Some years ago, on the bus to Dubbo, I overheard two boys chatting to each other. They would have been about 12 or 13.
“Dubbo,” said one of them, “is better than Paris.”
Clearly this boy had seen both and decided on a winner.
I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but it made me smile. It made me remember when, as a kid growing up in Carnarvon, almost a thousand kilometres north of Perth on the Western Australian coast, where red-dirt desert meets deep blue Indian ocean, a school friend went to Paris.
At the time, this seemed a wildly improbable and impossible thing. We were learning French at the local state high school but for us it was like algebra or geometry – mental puzzles that would have no bearing on our actual lives. My friend said she had used the French word for butter to ask for some butter. Wow! It really hadn’t occurred to me that you could use French to communicate.
Then she said more or less the same thing as the boy on the bus to Dubbo: “Carnarvon is the best place in the world.”
I took her word for it, because she was the only one among us with personal experience. But it wasn’t long before I was infected by books. Life, to paraphrase the title of a book by Milan Kundera, was definitely elsewhere. In Carnarvon, I lived in a fibro house with my disappointingly unbook-like family. We had a pet galah in a small cage between the back door and the outside toilet. The main street after noon on Saturdays, and all day on Sundays, was still and silent, shimmering in the heat. No escalators, no traffic lights. We only had ABC TV and radio. The radio would switch to classical music in the afternoons. Very boring.
There were few books in the house. Dad read the odd Wilbur Smith; Mum subscribed to the Reader’s Digest magazine. In the cabinet in the living room, under a pile of miscellaneous stuff, there was a naughty book we weren’t supposed to know about called Laughter Between the Sheets. Books were available at the town library, the school library and at the Carnarvon Book Exchange. I consumed them one after another, indiscriminately, with toast.
Carnarvon baked its own bread in those days, before switching to loaves trucked in from down south. We happened to live next door to the bakery, and woke most mornings to the intoxicating smell of fresh bread. I loved to make toast and go back to bed, reading, eating, reading, eating. Crumbs in the sheets.
The takeaway shop where I worked after school and on weekends was on the road out to the One Mile Jetty, next door to the Carnarvon Book Exchange. In my breaks, I’d stand by the back door with the bucket and dripping mop, and read a few paragraphs. I read Flowers for Algernon there, and Mills and Boon romances, and Donald Duck comics. Whatever I could find.
Curled up in bed with toast, I read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, Lynne Reid Banks’ The L Shaped Room and Sarah Davidson’s Loose Change. One day, when I was a writer, living somewhere more interesting, I’d join the conversations they’d started. I’d take my place at the table of sparkling literary conversation. In the meantime, though, I had people banging on my bedroom door telling me to tidy my room, feed the galah or go fishing off the jetty.
“Stop lying around,” said Dad. “Get up and do something.”
Improbably for that time, that place, among those people, I began to think of myself as a writer. If I was riding a bike around town with the friend who had been to Paris, I’d mentally add “she said” to the end of her sentences. That way, we could be people in books – much more interesting than our mere selves.
But how to get from Point A (in bed reading, with toast) to Point B (a real writer, with a real life)?
For a long time I assumed it was just a matter of being good at it. If you were good at it, you could send your manuscript to a publisher, and they would notice that you were good at it, and they would publish your book. And then you’d write your next book while answering letters from thoughtful readers. You might live in an interesting flat in a major Australian city.
For a long time (after a series of rejections) I assumed the system was rigged. I was a girl from red-dirt country who went to the local high school. Until my generation nobody in my family had completed high school, let alone gone to university. How could I possibly impress the well-groomed denizens of Melbourne and Sydney, where this whole publishing malarkey seemed to be centred? Could I trick them into taking me on? What should I wear? Wasn’t I more comfy being a resentful outsider?
For a long time (after more rejections) I doubted I was actually any good at it. I had a recurring dream, which was that I was on a stretcher, under a grey army blanket, in a darkened room, beside a door. I could peer through the keyhole and see a dining table of people laughing and talking, but the door was locked, and I had to stay in the dark on my grey blanket. (Sometimes dreams can be subtle and enigmatic; other times they’re made out of clichés.)
In other words, the line from Point A to Point B was not a strong and straight and direct one, as might have been made with a pencil against a Rulex ruler. Instead, it was long and tangled, sometimes almost disappearing, sometimes becoming a tight black scribble, like a particularly dark and infernal spot in a Bruce Petty cartoon.
Two things got me out of the really dark tangled bit. One was a diagnosis of advanced cancer – “Damn! I never wrote that book!” – and the other was this thing we call the “writing sector”.
I’ll deal with the second one first. I don’t like the phrase “writing sector”. It is dispiritingly bureaucratic, redolent of grant applications and admin and markets and audiences, when all you want as a writer is an endless plain for your imagination to romp around in. I might not like the phrase, but I do like what it can do for writers and writing.
It wasn’t enough to be good at it. I needed feedback, encouragement, suggestion, mentoring. I needed to connect with other writers, particularly writers who had been published. I needed to know the process wasn’t magical, but something I could learn and get better at. I needed to make friends with other writers and come back to those same people again and again, for their writing and for mine. Only, then, after all that, might one of them say: “Oh, let me introduce you to my agent.” Eventually, this is is exactly what happened. It felt like magic, but it was actually built on something less glamorous: being part of a writing ecosystem.
Progress was slow.
In the late 1990s, I was living in a (rented) flat in Newtown, Sydney, with original art on the walls and kilims on the floor. I drank soy chai lattes and at lunch time on Wednesdays I took myself off to the free concerts by students at the Sydney conservatorium. My 14-year-old self would have been deeply impressed. I tried writing an inner-city novel but it fell flat.
In the end I left Sydney and settled in Bathurst, where I’ve lived for nearly 20 years. “Where are you going again? West Fuck?” a Newtown friend had asked. “Yes, that’s it,” I’d said.
Bathurst is a big regional centre but it still has that country town vibe. The main street is very quiet on a Saturday afternoon. The winters are freezing, but in summer a warm current of air comes in from the red-dirt west. I started writing about a caged galah and a fibro house and the creaking boards of the One Mile Jetty at sunset. About being bored and feeling trapped, wandering around town, looking at the ground. About the sparkling freedom of the Indian Ocean. About whisperings of genocide and dispossession. About the expats who came to town to work at the tracking station. The doggers and roo shooters, the book exchange, the take-away shop.
But I also got busy with other things, “too busy to write”. I was never far from the grey-blanket doubt that hid behind the busyness. The galah would pace impatiently on her perch, waiting to be fed and watered, waiting for some attention.
Now for that other thing that nudged me into writing success. In 2014, I was diagnosed with Stage 3C primary peritoneal cancer, a close cousin of ovarian cancer. I googled the stats. The odds on surviving five years were not good. Bald and sick, I prepared for major surgery. I was scared, and the people around me were scared. Privately, I was particularly sad about the galah. She had a story to tell, and told it well, but now it was likely that nobody would hear it.
But I did get better. And cancer had focused my mind, echoing the annoying life-affirming memes you read on Facebook. As soon as I was well enough, I went out and worked every knob and lever of the writing sector I’d ever come into contact with, and then some.
It was here in Bathurst in 2018 that we launched my debut novel with its caged bird narrator, The Lucky Galah, upstairs at the Oxford Hotel, hosted by my local bookshop. The novel is rural, feminist, intellectual, literary, quirky and naff, ironic and sentimental, all at the same time, just like me.
Life is never elsewhere. Cultural life is everywhere, including country towns.
That’s why opportunities for writers – festivals, workshops, mentoring – need to stretch out from our capital cities into the regions and remote places. It’s not just one way, either. The “periphery” has as much to offer the centre as the other way around. And with a bit of nurturing, you sometimes get a self-sustaining local cultural scene that is not endlessly looking to the city for instruction or inspiration. (Bathurst, by the way, has its own yearly Readers and Writer’s Festival. Between local talent, Zoom and celebrity visits, it delivers an invigorating program.)
One thing led to another. The Lucky Galah enabled me to pitch for a year-long gig at the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University, a writing residency with a stipend so lavish it made me giddy. I’d pitched a cancer memoir from the point of view of my abdominal organs. If I could pull off a galah narrator, I might be able to give voice to my pancreas.
And so it was that in the early months of the Covid pandemic, Writing NSW invited me to host a panel of writers talking about The Body. All of the speakers were, in one way or another, living in bodies that were considered outside the norm: gay, migrant, disabled, non-binary, affected by serious illness. From different parts of Sydney and beyond Sydney. We were a group that probably wouldn’t have met each other if we hadn’t been brought together in this panel.
As host, it was my role to mostly listen and ask questions. The audience was made up of writers and people interested in writing; those who had been published and those just starting out. I was the insider, now. I had a spot at the literary table. It didn’t – doesn’t – come naturally, but it’s now my job to welcome others, show them a seat and ask what they’d like to drink.
Tracy Sorensen is the author of The Lucky Galah (Picador, 2018), which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin award in 2019. Her second novel, The Vitals, is a cancer memoir from the point of view of her abdominal organs. She is also a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University.