Each month we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations. This month we spoke with Julie Janson, author of The Crocodile Hotel and The Light Horse Ghost.
Julie is an Indigenous woman of the Burruberongal clan of Darug nation. A teacher, artist, playwright and poet, Julie has won many awards and grants for her writing, and is celebrating the upcoming publication of her novel Benevolence, which will be published by Indigenous publishing house Magabala Books.
Julie spoke with our membership intern, Geordie Timmins, about the novel’s inspiration, the importance of representing Aboriginal histories, and the challenges and opportunities of writing the past.
First of all, congratulations on the upcoming publication of Benevolence, which will be published by the Indigenous publishing house Magabala Books. How did you celebrate the news?
I celebrated the news of the upcoming publication of my historical novel Benevolence, with a sigh of relief. The Aboriginal publisher Magabala is a wonderful twenty five year old press, who have published so many great books. It is an honour to be chosen.
Tell us a little about the story.
I wrote this novel as my Aboriginal answer to The Secret River. This superb novel allows the reader to believe that the Burruberongal people of Darug Nation were all killed in a massacre. It is not true. In my years of being a researcher on the University of Sydney website, History of Aboriginal Sydney, I interviewed dozens of Sydney region Aboriginal elders who had complex stories about their families’ survival. My family history was uncovered and I found out my great great great Aboriginal grandmother was an illiterate servant in estates along the Hawkesbury River. This hidden history showed these Aboriginal people were great survivors who often married English ex-convicts and travelled along the river in search of work and somewhere to camp. Their children died of typhoid, their land was stolen and destroyed and they received an annual government blanket in return. I created my protagonist Mary, from the family stories I collected and uncovered in places like the Mitchell Library and the NSW State Archive Office and by listening to oral family history.
What inspired you to write this novel?
Rage. I was tired of being told by people with no Aboriginal heritage that I wasn’t Aboriginal. The tiny drops of Darug blood that run in my veins are important. My connection to 70,000 years of Aboriginal heritage is my constant inspiration. Mary’s story was a young woman’s perspective on surviving the Killing Times and the dispossession, she shone for me in my imagination. She was brave and determined in an era when Aboriginal women were abused and despised.
Your novels tend to deal with moments from the past – The Light Horse Ghost is set in 1918 and Benevolence in the 1800s. What draws you to place your narratives in the past rather than in a contemporary setting?
I am fascinated by how history creates who we are today. By researching Aboriginal history and our Australian War returned soldier stories, I came to understand why we behave the way we do. I grew up in a Housing Commission home on the Lane Cove River, my Aboriginal dad was a returned soldier who fought in Borneo. He drank a lot of beer, but was a wonderful, kind man. He had a drawer full of bullets and gold human Japanese teeth, left over from the war. Our family of five survived his spending all the money by mum being a creative cook and great seamstress. Her English family were in theatre. She encouraged me to ‘get out of the working class’ as she put it, by going to the University of NSW, studying Drama, History, English and becoming a teacher. I started writing plays while a teacher in a remote Aboriginal school in Arnhem land. My first novel: The Crocodile Hotel was a fictionalised account of my years as a teacher in remote Aboriginal cattle stations in the late 1970s before Land Rights.
What challenges do you find in writing about the past?
I love writing historical fiction because I can imagine vivid scenes that are stimulated by true events. My experience as a playwright helps me to write dramatic scenes and celebrate human characters who make us cry and laugh and possibly change the way we think about social issues like racism and sexism. The Light Horse Ghost has just been published and I am being invited to give a series of author talks in Western Australia where it is set. This novel was inspired by researching my husband Michael’s family story about his grandfather, a Light Horseman who was on the Great Ride into Jerusalem in World War 1.
You have won many awards for your playwriting, including the highly commended Human Rights Award for Gunjies. Did your writing evolve from playwriting into the form of the novel, or was it the other way around?
I loved being a playwright, it seemed sexier somehow. Mixing with gorgeous actors and I enjoyed working with mostly female directors. You can’t beat the thrill of a major Belvoir Street Theatre production of my play Black Mary in 1997 for the Olympic Festival of the Dreaming. Then the seats fell down at the Carriage Works. People were injured, thousands of dollars of lighting equipment was destroyed. My actor friend, Lillian Crombie was sitting on the stage dressed in her possum skin cloak–then it’s all over. I was in shock. In the years that followed I had a number of plays shortlisted for the Patrick White Award but no productions. It was heart breaking. So I turned to novel writing. Of course that was even harder.
Being of Aboriginal descent, coming from the Burruberongal clan of the Darug Nation, how important is it for you to creating a story which reflects the histories of the Aboriginal people of Australia?
As a child I was called “a little white blackfella”. It was treated as a joke. My dad never acknowledged his Aboriginal heritage. He would have lost his job as a Fire Brigade Officer.
I was very curious about this heritage, so I went to live in Bourke in 1972 with my baby. I spent every day down at the Reserve with my Murri friend, Jenny Ebsworth. She showed me how to draw water from the Darling River to boil up in 44 gallon drums for washing clothes. We made damper on the fire in her tin house where two families lived. The house was made of corrugated iron scavenged from the tip. There was one tap for two hundred people. Something clicked inside me. People in the city had no idea how hard life was for Aboriginal people. I promised myself I would always work towards understanding and being an advocate for Black Rights.
You’re now working on an exciting new novel about the death of the Darling River called Wilga. What can you tell us about this story so far?
I thought it was time to write something contemporary about the disaster unfolding on the Murray Darling River system. My children Morgan, Zoey and Byron are all involved in either environmental mitigation or social change. For their future, and my grandchildren’s, I had to do something about the destruction of our earth. I have often visited Bourke and Wilcannia and it is heart breaking to see the dead fish and to witness people, black and white, in utter despair about the stealing of the water by greedy cotton consortiums with government complicity. Rage again – I felt so privileged and ineffectual with my internet activism. My only way to make a difference was to use my skills as a novelist. I also wanted to create a protagonist, June, who was closer to my age and maturity. I wanted to celebrate us older women who were feminists and political activists since the seventies. I also needed to show my admiration for the mature Aboriginal women I have worked alongside. I learnt everything I know about Aboriginal wild bush food, spirits, stories, language, culture and history from them and their menfolk and my dad. And I wanted to portray the fabulous Aboriginal sense of humour!
I am honoured to be invited to do Welcome to Country at Macquarie University, the land of the Wattamattagal people of Darug Nation. This ongoing experience allows me to be political and even ask Prince Andrew for Pemulwuy’s head back!
Do you have a regular writing routine? What does this include?
I have a swim in the ocean every day and then a coffee with friends then sit in front of my lap top computer. I always try to write at least an hour a day. That sounds pathetic, but some days I write for ten hours. That makes you manic, don’t do it! I actually write my notes on my iPhone and email them to myself. I used to write with pen and notebook. I write occasional poems and was awarded the joint prize for the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry prize. Another poem has been shortlisted for an award.
What advice do you have for all the aspiring writers out there?
Never ever give up! Work on your craft by taking classes at writing centres. They will help you! I have attended at least twenty classes. Try poetry, try plays, try short stories (hardest of all). Find a writers’ group or start your own. I met my small group of three at Writing NSW. We are still helping each other, three years on. Try to find an agent but not until you have a polished work. If you can afford it, self-publish or blog or publish eBooks. I have self-published two novels: available on Booktopia and Amazon. At least it gets the writing out there in the world.
And finally, who or what do you find the most inspiring…
- Writers: Annie Proulx who is in her eighties and has written Barkskins about saving the trees and the planet. Jack Davis, Noongar playwright whose plays inspired me to write for theatre. Kevin Gilbert whose poems are unmatched. Eva Johnson whose Aboriginal woman’s voice rang out in theatre and poetry. Alexis Wright who is an amazing and complex writer. And all Indian writers like Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie.
- Weather: the climate is changing, we must all work together to mitigate climate change.
- Time of day: I’m a morning person.
- Music: Gurrumul Yunupingu, Nina Simone, Neil Murray, Lou Reed, Nineh Cherry.
To find out more about Julie and her work, head to: