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Pip Smith on writing ‘Half Wild’

Half Wild’ is based on the real life of Eugenia Falleni, a transgender person who captivated Sydney in 1920 when, living as Harry Crawford, he was arrested for the murder of Annie Birkett, his wife. How did you come across this fascinating tale?

I first came across Falleni’s story when I visited the City of Shadows exhibition at the Justice and Police museum. I went home with the book and pored over the mug shots, many of which had lost the records that might give the pictures context. The photos did not resemble the clinical, “scientific” mugshots we expect to see today. The subjects seemed to be performing their criminality – snarling, or scowling. But there was one photo of a very sad man that caught my attention, because he did not seem to be performing in the same way. If anything, he was doing the opposite: he seemed to be in a genuine state of distress; trying to hold himself together and look as “normal” as possible. The blurb at the back of the book said that this was a picture of Eugene [sic] Falleni, an Italian mother who passed as a man called Harry Crawford. When I flicked back to the picture, I was struck by how the portrait could be of two people in the same instant – both a man and a mother – and I was immediately interested in how someone might maintain two separate lives. I was more drawn to the issues of identity that Falleni would have had to grapple with throughout their lives, than I was to the murder case that is so often the point of focus in re-tellings of Falleni’s story. I think the murder and ensuing case were tragic side effects of the pressures Falleni was subject to as a trans person living under a variety of identities in a staunchly heteronormative world.

How much of the book was based on fact and how much was imagined?

I might answer a slightly different question here, if I may, and say that much of the book was based on source materials (which are, of course, different to facts). While I was researching Falleni’s story I was fascinated by the discrepancies in source materials – particularly in testimonies, and early re-tellings of Falleni’s story. I decided to draw attention to these discrepancies by underpinning each part of the book with a different, often contradictory, account of what happened.

The first part of the book is based on interviews Suzanne Falkiner conducted with extant relatives and decedents of Falleni’s friends in New Zealand for her 1988 biography’ Eugenia: a man’. I also used a few newspaper articles that appeared in New Zealand newspapers in the late 19th century, but Falleni’s childhood is the hardest to find source materials for, and so the first part of the book gives way to the most flights of fancy.

The second part of the novel is based on the statement Harry Crawford gave to the police immediately after his arrest. I was not interested in “fact-checking” this statement – I wanted to flesh the statement out, and give Harry Crawford the past he authored for himself.

The third part of the novel, “To All Outside Appearances, At Least” is the most closely confined to the truths and fabrications of source materials – in particular the court transcript, Falleni’s daughter’s statement to police, and the newspaper articles which covered Falleni’s trial. In this part, I wanted to give readers an experience of “discovering” these source materials, and so included snippets from the transcript and newspapers.

The final part of the novel is based on the only interview Falleni ever gave. It was conducted by a ‘Smith’s Weekly’ journalist in 1930 and was given by Falleni in a bid to build sympathy in the public and secure her [Falleni then identified as a woman] release. Old ground is remembered, but from Falleni’s perspective. No one part is meant to be more authoritative than any other, only true to the sources they were based upon.

What kind of research did you do to uncover the bones of the true tale? And at what point were you confident to take the plunge from fact into a purely fictive rendering?

I started by reading Falkiner’s biography, and then using the references in this biography to track down the relevant primary sources. I owe a lot to Falkiner’s thorough research! I then spent quite a while with original documents – the court transcript, for instance – which I photographed in full and transcribed into a Word doc so I could easily search and cross check different witness accounts. Trove.com.au is a remarkable research tool which I used to look up details about whichever characters I was writing about that day. If I ever got stuck, or felt I was making up “truth-seeming” details to beef up my characters, I would spend a little time on Trove to see if I could find any details pertaining to those people, documented by newspaper articles unrelated to Falleni’s case. It was through Trove that I found out Eduard Schieblich played violin for the Russian Tsar as a child! A detail I definitely couldn’t throw away once I knew it.

It took me quite a while – about two years – to have the confidence to take the leap into fiction. I found the courage after reading excellent writers – like Thomas Pynchon and Hilary Mantel – who use fiction to illuminate and animate the truth (and ask questions about what we think the truth is) in a way non-fiction writers simply can’t. Non-fiction writers have different goals, and do other things better. I realised authors of historical fiction aren’t “lying”, they are engaging with history differently. The writing of history – whether or not it is fiction or non-fiction – is never going to be a perfect science, and it wasn’t until I realised this, that I found the courage to imagine.

There are a variety of characters and shifts in POV throughout the novel. How did you decide on its structure? What element or elements, to your mind, does evoking various personae lend to the book’s overall impression of Eugenia’s life?

Very early on in the writing process, I was obsessed with emergence and collective consciousness. I was fascinated by the idea that humans are superorganisms – we would not be able to survive without the billions of bacteria in our guts, for instance. I liked the idea that the person the public decided was “Falleni”, was actually collectively constructed by the imaginations of people who surrounded Falleni. The “Falleni” who we read about in books and newspaper articles emerged between these various lines of sight, like a hologram. Who Falleni actually was is Falleni’s business, and will forever remain a mystery. I wanted Part Three (the part with all the crazy shifts in perspective) to feel like a kaleidoscope, or a mosaic of perspectives. Originally Falleni was never going to speak in this part, but the writing was too cold without Falleni’s voice, so I added it in here and there, under various aliases. These voices are just as constructed (by me, of course), and add to the kaleidoscope of impressions. The big challenge was trying to make sure the reader would not be too confused by all the shifts, but I always knew it would not be the sort of thing everyone would want to read. If Goodreads reviews are anything to go by – some people like the shifts, and others are confused by them. Ah well. I am glad I stuck to my guns and saw the idea through to completion, in any case!

Did being a poet help you write this book?

Yes, but only because, on a technical level, this book is about style and voice. I was interested in writing in multiple voices, and my training in poetry really helped me hone language to amplify or tweak certain qualities of voice.

I think my experience writing poetry also helped me to look at blocks of text as experiments in form, as opposed to writing and editing according to pre-conceived notions of what a narrative arc should be. In a way, my book is quite skeptical of pre-conceived notions of “narrative arc”, because in the past these “arcs” have wildly distorted the truth of Falleni’s story, in order to turn it into a “better” or “more dramatic” tale. I wanted to write a book that resisted those impulses, and thinking about prose as if it was poetry helped me achieve this – I had structuring principles other than ‘the narrative arc’ to work within and against.

What is your next project? What are you currently working on? Are you returning to poetry or sticking with fiction?

My next project is the gestation of a child! A 3D, walking, talking novel! No but seriously, I am not 100% sure what the next project will be. I have a few ideas that I have been stewing on, and doing piecemeal research for, and I am looking forward to getting my routine back so I can start to make them happen. First step: I need to start writing every day again – whether that writing turns into poetry or fiction will be another matter.

Being a debut author, what has helped you the most in finishing this manuscript and finding a publisher for it?

Without a doubt, the two courses I was enrolled in throughout the writing process. The first course – a doctorate in creative arts at Western Sydney University – gave me the freedom to write and fail, and also pushed me to think critically in ways I may not have done had I written this book outside an academic context. The second course, the Write a Novel course conducted at the Faber Academy, gave me the opposite experience. It helped me to contend with the commercial realities of publishing a book in 2017, and also put me in touch with my agent and publisher. This made the ‘business’ end of things run much more smoothly, thank God, as I don’t have the best business head on my shoulders.

Pip Smith

Pip is a writer of songs, poems and stories. Her first poetry collection, Too Close for Comfort (SUP), won the Helen Ann Bell Award in 2013. She ran the monthly writing event Penguin Plays Rough, for which she published and edited the multimedia anthology, The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. She was a Faber Academy Writing a Novel scholarship recipient, has been a co-director of the National Young Writers’ Festival, and holds a doctorate in creative arts from Western Sydney University. She is one quarter of garage-punk band Imperial Broads and works in a bookshop.

‘Half Wild’ is published by Allen & Unwin


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