Several times a year, when I was a child, my family drove the long inland route from Melbourne to Adelaide—the car stifling, the people somnolent, the dog panting. Each time we passed the inland margins of the Coorong, my mother would look out of the window and say, ‘That’s where your ancestor, John Barton Hack and his family lived’. We would look out at the landscape of rolling saltbush and shimmering sky. ‘Imagine’, and she would piece out the fragmentary stories about this six-year period that have remained in our family for 160 years. Together, they make up no more than a small paragraph. Had I come across the words in an archive, I doubt they would have given me pause. What the words cannot convey is the tone and manner of her delivery, which seemed wondering, appalled and somehow incantatory, filled with some inherited emotion, as if the family was still wondering where it all went wrong.
In the intergenerational community of my family, the Coorong still means something, though what I am not entirely sure. The truth of it lies somewhere in the raw feelings of our shared oral history. When I finally visited the Coorong and experienced its resonance and grand melancholy, I began to see why, and immediately started work on my historical fiction Salt Creek, building the novel around the things I had been told for so long and my wondering about the silences. Where were the Ngarrindjeri?
I was thinking also of the disjunction between the pride many South Australians, including my parents, feel in their free-settler heritage and the state’s founding ideals, and the complicity of South Australian governments through their administration in the frontier massacres, dispossession and clearances of the Gulf Country of the Northern Territory from 1881.
Historian Tony Roberts’ 2009 Monthly essay, ‘The Brutal Truth’, which revealed that senior colonial politicians and South Australian police condoned or ‘turned a blind eye’ to frontier massacres in the Gulf Country of the Northern Territory, was a shocking revelation to me. Part of me had believed in the dream of South Australia. And there were the earlier massacres in South Australia itself, and the deaths, disease, starvation and theft of country that went with European ‘settlement’: all that darkness beneath the light. I was interested in that darkness.
I knew at once I would have to make changes to what was known in my fiction. Hack—a man ever hopeful and apparently untormented by his terrible luck and questionable judgement—was no one to build a story around; more problematically, he was revered in the family as a founding father of South Australia. I had to loose the book from him so I could write about someone more compelling—I had a domestic Captain Ahab in mind—and explore themes that I had a personal interest in without offending family sensibilities. I took many of the circumstances of Hack’s life until his move to the Coorong and gave them to a man I named Stanton Finch, altering some events in his life for plausibility, to assist plot, and to create a character and a story that interested me and that I hoped would interest readers. To be clear, the changes were made in the service of a work of fiction, not of history, though the Ngarrindjeri, the history of the region (including notable figures such as the missionary George Taplin, and the murderer of Salt Creek, Malachi Martin), South Australia, and Hack’s background were crucial to the development of character and plot.
There are no absolutes in historical fiction about the boundaries between fact and fiction, or about process and approach to material. A recent informal survey I conducted among members of the Australian Historical Novelists’ Society revealed that for some writers too much research amounts to procrastination and can blur the writer’s vision; for others it suggests ways forward, sparks ideas and is done concurrently with the writing.
Writers as well as readers of historical fiction believe that too much historical detail bogs down action and distracts rather than informs the reader. As US novelist Anne Lamott says, this breaks the sense of the novel as ‘a vivid and continuous … dream’ that the writer of fiction is aiming for. Too little detail can have the same effect. It is as if the novel is a set on a low-budget TV show: slam the door too hard and the set begins to wobble, disturbing the illusion of reality. ‘You must be able to justify your decisions to the well-informed’, says English novelist Hilary Mantel. ‘But you will not satisfy everyone. The historian will always wonder why you left certain things out, while the literary critic will wonder why you put them in’.
Yet historical truths about dates, events, culture and actual people were important to me. They made the time and place I was writing about feel real, and existing within that ‘reality’ helped the writing. As closely as I could, I removed the Hack family from the Coorong and inserted the Finch family, who shared the same background, and allowed events to unfold.
The apparently relaxed attitude that historical novelists have towards the facts is troubling for historians. Tonally, discussions of Australian novelist Kate Grenville’s work by historians Inga Clendinnen, Mark McKenna and, later, Sarah Pinto have a quality of personal affront rather than criticism of the perceived encroachment of literature on the discipline of history that has been suggested by others. This is not so different from my response to Clendinnen’s 2006 Quarterly Essay, ‘Who Owns the Past’, in which she critiques Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, as part of a wide-ranging discussion about the role of history and the differences between history and fiction.
It had been somewhat amusing me until I came across a passage in which she depicted novel writing, and historical fiction in particular, as a frivolous and pointless enterprise. ‘Novelists’, she says, ‘enjoy their space for invention because their only binding contract is with their readers, and that ultimately is not to instruct or to reform, but to delight’. Respectfully, I disagree. Why not say their purpose was to rivet, challenge, distress, provoke, shatter, enlighten or transport? The disciplines and desired outcomes of a novelist are not those of a historian. The binding contract for writers of literary fiction (a world that crosses genres and can include historical fiction) is with their artistic vision, with the expression of the truth as they see it with relation to their subject and with the creation of a compelling narrative. Whether readers are ‘delighted’ by the results is up to them.
If historians have only a hazy conception of the fiction writing process, this may also be true of novelists. According to Clendinnen, ‘making coherent stories out of the fragments we find lying about is a natural human inclination, and socially a necessary one, but when doing history it must be resisted’. Fragments are of many kinds and come from many sources: oral tradition, histories, personal observation, interviews and so on. But a writer’s choice of fragments is not arbitrary. In fact, it more closely resembles recognition than selection. ‘I know it when I see it’, one writer told me. Here, I think of broken crockery, a runaway girl and a greyhound called Skipper—examples of the fragments that emerged from a vast mass of material and appeared in my book. Such fragments are the answer to a question or fill the place that the unconscious creative self recognises.
Clendinnen also notes that ‘in the novelist’s “past” everyone behaves delightfully “in character”, and everyone submits to the plot’. She concludes:
‘The novelist might surprise her readers. She will never surprise herself’.
If only this were so. Many writers are in fact confounded, surprised and distressed by their characters’ thoughts, actions and choices. While writers use a range of approaches when developing character and plot, the deeply rational and structured novelist of Clendinnen’s imagination is a rare being.
Characters drive plot as often as the reverse.
Some novelists believe the ability to imaginatively enter unknown worlds through research and to empathise can help give insights into characters and historical events. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River rose from a political setting that sought to recognise and apologise for the wrongs of the colonial past. Salt Creek was developed in a context that included a heightened awareness of cultural appropriation, the environmental effects of European farming practices on the Australian landscape, a growing awareness of climate degradation and climate change more generally, and new studies that explored the sensitive and sustainable agricultural techniques that Aboriginal people used to such effect. It is, then, partly informed by contemporary concerns.
Jane Rawson, a writer interested in climate change and dystopian fiction and prepared to blur genre boundaries, takes historical fiction in a radical direction in her 2017 novel From the Wreck, which combines literary, historical and speculative features. It begins with the story of her ancestor George Hills, one of only eight survivors of the wreck of the Admella off the South Australian coast in 1859, and then swoops into a speculative world. Rawson’s subject, using the medium of historical fiction, is existential loneliness and the beauty and fragility of our planet. From the Wreck shows the capacity of historical fiction to contain truths of the period being written from, the period being written, and even those of a projected future.
Historical fictions have a social effect, even if this is not a writer’s purpose. They illuminate the past and its connection to the present. Their success at achieving this is related to their mode of delivery: the fact that they are stories. But what does a story provide that traditional non-fiction does not? Writer and historian Cody Delistraty says stories are helpful to our rational selves, allowing us to feel that we ‘have control over the world’ or helping us to make sense of it. They ‘allow people to see patterns where there is chaos’, and help us to relate to each other as well as to the world. He cites a 2013 study in which psychology researcher Dan Johnson found that reading fiction also significantly increased empathy, including empathetic behaviour, towards others, particularly those with perceived ‘outsider’ status (‘foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion’). This does not mean that historical fiction is better at telling history than historical non-fiction, but it does suggest that it is better at engaging readers’ attention and feelings than non-fiction.
A novelist does not intend to lead readers astray, but their first loyalty will be to their creative work. It is what the discipline of fiction requires. Strict accuracy might be secondary, and the writer will feel free to make imaginative leaps in the absence of information. Readers understand this about fiction; it is part of the unwritten contract between writer and reader. Historians might have greater trust in readers; they are not fools waiting to be duped by historical novelists. The reader can and does tease out the threads connecting and separating fact and fiction in other contexts such as author interviews, writers’ festivals, via endnotes, and social media. They question writers and make judgements, sometimes uncomfortable ones for the writer.
Historical fiction writers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to historians. Their writing could not proceed without the vast body of historical research that precedes them. Historical fiction does not necessarily develop knowledge, though it certainly disseminates it, but it can, I think, be part of developing understanding and empathy. Fiction knows few boundaries. That is its strength.
Is Salt Creek history? Not exactly. As with other historical fictions, it is not intended to replace history, only perhaps to augment it, to make people think and wonder and feel. Author Ursula Le Guin once observed: ‘The distinction between fact and fiction is not always easy to make. But it exists. It exists the way red and blue exist’.
History is contested and doubtless always will be. It should be. It matters.
But writing, like history, is a big room; there is space inside for us all.
Lucy Treloar is a writer, editor, and creative writing teacher. Her debut novel, Salt Creek (Pan Macmillan 2015), won the ABIA Matt Richell Award, the Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and the Dobbie Award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the UK’s Walter Scott Prize, among others. Lucy’s writing has appeared in publications including Best Australian Short Stories, Sleepers, Overland, and The Age. In 2014, Lucy won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Pacific).
This is an edited extract from Lucy Treloar’s essay, ‘Walking the Line in Historical Fiction’, in Foundational Fictions in South Australian History (edited by Carolyn Collins & Paul Sendziuk), published by Wakefield Press.