THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT
THE BEST APPROXIMATION OF IT
The truth is always the trickiest fish. With at least two sides to every tango, and with no two children ever growing up in the same family, as well as any number of other cliches about the subjectivity of our perceptions, the truth in any real sense seems nigh on impossible to me.
Which is why I write fiction. Makebelieve lets me reach for truths without the restrictions of having to get every detail right lest I misrepresent someone or something. Obviously, in my research, I go to great lengths to get the facts right – or as right as it’s possible for them to be. Accuracy in historical detail – dates, places, names and language, the run of big events and descriptions of real-life characters – is essential to what I do. And it can be maddening.
I once spent most of a week trying to pin down just what colour eyes infamous premier of NSW Jack Lang had, to no avail, and much to my own heartbreak had to leave the detail out of The Blue Mile. You can’t fudge such an irrefutable fact as eye colour – tinted lenses weren’t invented in the 1930s, either. The man’s physical presence, on the other hand – the way he moved through the world, and the stirring way he spoke – I could be much freer with. There were plenty of accounts to base my Jack Lang scenes upon, but in the end, it was my imagination that constructed him in the novel – an impression of one of my political heroes, a noble giant, a courageous battler, a little bit of a prick. Not the truth – only my truth, and the larger truth of the crazy-brave among us who, in the fight against injustice, defy authority to make their own rules, and make a girl weak at the knees.
When it came to writing my latest story, though – Wild Chicory – this fact and fiction puzzle took a deeper and cloudier turn. My initial inspiration for the story came from a memory – a strikingly vivid memory – of my grandmother telling me wonderful stories when I was small. Stories about being poor and Irish in Sydney during World War I, being mischievous and hardworking and always smartly frocked no matter the circumstances. She was standing with her back to me, at her kitchen sink, distracted by something, as I sat on one of the kitchen chairs annoying her with my endless little-girl questions.
It was a memory, though. Snippets of truth glimpsed through time, distance, and who knows what fancies of my imagination. As I let the vision of my grandmother compel me to write about all those tales she told me when I was a child, I quickly I found that my memories had vast holes of absent fact in them. The past – my past – seemed a jumble of hazy, elusive images and half-remembered dreams.
I couldn’t even establish how her name – Lillian – was spelled. Half the family documents gave her two l’s; and the other half one. I decided she should have two as I felt she deserved an extra one of everything. In my search, among old bank books and family papers, I found this gorgeous photograph of her with my mother, Geraldine, taken in George Street in around about 1943 or 44, but the photograph couldn’t tell me what they were doing there, or where Granddad was. Because my grandmother was no longer here to ask about these details – she has been gone from me now for thirty years, and my mother has been gone a decade now, too. I had to make do with my snippets and fancies. I could only let Wild Chicory go where it wanted and needed to. Lillian in real life became Nell in my story, and so she unfolded as she wished.
Inspired by my grandmother, Lillian Kelly. Her essence. The wisps of her love for me that remain in the air still. The taste of chocolate-butter icing. The smell of her cigarette smoke. The sound of her sewing machine whirring. The magic in her eyes.
It’s the truth of our bond. The best truth I could devise.