Tuesday, 19 December 2017

On the Right Tram at Christmas

Some of us like to give ourselves a Christmas present ... so I was thrilled when one of my fellow family history writers, Bill Barlow, chose my book Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory as  his own gift to himself last Christmas. We both belong to the GSV Writers Circle in Melbourne (Genealogical Society of Victoria) and around this time last year Bill shared with our members an amusing story.

Busy and distracted by other events in 2017, I forgot to finalise it as a post for my blog (editing, pictures, etc). A tad belatedly, here it is now, before Christmas 2017 also becomes a distant memory. It comes with my best wishes to everyone for a safe and happy festive season and the very best of everything in the year to come.

The tale starts with Bill's comment to our GSV Writers' Facebook group a year ago ...
Spent the last part of today chasing down a copy of Louise's latest book - literally!
Having picked up a copy in Readings at State Library of Victoria, I made my way home on the train and tram with it in a nice brown paper carry bag - too big to fit in my normal bag. Walked home from the tram terminus in East Malvern and realised I had left it on the tram!
Ran back only to find the tram had already turned around and headed back to the city. So ran back home, jumped in the car and chased down the tram a few stops after Caulfield. Got on - but wrong tram, no book the driver said.
Off the tram, walked back to the car and then continued to chase the tram in front - all the way along Balaclava Rd and up St Kilda Rd till I spotted a no. 3 and managed to park and board that tram- crowded with city commuters. Driver said that he did notice his changeover driver carrying a brown paper bag off the tram, so probably it is back at Depot Lost Property by now.
Good news! After a long peak hour drive to the Glenhuntly depot, there it was sitting on a shelf. Now it is safely home and I will next see it on Christmas Day. I am sure it will be worth it!
No 3 Tram, St Kilda Rd, December 2017
Me: OMG, Bill. You'll never forget this book, will you? Unbelievable. I had to laugh though. It would have made a great skit for someone with a camera. Now I'm hoping and praying that, post Christmas Day, you'll think all this effort was worth it.

--------------------------------------

Me: I heard nothing for months. Was it so bad that Bill hoped I’d forgotten his story? Just after Easter I heard from him again on this matter, and we had this exchange of comments and responses via email. It was very valuable for me to obtain feedback from someone else struggling with the difficulties of writing family history. It often gets a bad rap as a genre!
Bill: Congratulations on the Flockton book! I held it over till Easter to read when I knew I would have a few days in a row to read it as a whole - rather than my half page in bed intermittently over a long period.
Me: I know exactly what you mean by the problems of reading a page here & there before your heavy eyes won’t stay open any longer. So thank you for saving your reading until you had time to properly evaluate the book.
Bill: I think it is a very complete and thorough biography that manages to deal with a lot of potentially boring technical quotes and source material but in a way that is interesting and readable.
Me: I had to laugh when I read the words you chose to describe the book: ‘interesting and readable’. That’s what everyone says about all of my books! It’s why I decided to describe myself as a ‘nerdy’ writer!
Bill: I wouldn’t describe you that way – your writing is too mainstream, readable and not wacky enough. Maybe ‘nerdy' if that means any writer investigating history and the truth.
Me: What did you think of the book overall? 
Bill: I enjoyed the book. It is very good and I am amazed at how you pulled it all together so successfully.
Me: I’m glad you think it did come together. I tried hard to generate a readable ‘text book’, to help art historians, art auctioneers, botanists etc have accurate information to work from. At the same time I wanted to create a ‘story’, showing readers who Margaret was as a person, although that was difficult given the scarcity of her private correspondence.
Bill: After our discussions about the value in having a strong opening I was mildly surprised by your ‘cool’, non-gripping, opening sentence and paragraph.
Me: I did run this introduction past the Writers Group back in 2011 and they liked it, but that was then! We've all progressed as writers since!
A Meeting of the GSV Writers Circle, Melbourne, 2014
And I seriously considered Prof Tim Entwisle’s suggestion several years ago that I start the book with Margaret’s life in the 1890s and her successes in Sydney (the ‘works of genius’ stuff) and then backtrack but, since I personally don’t like that kind of story ‘flow’, I didn’t rearrange the book. Call me stubborn! Also, I didn’t think you could understand Mog’s life and the choices she made without knowing where she came from.
Bill: I had the same response, and thought of suggesting this, but you have already published. I certainly agree with you that it is hard to understand Mog's life without knowing where she came from. (Which is why we all do family history.)
Me: So I should have tried to make her seem like a 'star' at the start of the book?
Bill: I did take a while to get into the story, as the early England years are not particularly special if the reader doesn’t already know about Flockton in her prime and thus want to know about her formative years.
Me: Don’t think you’re alone in thinking that the first part of the book was ‘slow’. That has been the reaction of almost every male reader to date, whereas women have generally loved all the family stuff. Interesting!
Bill: The core of the book was very interesting and carried me along (and I found myself getting out my Stan Kelly and gumnut books on the eucalypts to check things).
Me: By ‘core of the book’, did you mean the entire story concept, or just the central, middle part of the book, the career section of her life? I’m keen to know where the story flagged.
Bill: I did mean the ‘career section of her life’, not the ‘entire story concept’.

I did think the concepts listed in the Introduction were a bit romantic. Lots of those subjects perhaps get a mention in the book, as you say, they 'underlie the story', but I didn’t see this as enough to make it a book about those things, e.g. ‘becoming an Australian’.
Me: Point taken –the word 'underlie' would probably have been better than 'about' in the Introduction! But the various themes flagged in the Introduction are definitely drawn together at the end of the book.
Bill: I think your summary of her life is excellent.
Me: Thank you.
Bill: I also had some queries about whether anything in her life qualified her as a feminist, that is, one who advocates for women’s rights. I guess that is why she is a ‘quiet feminist’ - one who, if asked, would agree with women’s rights.
Me: You don’t have to be an 'advocate' to be a feminist. You just have to live a life where you decline to be subservient to men and, I think, remain financially independent of them. Don’t forget she was involved in the struggle to grant her equal pay with her male public-servant peers.
Bill: Her life was, as you say a ‘quiet’, non-squeaky-wheel one.
Me: Today’s readers seem to like dramatic, over-the-top stuff, with everything spelled out in a quick read. The subtleties of quiet personalities like Margaret’s leave them cold. Some readers of this book, clearly not attuned to nuance, have said ‘But who was she? As a person?’ I never quite know how to answer such a question from people who’ve read this book yet clearly didn’t ‘get’ Margaret. Others have understood the limitations of depicting an introvert when available source material is limited.
Bill: I think you have done a great job integrating all the letters, etc in the saga of her painting and scientific illustrator careers. 
It is great having so many pictures and they are well-placed, within a page of the relevant text. It is amazing how the WW1 gave us so many fine portrait shots of the men but of course there are only a couple of Margaret in later life. Maybe Picture 176 (pulled out of the office staff shot) is the only clear one of her face at the height of her career years. You used this on the dust jacket I now see, but I would have liked it perhaps enlarged in the book up-front, alongside the Introduction instead of the maps.
Margaret Flockton, 1912 (Pic 176 in the book)
Me: The publisher Wakefield Press prides itself on the quality of images in its books and the few pictures I had of Margaret were all less than satisfactory - often blurry and of low res. So they wouldn’t use her picture on the front cover or blown up from the original and they compromised by placing a small version of the office shot on the inside of the dust jacket. I was happy with that, as I think it depicts her character pretty well, right from the time you pick up the book.
Bill: I’m not sure why there is some feeling (at the end of the Introduction) of her being hard done by, in not becoming a professional botanist. I felt she probably could have been if she had wanted to or if she was in the right time and place. After all Sarah Hynes was not a male and also wasn’t born after 1861.
Me: There was no intention on my part to convey a ‘hard done by’ impression. Blame my choice of words. I’m sure it never occurred to Margaret to become a botanist, before she reached her mid-40s anyway, when she was working full-time at the Royal Botanic Garden. There are lots of reasons (not spelled out in the book) as to why her age-peer Sarah Hynes was able to become a botanist. Sarah did not need to work to help support her parents, for one, and by the time Sarah decided to go to University, in the late 1880s, she was living in Australia, where the class structure impeded much less on educational opportunities for women.
Bill: I was left wondering about the housekeepers and companions (p. 222). They must have shared her life quite a bit, especially if they were companions, but I can’t recall hearing anything much about them.
Me: I thought about them a lot too but, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find any information about them and I didn’t think it was fair to speculate. Many young women became spinsters because of WW1 and Mog may just have been doing ‘good works’ by employing a housekeeper and providing a roof over her head. The Flockton family had a tradition of employing servants.
Bill: I didn’t know what an INTJ personality type is (note 4, last chapter) - even though I was Myers-Briggsed years ago.
Me: Here’s a link summarising the INTJ personality profile. They are generally driven by a rational, big-picture view of the world outside themselves.
Bill: As you know, I'm in the process of writing a family history book myself. I wondered why the chapters did not get numbers?
 Me: Possibly that was a ‘style thing’ with the publisher. It didn’t strike me as a problem. The chapters have meaningful titles
Bill: The categories of the bibliography, especially your groupings of the genealogical sources, make a lot of sense.
Me: When you look at the bibliography, it’s amazing just how many sources I did have to consult in order to piece her life story together over so many years!
Bill: A chronological list of her known fine art paintings and whereabouts would have been good.
Me: Not possible, I’m afraid, but that’s why I included all the works entered to the Art Society exhibitions each year, despite the unhelpful nature of their titles. That’s the nearest I could get to a catalogue of her fine art. The Art Society hasn’t kept any sales records so I don’t know who bought most of the paintings, or where they are today. Maybe this book will flush out some art lovers. Most of the owners who I have located wish to remain anonymous.
Bill: It’s interesting how one’s view about life colours how we see the lives we write about.
Me: Pure objectivity is impossible!! And, if it could be achieved, I think it would detract from the appeal of family history books.
Bill: Thanks for sharing this opportunity for an exchange of views, via the communication channel your book has offered between the writer and a reader.
Me: Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to provide this valuable feedback ... an easy kind of Christmas gift to give an author. I think all authors crave the evidence that their book has provoked reader reaction. We need reassurance that, after all the effort involved in the writing of a book, it didn’t just drop into the void, that someone thought about what it meant! 

POSTSCRIPT: For your information, Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory sold out during 2017 but Wakefield Press has been collecting orders and looks likely to reprint it soon as a paperback.