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The Invisible Thread

The Invisible Thread series: Dorothy Johnston

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We’ve finally reached the end of our video interview series but we’re going out with a bang. When I spoke to Dorothy Johnston on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin she was feisty, outspoken and honest. We talked about everything from the importance of having the ‘right’ length of jeans and going to the ‘right’ bars in literary Melbourne, to hitchhiking from Sydney to Canberra during the time of Ivan Milat, how her writing set in Canberra is a way of saying ‘up you’, and why the Seven Writers’ iconic status is ‘a false view’.

Dorothy was one of three founding members of Seven Writers (I also spoke to fellow member Marion Halligan recently and that interview can be found here). I’m always fascinated by writers’ groups, particularly the ones that work, because so many don’t. The idea of a regular gathering of like-minded colleagues who are mutually supportive and constructive in their criticism is so attractive. Yet most groups seem to falter for one reason or another. The longevity of Seven Writers is a mark of its success—for 18 years these women shared their lives and their work.

During our interview Dorothy related a story about a celebration Seven Writers held when the collective number of their published books exceeded the combined total of their children and grandchildren. As a mother of three, this intertwining of books and children is greatly appealing. All seven of them were mothering and writing and carving out their own paths, separately yet together.

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Given their success, it’s little wonder that Seven Writers is held up as an ideal, but Dorothy asserts this as ‘a false view’. She says: ‘It took us ages to get off the ground as a writers’ group and we weren’t at all well-known…For ages it didn’t seem as if we would survive at all. So that business of the kind of iconic status is not something that we have ever fostered or sought.’ And yet she acknowledges the immense value of the group. ‘You knew you would get honest responses about a piece of writing. That you could take anything to them. You could take ideas to them or some scrappy first draft, and people would pay attention. That’s immeasurably hard to find.’

INVISIBLE‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’, included in The Invisible Thread, is a story that came out of that time and marks the beginning of Dorothy’s emotional connection with Canberra. It arose from the traumatic experience of her 11-month-old baby contracting salmonella poisoning. For days he lay in the Canberra Hospital, situated beside the lake, hovering between life and death. Dorothy found herself in a state of suspension. Unable to go home, she spent time looking out over the lake. Like many of us, Dorothy moved to Canberra reluctantly, but when her son survived she says ‘it became the place of my heart’.

The Canberra Hospital no longer exists. It was imploded in a public event with much fanfare that ended, appallingly, in the death of a child. For our interview Dorothy and I meet at this significant site, so bound up in memories and meaning. It is a blustery day and the leaves on the silver barks flip their smooth ivory backs at us. As we talk about the mythical boatman of her story I half expect him to glide into view. To say to us, ‘I’m taking you where you want to go. You’ll recognise it when we get there.’ He doesn’t show, but later a couple of kayaks paddle silently into the camera frame. It’s as close as we’re going to get.

I hope you’ve enjoyed watching these interviews as much as I’ve enjoyed making them. And a big thank you to Dylan Jones, cameraman and editor for all 19 videos. You can catch up on any you’ve missed here, but first click on the triangle below and spend a few minutes with Dorothy.

The Invisible Thread series: Barbara Blackman

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The sun is out, it’s school holidays, and I’ve slowed down a little, which is to say that I’ve neglected these posts. But I’m back today with Barbara Blackman.

I interviewed Barbara in winter, heavy with a flu I couldn’t shift. At her home, I traipsed upstairs and down with Dylan, the camera man, looking for a spot to film. The light in her house was peach-coloured and the walls were full of art. It had the feel of a gallery. For 30 years Barbara was married to painter Charles Blackman, one of Australia’s finest artists, and spotting one of his Alice and Wonderland series hanging above a side table I felt a small thrill.

Barbara Blackman and Irma GoldIn the end we settled on a couch downstairs where Barbara often sits to listen to music. Indeed in our interview she spoke about the importance of music in her life and why she has been dubbed ‘the patron saint of audiences’. Her role as a philanthropist is well known and last year she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of her support for the arts.

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Among other things, we also spoke about her 50-year friendship with poet Judith Wright and their first meeting at a life-altering lecture by Judith’s partner, Jack McKinney. ‘I was greatly moved by both these people,’ she told me. ‘Although I was 15, a schoolgirl, and Judith was 30 and a published author, we somehow clicked. We got on very well and she big-sistered me through a lot of life’s narrow passageways.’

All about the process

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Filming The Invisible Thread trailerThere’s something deeply thrilling about being on a film set. Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer and used to solitary work, but being in the midst of a collaborative creative process, watching something take shape before you, is fascinating. Even more so, when the work in question is a trailer for a book you just happen to have spent three years labouring over. That’s right, I’m talking about James Hunter’s The Invisible Thread trailer.

I first came to James with some ideas that were deliberately broad in scope. I was looking for a filmmaker with a strong visual aesthetic who would bring a unique vision to the project. He came back to me with a two-page script. It was perfect, and we set about making it happen.

James, his Director of Photography, Michael O’Rourke, and the actor, Chris Delforce, set up in Paperchain after the store closed and worked through to midnight two nights in a row. I was there the first night and I brought along my artistically inclined nine-year-old thinking she’d find the whole experience interesting. She did, but not in the way I’d expected. Faced with unrestricted access to an empty bookshop she immersed herself in books (who wouldn’t, right?). At one point I suggested she come and watch the filming, which she dutifully did for a few minutes, before returning to all those books.

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My daughter dutifully watches filming
My daughter dutifully watches filming

I, on the other hand, enjoyed every minute of the filming, though at one stage I was tugging books attached to fishing wire off the shelves which felt a little bit wrong. Outside, passersby looked in through Paperchain’s glass doors. ‘Bet they’re shocked this is what happens after dark,’ Michael quipped.

As my own signed copy of Marion Halligan’s beautifully designed Shooting the Fox, crashed down in front of me for the third time, pages awry, I had to prevent a groan escaping. I like to think I sacrificed my books for the good of Paperchain*, though I neglected to tell the bookseller, Maxeme, that we weren’t using her stock until the end of the night. Later, I pictured her sitting in her office listening to books committing suicide. Bookseller torture.

As little more than a voyeur, the whole evening was a great deal of fun. My favourite piece of direction from James to Chris went something like, ‘Walk in gingerly. It’s not a Toby Maguire stride.’ Not having seen any of the Spiderman films myself I was perplexed, but James demonstrated a finger-pointing swagger that may or may not have enlightened me.

If you haven’t already watched the trailer it’s about time you did. At the end you may notice that I’m credited as the producer. This still gives rise to a wry smile every time I see it. I have never been entirely clear what a film producer actually does. In this case I coordinated the shoot, organised finances, made arrangements with Paperchain, organised writers to record readings, and threw a few books about. When I was watching a preview and saw the title I’d been assigned I joked to James, ‘Now that’s a trumped up title if ever there was one.’ He assured me that I’d done more than many producers do. So what is that exactly? I’m still not sure. But I had a good time doing it.

* Thankfully the books sustained little physical damage. However long-term psychological damage to the owner may be another matter.

The post-launch blues

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The Invisible Thread launch3It’s taken me a while to write about The Invisible Thread launch (others have already beaten me to it here and here). Why, you might ask? Well, launches are funny things. You build towards them — in this case for three years — with great anticipation. The event itself zips by, a blur of faces and book signings and congratulations. Usually you eat and drink nothing. You don’t spend more than five minutes with any one person and yet you don’t manage to talk to everyone. And then — suddenly — it’s all over. The End. Of course it’s just the beginning for the book, but the launch is like a line in the sand. It’s the end of a long and involved creative process, of bringing The Invisible Thread into being.

At the launch, artist Victoria Lees gave me a pep talk. ‘Now, you’re going to feel depressed,’ she said. ‘You’ve been working so hard. Just expect it, go with it.’ At least I think that’s what she said. In retrospect those two hours have taken on a dream-like quality. She was right, of course. I’d been madly planning and organising the launch while also doing publicity for the book and finalising the ACT Writers Showcase website. I’d been running on adrenalin for weeks; a crash was inevitable.

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CakeBut let’s take a few steps back, to when the adrenaline was still kicking.

On the morning of the launch I drove out through Queanbeyan, past fields of yellow flowers, the spike of the Telstra Tower in the distance. I collected the cake, a replica of the book, and placed it carefully in the boot of my car. It was already 30-something degrees and I worried about it melting before I reached home. Yet I drove slowly, also worried that a sudden slam of the brakes would splatter it everywhere. I made it back without incident. My nine-year-old thought it was the most amazing thing she’d ever laid eyes on and took a gazillion photos of it. (Later, at the launch, one person thought it was a cloth version of the book and actually tried to open it, a testament to its authenticity.)

After I’d dropped the older kids at school, Advisory Committee member Clare McHugh phoned and asked if I had heard that electrical storms were predicted for the afternoon. I hadn’t; cue mild panic. The stats revealed a 40 per cent chance that it would rain. That meant a 60 per cent chance that it wouldn’t. I had to bank on the 60. We had a wet weather contingency plan but it wouldn’t have been nearly so atmospheric as the courtyard with its grand 100-year-old oak tree, stripy deck chairs, orange umbrellas, wood panelled stage, and the thread artwork we commissioned Victoria Lees to create.

By afternoon rain still hadn’t struck and, as anticipated, the NewActon Courtyard proved to be the perfect place for our celebration. Around 150 people packed the space, creating a real buzz, as the Wicked Strings ensemble set the mood. Alex Sloan was a warm and gracious MC, and as guest speaker Underbelly writer Felicity Packard made personal and profound connections with the anthology. Four of the Thread writers read their work: Blanche d’Alpuget, who flew in for just a few hours to be there; Meredith McKinney, Judith Wright’s daughter; Advisory Committee member and poet Adrian Caesar; and Francesca Rendle-Short who flew in from Melbourne. I got to stand up and thank everyone who helped make the book and its associated projects a reality. It was a big moment for me. As I explained, it’s been a privilege to work with so many dedicated and talented individuals. I also launched the ACT Writers Showcase, a comprehensive website of ACT authors and the first site of its kind in Australia. Conceived by the Advisory Committee, I’ve been developing it with Greg Gould of Blemish Books. It’s been a massive undertaking and I’m so thrilled that we’ve been able to create such a terrific resource.

Irma Gold and Anne-Maree BrittonChair of the Advisory Committee, Anne-Maree Britton, presented me with flowers — a lovely and unexpected surprise (this was not in the launch rundown that I had so meticulously planned!). Alex Sloan wrapped up and suggested everyone buy the book as Christmas presents (now there’s a brilliant idea), and Wicked Strings played again while everyone ate, drank and were merry. Victoria’s Invisible Thread artwork captivated, and the Thread cake was demolished. It was all pretty damn wonderful. As one guest proclaimed, it was ‘the best atmosphere at a literary event ever’.

That night I came home, kicked off my heels, ate left over Thread cake (the tastiest book I’ve ever eaten), drank a cup of tea and thought, ‘Oh.’ The flat feeling took hold. The remedy, I told myself, was to spend the next few days reading books and drinking tea, strictly no work.

leftoversOf course this didn’t happen, but as I worked a stream of complimentary emails about the launch and the book began arriving. Words like ‘spectacular’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘very special’ helped a little in shifting the post-launch blues.

There’s still work to be done. Lots of it. But I’ve promised myself a break over Christmas. A real one, without email and Facebook and Twitter. I’m telling myself I can do it.

For fabulous launch pics by ‘pling click here.