Maree Giles: Author and journalist

image-mareegiles200Maree Giles’ debut novel, Invisible Thread, is a semi-autobiographical account of life for a young girl in the Gunyah Training School for Girls in 1970. Despite its sometimes harrowing story, it received rave reviews and Maree has since written two more literary novels – The Past is a Secret Country and Under the Green Moon.

Maree has worked as a journalist and editor for Parents Magazine and in 1997 she won the SHE magazine short story competition. She now writes regularly for publications in the UK, including The Guardian newspaper. She has also taught journalism and creative writing to students in England and Australia.

Click play to listen. Running time: 27.04

Invisible Thread

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
So thanks for joining us today, Maree.

Maree
You‘re welcome.

Valerie
Tell us, when did you first realize that you could write? Was it something that you always wanted to do when you were younger? Or was it something that developed later?

Maree
I think that I probably became aware of it when I was in Parramatta Girls Home for the first time because I found that writing poetry really helped me to get through that experience. But of course I didn’t realize that I had any talent at that time. It was just something that I felt I had to do to help me get through.

After that I went to New Zealand and I think that I realized over there for the first time that’s what I wanted to do. But I became a journalist first of all. The fiction writing didn’t come until much later.

Valerie
Tell us a bit more about your time in Parramatta because a lot of your book Invisible Thread is based on some of your experiences there. Is that right?

Maree
Yes, that’s right. It is. When I was 16 I was  arrested for living with my boyfriend. I’d left home because I didn’t get along with my step-father and the charge was being exposed to moral danger even though I was over the age of consent. It’s not so much that they were picking girls up for doing things like that willy-nilly.

It usually happened if your parents complained about it to the authorities. Now when you think about it in hindsight girls are doing that sort of thing all of the time. They leave home quite young these days, some girls. You’re not arrested for it. It’s not a crime or anything.

I do understand that it was quite young but the punishment was just completely ridiculous compared to what the so-called crime was. Girls like myself were sentence to Parramatta Girls Home for six to nine months and the punishment in that home was very severe.

The regime was rather harsh and they had cells there and dungeons and that kind of thing and you could be locked up in the dungeon for a very small misdemeanour like talking out of turn, that kind of thing. The punishment didn’t fit the crime at all.

I don’t consider that I committed a crime and I never have. But the entire experience it does leave scars, emotional scars because you end up feeling that you are a bad person which is totally wrong but you don’t really realize that until much  later on in hindsight and with some maturity.

Valerie
How did you discover writing? How were you exposed to writing during that time?

Maree
We weren’t allowed to write in fact. I was just very lucky because they made me, I became a librarian so I was in charge of that job. That meant that I had access to pen and paper and during that period of time once a week so I was able to do some writing when I was sitting on my own in the library.

But apart from that if you are in the school room you were allowed pen and paper but it was strictly for lessons and then the only other time was on Sunday when we were allowed to write one letter home but it had to be to immediate family.

In fact I had to resort to writing poetry illegally if you like. When I could snatch a moment and I did actually taken pens from the library and paper. But the officers found my poetry and tore it up.

So it was quite difficult to express yourself on paper basically. And the reason for that is because a lot of the girls who were actually able to get hold of a pen or pencil they would self-harm and mark their bodies with tattoos. It was quite difficult, yeah.

Valerie
After that experience, which would have been a very traumatic experience and you said that you had gone to New Zealand, why did you decide to go into journalism initially?

Maree
When I first went to New Zealand, the reason that I went to New Zealand was to get away from the authorities after I was released from Parramatta. They were hounding me and determined to send me back to Parramatta or a similar institution for any minor thing.

For instance if I had stayed out past my curfew, which was 11:00 at night, then they would have come down on me. So I decided to go to New Zealand and start a new life. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I got a job in an office.

When I first got there I was living in the YMCA. I was still 16 at the time. I had only just turned 16 when I was sent to Parramatta. So I was quite young to be doing this all on my own. I didn’t know a soul in New Zealand.

Then I decided to become a psychiatric nurse so I enrolled at the Porirua Hospital which is just outside Wellington and started my training. But I quickly realized, they threw me in at the deep end and I was on a ward with very chronically ill patients. I quickly realized that again it was another institution like Parramatta where cruelty can take place behind locked doors.

The cruelty that I witnessed there upset me terribly so I resigned. I did complain about the cruelty and they told me more or less to like it or lump it. So I decided to resign and then I was thinking about what I could do next and I thought well, journalism.

I think that I must have seen an ad in the paper for a journalism course in Wellington. I enrolled on that and that was a one-year course and I gained my diploma in journalism there. Then I moved to the South Island and got a job as a journalist down there in a newspaper. It continued from there basically.

Valerie
When did you then discover literary writing?

Maree
That came much later, much later. That came when I moved to England and mainly after I had my first child, my son.

In 1983 I started to become very interested in it and I think one of the reasons for that is because at that time there was such a heavy influence on writing. Lots of magazines that you could buy in the newspaper shops, that kind of thing, writers’ magazines and I don’t remember coming across anything like that in New Zealand or Australia at that time. That sort of prompted my interest in it and I devoured those magazines and started to build up a library of books on writing and started writing short stories.

Then in 1997 I won the She magazine short story competition and that introduced me to my editor at Little, Brown and I kept in touch with her and she asked me to write something longer which I did. Then I chose to write Invisible Thread. It seemed the obvious choice to start with because I had always wanted to write about that experience and it came easy to me.

Valerie
Was it difficult though because you had left it behind for so long and then you are revisiting it after all those years?

Maree
Well yes, nearly a 30 year gap. It was difficult. I did cry a lot when I wrote the book. But I didn’t write just about my own experience and the experience of other girls at Parramatta. I chose to include the story of the Stolen White Baby Generation which is about a huge adoption scam in Australia similar to what happened over here in Britain and in New Zealand and in South Africa where newborn babies were taken at the point of birth and stolen from their mother and handed over to the adoption market which was thriving at the time. It was a scheme that was being run by all of the authorities, everybody was involved, doctors, nurses, social workers, nuns, and other clergy.

Valerie
It sounds like it’s a harrowing account on so many fronts, personally and also other aspects of the story. Did that weigh heavily on you during the writing as well as after? Could you shake it off eventually?

Maree
Well that’s an interesting question because I actually didn’t think very much about Parramatta after I came out and went to New Zealand. I really just put it out of my mind as much as could.

It wasn’t until I started writing it that I realized the incredibly deep affect that it had on me as a person and on my life. I mean obviously I was aware that I had to take pretty drastic measures and leave Australia because I didn’t want to be locked up again.

But the sense of feeling like a bad person, I didn’t realize how much that had effected me. That’s one of the goals really to make you feel like that, to humiliate you. When that happens to you at such a young age it does stay with you.

So yes, when I was writing the book a lot of things came to the surface, a lot of emotions, a lot of anger. But I wrote the book in total isolation, not knowing or thinking that nobody else would care about it actually. I think that is probably one of the reasons I decided to include the story about the Stolen White Baby adoption scam because I felt that people would be more interested in that.

I really honestly thought that nobody would care about what had gone on at Parramatta. It’s only since I have written the book and it’s been published that other people have come forward. Some of the other girls have come forward and joined a support group and they have a web site. Alana Valentine has written a play called Parramatta Girls. It was on at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney a couple of years ago and that received a lot of publicity.

A lot of stuff has come out now but when I wrote the book it was in total isolation so it was quite painful and I was really afraid of repercussions so I renamed the institution Gunyah Training School for Girls because I didn’t want anybody coming after me basically.

Valerie
Was it a therapeutic experience, the writing process?

Maree
In terms of things coming to the surface, no, it was very painful. It hasn’t really laid any of the ghosts to rest. I’m more aware of it now than I ever was. Especially since I have been in contact with the girls and I’ve actually gone back to Parramatta and seen the place and taken photographs and I’ve been back there three times now.

So no, it’s not really therapeutic. I think that it’s something that will always be with me. It’s part of me and I know that it only seems like a short span of time to a lot of people, nine months. It’s nothing in comparison to your entire life but it was a very powerful experience.

Valerie
So your next two books, The Past Is a Secret Country and Under the Green Moon, tell us where you got the inspiration and ideas for those books?

Maree
Under the Green Moon came after The Invisible Thread and I set it in the Botany Bay area because that’s where my mother and my grandparents lived for many years during the 1930’s. They were hairdressers and my mum was just a little girl at the time and I was just really interested in her stories about the area when there was nothing but sand dunes there.

I was very interested in the fact that there was an Aboriginal community nearby and I wanted to try and write something about that. So that’s where the idea started and began.

Valerie
And the other one?

Maree
The Past Is a Secret Country that’s also due to my ancestors, my great-great grandmother and her husband were on route back to England and their ship was wrecked. They both drowned and they washed ashore and her long hair was wrapped around his body. It was quite romantic really. Some of the images I found really inspiring. So that’s where that story sort of began.

Valerie
You’ve got a lot of your ideas based on your life experience or the life experience of your family. How have you researched things that happened even before you were born?

Maree
I’ve been to lots of museums. For The Past Is a Secret Country I had to research shipwrecks off the coast of New South Wales and Queensland. There used to be hundreds of shipwrecks because the waters weren’t charted in those days.

So I went to the Maritime Museum in Port Macquarie, which is near where my mum lived. That was helpful. I did a lot of research at the British Library and the State Library in Sydney. Just lots of reading, I’ve got a really good collection of books in my own library here at home. And the Internet. I got a lot of information off the Internet.

Valerie
Now some writers love the researching process and others think that it’s a necessary evil and hate it. How do you feel about it?

Maree
I did a course with Robert McKee a couple of years ago. He lectures on script writing, film. I won a three-day course with him here in London which was brilliant. His advice on that is that you have to research a book and if you start with research then everything else falls into place.

I do agree with his philosophy regarding that. I don’t think that I could sit down and just start writing the book off the top of my head without any of the background details. For me that’s what brings a story to life really, apart from the characters. The characters are obviously the most important part of the book but the details bring it to life.

Valerie
Are you working on a book at the moment?

Maree
I am yes, I’ve got several ideas on the go but I’ve chosen one that has really got me very excited. It’s set in the past of Victoria during the late 1880’s, early 1900’s and it’s also set in Russia so I’ve got two connections there. I’m very interested in Russia and Russian poetry and Russian literature. I’m trying to combine the two.

Valerie
Tell us then what your typical writing day looks like. Do you have a routine, is there some ritual you need to do in the morning? What happens?

Maree
A cup of tea, I always have to have a cup of tea next to me. When I’m in the middle of writing and all of the research is done I will just sit and write for six to seven hours non-stop almost except for getting up and down for a cup of tea now and then. But obviously when I’m researching that’s different and that will take me to all sorts of different places.

So yes, I’ve got a typical day. I’m quite disciplined in that way. Possibly the self-discipline comes from being locked up in Parramatta, I don’t know. But I definitely have what it takes to sit down and get on with the job. I do think of it as a job as well.

Valerie
After you have done your research thought how do long do you expect that your next book is going to take you for your first draft?

Maree
Anything between three to six months, I should think, yes. But that can vary. Sometimes in your writing you find that you need to do further research so that can hold things up. With this book that I am working on at the moment there is going to be a lot of research and I’m hoping to go to Russia as well. But we’ll see.

Valerie
Why the interest in Russia?

Maree
My partner actually, he got me interested in it. I really didn’t know anything about Russian literature until we met 15 years ago. He has a huge library of books on Russian literature and that sparked an interest and I’m really passionate about it now.

Valerie
It’s a great excuse to go travelling isn’t it; need to do a bit of research? You are also a writing teacher in the UK and in Australia. Tell me why do you enjoy teaching writing?

Maree
I think that it’s important to connect with people and that’s something that comes through research as well, speaking to people and getting out and about. I just think that it’s really important for me to share what I’ve learned. I don’t mean it in a sort of “do-gooder way”, because obviously it brings an income in as well for me.

But I just do enjoy meeting people and talking about writing and sharing the knowledge. I learn from the experience as well. I see it more as an exchange of ideas rather than me teaching them. It’s just a really great way of communicating ideas about writing.

Valerie
If people come to your writing courses what can they expect apart from a friendly face? For example, you’re teaching “Hook Your Reader” at the Sydney Writers’ Centre which is a five-week course on how to keep your reader riveted, to keep them turning the page and really keep them engaged in the story. What can people expect when they are coming to that course?

Maree
I would like to try and mix things up a little bit rather than me standing up in front of everybody and just talking in a dry sort of way about how to achieve a good opening in the book or a short story. There will be a little bit of that but then there will be lots of exercises and then they’ll be discussing what everybody writes and talking about that and just throwing out ideas. They’ll be making suggestions and just seeing what we can come up with basically.

I try to make it fun to encourage people’s confidence in their work as well. I think that’s really important so you have to be a very good listener as a teacher and that can be difficult sometimes because not everybody writes well. But I do believe that you can teach the craft of writing most definitely. But I do think that there has to be some talent there to start with.

Valerie
Because one of the most important things with improving writing is the actual doing, isn’t it? It’s so important to actually get feedback on your writing as well as to sit there and listen to theory.

Maree
Yeah, that’s right. I think that the old adage “the seat of the pants on the seat of the chair” is so true. A lot of people are frightened of the blank page and the typewriter or on the piece of paper. The thing is that you just have to get down to it. Just start writing.

I’ve got a lot of exercises that loosen people up in that way. Most people I think like to write about themselves and about their emotions. So I’ve got a series of exercises that we can do to loosen people up.

You just keep writing basically because for me writing is all about rewriting. It’s all about going back and editing and reworking and changing things around and adding things and taking things away. It’s like a puzzle really.

I think that you just have to have enormous patience and understand that it is a long drawn out process. It doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t expect to have a perfect first draft the first time.

Valerie
Paint us a picture in say, five years, where would you like to be with your writing and your life generally?

Maree
My plan at the moment is to continue writing. I have about five ideas for different novels that I want to complete in the next several years, ten years. But my ultimate goal is to run a writers’ centre similar to yours but in France, a residential writers’ centre in France. That’s my dream. My partner and I are working towards that at the moment. But it’s still quite a way off.

Valerie
That’s exciting. You must join us in October for our writing in Paris tour.

Maree
Oh, yes, I did hear about that. That sounds fantastic.

Valerie
Finally what would your advice be to people who are listening to this and to you and they really want to get started as a writer? They would really love to write novels just like you.

Maree
As I just said, I think that you have to sit down and just start typing, start writing. For me I’ve got a huge library now of books on writing and that has really helped me. But apart from that I think you need to read.

You need to read a lot. That is the best way. The books that you enjoy reading are probably going to be the books that you enjoy writing. For me I don’t like reading commercial books. I prefer a more literary sort of genre. That’s the genre that I naturally feel comfortable with when I write. That’s my advice. Just sit down and start writing and keep reading.

Valerie
Read, read, read and write, write, write. Wonderful, well thank you so much for your time today, Maree.

Maree
You’re welcome Valerie. Thank you.


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