The Writing Life

Information, inspiration and insights into the writing life

Mary Hoban smiling

Writers Victoria and the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship are delighted to announce that Mary Hoban's biography 'An Unconventional Wife: The Life of Julia Sorell Arnold' has just been published by Scribe. The book was launched by Ellen Koshland on 3 April at Avenue Bookstore, Melbourne, and is now available in bookshops.

On writing place so your reader will go anywhere with you.

Let us sing our praise of the bitter lie,
Dismiss the stolen children’s cry.
Favour fallacies and fairy tales, 
Worship thieves blown in by hearty gales. 

Let us sing our praise of the bitter lie, 
Deny bloodshed under deathly skies. 
Reject sovereign clans of noble grace, 
Elect foolish pawns of a ‘higher race’. 

Let us sing our praise of the bitter lie, 
Watch glibly as democracy dies. 
The traumatic scars of colonial lore, 
Weep on now and forevermore.

I have been told on more than one occasion that I write about place and landscape beautifully, that my visceral writing about Australia helps my readers feel like they are travelling in those places. It’s challenging to unpack how I do it, though, as I am not aware of learning or consciously studying how to write places. You can imagine, I am sure, how hard it is to explain something I was not aware of ever knowing.

I recently wrote a book called ‘Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp’. The book centres on telling the fragmentary history of a large blind spot in the west of Melbourne. The site, which takes in the entire area between the city’s CBD and Footscray, was once a lush wetland but has since become a labyrinth of industrialised discontinuity that has no particular name. European settlement reduced it to a muddy swamp, dredged it to make the city’s docks and ports, and infilled it with refuse.

1. Something familiar: convincing ourselves we are not ‘something’ enough. As writers, before or after we put something to a page we are likely to question whether or not we’re close enough to the subject in order to fully capture it. In writing class, the most common question the class asks our lecturer is: can we write a place we’ve never been to, but know about, or a place we’ve spent minimal time in? Or, can we write a person we don’t fully live inside the shoes of but can empathise with?

I was driving through Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, alone and killing time. The main road was a stranger to me until it started whispering familiar thoughts, and I saw I was only blocks from my childhood home. One of them, at least. Dad worked in sales – we moved around. 

When my friend Catherine moved back to Norway from England, she missed the squirrels that would run along her back fence in Oxford: wary, trembling and unintentionally hilarious. Though she had grown up in ‘the Bible Belt of Norway’, she realised how much she had forgotten its ways. People tended to shiver, like squirrels, at her ideas and opinions. As she tried to both be her true self and behave like a local, she could feel the incomprehension and judgement directed towards her. It was that silent disapproval that finally led her to act out.

And they reached the back of the house, and the sun was getting a bit higher and the heat was coming up a bit and there was wind and some swirling around of the dust out in the paddocks and the galahs were taking a bit of a feed and he could see all this as they were walking along. The dust came up on to his boots and up on to her shoes too, and it kicked up as they walked, and the country looked dry all around, even up on the top of the hill where there were some sheep. And he saw all this as they walked.

She woke to find him turned away from her, breathing softly. His knees were pulled up tight to his chest, the sheet wrapped snug, up to his chin. The lines around his eyes had retreated, leaving the skin puffy and red. Spooning him, she nuzzled the back of his head and breathed in his soft closeness. Then slowly, so as not to wake him, she slid out of bed to make coffee.