Kate is a key team player here at Journeys to Words Publishing; she's our structural editor. And her debut novel, The Golden Book, has just been published. Check out this great interview she did with North Melbourne Books.
The Golden Book tells the story of two childhood friends, Jessie and Ali, growing up in the regional town of Bega in the 1980s. Jessie is adventurous and a risk taker, getting the two girls into their fair share of scrapes. Then one day a terrible accident changes everything. Many years later, when Ali is a mother with a daughter of her own, she hears of Jessie’s death and must confront much that is uncomfortable from her past.
The novel has a very realistic feel. Did you rely much on your own experiences for the story?
Kate Ryan: I have always been fascinated – and remember – the intensity of childhood friendships, especially those between girls on the cusp of adolescence. This intensity can almost have the character of a love affair, though no physical attraction may be part of it. I think we can romanticise what it is to be a child, to simplify it too, to forget that the emotions which exist in adults are there in children too – love and hate and fear, for instance – and rivalry between children may run deep. Children are complex beings – and I wanted Jessie and Ali to reflect this. I am interested in the way our childhood best friends are often complementary selves, possessing traits that we would like to have. A best friend’s family, its strangeness and difference, may be part of their allure too.
This preoccupation was sparked again when, eight years ago, on holiday with my partner and three children, I visited Mumbulla Creek Falls near Bega on the south coast of NSW.
I arrived after a meandering drive through the bush into the blue-green mountains. On the path leading to Mumbulla were signs from the Biamanga Aboriginal Board of Management explaining that it was a significant spiritual site. The Board encouraged people to reconsider swimming there. As soon as I saw it, I was struck by the beauty of Mumbulla, and an air of timelessness that seemed palpable. As I sat under a tree watching people swim and slide and jump into the pool, for some reason I felt great anxiety that someone might be injured. As a white person, I also felt considerable responsibility and guilt about the disregard for the wishes of the area’s custodians.
This interplay of emotion eventually led me to imagine two very different 12-year-old girls, Ali and Jessie, swimming at Mumbulla in the 1980s.
Both Jessie and Ali reflect something of me as a child. I was shy and quite anxious, but also an obsessive reader and physically confident and adventurous. I spent most of my spare time with my best friend Michael, usually barefoot, exploring the neighbourhood. We played elaborate games in and around the grounds of a school we lived next door to, climbing trees and onto roofs. Our friendship was competitive (at least from my perspective). I always wanted to prove, as a girl, that I could do things as well or better than Michael, was tougher and braver.
As an adult I have become cautious and I sometimes wonder, as with Ali, what happened to my brave child self. In my own life I was 12 when we moved houses and then my father died when I was 13. Both events signalled the end of my friendship with Michael and that particular feeling of childhood freedom and also brought amorphous fear. I have brought many of these emotions to The Golden Book, both directly and indirectly.
NMB: The story is beautifully constructed, slipping back and forth between the 1980s and the present. It’s a finely crafted book, one that is also a pleasure to read. What was the writing process like?
KR: The writing process has been many layered like the book, years of writing and re-writing! Although the initial idea and first draft came quite quickly, it took a long time to work out how to structure the book and the best order in which to tell it. Each time I went back to a new draft however, I felt I got deeper into my characters and understood them better and was able to deepen particular themes.
NMB: Key events in the book take place around a forbidden watering hole, a sacred Aboriginal site that has signage requesting people not to swim. Was there any comment you wanted to make about non-Indigenous attitudes, or lack thereof, to sacred places?
KR: I wanted Ali and Jessie’s obliviousness to the fact that Mumbulla is a significant site for the Yuin nation to make people think about how often Aboriginal people’s wishes have been overlooked at best, at worst trampled on. I also wanted to show how easy it is for non-Indigenous people to ignore large complex questions of colonisation. In a sense, in a different lesser way, in the battle of their friendship, Jessie and Ali seek to have, and hold onto individual power and this is a microcosm of the larger power structure. I also think that in everyday ways, non-Indigenous people choose not to take in the particular significance of ancient sacred places. Attitudes to climbing Uluru are a clear example of this. Eventually not climbing had to be mandated because people actively ignored the wishes of Uluru’s custodians.
It is not forbidden to swim at Mumbulla but the board of management gently suggests people reconsider doing so. I would understand though if, in the future, much stronger directives were given. I spoke to Glenn Willcox the CEO of Bega Land Council and he said that it is really a matter of respect. Some local Yuin people themselves choose to swim at Mumbulla, but they would like people to have respect for its great significance to their nation and act accordingly.
NMB: The Golden Book has several themes about writing. Ali is participating in writing classes, testing the waters to see if she would like to write. As a child she also keeps a journal of her and Jessie’s daring exploits. Writing is almost presented as a form of therapy, or a way to explore the past and present. What is the importance of writing for you?
KR: Writing is vital to me. It is my way of working out what I think about things and processing my life, my relationships and the world. Most mornings I write three or four pages of stream of consciousness writing in my journal as soon as I wake up, drinking coffee and looking out over our inner-city street and at the sky. Quite often preoccupations and connections will emerge in these jottings that grow into larger pieces of writing, fiction and nonfiction. When I am really immersed in a piece of writing it is a completely intoxicating feeling.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KR: Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ series: The Cost of Living, Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill and Albert and the Whale by Phillip Hoare, an incredible discursive nonfiction book about the artist Albert Durer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place was intriguing and strange and left me puzzling over the complex intersection of gender and art. I have also just finished the first book of Jimmy Barnes’s autobiography, Working Class Boy, which I picked up in an opshop. I have never been a fan of his music but he is a very good writer and I am amazed at how he emerged as an artist (and survived) the incredible disadvantage he experienced as a child.
The Golden Book, by Kate Ryan. Published by Scribe. $29.99