A Way with Words
Lily Woodhouse describes how she wrote her first novel.
As Jarulan by the River is my first novel, I don’t really have a writing practice, but I can tell you how I wrote this one. I live in Broken Hill. As some New Zealanders other than my boyfriend, Jimmy, might know, it’s near the border of New South Wales and South Australia. It’s a mining town and has a celebrated history as the birthplace of the Australian labour movement. Other than that, there’s not much call to come here unless you’re a miner.
My daddy was a miner, but Jimmy is a cook at the Palace Hotel in the middle of town, and that’s where he lives. On mornings I’m with him, my eyes open to his old room and the glittering slag heap just outside the window. I leap up, call my dingo to heel, slam on a hat, jump in my four-wheel-drive and head out to the desert, where I keep my camel.
Lucky for me, she’s pretty good-natured for a camel and also has a very flat head, which is just the right size to fit my laptop. She lets me climb aboard and settle my computer between her ears. Once she feels me switch on, she starts her journeying. She can go for miles, with my dingo following, but I have to say I’m oblivious to the passing scenery. Now and again I check that my dingo is still with us. I don’t have to turn around, just glance to one side to find his shadow.
I can write 20,000 words in a day and the only things likely to distract me are a passing emu or a bounding roo. There’s just the plod of my camel’s feet and the panting of my wild dog.
Sometimes, when I lift my eyes from my smoking screen, night has fallen. So I make camp, build a fire, lie back in my swag and read over my work. Usually I read aloud to my camel and my dingo, and although they don’t say much, I can tell when their attention wanders. And that’s the trick – never have a moment when attention could wander. You want your readers with you all the way.
Listener readers might like to know how it is I could write so knowledgeably about New Zealand. That would be Jimmy, telling me tales of his homeland. And as for the rest of the novel, set in the north of New South Wales in the first half of the 20th century – well, I’ve never been to the place or the time, but I could dream it. While I was writing Jarulan by the River,
I wanted nothing but to be on that lush, green farm with its grand, decaying house called Jarulan, with the lovers and the animals, the family and their ghosts.
I would dream at night of German Rufina and Maori Irving, the outsiders who find love. Jarulan is an Aboriginal word that means a fire started by clever birds – crows, kites and eagles – who drop burning twigs into grassland, hover in the smoke and wait for prey to dart out. It’s a metaphor for the story.
It seems to me there’s a movement afoot that demands writers only write about who they are and what they know. It’s a dangerous idea and one I’ve got no time for, spinning magic tales out here in the desert with my camel and my dingo.
As told to Stephanie Johnson. Lily Woodhouse’s Jarulan by the River (HarperCollins) is out now.
“I can write 20,000 words in a day and the only things likely to distract me are a passing emu or a bounding roo.”
Lily Woodhouse: “Usually I read aloud to my camel and my dingo.”