Marlene S Lewis discusses her new novel ‘Ruth’

28th February 2012

 

She describes 'the setting as a little unusual, not a lot of people are familiar with Papua New Guinea, or the fact that it used to be under an Australian administration right up until the mid 1970s. Ruth’s story begins in the late 1950s and covers about 20 years. It was a time when men had a lot of control over women’s lives and these dynamics are played out in the story. It is also a story about colonialism and the consequences of a power imbalance between the Australian administrators and local indigenous people. Having said that though, the story isn’t a vehicle for political commentary, the socio-political milieu is used more as a back drop (and hence throws some light on Ruth’s motivations) for a ‘coming of age’ story about a young woman.'

When did your interest in the history of the 1950s begin?

I suppose, to many people these days, the 1950s are considered to be history, but I was born during that time and can remember it very well. As I become older, I find myself increasingly longing for the simpler aspects of life that prevailed during those times. It is difficult to deny the positive changes that have occurred over the last half century, particularly for women, but I wonder sometimes whether we might have gone a little too far. The whole point of the women’s movement was to increase our options, but these days those options (full-time work, a fulfilling career, a great relationship, high performing offspring, a mortgage-free house with all the mod cons, holidays abroad and so on) have become the expected norm. The question I find myself trying to answer is, have we created just another set of chains?

How much research did you put into the novel?

I’ve always been proud of my good memory, but when it comes to writing, I find I forget a lot of detail—like the brand names of biscuits, airlines that operated at a particular time and the latest must-have perfume. The scenes that take place in Papua involved a great deal of research, as I have never actually been there. Apart from hours upon hours of Internet and library research, I tapped into the memory of a close friend who shared some of his experience of life in pre-independence Papua New Guinea. The small excerpts of local dialogue came about from asking native speakers of Tok Pisin to translate my character’s phrases, and then writing down what was said – which I then checked against old phrase books and dictionaries to ensure 1950s usage and style. An example of this was the word masta, which has increasingly been replaced with the term boss, especially when referring to one’s employer. I have been to the cotton growing area of New South Wales, so I could describe that from my own experience, but the actual history of cotton growing and the science behind its cultivation I had to learn.

As a writer, what is an ordinary day like?

Oh, my goodness! I was hoping not to be asked that question. I’ve been caring for my divorced son (who has just remarried—hooray!) and grandson as well as holding down a job in the community sector. My writing habits must seem chaotic in comparison to many others. Until recently my writing was done between loads of washing, while waiting for chicken nuggets to brown or on the train going to work. More recently though I have been able to set aside time in the evenings and at weekends. One thing I have trained myself to do is to use those in-between opportunities for mulling over about a story—the plot, characters, and so on. I find this helps me use my precious writing time for actual writing rather than just sitting at the keyboard staring into space. I think the trick to writing is that no matter what gets in the way—and life always will get in the way—you just need to keep going back to it; and of course, not beat yourself up for having taken some time out. After all, writing is a work of love not just another chore that one must do.

What is your favourite thing about doing what you do?

What I enjoy most about writing is that each story becomes like a little world into which I can escape. And being the architect of that little world, I can fill it with all the things that I find truly amazing about life—beautiful scenery, intriguing mysteries, fascinating people—and then throw them all together to bring about amazing life journeys and satisfying endings. In a way, it’s like watching a film that you help design as it unfolds.

What is your least favourite?

That’s easy; the thing I struggle with most is when the characters go mute on me and we’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen next. It’s breaking through that silence that I find such a challenge. For me, this is the most maddening yet, in the end, rewarding aspect of writing.

What is your writing background?

Until about six or seven years ago, my main focus was writing poetry. This is an interest I shared with my mother that started when I was about six. I remember having to write a poem about the weather and really had no idea how to go about it. I can recall so vividly the time we spent together working on poetic ways to express the wind and its effect on people’s daily lives. I’m not sure whether it was the final product of that joint effort or just the fun of creating something together that instilled in me such delight for poetic expression.

What advice would you give to would-be writers?

Two things. If you want to write, write. Don’t worry about punctuation, flow, word choice, accuracy of facts and so on—that can be done later during the editing phase. The other advice I would give is don’t give up. If life gets in the way, give yourself a break, but never think that just because you haven’t written anything for a month or two, it’s the end of your writing career. It’s a little like giving up smoking—you keep trying.

What is your writing process?

I tend to be a bit of a dreamer, so I spend a great deal of time thinking about my characters and their various situations. What would I do in this situation? What would so and so do? What will my character choose to do? It’s an analytical process, in a way, that culminates in a ‘yes!’ moment when it all falls into place and can then be written down.

How did it feel to be published?

I think, because it took me so long to complete Ruth, I saw publication more as a relief than anything else. It was a way to draw a line under that long process and start on my next story. But how wrong was I? I had absolutely no idea that the editing process would take another twelve month’s work, often agonising over minute details such as whether to change a particular word because I’d used it twice before on the same page. Then I discovered I had to become involved in the marketing process. I used to hear other writers say that writing was the easy part, and they were right! Having now gotten over the shock of all that additional work, I see writing more as an ongoing process, one that continues even after publication. Also, I find that I am actually enjoying the marketing process. It gives me an opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned while writing and researching a story.

What have you got lined up for the future?

I am a quarter of the way through my next novel, “Four Ladies of Gilalong”. It’s set just after the Second World War in a fictitious mountain village in the New South Wales tablelands. It’s a story about four women who, for one reason or another, find themselves with no men in their lives. In those days if your children were grown and you had no man to look after, what did you do with the rest of your life? These four fabulous women discover that their lives don’t have to end, that there is life after marriage and family. The story also looks at the lives of Aboriginal people at that time, particularly the lives of Aboriginal women. In fact, it is a little Aboriginal girl who provides the catalyst for the journey of self-exploration upon which these four women embark.

Lucy Walton