Today’s blog is a transcript of the speech Professor Mandy Thomas made when she launched my first novel, Stillwater Creek. At the time, she was Pro Vice-Chancellor (research) at the Australian National University. She specializes in the disciplines of Performing Arts and Creative Writing.
“I was absolutely delighted to be invited to launch Alison Booth’s novel, Stillwater Creek. One reason I was so pleased to do so was that I believe very strongly in the creativity of the academic enterprise, that it requires vanguard thinking, and that as academics we innovate, create and cross boundaries as part of our work. To create new knowledge we must strive to look at a problem through a different lens and see data differently, imagine the world in a new light. When academics break into new fields, particularly in the creative arts they demonstrate that deep ability to imagine. I think this, in turn, has an exciting impact on their academic work. So bravo Alison for crossing into this new domain of creativity.
The second reason why I was so compelled to launch the book was that I was totally intrigued about what Alison would write about… We all know how many novels we could write about our strange colleagues and their even stranger behaviours, at universities. However the book is not about economics, nor about university intrigues, and it does not feature academics at all.
One of the very impressive aspects of this book for me was the complex interweaving of characters and stories, with a highly nuanced structure. Alison has tremendous skill at layering multiple stories and characters into an exciting novel with a pace and momentum that meant for me that I could not put it down. It really is a very compelling story.
I am very hesitant about telling you anything about the story itself. However I will tell you that it is set in wonderful little coastal town in NSW in the late 1950s – there is something deeply familiar about this town for anyone who knows the south coast; the novel involves the lives of people who represent some of the political and social upheavals in the world and in Australia at that time – refugees from Europe, Indigenous families; those struggling with their sexuality in various ways; people who live in poverty and in wealth; young people emerging from childhood; all of these characters and their lives are set in a small town in a much less complicated world than today. The three stages of the book involve firstly the setup of the location and the richly described characters (Alison executes this beautifully), then secondly confrontation, or rather a road of trials, and in fact this happens to all the key characters, and finally resolution culminating in an exciting climax. There is never an easy resolution of the obstacles presented but rather Alison creates a sense in the book that in spite of many difficulties that individuals confront that, perhaps optimistically, self-knowledge and perhaps even justice might prevail.
Although not overtly feminist, the female characters are particularly strong and vividly drawn individuals and they are the focus of the novel. Some are flawed and they have made poor choices. Sometimes in more feminist-oriented novels the males are terribly weak characters, but not so in this one. The men are complex. There are deeply flawed men but also men who are very decent human beings. What is wonderful is how Alison has managed to balance the gendered dimensions in such a way as the characters feel very real, but she also gives us a message that as individuals we must understand our motivating values and strive to allow our principles to drive our behaviour, especially when confronted by moral dilemmas. The novel beautifully describes the confusions of childhood and the complex formation of gendered identities.
Another theme that arises in the novel is the value of autonomy, independence, and individual choice, but this individualism is not at the expense of values. There are quirky individuals, in fact most of the characters have their peculiarities or do not ‘fit in’ to ordinary society in some way. Some confront both subtle and extreme forms of prejudice, but they are all seeking acceptance, love and fulfilment. By the end of the book this love and acceptance may not have been fully realised for any of the characters but it becomes possible – it’s a strong message – that the promise of a better ‘internal’ life is held out to all those who are ‘good’ and true to their values.
Stillwater Creek can be defined in some ways as being a reflection on the notion of the value of cultural brokers in society. The book provides many insights on the experiences and preoccupations of people who are crossing cultural worlds, how Australia has engaged with the incorporation of outsiders into their society in a relationship of social exchange and recognition. Alison pays particular attention to the role of various cultural translators who are both themselves at the boundaries of societies in reaching across cultural divides, but also are critical to the framing of meaning as it passes to and fro these different cultural worlds. The book offers us an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing problem of the relationship of real people’s lives to wider social changes.
As I read Stillwater Creek I could see it would make a great film, and am sure it will be. Its very filmic because of the setting – the ocean, a lagoon, a creek, a boathouse and a bridge - there is even a fire…. There is a Hugh Jackman type in here and I can see that Cate Blanchett would make a great Ilona Talivaldis.
It is going to be very interesting to watch the evolution of Alison’s creative writing and the impact of it on her scholarly output in terms of themes and focus. It is remarkable to me that Alison can be so productive in these two quite different domains.
It’s a tribute to this book that the publisher has described Alison as a hugely talented writer and that the book itself is extraordinarily accomplished for a debut novel. I wish you the very best with this book and also wish you very many successful books to come.”
Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia.