Australian writer captures the birth of her nation
Web exclusive interview
After years of looking for a place to belong, Daniel Rooke’s keen intellect and interest in astronomy won him a place on the 1788 First Fleet voyage to the British colony of New South Wales, now known as Australia. While his fellow seamen struggled to control their cargo of convicts and seek out the natives, Rooke was permitted to build an observatory that he hoped would lead to fame and fortune back in England. Kate Grenville’s stunning new novel The Lieutenant follows Rooke to his isolated post on a distant shore where his careful notations of the stars and changing weather are overshadowed by a burgeoning interest in Aboriginal languages. After Rooke meets a young woman whose linguistic gifts parallel his own, their singular friendship inspires him intellectually and empowers him emotionally.
Grenville is one of Australia’s most respected authors and her last novel, The SecretRiver, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book. She recently answered some questions from BookPage about the true stories behind The Lieutenant and how film, nature and Australian history inspire her.
The Lieutenant is based on real events when the First Fleet landed in what was then New South Wales in 1788. A young Lieutenant named William Dawes, who was also a gifted astronomer, left behind written records of his contact with the indigenous people, one young woman in particular. How did you come across his story and what made you decide to transform it into fiction?
While I was researching The Secret River I came across Dawes’ story in a book called The Birth of Sydney. The editor quoted some of Dawes’ language notebooks, particularly a few conversations between Dawes and a young Aboriginal girl called Patyegarang. The intimacy, trust and playfulness of these conversations leapt off the page at me—they were a side of early black/white relations I’d never imagined was possible.
Rooke has some social characteristics that in the 21st century might be labeled as autistic. Was there something about his real-life counterpart that made those attributes part of his character? If not, what do you think that adds to his character?
Some of the other early settlers were interested in Aboriginal people, in what we’d think of today as an anthropological way. Dawes’ relationship with them—as recorded in the notebooks he left—has quite a different flavour. There’s a kind of artlessness or innocence about the conversations he records, a respect for the people he’s talking with, and a sense of fun, that made me think he must have been an unusual fellow. There was no sense of him patronising the Aboriginal people or thinking of them as lesser—these were just people whose company he really enjoyed.
I saw Rooke, and perhaps Dawes too, as having the kind of cleverness that often makes kids outsiders among their peers, and imagined that his relationship with the Aboriginal girl was a kind of emotional awakening for him—here was a world in which he could enjoy simply being himself. This isn’t a sexual relationship—Rooke and Tagaran are companions, friends, and equals, as I think Dawes and Patyegarang probably were. He’s free of the social straitjacket of his society, in which he’s so uncomfortable, and can discover aspects of his being that he never dreamt were there.
I understood Rooke’s journey, in part, to be about the growth of empathy, but I know that’s not the only one. How would you compare Rooke’s emotional journey to his physical one?
What those 18th-century travellers did is almost beyond imagining for us, for whom the world is so known, so small. Rooke (like Dawes) plunged off from his narrow world in Portsmouth into a hemisphere where very few Europeans had travelled. In many ways we know more about Mars than they knew about the place they were going. Rooke, with his scientific interest, was more open than most to the wonders of the new place—he set up an observatory to look at the relatively unknown southern stars, kept meticulous records of rainfall and temperature . . . this was a journey of eager adventure for him.
The emotional journey was also one of opening up to the new, and recording an inner climate. But as well, it drew him into a conflict in which his new emotional awareness came head-to-head with his duties as a soldier. In that terrible moment, when he has to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life, he discovers the universe of morality. It’s not enough to be clever; it’s not even enough to discover an emotional life. Somehow, he has to feel his way through an impossible moral and human dilemma and come out the other side.
Years ago when we were looking for a nanny for our son, we hired a Polish woman whose English was still rudimentary but she was able to make a joke (in a mixture of Polish, English, and hand gestures) that both my husband and I understood. We thought this made her a good communicator. I thought of this a lot as I was reading your book, especially as Rooke comes to understand the difference between the precision of grammatical translations and true communication. Is that one of the things you were trying to capture?
Where there’s goodwill, intelligence and mutual respect, truthful communication is possible even without many words. In fact, the more words you have, the better you can lie. Rooke is struck by his friend Silk (based on the real writer about early Sydney, Watkin Tench), writing an account of his time in the colony in a style of great wit, charm and charisma. Silk comes across in his own work as irresistibly attractive (to the point that modern historians are inclined to take everything he says at face value). What Rooke comes to see is that Silk’s version is appealing, but not always quite true.
One of the things I was interested in with this book was the question “how do we know what we know?” The conversations in Dawes’ notebooks are truthful, in the sense that they seem to have been recorded verbatim, as if by a tape-recorder. But their deeper truth—what was going on between the lines, in the silences before and after the verbatim record—is open to interpretation. My version of the context of their conversations is only one of infinite possibilities. Silk’s urbane text is a different kind of challenge to simple ideas of truth and fiction. At what point does a storyteller’s urge to shape his material turn it into invention?
This, of course, is a big issue for writers of historical fiction, so the novel can also be read in terms of the current debates about fiction, history and all the kinds of writing that occupy ground between those positions.
Rooke notices that he and Silke are different in that Silke’s impulse is to transform the strange into the familiar and his is to wallow in that strangeness. As a writer, what do you think your impulses are?
I’m definitely a wallower in strangeness. It’s what I love so much about being a writer of fiction—to explore utterly strange worlds like the one that occurred in 1788 on the shores of Sydney Cove. But I also love to find the strange in what seems to be familiar. In many ways I know Sydney Cove and Dawes Point (where the story takes place) so well that they’re invisible—they were virtually my backyard when I was growing up in Sydney. But by going back two hundred years, looking at the place through the eyes of my characters, I could feel the unknown place beneath the one that was so familiar. Just by standing still, in a place known to me in every cell, I could take a journey into the utterly unknown.
The descriptions of the land and seascapes are so intense in this book—almost like separate characters. Can you talk about the influence of the natural world on your writing?
I seem only to be able to write if I can set it in a specific, concrete place. The reality of a place—of landforms, plants, rocks, even the weather—seems to be necessary, even though I’m writing fiction. It’s as if I need to acknowledge the real before I start to build a superstructure of invention.
I spent the first 12 or so years of my life in a fog in which I only saw the natural world if it was within arm’s length—I was short sighted, but nobody picked that up until I was in high school. When I saw the world for the first time, courtesy of glasses, it was a revelation—everything was so beautiful! I think that sense of wonder has never left me. I can still be stopped in my tracks on the way to post a letter or buy milk by a sky full of clouds.
I read an interview with you that mentioned your background in film—one of the things that is so remarkable about your writing is the vividness of the imagery. Do you think your experience with a visual medium had an impact on your writing?
The film experience was fundamental to my writing, I believe. I worked mainly in editing, and mainly in documentaries. Working in documentary—without a script—is an exercise in finding the story in the material you’ve got, rather than starting with the story and then making the images fit it. Editing a documentary is an act of faith that a narrative can be found in disconnected bits and pieces. That’s always been the way I write. I start with fragments and live for a long time with uncertainty about how they’ll add up to a story. For me, it’s a way of keeping a sense of discovery in the writing process. Any time I’ve tried the “write-to-a-plan” technique, I’ve ended up with writing that’s cautious, bland and uninventive—low energy. For all the risks involved in writing out of a muddle of bits and pieces, it’s the only way that seems to work for me.
You really found a balance between what we experience as human beings and the way nature exists outside of subjective time. (I love the line "Time had no intention and no judgment.") How do you think Rooke came to understand that that balance, and what do you hope the readers take away from Rooke’s experience?
Dawes was an astronomer, so I looked at the stars a lot when I was writing this book. I was struck by the fact that I was looking at exactly what he’d looked at so long ago. The Southern Cross, with its faint fifth star, is just as he’d have seen it in 1788. So when I set out to invent a fiction from his story, that sense of the stars was a continuous background hum to the book—you could look up every night and there they were, the past and the future calmly crossing the sky in an eternal present. I came to see that I was trying to tell a story that reflected that. It was a story about two individuals in a particular time and place. Their lives were finite, their ends in some ways sad. But they’d made something that transcended their own lives. They were part of that enormous cosmic story, and nothing they created was wasted or lost. A spark of human understanding had leapt between the two of them, and would go on forever, like those stars.
The book has a huge appeal in Australia; after all, it’s about the very beginnings of your country as a colony. What might you say would be the novel’s appeal for a US audience?
It’s a story about how two people managed to make a bridge of understanding between their unimaginably different worlds. The human urge to see the world as “us” and “them” is very deeply rooted. Difference is so often a trigger for obstinate refusal to try to understand, and that leads so easily to a pointless cycle of conflict. The real story of Dawes and Patyegarang, and the fiction inspired by them, is a push in the opposite direction. Here’s one moment when difference didn’t disappear, but was respected and valued and turned into understanding—what people everywhere on the planet are hoping for.
What are your plans for your next novel? Are you going to continue to mine Australia’s history or are you going to focus on something contemporary—or neither one?
I’ve just started working on another work set in the past—so many of Australia’s astonishing stories haven’t been told. There are still a lot of silences in our past, things we’re not quite sure how to look at. For a novelist, those silences-waiting-to-speak are irresistible.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville, Tennessee.