Happiness and the What if…? questions

August 15, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Posted in art, creativity, Movies, Quotations | Leave a comment
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‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.’ Ghandi said that. It makes me happy just thinking about it.

Although for most of us it is more an ideal to strive towards as we flounder our way through life trying to earn a living. In our society almost totally geared to maximising financial profits for the few (someone called our system Totalitarian Capitalism) it is extremely hard to find worthwhile work. I’m lucky enough to have two worthwhile jobs I believe in: writing for the National Rural Health Alliance and writing a book for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

More on these another time. I’m also doing an ANU Centre for Continuing Education course, taken by Roy Forward. It is an erudite, witty ride through much stimulating aesthetic and intellectual pleasure. It’s on Art and Film. Roy said that aesthetics can give you a sense of infinite possibility, of the renewal of life, he spoke about the amazing capacity of art to catch us unawares and open up life for us once more.

It was such a pleasure being able to immerse myself in art when I was writing my latest novel, Beyond the Pale. This novel was inspired by an artist Roy talked about the other night in class: Camille Claudel. A film about her life (Camille Claudel) was directed by Bruno Nuyttens in 1988. This film was based on a biography of Camille Claudel that the Canberra Times asked me to with some others, then the editor said, no, we haven’t got the space for that Camille Claudel one, you just keep it and write about the others. It was too early in my writing career to take on this complicated subject so I wrote a simpler one first (Full House, Simon & Schuster, 1993) but I always knew I’d come back to Camille.

Camille Claudel was a talented sculptor who did not get along with her mother and who was determined to follow her passion, sculpting – and she was in love with her teacher and mentor Rodin, and he with her. When her father died she lost her protector. It’s a tragic tale that ends up with her being forced into the asylum in Paris where she stays for decades, until dying in the middle of World War II. If you read my novel you’d recognise almost nothing of this because I was burning to write a novel where I gave her a happy ending – and not by some sentimental deus ex machina.

What intrigued me about the biography of Camille Claudel was that there were a couple of unexplained, lengthy absences in the country before she was incarcerated. You should see her sculptures of small children. They tear at the heart! I kept thinking: What if…? What if…? I imagined she might have had a baby, out of wedlock of course, and he/she was looked after by a woman in the country, and that was where Camille went, to visit sometimes. I kept thinking that her life would have been different if only she … if only she … I kept thinking, What if…? What if…? What if she hopped on a boat and sailed to Australia? What if she could have had a second chance in a slightly more forgiving social climate?

What I did in my novel was bring her dates forward so she could have more of the 20th century in Australia plus I made her Irish because that’s my own background and plenty of Irish immigrated to Australia in those days but surely hardly any French? (Although I recently discovered the name of my paternal great grandmother – Ginnane – that sounds pretty French! What a French women might have been doing in Cairns, Queensland in the 19th century is anyone’s guess.) So my Camille Claudel became Deirdre Wild and was a surrealist painter who had an illegitimate daughter and settled in Clovelly, Sydney, in the 1920s.

That first novel was a comedy but this one is more serious, and involves three generations of women. It was great to immerse myself in the modernist art world of 20th century Sydney all the time I was writing that novel. And the cemetery at Clovelly, Waverley Cemetery – vast and on a cliff above the sea – inspired me. There were a lot of Irish names there too. The whole place was so intriguing. (As was a trip to the Blasket Islands in County Kerry – a whole ’nother story, as my American friend Susan says.) My stepdaughter was renting a Clovelly flat and I stayed there sometimes, walking the streets, exploring the cemetery, snorkelling in the bay, dreaming about the Razor Gang and Deirdre’s best friend who got mixed up with them and wound up in Callan Park asylum. Broughton Hall it was called then.

This novel has a happy ending but it’s hard to have a happy ending for everybody. Someone’s happiness might be at the expense of another person’s. What Deirdre Wild, the artist in Beyond the Pale thinks, says and does are in harmony, at least by the end, but that’s a long journey she’s taken, with sacrifices along the way. She sacrifices things for her art, but most people – including her daughter – sacrifice things for their children, so this novel is also about parent/child relationships. The mother/daughter ones I knew from the start would feature heavily, but the father/daughter relationship theme is one that took me by surprise.

Pan Macmillan is considering the novel MS. I say that not because there’s a probability that they will eventually accept it, but because this is about as good as it usually gets in the fiction game. I feel good because it’s very hard to get a publisher to just read the whole MS these days if you haven’t got an agent. Reasons leading up to the fact that it’s now harder to get an agent than it used to be to get a publisher is a blog in itself. In the meantime we writers try to make a living and have what we think, what we say and what we do remain in harmony, and some of us continue to write fiction on the side. Even if you’re successful there’s no money in it except for a tiny percentage (that’s another blog’s worth of reasons) but we do it because we love it, we love playing with words, we love following where our curiosity leads us, we love trying to find the answer to those What if…? What if…? questions.

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