Shirley Barrett is an Australian screenwriter and film director whose work has won multiple prizes, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize. Rush Oh!, her first novel, is a story of whaling, rural life, and first love, set on the west coast of Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. I reviewed it here, and was hugely impressed by its balance of a light comedic voice with serious personal and political material. Its depiction of the mutual respect between a whaling crew and a pod of killer whales made it stand out–and it’s all based on a true story.
I was lucky enough to be able to ask Shirley some questions about Rush Oh!, and she kindly answered them below.
How did you first come across the story of the Eden killer whales?
It’s such a long time ago that I barely remember, but I think I learned about them at the Australian Natural History Museum, here in Sydney. I love an animal story, and I liked the way the whalers had given them all names, identifying them by their dorsal fins. So I went down to Eden (about six hours south of Sydney) to find out more. Eden is very proud of its unique whaling history, and there is a lovely little museum in which Tom’s skeleton is the centrepiece. He is surprisingly huge, and has what looks suspiciously like a rope groove on one of his back teeth, which is possibly from his high jinks towing fishing boats out to sea and hanging off the whale line.
The book is especially impressive to me because of the way it engages with Aboriginal Australians. As part of the whaling crew, they’re treated equally and with respect, but as a potential husband for Louisa, Darcy is considered completely off the cards. Did it surprise you to find that race relations in 1908 were so inconsistent? Or is that artistic license?
White Australia has a terrible record in regard to its treatment of the indigenous people, and the only surprising thing really is that the Aboriginal whalers do seem to have been treated well by the Davidson family, and certainly they worked closely together for many years. But to be honest, there’s so little documented material on the Aboriginal whalers that no one really knows for sure. Certainly particular Aboriginal whale men returned every season to work for the Davidsons. As for Darcy running off with Louisa, it seems that would have been extremely unusual. While there were many documented marriages between white men and Aboriginal women, the reverse was very seldom seen (or at least, documented) at the time. It seems to have been considered much more scandalous – and perhaps consequently hushed up.
Mary’s voice is marvelous: evocative of her era without being too stilted. It reminded me of the technique used in the recent remake of True Grit (removing all contractions, and doing very little else, so that the language sounds more formal and old-fashioned but not silly.) How did you find or develop that voice for her?
Thank you! Mary’s voice came to me so easily and effortlessly that after I finished Rush Oh! I feared I’d never be able to write in any other voice. Perhaps because Rush Oh! existed as a feature film script first (see below), Mary was already a fully fleshed-out character in my mind before I had to commit to writing a first-person narrative.
You made your name as a screenwriter; would you ever consider adapting Rush Oh! into a miniseries? (I’d watch it…)
Rush Oh! started out as a feature film script – a much more bare-bones version of the story that culminated in the Plain and Fancy Dress Ball. I tried for years to get producers interested, but all those whaling scenes would have to be computer-generated, of course, so it would be horribly expensive – certainly much more than the usual budgets of Australian films. In the end, I gave up, but I loved the world so much, I decided to have a crack at it as a novel, never having written a novel before. But yes, it would be lovely if a nice producer with access to vast pots of money wanted to turn it into something…
Do you know (or have your own private suspicions about) what/who John Beck really is?
That’s a good question! I think I am as mystified as Mary as to who he was and what his intentions were… certainly I feel reluctant to commit to any one particular version, even just for myself! I’d come across the story of ‘The Missing Clergyman’ in the Eden newspapers of the time (Mary refers to this story in the book), and I loved the idea that this Methodist minister just took off with another woman, and sent his wife a telegram from Suva announcing that he’d drowned! I suppose I especially loved the idea that it was so easy – apparently – to “shape shift” at that time, perhaps especially in Australia – just change your identity and start out as someone else… Who knows? Perhaps John Beck has returned to the Church and is the new minister that Mary is about to meet over cheese and celery sandwiches [at the end of the book]…
The relationship between George Davidson and Old Tom is one of my favourites in the book (“He’s a good fish is Tom”! Preserving and polishing his skeleton! It’s wonderful.) How many of these details came from contemporary sources, and how many did you invent?
I really tried not to embellish anything about the killer whales because the story is amazing enough as it is. Tom was very, very well loved in Eden (the obituary and poem written in his honour are all straight from the Eden newspapers of the time). There are many newspaper accounts of his exploits, and he does seem to have been a bit of a scallywag – towing hapless fishermen about the bay, hanging off the whale line so he could be dragged about by the whale, jumping out of the water and crushing George’s hand in his teeth! Tom kept returning to Eden even when whaling had stopped and the other killers had stopped coming, and his body washed up in Twofold Bay when he died, by then a very old killer whale. There was definitely a feeling in the town that Tom’s death marked the end of an era, and needed to be commemorated somehow. George stripped down the carcase and preserved his skeleton, and funds were raised within the town to build the museum that houses his skeleton. (The photo above is of George on Tom’s carcase.)
How did you approach the challenge of writing fiction based on a true story? How do you decide what to leave in, what to keep out, even just how to consolidate all of the information from the primary sources?
I made a decision early on that I would keep the character of George Davidson because I wanted to use actual newspaper accounts within the book, and George of course is frequently mentioned. But I invented a whole new set of offspring for him so I could be unconstrained and write the sort of exuberant romp that I wanted the story to be. The actual story of the Davidsons is very rich and very interesting but much sadder – there was a good deal of tragedy, and I didn’t want to venture there. So I was aware of taking a huge liberty, and I was very nervous about the reaction of the Davidson descendants, some of whom still live in the area. They have never made any kind of formal response, but I get the feeling they are not too thrilled about it – and I can’t really blame them. But I tried only to be respectful of George in my writing, and I hope that as some kind of compensation, the book brings more attention to him, the Davidsons, and the killer whale story in general.
What are you working on now?
I work as a television director/scriptwriter, so mostly I have been doing that! I am itching to stop and get back to novel-writing, because I had the loveliest time writing Rush Oh! and I miss it. But I have just finished a horror novella, which was fun – of course then when I finished, I realise there’s not much of a market for novellas, so now I’m not really sure what to do with it!
Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February, by Virago Books. You can read my (glowing) review of it here.