship with their deceased parent, communicating with them as if they were still here. I learned this is really common among children.
So what did you want to convey in Driving Into The Sun?
I wanted to tell the story of a child’s inner life. And I also wanted to talk about how Perth was in the 60s.
How old were you when you lost your dad?
I was ten.
And losing him had a profound effect on your childhood?
I’d divide my life into two parts: my childhood before Dad, and my life after he died.
I consider my childhood ended when Dad died. Mum had to manage with three children and not a single relative in the country. I had to step up; I was the eldest; Mum had to work. I’m not saying it was all bad; it wasn’t ideal.
So there’s a bit of you in the book’s main character, Orla?
Yes there is. When we write fiction of any kind, of course it’s partly based on our own experiences and those of others around us. Orla is a bit like me in some ways; in others, she’s not at all. Her situation is one I found myself in.
Did losing your dad influence your decision to become a writer?
I don’t think so. I’ve always been mesmerised by language. I did write my first poem when I was 11, a year after he died. But that was a consequence of having a wonderful teacher. I had many wonderful teachers – I went to seven schools in 12 years because we moved around a lot – including one who got me interested in poetry at a young age. There were certainly moments where I think being at school was an escape for me, being able to immerse myself in something, but that wasn’t just with writing. I also liked maths. I loved school.
So you don’t think you turned to words to help process your pain at losing your dad?
Language certainly gave me a way of making sense of things and dealing with stuff, and saying things I found difficult to deal with. It did give me a capacity to express myself. It wasn’t ideal that we moved around so lot, of course, because we didn’t have a home of our own. But I managed; I was lucky. I was never bullied. I didn’t ever feel on the outer – but it was difficult.
So your tale of a girl living in Perth in the sixties is told in a light and dark way, would you say?
I wanted people to think about how things were then, and how they are now. In some ways they’ve changed for the better. Eg in the 60s, women couldn’t get a loan from the bank without a guarantee from a man!
Back in the 60s, there was much more space in Perth; there were a lot fewer people and a lot more bush. There was a space and freedom for children, which doesn’t exist now in Perth in the suburbs. It was a wonderful thing – but it also had its dangers; children were vulnerable. I guess they weren’t listened to.
You think children should be heeded more?
Children know a lot about what’s going on. They read adults really well. Too many adults tend to disregard that children have knowledge and insight and a sense of fairness, a developing sense of justice. They have an immense inner world; just because they don’t say much doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on within.
I’m tired of hearing about children’s resilience – as if children will bounce back! It’s baffling to me that there’s still this perception that children are resilient; they’ll just get over stuff. I don’t that that’s the case. We need to take a long hard look at that.
They don’t have the same rights to be heard as adults think they do. That’s one of the things I was writing about. Children are not a separate species! We’ve all been children.
How long did this book take to write?
About 10 years. I do work quite slowly. Some writers write an awful lot and have to cut it back. Whereas if I get 300 words done, I’m happy with that, that’s a good day. I work quite slowly, and hone it as I go. There’s not much re-writing. I’ve also got chronic health issues I’ve managed for the last 20 years. The surprise for me is it didn’t take longer!
Of course you work full time don’t you?
Yes, I’m at ECU in the writing programme.
So I guess after marking essays and talking about words all day you may not necessarily want to go home and write your fiction?
That’s so, but t’s not all a drain for me. Working around emerging writers is very engaging as well.
As you’re also a poet, was it hard to keep your novel concise?
Being a poet teaches you compression and distillation in language. The difficult thing for me in writing a novel, is not the tightness, it’s the momentum. I don’t write a linear narrative; I write scenes. I think of them; and write them. And if I keep writing the scenes, eventually I start to get a sense of the structure.
Are you happy with the end result?
Yes. I gave it my absolute best, The pleasure for me is doing the writing. I’m really grateful it’s out there. I had a very odd relationship with it, it was with me for a long time. It was quite difficult to write. I can’t say I’m delighted. I know that I did my best with it, and I hope that it speaks to people!
Driving Into The Sun (Fremantle Press) is out now. For more details visit fremantlepress.com.au
Marcella will appear in conversation at this year’s Perth Festival Writer’s Week (18 – 24 February) and will appear at the Centre For Stories in Northbridge on February 26. For details visit www.centreforstories.com
Well we’re looking forward to reading it.