Writing Podcast Episode 286 Meet Loretta Smith, author of ‘A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage’

In Episode 286 of So You Want To Be A Writer: What should you do if your book is being pirated? Discover some great blogging tips. And meet Loretta Smith, author of A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia's first all-girl garage. We also have 3 copies of Four Dead Queens by AWC alumna Astrid Scholte to give away.

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Show Notes


Review: The Book of Secrets by A.L. Tait

Ebook piracy

We’re all Bozos on this Bus: 10 Lessons from 10 Years of Blogging

Writers in Residence

Loretta Smith

Loretta Smith has worn many hats over the years: secondary school teacher, adult teacher/trainer, youth arts worker, research consultant, case manager and team leader in disability, mental health and aged care. She holds a Bachelor of Education (Creative Arts), Graduate Certificate in Education, Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and Certificate IV in Frontline Management.

She first read of Alice Anderson in The Unusual Life of Edna Walling (Allen & Unwin 2005). Then one of her aged clients, who had Alzheimer's, dropped a bombshell when she mentioned her mother worked as a driver and mechanic for Alice Anderson. So began her amazing journey researching, studying, writing and promoting Alice Anderson's exceptional legacy.

Her book all about Alice Anderson,  A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia's first all-girl garage, was published by Hachette Australia in 2019.

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript


Thanks for joining us today, Loretta.


Thanks Valerie. It's great to be here.


You've written this very cool book. A Spanner in the Works: The Extraordinary Story of Alice Anderson and Australia's First All-Girl Garage. Now, I just think this is so cool. How did you discover Alice? And then why did you want to write a book about her?


I've never heard it be called cool before, but I love it.

I first read about Alice just over ten years ago now. And it was in a book about Edna Walling, the Australian gardener, who lived around the same time as Alice and was also a part of Alice's social set. So it was just a little cameo about Alice turning up to a party in her giant car and being a small young woman. And she'd just opened this garage and she'd sunk a lot of her own money into it.

And I'd never heard about an all-female garage before in Australia. And I'm not exactly a rev-head, although I've read a lot about cars, having written this. But I was just really curious why hadn't I heard about this amazing woman? And I googled her and there was hardly any information on her. And I just couldn't forget about her. I just kept on trying to find out more information.

And then I was working as a case manager at the time, helping to keep elderly people at home in the city of Boroondara, which covers Kew, which is where Alice's garage was. And there was this elderly woman who had Alzheimer's. And she happened to mention when I was in her kitchen one day, checking on her tablets and things, that her mother was the mechanic and driver was the family because she worked for Alice Anderson. And I just thought then and there – I think Alice is telling me to keep going. And I felt like I got a message from up on high!


Oh wow. Absolutely. And you've really brought her to life. I feel this needs to be a television series. I feel like she would be friends with Phryne Fisher or something, you know? I just think that this is such, as I said, such a cool story.

Now the thing is though, you find out about Alice, you meet this woman who has some connection with her, but as you say, there wasn't very much out there. You're googling, doing your research. What did you have to do from a research point of view to get more information? To really get enough for a book?


Well, I was like a dog with a bone, I guess. I haven't happened to have done a Master's or a PhD, so in terms of doing research, being trained in that way, I was a bit of an autodidact. I really just dug in and thought, well, you know, I'm not going to give up on this.

And I found out a historian who is in her 80s now. So I met her in her 70s. And she was the first person to write about Alice in the 1980s, just a little 1000 word article that was in a book. And she only thought to write about her because her mother had learnt to drive at the garage, way after Alice had died.

And so I had to work very hard to track her down, since she'd been retired. And I met with her. But it took a year before she handed over all the materials that she had on Alice. Which is fair enough. I was coming out of nowhere and just very interested about this woman.

And in amongst that I found out about Georgine Clarsen, who also had written a PhD on early women motorists and had actually written about Alice in the mid-90s. And she works at the University of Wollongong now. And so Mimi Colligan who was the first historian to write about her, and now Georgine Clarsen, were all good friends. And it's kind of like, Mimi worked on her in the 80s, Georgine worked on her in the 90s, and I've pulled the whole story together in the noughties.


Fantastic. But then getting bits of research is one thing. But then constructing it into a readable interesting narrative is another. How did you approach that? Did you divide it up into sections? How did you actually think you were going to tell the story?


First of all, I tried to… I knew it was going to be a biography, but I didn't want to write a boring biography, because I've read enough of those. So I thought, maybe I can do it thematically rather than chronologically. Or maybe I can take this angle or that angle.

And I ended up going back to chronology, even though the prologue doesn't start with the beginning of her story. So I've kind of bookmarked it in that way, with the prologue and the epilogue. But I did find that it worked best if I did do it chronologically, because she lived so long in the past.

But one of the greatest sources of information was the University of Melbourne Archives that had Alice's sister's archives there, Frances Derham. And she became famous and lived til she was very old. Unlike Alice, who died quite young. But all her sisters lived to a ripe old age.

But the eldest sister was really the matriarch of the family that kept all the records, including every letter their father had written to their mother over the time. And whilst the two historians I mentioned did interview Frankie, as she was known, a few times, it was only after she died and there were things left in the archives, and I went looking for Alice Anderson, not Frankie, and I discovered things that no one else had discovered.

Because at that stage the collection, which was quite large, was about 100 boxes, hadn't been catalogued. And so I was opening up letters that Alice had written that probably no one, that probably were found in her garage after she died. And she died at age 29. And so I just got addicted to even the idea of research. Just, okay, I think I'm a nonfiction writer and I think I really love doing research.

And so I was able to get her alive by getting a lot of record stuff that no one else had set their eyes on before. Possibly not even the immediate family. Because I think that those things were collected and just stored away after Alice died and probably never looked into since then, except they were kept in her sister's archives.


What did that feel like when you were uncovering things that you knew these other historians had not come into contact with before? And as you mentioned, maybe even members of her family did not know existed? How did you feel?


Oh look, I felt like I was actually meeting Alice in real life. And I felt like that the 100 plus years just disappeared.

I found a letter that told me a lot about her Alice Springs trip that not a lot of people knew about. And there were pressed flowers in the letter which she'd sent to Elizabeth Lothian, who was a friend of hers from the Lothian publishing family. And just to write about their trip through Central Australia and how there'd been a 40 year drought and suddenly it had rained further north and they drove this field of amazing flowers that were gone after two days. And they took pressings of the flowers. I mean, things like that that are just absolutely priceless.


Now I want to come back to the actual writing of the book. But just for listeners who haven't read the book yet, can you give us a little bit more of an idea about Alice? Because she's such a fascinating character.


Yes. And I fell in love with the character as I went along. And I think if you're going to write any book, fiction or nonfiction, you really do have to be in love with the subject because it is such a process.

But Alice was born in 1897 and her father was a brilliant engineer who had an engineering business with John Monash. And so that's where her knowledge of mechanics came from initially. But she was actually born the year the first cars were seen across the world, and in Australia particularly. So she grew up with the car. And her father surveyed roads as part of his work, so he was building the roads that she was to drive on.

And her father ended up setting up a motor service in Healesville called the Black Spur Motor Service, and she ended up becoming the secretary of that motor service. She'd studied bookkeeping at school.

And she was so excited by what was happening next door with the garage mechanics and the drivers. And so she nagged them until they taught her how to drive. I presume with permission from the father, who had actually, he was a bad money manager. So they were either very rich or very poor. And Alice mainly grew up through the period when they were quite poor and living in the country in their cottage in Narbethong, where they didn't even have running water when they first went and lived there. It was just a rough summer cottage.

So she was a real tomboy and she learned how to shoot. She used to shoot rabbits for the dinner table. She ended up being a good horsewoman. And she just loved being outdoors. Her elder sister Frankie was the one that stuck by mum and did all the indoor chores. And she was very precocious, really, as a young child.

And I've really called the story a girl's own adventure and a woman against the odds, because she grows up to run her own garage. And despite everything that was against her as a woman of the time, she had to go to a million garages before she found someone who would apprentice her to study mechanics after she became a licensed driver.

And she couldn't get a loan from the bank without having a man behind her. And her father was almost bankrupt half the time, so the banks wouldn't take him on. And she never let anybody in the family or anyone know who supported her. There were a few guesses along the way.

And she created this garage and decided that she would have it as an all-woman garage. So she was kind of of her time in the 1920s between the two world wars when there were opportunities that had opened up for women that didn't exist at the time. But she was also very ahead of her time, because she was the only woman in Australia, and everyone referred to Alice Anderson in the 1920s as being the spokeswoman for women and motoring.


And even an all-women garage now gets talked about and gets press, let alone back then. It would have been just such an extraordinary thing back then, right?


Absolutely. I mean, there were some all-women garages in Europe and in Britain, particularly. But very much just as a result of the war. They were closer to the front lines and they needed women drivers as much as they needed men drivers and mechanics to run the ambulances and things like that.

But in Australia, all over Australia, Alice Anderson was it. There was no one else doing what she did. There might have been the odd backyard female mechanic.

And most women that learned to drive, particularly if they learned to drive through Alice, they also learned about basic car maintenance and mechanics. Because in those days, you were in the country a couple miles out of the cities and you didn't have a garage on every corner. Far from it. You had to really know how to fix a car if you got stuck on the road. Which is one of the reasons why she invented the ‘get out and get under'.


Yes. And she's just such a character. Such a character.

Now you have had various careers. Can you just give us a very brief potted history of your career and then when you started writing?


Okay. Well, I started out as a secondary school teacher. And I've done youth work and social work related jobs. I've also worked in community arts and in theatre. And I've always liked writing.

I suppose most writers, as they say, have a practice book. And my practice book was… Oh, about 18 years ago I started writing about a partner who died of breast cancer. And she was a real lively character and there had been a documentary made about us, too.

And so that got close to getting published. But it got to that point where the marketing teams in various publishers were just saying, look, she's not a household name and it's going to be hard to publish because it involves death even though it was very much about her life and what an amazing life she had.

But look, English was my best language at school. And I loved teaching English at secondary level. And all of my family, actually, are very interested in reading and writing and I've always been an absolute avid reader. And I don't think you can be a good writer without being an avid reader.

And yes, I've got piles of short stories, and poems, and plays, and all sorts of unfinished things in my filling cabinet. But I think it's all led to this sense that… I was told by publishers that I could write, and it was a matter of finding something that was commercially viable.

And I did, because I was getting advice from two academic historians, I did initially apply to, I submitted to a couple of university publishers. And when they both knocked it back, including Melbourne Uni and Monash Uni, that would be the most likely to want to have it I thought, look, I'm finding this too academic myself.

So I threw it all up in the air. Knew I'd done all the research and I couldn't find any more on her. I mean, any more than I could put in the book, at least. So I just put all that aside and I rewrote the whole thing. And that's why I think it's becoming a commercial success because of that. I've done the research. But I've written it in a way that's a bit of a rollicking narrative as well. So it's still a biography, but it's got that narrative nonfiction that glues it together.


Yes, it flows really well. So hang on. You rewrote the whole thing. So are you telling me that you wrote it in another format first?


Well, I started writing it as historical fiction because I was told, oh, Alice died in 1926. There's no way you're going to get enough information. And because the two other historians had said, you know, there's not much more out there.

But I dug long and hard enough. And Trove is also an amazing thing. I don't know how anyone did their research through newspapers before Trove.

So I did find out enough. And also I found more relatives of garage girls. I was able to include more garage girls as I went along. Carolyn Webb of the Melbourne Age did an article a couple of years ago and I thought, gosh, this isn't good timing. She's seen my Facebook page on Alice Anderson but I haven't finished the book yet and she's promoting it already. But I got two relatives of garage girls out of that article. So that was fantastic.

But look I didn't throw it up in the air and write the whole thing very differently. It was still chronologically. But I made it more of a narrative that I wanted to read rather than just include a lot of facts that were interesting in and of themselves, but I felt that Alice hadn't come alive until I wrote with more of that sense of being in the period and living it as she would have lived it and as the garage girls lived it.

And really studying the many, many photos that I luckily had that Mimi Colligan had initially. Most of them she had from interviewing garage girls and relatives at the time that were all alive. But of course, everyone had passed away that knew Alice directly, except for young Mary was four years old when she first went to the garage when her mother went and worked there. And she was the person that I case managed. So she was the closest thing I had to a primary resource.


And so, can you take us through just a rough timeline. Like you researched it for this period, then you wrote it for a certain number of months or years or whatever, and so on. Can you give us a bit of an idea of that?


Well, I've added it up. I reckon I did about three years fulltime research.


Oh wow.


Yeah. And I've been told I've left no stone unturned. I suppose feeling that I wasn't an academic in terms of having a PhD myself. A bit like Alice having to outdo the men, I thought I had to outdo the academics!

Yeah, I probably overdid the research. But when I've either acted or directed, I've found that over-researching a character isn't a bad thing. If you've got a sense of what someone had for breakfast and what their daily routine was, even if you don't include that in the actual script, it fills out the character for you. So I don't regret the amount of research that I did. I think the next book I write I'll probably be a little bit more focused.

But it was a huge learning curve for me. I probably did my 20,000 hours. More than my 10,000 hours.




But look, it did take the best part of ten years. And I also have a physical disability and I started to deteriorate over the last ten years. So I was doing it in amongst surgery and recovery from surgery. So I suppose someone could relate to that as having a fulltime job and trying to do a major project outside of that.

There was months and months that I couldn't do anything because I was too heavily medicated and things like that. But it was great to have this project to come back to and feel the stability of, I'm not just writing a fiction here, as important as fiction is. I felt this incredible responsibility to bring Alice back to life and to tell her full story that had never been told. Because when she died, she was on the front page of every newspaper and she was a national treasure. But like so many women, she was written out of the history books.




Yeah. Hardly anyone knew about her until I started feeding things out there on my Facebook page and getting out there on social media and interviewing people and spreading the word that way. So by the time I got to get an agent and then a publisher and get it out there, it's great to have these people taking the journey with you, as well.


Oh, that's one of the reasons I love this so much.

So you did all the research. You knew you did heaps. And then you realise, I'm going to sit down and I'm going to write it. Whether it's the first version that was slightly more academic or then when you rewrote it in a slightly more engaging way, what was your approach there in terms of getting the words on paper? As in, did you have a structure to your day? Did you have a wordcount goal? How did you structure the actual process of writing to ensure that it got written?


Well, in some ways it was great that I didn't have a job. Because I was my own person. And whilst I would love to do that, and I may do that in the future because I'm in a much better position physically than I was in terms of I'm not dealing with severe chronic pain. I've got chronic pain, but not severe chronic pain, which through a lot of this I was doing. And some of it was as a distraction as well. I would just sit myself into the 1920s and the pain would just go to the background.

But I would love to have a wordcount or say that I'm going to sit in front of the computer for a certain amount of hours. What I can say I did was I made it my priority. And it was my passion. It was a passion project. I applied for various bits of funding here and there, but never got that. They're scarce as hen's teeth for writers, as we all know. It's very hard. Particularly if it's your first book that might be fully published.

So I just made it whenever I could. Sometimes I was falling asleep in front of my computer because I was still on heavy medication. And, you know… I kept her alive in me. And it was my first priority every day to see what I could do. Even if it was going back and reading.

Although I learnt very quickly that you really do have a different brain for the creative writing process and the editing process. Because when I started, being a little bit of a perfectionist, I would try and write something in the morning and try and edit it in the afternoon. And I realised that slowed down the process a lot. So I would write and write and write and write. I would write a whole chapter and then I'd go back and review it. And it might end up being two chapters because I'd have too many words in there.

But I definitely had a plan. I definitely had a chapter outline that by halfway through I'd finetuned that chapter outline to know that that's what I would be following. And I didn't really change very much from there.


But just give us an idea, I know you said you've made her the priority. But when you were in the depths of writing, were you writing say for eight hours? Or four hours? What part of the day?


Probably five hours a day. I was better in the afternoons than the mornings. So I probably should have taken more breaks during that than I did. But I'd get lost in it. The time would just go. And I think that's when you know that you're in the flow. When you look out the window and it's light and then you look out and it's dark. You think, gosh, I have been here for a long time.

But I would make sure that I didn't have too many disruptions. My partner at the time would come home from work and if I was upstairs she knew that I'd be working and she'd know not to interrupt me in that time. My dog would interrupt me during the day. But you know, that was fair enough, I suppose.


Now we have to tell listeners, we have to tell listeners, Loretta, the name of your dog is?


Is Alice! Alice Austin Anderson Smith, to be correct.


And Alice the dog is actually named after Alice Anderson, isn't that correct?


Yes. Yes, she is. Yes, she is. I was going to call her after my grandmother who was Sissy. And then I thought, that's close to Alice. Why don't I call her Alice?


I think that's a good decision.

All right. At what point did you know that you'd have a book deal? Because that's a lot of research to do just out of interest. And then of course at some point you then got the book deal. Tell us about that process.


I got a book deal through getting an agent. And it's very interesting. You know how some publishers they say that you can send something in on a certain day of the week and we will guarantee that we'll look at it. And if we're interested we'll get back to you.

Well one publisher did that before I had an agent. And they sat on it for three months. And then as soon as I got an agent there was a bidding war and that publisher wanted to me. Which I thought was very interesting. So I think, you know, how much do you really get beyond that slush pile? Or does it go up the ladder?

So I was very fortunate that I got an agent that really suited me, that has really been a great champion of the book and feminism in general. And feminist writers. And there was a bidding war over the book so I was very, very lucky. And now there are five production companies reading with interest to option it for a film or a mini-series.


I'm telling you, I can see the mini-series already. I could see it from the first few pages. Or the first chapter, anyway.


That's amazing.


Oh, absolutely. I could just see it all play out in my head.

Anyway, so then you get the deal, you go with Hachette. And you had written the whole thing by then? You submitted the full manuscript?


Yes. And so it was really just a matter of editing. And they said I didn't need a structural edit. And that they didn't think there was a lot of faff in it. So I delivered just over 100,000 words and they were happy to keep it to 100,000. So it's a decent read.

But I hadn't been through a formal editing process. I actually had quite a short turnaround. They wanted to bring it out this year. Because 2019 is the actual 100th anniversary of Alice building her garage. And so there was a six month turnaround, which is pretty short for a book.

And also, I'd booked to go overseas in November of last year. So I had two editors on me – an inhouse editor, and another editor to fast-track the process. And it was a baptism of fire. Because saying they didn't think it needed a structural edit, and it didn't need a lot, I was thinking, oh, this will be a breeze. No. I was up til five in the morning and then I'd have a few hours' sleep and I'd be out… For a couple of weeks there I hardly slept.

And I'm so happy with the editing process. Because it's amazing. I learned so much about editing. That you can just change a paragraph or a couple of words and it just makes something sing where it hadn't before. Yeah.


Now that this is out, it has been released, what's next for you? Have you already thought of your next obsession and your next dog's name?


Haha. I have pitched another book to my agent. They're quite excited about it. They're giving me a little bit of a breather before. Hachette is interested in having first option on my next book, which is lovely. So whether they'll pick it up or not, who knows?

But it's going to be about myself and experience through the medical profession. I have osteogenesis imperfecta. I have a mild version. But I was born with dislocated hips that weren't picked up. So I have about 50% of my body is metal now, including all of my spine. And so I've been through a very, very interesting…

It's kind of going to be a lay person's story about how the medical profession has changed over the last five decades. So I'm giving my age away here. So the working title is Incarnations: A memoir of a body on the cutting edge of medicine. Because I've always had to wait for technology to catch up with me to have certain surgeries done.

And it will involve research, apart from interviewing my whole family. Just going back to even how, way back in the 60s when I was born, they didn't think, the medical profession didn't think that young babies and young children had developed the same central nervous system, and they didn't feel pain in the same way. So I was never given pain relief as a young child. You know? Things like that, that have changed. The way x-rays are given. The way anaesthetics have changed.

So I find that really fascinating from a lay person's perspective, having gone through that system time and time again. So yeah. It seems to be showing some interest. There's quite a few books out there at the moment on women and the body politic, so hopefully that'll be something that's picked up.

But there's plenty of women with history out there I'm very interested in looking at, too. If the time comes. So hopefully this will be the first of many books for me.


I have no doubt that it's going to be. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Loretta.


My pleasure. It's been great talking to you, Valerie.


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