Suzanne, can you tell us what your memoir is all about?
My memoir is about a small town Australian country girl in the 1950’-60’s, who’s dux of her class every year at Primary School, loves the bush, the river, the mountains, reading, writing and singing and, always wants trousers with a fly.
She grows up in a violent home, lives in constant fear of her father and does her best to cover it up at school. She finds many ways to escape, being the best at everything she can, especially at school, and her greatest dream is to be just like Huck Finn, who eventually runs away from HIS father on the river with another escapee, Jim.
She’s a tomboy, Huck Finn is in her bones, just like her dreams of escape, and even though terrible things happen to her, she eventually strikes out on a new life leaving all that she knows behind her.
Suzanne, there are many painful incidents that you have written about in your memoir. So tell me, what was it like for you getting in touch with these things?
To be able to finally write my story was both terribly painful and, celebratory. I had to basically relive the things I have written about. Bring each incident to life again and when I did this, each one acutely affected me. It was as if I was right back there, experiencing the terrors and the aftermath, especially keeping quiet about it all. It was an awful struggle not to tell the world about the violence that went on in our home.
So, knowing it would not be easy when I began to write about these incidents, I sat in the corner of a coffee shop where I felt safe and wrote about what I remembered—like describing pictures in a gallery, skimming across the surface. It was only when I got closer to the incidents that I really felt terribly vulnerable. I am a High School English teacher and I knew only too well that I’d never have been able to re-enter my childhood and write my memoir while still teaching. So, I took three years out of the classroom and with the help of Edith Cowan University (Western Australia) and two academic scholarships I worked on my memoir. Completed my PhD in Writing. Lavender baths and long drives into the country listening to country music were essential. Why? They held me and so too, did my university supervisor, Jill Durey, my sister Vonni and her husband and close friends.
The real celebration for me is in the fact that I’d been able to use my writing skills to finally tell my story—a story I’d wanted to write since I was eleven years old.
That’s taken a long time Suzanne. Why did you wait so long?
Firstly, I was not in strong enough financial position to do his earlier. From the time I was thirty, I raised my four children alone, educated myself, taught English in West Australian high schools for about fifteen years and paid off my own home. Debt free. I could only write without having to think of how to survive. The scholarships were a huge gift to me. ECU made it all possible.
There are a lot of stories about people who’ve survived violent childhoods. Misery Lit comes to mind. Does you memoir fit this category? If not, why not?
My memoir is powerful. I want no sympathy and I do not come across like a powerless victim. I find memoirs that fit the Misery Lit category terribly frustrating. Mostly, I feel as if I want to jump into their stories and give the kids a solid shake. The covers of these memoirs immediately position readers to feel sorry for the victim: a girl with one sock down, one up, sad eyes, sad faces, slumped shoulders, backs to the readers, alone, tragic. It’s not what I wanted on my cover and not what I wanted readers to experience. The titles, by the way, do the same thing. Why Daddy Why? Why Mummy Why?
As far as I am concerned they work to reinforce the victim status of children/adults who have lived such childhoods.
I recall a Perth counsellor once telling a group of ‘Incest Survivors’ (a group I soon got out of) ‘Once a victim always a victim’. How convenient is that. She’d surely work to reinforce this and in doing so, never run out of business. Victim? Survivor? I despise both terms. Of course, to be violated as a child requires a perpetrator and victim. But the word ‘victim’ when applied in the way this counsellor did, conjures up an image of helplessness. Rubbish. Survivor? I haven’t figured out why I also despise this term, but I do. I prefer Fighter. I like Hero. This is where I am coming from in my memoir.
Okay then, if you prefer these terms, then how do they fit with your memoir?
To be a fighter and a hero you need courage. You need to be able to assess various life-threatening situations and act to address them, regardless of the cost. To be a hero, you need to have specific character traits, like being a creative thinker, ready to take on whatever task you are compelled to act upon in order to make the world a better place—for you and others. You need to know the dangers, to run against the grain, to be in touch with your strengths as you step up to the challenge and, never give up.
To conclude Suzanne, when did you first realise you were a writer?
When I won second prize in a short story competition run by the biggest newspaper in my home state when I was eleven. Then, when I stood in the hollowed-out woodheap at my primary school where we’d made a small theatre. I told the kids that day that I’d grow up to be a writer and they’d be reading my stories like they did the ones in our small school library.
Writing and dreaming of writing has always been one of my great loves. I remember a dream I once had in my thirties. I was in an amazing underground cave and there I was, a book on my lap, reading out loud. It was my book. So here I am.