On Killer Whales, Eden & Screenwriting: An Interview with Shirley Barrett, Author of Rush Oh!
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by Peter Meinertzhagen
Shirley Barrett is best known as a screenwriter and director whose first feature film, Love Serenade, won the Caméra d’Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. It’s with the publication of Rush Oh! that Barrett has quickly made her name as a novelist, with her debut featuring on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 and showing that her vivid and visual storytelling transfers perfectly to the page. Rush Oh!, based on a real story, tells the story of a New South Wales whaling community in the early 1900s that worked together with a pod of killer whales that returned each year to Eden bay for whaling season. I caught up with Barrett to discuss the writing of Rush Oh!, where the story came from, and how her work for the screen influenced her novel.
Peter Meinertzhagen: Rush Oh! began life as a feature film script before you turned it into a novel. How did you go about approaching that transformation?
Shirley Barrett: Having written it first as a feature film, it gave me a structure to hang the novel on, which helped. I already knew it was going to revolve around one particular whaling season. Also I had an entire set of characters that I’d lived with for a while, even cast them in my mind, so I was very familiar with them all when I began. The film script started the same way as the book with the arrival of John Beck, but it finished with the Plain and Fancy Dress Ball. It was a much simpler story, a romance. When I started the process of transforming it into a novel, I laboriously copied the dialogue from the script. As I grew more confident, I referred to the script less and less, and the novel began to dictate its own terms. I found that now I didn’t have to adhere to a tight screenplay structure, I could meander more, tell little stories on the side, and all that I found really enjoyable. I like detail, and there is precious little room for details in screenplays! Also, the movie was always going to be very expensive because of the whaling scenes, but now that I didn’t have to worry about expense, I could have as many whaling scenes as I liked. I didn’t have to hear kerching! kerching! every time another whale hove to.
PM: Having a cast in mind for each character must have really helped in bringing those characters to life. I know many authors base characters on people they know in order to realise them on the page. Do you think you’d approach your future fiction in a similar way, casting the characters in your mind?
SB: No, not really. I feel that would be quite limiting somehow. It is very useful, however, in screenwriting when you know the actors you’re writing for. You can really write to their strengths, and tailor the role for them. In fiction, however, that feels sort of redundant. One thing I do find very helpful as a stepping-off point, however is photographs, particularly portraits. I like to peer long and hard at photographs and try to glean as much as I can. I did this with a photo of the real Davidson offspring (see below), imagining various personalities for each of them. One of the girls had spectacles, and had also moved when the photograph had been taken, and was subsequently a bit blurred. She became Mary, my narrator.
PM: Were you worried when you began writing the novel that you would struggle to see it get published, after the difficulties you had with getting the movie produced?
SB: I didn’t really imagine I would get it published mainly because I wasn’t very confident that it was any good. I’d look at real novels, and think, hmm, they have much longer chapters than me — things like that. So I sent it off to Curtis Brown (literary agent) here in Sydney as a speculative thing really. I just wanted to see if it had any hope at all.
PM: How long did it take Curtis Brown to get back to you and what was their reaction?
SB: They got back to me within about two weeks, wanting to read more. I had sent them the first 45 pages, which I had polished up quite a bit. So then I had to frantically try to polish up the rest of it, not wanting to test their patience by taking too long over it. The ending didn’t quite work — it felt a bit rushed. Grace Heifetz, my agent at Curtis Brown, was immediately rapturously enthusiastic, even in spite of the fact it had a shaky last twenty pages. She absolutely loved it, and told me so — it was wonderful, especially after being in the film industry where everyone is much more circumspect when it comes to doling out any praise. She told me to go away and fix up the ending, which I did.
PM: Now that the novel is published and has enjoyed some success in the short time it’s been out, do you think it will be easier getting Rush Oh! turned into a film? Is that something you’ll still continue to pursue? Were you to re-adapt Rush Oh! for the screen, would you approach it differently than the first time around?
SB: Much as I would love to see Rush Oh! produced as a film, I don’t hold out a lot of hope, nor do I have any intention of pursuing it. The same difficulties still remain — it’s just a very expensive film to make owing to all the computer generated effects required for the whaling scenes, and really, who wants to watch whales being killed? It’s one thing to read about it (even then, my own mother had to put the book down for two days after the first whaling scene), but another thing to watch it unfold onscreen. I have sometimes wondered if it could be done in a less conventional way, so the whaling scenes were depicted in much the same way as the pen and ink illustrations in the book. Still expensive, but less horrifying perhaps…
Also I seem to have booby-trapped the book for movie adaptations by choosing to tell the story from thirty years hence. I know my heart always sinks at the prospect of an actress in age make-up and a crocheted rug, harking back to gentler times.
As to how I would adapt it differently were a producer to approach me with a pot of gold, that’s a good question! I think I would try to be a bit more adventurous and find a way to somehow include all those deviations, the flash-forwards and flash-backs. They can be annoying and disorienting sometimes in films, so it’s tricky. Also, maybe I’d dispense with the idea of telling the story from thirty years hence, thus ridding myself of the fore-mentioned actress in age-make-up problem.
Rush Oh! is told in the first person, too, and the reader is very much in Mary’s head. The only real way to achieve anything like this in film is to use voiceover, and I’m always leery of that as a device. It seems a bit clunky and ham-fisted. But I seem to be busily discouraging any potential producer from even contemplating the idea, so I’ll desist!
PM: The premise of Rush Oh! is based on a real story. When did you first come across the story of the killer whales of Eden? How faithful were you to the original story?
…this killer whale had been so loved and revered, a whole museum was built around his skeleton!
SB: Many years ago now, we visited Eden on a rainy day during a South Coast beach holiday and sought shelter in the Eden Killer Whale Museum. Tom’s skeleton, lovingly preserved by George Davidson, is right there as you walk in, and a pretty impressive sight it is too. I was struck by the fact that this killer whale had been so loved and revered, a whole museum was built around his skeleton! And then, of course, the more you learn of the story, the more amazing it gets. A pod of killer whales returning year after year, and assisting the whalers in the whale chase, sharing the spoils — the whole idea of inter-species co-operation appealed to me.
When I decided I would have a bash at telling the story, I had to find a way in. I have an old photograph of George Davidson with his offspring gathered around, and I used to stare at that and wonder what they were like. Somewhere along the line, I settled on telling the story from an imaginary eldest daughter’s point of view. I figured that way I could imbue the story with a female point of view, and perhaps give it some humour and romance. So I just leapt off the precipice, created my own brand new set of Davidson offspring, and did away altogether with George Davidson’s wife.
But I was concerned that if I’d taken a liberty like that in creating a fictional family, then would this undermine the parts of the story that were actually true, especially those pertaining to the killer whales? I didn’t want the reader to think I’d just concocted all that too. So I made a decision to try not to embellish anything concerning the killer whales and the whaling, and to make it clear what’s true and what’s not in the Author’s Note, supported by newspaper reports of the time.
PM: What compelled you to want to tell this story? Especially to go as far as writing a script and then re-writing it for a novel, clearly this story meant something to you.
SB: I think I fell in love with the world. I spent a lot of time poring over the Eden newspapers of the time, and the world seemed so rich and colourful and mad. I found it fascinating, and loved spending time immersed in it. So when I realised the film would never be made, I decided to have a go at writing it as a novel, just so I didn’t have to give it up. If I could write a string of sequels, I would, for the same reason. But of course I’ve thwarted that possibility by writing the novel from a viewpoint thirty years hence!
PM: Rush Oh! is sprinkled throughout with illustrations. Was the inclusion of these part of your original vision for the book?
SB: It occurred to me that since Mary talks a bit about her under-appreciated artwork, it might be nice to include some — particularly “Stern All, Boys!”, which she describes in some detail at the beginning of the book. I thought having a visual reference might help in understanding the whaling process too. It was also useful in depicting the differences in the killer whales’ dorsal fins, and details such as the flensing of the whale and so forth. I went to the State Library and found a wonderful collection of early Australian amateur artists’ sketch books. That was really inspiring — beautiful, carefully wrought illustrations of the surrounding fauna and birdlife, but, because a kangaroo or a kookaburra won’t stay still for long, they were always just slightly wrong, a little wonky.
We found a wonderful illustrator named Matt Canning to do the illustrations. I looked at his website and he had done a beautiful drawing of a whale, and I knew instantly he was the one. He’s based in the U.K., so we began an email correspondence. I had to encourage him to draw as if he were an untrained nineteen year old girl back in 1908. This meant, of course, drawing less well than he actually draws — a bit of a poisoned chalice, really. But he embraced it, and I think his illustrations are beautiful and add enormously to the book.
PM: Were there parts of the novel-writing process that you especially enjoyed over what you’re used to in writing screenplays? Was there anything you found more challenging?
…I suddenly had an enormous amount of freedom, where I had felt quite constrained within the conventional three-act structure of the screenplay.
SB: It just felt like I suddenly had an enormous amount of freedom, where I had felt quite constrained within the conventional three-act structure of the screenplay. As I said earlier, I loved the flexibility novel-writing gave me in moving about in time; I loved the way it gave me access to Mary’s thoughts; I loved the way I could include poems and newspaper reports and as many whale chases as I liked! As for what was most challenging, well, grammar has never been my strong suit…
PM: It what ways do you think your background as a screenwriter helped you in writing Rush Oh!?
SB: That’s a good question. I think working as a screen-writer, you become used to thinking visually, which is a useful skill. You also gain experience in working out the shape of a scene, how it begins and finishes, and how one scene will flow in to the next. Also as a director, you have to think about how the actors move within their space, and I think that discipline somehow carries through — you become used to thinking about things in three dimensions.
PM: This question came from Facebook from a fan of Love Serenade — In your work do you deliberately set out to set up and then undermine genres and genre expectations?
SB: A Love Serenade fan! Thank you for writing in. No, I don’t deliberately set out to undermine genres. I am pretty unsophisticated in my thinking, and actually I try to avoid thinking in terms of genre and so forth. I just wanted to write a story set in that particular town, and give it the same creepiness of that great Barry White song Love Serenade — those were really my stepping off points in writing it.
PM: What does your daily working routine look like?
SB: Well, I try to get up early, go for a run, and then do all my chores so I can sit down to write by about 9. It’s imperative for me to use an internet blocker — I am very easily distracted. I write fitfully, with frequent trips back and forth to the fridge and possibly a small nap at some point, till about 4, on a good day, and then I have to start thinking about what’s for dinner. I have days when I’m quite productive and days when I’m hopeless, but I think I’m used to that now, and don’t get too despairing about the bad days.
PM: If you could give a single piece of advice to an up-and-coming writer, what would it be?
…confidence, the belief that you can actually pull this off, is everything.
SB: I think it would be to be careful about getting too much feedback. I am not a fan of feedback. I don’t show anyone anything until it’s in a very solid state i.e. finished. If you do feel like you need feedback, then be very careful about who you select, and prepare yourself to reject completely anything they have to say if you disagree, or feel they’ve misread it. I just feel that the wrong feedback, especially when your work is at a formative stage, is potentially so destructive, not just to the work but to your confidence. And confidence, the belief that you can actually pull this off, is everything.
PM: What’s next? Will you be continuing with screenplays or is another novel in the works?
SB: Well, I continue to work as a television writer and director, but I am desperate to get stuck into another novel. I miss it. I have written one small horror novella since I finished Rush Oh! but no one seems very interested in it… So at least Stephen King has nothing to worry about.
PM: A horror novella sounds interesting, tell me more about it. And what has the response been to it?
SB: Only two people have read it, both in the publishing world, and they both told me to stretch it into a novel, that novellas are too difficult to market. But at this point, I don’t really see how I can — I don’t think it would work padded out. I want it to be a wild ride — you have to hang on tight till it throws you out at the end. So I’m not really sure what to do with it. Perhaps release it digitally myself? I would be happy to have any advice, if anyone has any bright ideas!