by Kim Kelly

Millthorpe pop up flowers

MEET THE AUTHOR IN MILLTHORPE

G.S. JOHNSTON

Our Millthorpe Pop-Up is a celebration of Australian writing, our books all gathering together in a little gold-rush era village with stories whispering from every wild colonial verandah post. So, Mr Johnston, how has your Australianness, or your experience of Australia, inspired or influenced your storytelling explorations?

I’ve not really written so much directly about Australia. Partly because of a lack of luck –  I haven’t found Australian stories that interest me enough to devote three or four years of work.  That’s not to say these stories don’t exist – they just haven’t dropped into my fevered brain. But I think my Australianness has informed the way I look to Europe. I’ve always thought of the poet/writer as the outsider, looking in with uncluttered and greater clarity. It makes it hard, having to find information over such a distance and in other languages, but in some ways that has made me more cunning in finding the paths to bits of information. And especially when I was in France researching The Cast of a Hand, a lot of people I asked questions of were so surprised an Australian was interested in this story they went to great lengths to help me.

Having said all that, my latest work-in-progress, Cane, is set in Far North Queensland. It has been something of a novelty to work mainly in English and to have easy access to local newspapers via Trove. I don’t think I’d realised what a blessing Trove is as most countries do not have such a thing. The French have digitally archived a lot of information but getting access to it is another thing.

If you were to set a tale in Millthorpe, with its many layers of history – from the Wiradjuri wars to boutique stores – what sort of a tale might you tell?

It would be a tale of an outsider of some kind, trying to find their place. But not that they would sell out to co-exist, they would reform people’s opinion of some issue and then gain acceptance.  Perhaps an annual floral festival or pop-up shop… A Sydney writer who marries a local for love…  A title, something bold! Dramatic! Heroic! – Peace and War, perhaps, Sensibility and Pride.

You’re a card, Mr Johnston. Please tell us about the wonderful tales you’ll be bringing to the Millthorpe Pop-Up from far and wide.

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The Cast of a Hand is a true-life murder mystery, set in a turbulent period of French history, 1869-70 and the first signs of the fall of The Second Empire. Over the course of a few months, a whole family, mother and father and six children, were murdered. At first it was very clear to the prosecutors what had occurred, but as the case unfolded, and the political climate of those years unwound, it became clearer the case was much more complex than originally thought. The research, mostly in French, took me a long while to translate. The whole novel took me over ten years, working on and off.

What’s your favourite Australian story – be it a novel, a film, or legend? And why do you love it?

That’s a VERY hard question. So many things on second viewing or reading unwind. But Muriel’s Wedding seems perfect, every time I’ve watched it. It depicts that urban discomfort of Australians so well.  It’s Australia looking at itself and not being quite comfortable with what it sees. It’s perfectly cast and the plot isn’t predictable. And ultimately it’s a story of mateship.  And there are so many great lines. And the ending, where they drive away from Porpoise Spit, up the hill in the taxi, reminds me of the ending of Thelma and Louise, or am I stretching too far?  Discuss.

We’ll take that discussion offline, hey? For now, describe the view from your storytelling window today. 

My view is quite pinched, not at all far-reaching. I have a large 2.5 x 2.5 metre window (partially blocked by my second computer screen) which looks out onto a small, bark-covered verge before a high hedge of thick pittosporums. I’ve put a few pot plants there to add a bit more colour and coaxed back to life a camellia bush which was hacked-to-the-ground by the last tenants. But the morning sun spills butterscotched and dappled across my desk. And if I look through the glass of my desk, there’s mostly a very good-looking black and white pussy cat, Robert “Bob” Trudeau, asleep. And sometimes a golden Labrador, when Amber comes to visit.

 If you were to write the Great Australian Novel, where might you begin?

Like Maria von Trapp, at the very beginning.

That was exhausting, wasn’t it? Time for a cup of tea. Fortunately, Millthorpe has plenty of options, from country pub to hatted restaurant, and several gorgeous cafes. So what’s your yen? Coffee and cake? Beer and chips? Coq au vin and Pinot Grigio?  And while we’re here, which Australian author would you like to invite to your table?

Well, Kim Kelly, naturally. But if she wasn’t free, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. We could discuss our brilliant careers and I’d love to know what she thinks of the awards her names preside over.

Ha! Flattery will get you a free coffee. And cheers to that. Thanks for bringing your story love to Millthorpe, Mr Johnston.

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Find out more about G.S. Johnston here.