Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2008

Lisa meets Kate Grenville!

Today I met one of my favourite authors, Kate Grenville, at  Readers Feast.  Kate talked about her new book, The Lieutenant, which is another foray into historical fiction.  This time the novel is drawn from the astonishing notebooks of William Dawes, a soldier in the First Fleet who made friends with a young Aboriginal girl called Patyegarang from the Gadigal people.  He learned her language through conversation, and in 1790 recorded it in two little blue notebooks now (alas) in a museum in London.

Kate has fictionalised these events, and telescoped time, but much of the plot actually happened. As Kate puts it, her character, Daniel Rook, (based on Dawes) is an awkward, nerdy fellow whose idea of a good time was (at the age of seven) to collect prime numbers.  He is emotionally undeveloped, but in Sydney, he develops a friendship  based on affection, respect and playfulness with an Aboriginal girl called Tagaran, deliberately cast a little younger than in the historical record to reinforce the innocence of their relationship.  Every exchange between these two in the book comes from Dawes’ notebooks, and everything that Tagaran says is a direct quotation from Patyegarang – in the Gadigal language.

The real world around these two intervenes when a white man is speared and a punitive expedition is mounted.  Daniel is ordered to go with them, and Rook is therefore caught in a dilemma between friendship and duty – his identity as a soldier in conflict with his emerging identity as a man discovering his emotional self.

Kate has herself been on emotional journey.  As those who have read The Secret River, and its companion memoir, Searching for the Secret River will know, she has had to reconcile her emerging consciousness about Reconciliation issues and her own family history.  The Secret River explores the moment when a settler asserted ownership of land that belonged to someone else, the indigenous owners, and the novel concludes with a closing down of conversation between black and white, and a silence over that part of the Hawkesbury River where her convict ancestor took possession of the land.

The Lieutenant, she says, is the opposite.  In this novel the conversation opens out and doesn’t stop – it is life affirming and optimistic, because that is how Kate Grenville hopes that our post-Apology world will be.  She says that there is not only a shadow side to our history, but that there are also parts of our shared black and white history that we can be proud of.

The good news for those of us who love this author’s work is that she is already working on another. This next book is probably about the daughter of William Thornhill (from The Secret River). Kate says that she is not really interested in history for its own sake, but as a mirror to our own times and that in the case of the characters from The Secret River, she has become fond of them, and she wants to write more about them.

I took in my first editions, and she kindly autographed them all. It turns out that there were only 1000 of Lilian’s Story published in hardback, so mine is a bit of a treasure. So is Dark Places, and I am also very pleased to have The Secret River with its original plain black cover that caused such a stir when it was first published by Text. I wish I had a first edition of The Idea of Perfection, which still remains my favourite!

Naturally while in the bookshop I took the opportunity to buy some beaut new books for school, not to mention some on my own wishlist…


  1. Wow, lucky you, I’m sure Kate Grenville would be a very interesting person to meet. While I have to admit I found the Secret River a little bit dull, I really enjoyed Lilian’s Story, and hope to read some of her other books. I also respect the way she’s engages with Australian history and culture.


    • Hi Gabriel, thanks for joining in the conversation. I’ve been over to your blog, and loved your post about The Solid Mandala. Grenville? Well she’s been criticised for writing OzHist in the way that she has, but (as you can tell from my ravings) I think her work is great, and is well worth reading for any aspiring writer. Cheers, Lisa


  2. So exciting, I am very jealous. Kate Grenville is such a fascinating women, at least she seems that way. I always try to get my hands on whatever podcast I know that she is speaking in. I think that Lilian’s Story is my favourite Grenville book and I am VERY jealous of your first edition.


    • Hi Becky, Kate Grenville is a lovely person too. Very warm and friendly and she has a great sense of humour. I am really looking forward to her next book which will be the third in this trilogy.
      I think that The Idea of Perfection is my favourite. Love at any age, even for middle-aged people who are not gorgeously attractive, is a lovely theme, but it’s not a soppy romance.


  3. Have to butt in here too. Kate Grenville is one of the only two authors I have ever marched up to (she was in the small audience of a poetry reading event) to say I loved her books. I didn’t hang around but I read somewhere that most authors like that. She seemed genuinely pleased. I see her haunting the National Library these days – in the reading room, the coffee shop, so can’t wait for the next book.

    Like Lisa, my favourite is still The idea of perfection but I have liked all of hers that I’ve read.


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