A Way with Words

Lily Wood­house de­scribes how she wrote her first novel.

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Lily Wood­house

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.”

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