Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.
Gus Henderson was born in Sydney in 1950. His people are from the Flinders Ranges region in SA, and he spent his early years with an aunty and uncle. Gus and his siblings grew up without any of their Aboriginal family, and were always told not to tell anybody. It has been a struggle over the years for him to construct a realistic heritage. Gus describes his schooling as forgettable, and he joined the Australian Army in 1967. In 2014, he was the first student to graduate from Edith Cowan University South West Campus (WA) with a PhD in Writing. Gus is now retired. The Wounded Sinner is his first book.
The Wounded Sinner – Synopsis
Matthew and Jeanie moved to the backblocks of the isolated gold mining town of Leonora—back to Jeanie’s roots and family. Matthew’s father, Archie, is dying and he spends three weeks out of four caring for him in The Wounded Sinner, his grand, decaying family home. Whilst Matthew is away, Jeanie stays and works as a teacher and looks after their five children. Their eldest, Jaylene, is hitting adolescence and is challenging Jeanie’s self-image and burgeoning sense of identity.
On a hot desolate day in the West Australian hinterland, Matthew’s car finally breaks down. Vince, whose own family is falling apart in unanticipated ways, stops to pick him up and, in amongst the chaos of their lives, an unlikely friendship is formed.
In this unforgettable debut, the challenges of growing old, fidelity and identity run through this complex, gritty novel in which all are asking the ultimate questions about life, death and the purpose of it all.
I loved The Wounded Sinner and, in part, this is because I’m from Kalgoorlie, I’ve visited Leonora, and I currently live in Perth. So your book, which is set in all three locations, resonated with me in way that few do. Why did you choose these settings?
I lived and worked for some considerable time in the Eastern Goldfields around the date the story was set—give or take some poetic licence—and always adhere to what is Mark Twain’s favourite adage of mine: write what you know. I wanted the story to be about so many things, so the space, the distance of the locales of Perth to the Goldfields, sat perfectly.
A favourite adage of mine as well, and it worked wonderfully for you. In these settings, we engage with families that you have written with great nuance—the complexities of the various members of the Andrews-Bayona family are painted with great precision. Did Twain’s adage inform this component of your work too?
The questions you ask could complete, for me, another PhD but I will answer as succinctly as possible. I generally steer away from family members as character cut-outs other than Archie—drawn from my father-in-law, who my wife and I nursed for the last few years of his life. We saw him mellow toward the end and take the sinner’s prayer, delivered by a black African doctor, after hours, three days before Dad died. My wife, Jeni, and I worked for different organisations—either Aboriginal, such as Bega Garnbaringu (Sickness gets better), or Wyapala groups such as Mission Australia—delivering programs that purportedly improved the economic and social status of young Aboriginals. The interactions and involvements provided me with a huge cache of cultural resource. Jeni and I have six children and 17 grandkids. We know how bigger families co-exist but the Beyona-Andrews families were drawn from a lifetime of experiences living among different groups of people. Not my family!
I’m one of five so I’m sure, as I progress in my writing, I will be able to draw from my experiences with the mess of them! Jeanie Bayona is a particularly compelling character. Her husband convinced her to move back to Leonora because of her Indigenous roots there, but she was raised by a white pastor and his wife and she’s struggling with her sense of self. Her story seems pertinent when a large portion of Australia has convinced itself that the Stolen Generation was hundreds of generations ago. What motivated you to write Jeanie and tackle issues like intergenerational trauma and internalised racism?
Simply: white Australia tries to push itself or lengthen its distance of ignorance, as you have said. That way it can suppress truth rather than leave victims like Jeanie to deal with it. Since the book was published I have received no adverse commentary concerning the length and depth of the Stolen Generation or the fact that Jeanie actually was stolen.
My peers will often contend with overt racism, sexism, or queerphobia if it comes from those of a certain age—often their grandparents, for example. This plays in to your characterisation of Jeanie’s father-in-law, who was a difficult yet satisfying character to read. On the one hand, he is entirely infuriating because he is outrageously racist, but on the other he is a dying man in a decaying house and other characters often skirt around him instead of confronting him. Will, or rather should, time always be a factor of progress?
The crumbling entity of the house, its name and it’s occupant are representative of where and how I grew up.
So we wait for the crumbling. The Wounded Sinner was initially written as a PhD, which you completed with Edith Cowan University. What was your research concerned with, and how long did you work on this piece of literature?
A PhD should be programmed over four years full time, of which the proposal is usually six months, and presented seminar-style to both peers and academics. You are graded and either rejected for further work or passed to proceed with your research. I completed my program in three-and-a-half years. Bloody dedication and hard work. I completed the initial draft in two years. The exegesis dragged on for a year. Research parallels the novel’s focus points: racism, ageism, and homelessness—though that section was removed during editing prior to publication. The proposal plan took six months, the write-up and research took two-and-a-half years. Non-stop, death or glory.
It seems we settled on glory! I heard that there is some difficulty in taking work completed for a PhD and making it publishable for a non-academic audience. What sort of process, if any, was required to take your PhD and deliver it as it has been?
Having an ace supervisor and editor and listening to their experience. Refine, less wine. Get a great publisher like Magabala.
Fair call—Magabala are publishing wonderful books. What was it like working with them, and did anything about the publishing process surprise you?
Working with Magabala was, for me, the complete experience. I learned to understand small words of collective anxiety like ‘yes, no, maybe and wait’ and that manuscripts as a whole document can’t be destroyed even in a nuclear event. But since the point of acceptance, Magabala have been a superb and professional not-so-small publisher. They gave me guidance where needed and experienced editorial staff to bring the manuscript to peak development.
We continue to move towards a publishing industry that is more representative, but sometimes it feels like it’s moving far too slowly. That time and progress conundrum again. What advice would you offer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and the culturally and linguistically diverse writers, editors, designers working in this country? And what advice would you offer to potential allies of these creatives?
Your last point refers to publishers at large. The mystery of the selection process emasculates some prospective writers—great work passed over to the disappointment of the hopeful. It remains a mystery to me. That said, however, there is a multicultural surge of worthiness that deserves to be heard and Australian born writers need to bring new life to the publisher to compete. Keep writing, keep submitting. Try different genres and publishers. Never give up. If you have a story that won’t come out, try a writing workshop but never give up.
You can purchase The Wounded Sinner from Magabala Books.
Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.
This interview was originally published on 10 July 2019.