Academic journal article Hecate

Interview with Pearlie McNeill

Academic journal article Hecate

Interview with Pearlie McNeill

Article excerpt

CF: Pearlie, you've been living in Britain for some time now, can we talk first about why you left Australia?

P McN: In 1979, Marie McShea and I started Women Write in Sydney, an initiative that was similar to Sisters in Melbourne but had a very different basis, a very grass roots basis. We went up and down the east coast as far as Brisbane and Melbourne, selling books, we might have been in Nimbin in a woman's kitchen one night, in a university quadrangle the following day, and so on. We were recognising just how much there was that women wanted to read, and how this wasn't being answered by any of the presses. And just how much people wanted Australian material. We also were commissioned to go into schools, and teachers would say to me again and again: where's the Australian material, where are the Australian women writers? We decided to put a book together; Second Back Row published it in 1984, called And So Say All of Us. We deliberately censored what could be seen as problematic, so that there would be no problems getting it into schools. In 1979 I had my first radio play on the Coming Out Show on ABC radio, it went to air in January 1979. It was concerned with breakdown; it was a monologue about rape and incest, and it proved to me that there was a demand because there were a lot of phone calls on the switch, there were a few letters, and so on. At the same time I was applying frequently to the Literature Board for a grant -- I had a very thick file, I was working class, I didn't have an education beyond the age of fifteen, and who was I anyway. I became quite embittered, I think; what some people call a chip on the shoulder, but I call righteous anger, that my own country was the seat of the oppression that I'd experienced all my life: it wasn't going to validate me as a writer, it wasn't going to validate my life experience.

Once in Britain, I began to write -- and whole gorges of it came out like vomit. Sometimes there would be a lot of anger and it would just send me off in a stream. Other times it was turgid and hard going; but the first draft of One of the Family was written by the end of 1982. Then Thomas Keneally won the Booker prize for Schindler's Ark, and a woman I knew where I was living in Devon suggested that I send it to his agent, and I did. She wrote back and said: I can't see what good there would be in any sort of book by an unknown Australian writer, I can't see there would be any value in it at all really; and I was absolutely demolished. It took me three months before I could come to terms with the criticism; and then I thought, she's probably right. So I wrote the bloody thing again as a third person narrative with this character Maggie, and it was a terrible mistake. I then submitted it to Sheba Publishers, who were ambivalent about it: they liked it, but they thought it was didactic, but they also thought it had some things to say. They weren't very clear about saying yes or no; it seemed like they were saying yes. I had another book going through with them at the time, and after something like nine months they rejected the book, but something had happened to me by then. I'd started to have the same reaction that I'd had to other situations in Australia: if you bloody think you're going to stop me, all you're doing is only making me more determined. Consequently, I set about pulling the book apart again. The book that Sheba was working on, that I'd initiated, was Through The Break, an anthology where a number of women wrote about breaking down. Breaking down didn't just mean emotional breakdown, it could mean you'd been in a wheelchair with a shattered spine, it could mean you had cancer. But that book made the select twenty feminist books in 1987. Now I was in a better position. I said to Ros Delanerolle, from the Women's Press: Well, you rejected me last book, you gonna reject me next one? in a joking fashion. She said: Let's have a look at what you've got. I didn't show her the book, what I did was send her some writings, some of which were personal, which I thought would make up a collection of writings. …

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