Shirley Barrett – Rush Oh! – Podcast

Shirley Barrett is best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. She speaks with the Co-op about her novel Rush Oh!

Rush Oh! is a celebration of an extraordinary episode in Australian history, when a family of whalers formed a fond, unique allegiance with a pod of frisky Killer whales – and in particular, a Killer whale named Tom. ‘Hugely funny and peopled with a cast of characters I came to treasure like my own friends, Rush Oh! reminded me why I love reading.’ – Hannah Kent Shirley Barrett is best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. Shirley’s first film, Love Serenade won the Camera D’Or (Best First Feature) at Cannes Film Festival in 1996. The script for her film South Solitary won the Queensland Premier’s Prize (script) 2010, the West Australian Premier’s Literary Prize (script) 2010, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize 2010. Rush Oh! is Shirley’s first novel. She lives in Sydney, Australia. http://www.coop.com.au/rush-oh/barrett-shirley/9781743535943


Rob:
You’re listening to The Co-op Book Podcast. … Glad to welcome Shirley Barrett to the co-op chat. Hello, Shirley.

 

Shirley:
Hi, Rob.

 

Rob:
Now, Shirley is a renowned film maker in cinema and TV, most notably winning the Camera d’Or for her movie Love Serenade. We’re not here to talk about that though, Shirley. We’re talking about …

 

Shirley:
No. It was a long time ago anyway.

 

Rob:
We’re talking about your first novel, Rush Oh!

 

Shirley:
That’s right. I like your exclamation mark.

 

Rob:
Well, it jumps out of you. Congratulations on that.

 

Shirley:
Thank you.

 

Rob:
What’s it about?

 

Shirley:
Well, Rush Oh! is a historical novel. It’s set in 1908, and it’s about whaling, but specifically it’s about the killer whales of Eden. If your listeners aren’t aware of who the killer whales of Eden are, it was a pod of regularly returning killer whales that used to come to Twofold Bay, which is in Eden, just the south coast of New South Wales, and cooperate with the whalers in the hunting of whales.

 

Rob:
This is the thing that amazed me when I was reading the book, so you got these killer whales helping out the whalers. What an amazing sort of …?

 

Shirley:
Symbiosis or something?

 

Rob:
I mean, we’re comfortable with dogs and helping us out. Cats don’t seem to really want to help, but … What was in it for the whales?

 

Shirley:
Killer whales, [inaudible 00:01:45].

 

Rob:
Killer whales. Sorry.

 

Shirley:
Well, because the whales of course were the spoils. The killer whales would take the tongue and lips of the whale, and the rest of the carcass they’d just leave, they weren’t interested in. The whalers would then tow the carcass home or back to their tryworks and render the blubber into whale oil, which was a valuable commodity at the time. My novel’s set in 1908, so a hundred odd years ago.

 

Rob:
The tongue and the lips, that’s very … Do you know why, do you think?

 

Shirley:
I imagine they’re a bit of a delicacy. That I don’t know.

 

Rob:
Now, set in Eden. Now, Eden’s a beautiful spot there. It most have been very different though in 1908, a bit more remote.

 

Shirley:
Yeah, a lot more remote. It also seems to have been … because I did a lot of research with the newspapers of the time in the archives at the state library here in Sydney, The Eden Observer and The South Coast Advocate. They tell a story of a very different Eden than the Eden you might know today. Eden’s still very beautiful, but it’s a slightly depressed, I would say, town. A lot of its livelihoods have been taken away from it, and there’s a fair bit of unemployment, where as at the time it seems to have been a really thriving, bustling town with a strong kind of culture sense. There were a lot of visiting theater groups, and there were regular balls, and it was quite fun to read about all of that.

 

Rob:
It’s very interesting. What sort of made you write this book? What compelled you to write this book?

 

Shirley:
I really loved the story of the killer whales. I just love that. I’m a softy for animals, and I love the idea of this relationship that grew between the whalers and the killer whales. The killer whales were known to the whalers by the distinguishing features of their dorsal fins, and they named them. There was Tom, who was the most famous killer whale of them all. His skeleton is preserved and stands in the Eden Killer Whale Museum to this very day. There was a whole bunch of other killer whales, Hooky, and Humpy, and Charlie, and Typee, and Kinscher. They really were to, and they said so at the time … They were to the whalers like the cattle dogs were to the drover. They were their companions and their assistants in their work, and it meant an awful lot to the whales. That’s what pulled me into the story. Then when I started the research, and I started reading up about what Eden was like at the time, it just seemed such a rich other world. It’s kind of fun from a writing point of view to immerse yourself in another world all together. It’s a lot of fun wasting your own time researching it all. It was just a sort of lively other world that I could dip into.

 

Rob:
The human element of the book comes from Mary. Is that right?

 

Shirley:
That’s right. Mary is my narrator. She’s my fictionalized eldest daughter of George Davidson. George Davidson was the master whaler of Eden, and he really existed and was tremendously brave, so brave that he was known as Fearless Davidson. I’ve created for George, this is a bit of creative license here, a whole new set of fictional offspring. Mary is the eldest daughter. She’s 19. She is charged with the tax of cooking for a bunch of ungrateful whale men. She falls in love, or certainly becomes infatuated, with one of itinerant whale men who’s [inaudible 00:05:30], but who’s got a kind of murky past.

 

Rob:
Look, I think it’s a very compelling read. I think our readers would be very interested in going back to 1908.

 

Shirley:
Yeah

 

Rob:
What was it like for you? How did you go back to 1908 to write?

 

Shirley:
Well, really largely from just the research. Then you have to take a bit of creative leap and hope for the best really. You try not to use words that weren’t in the common palates at the time. Sometimes you have to guess. You just try to not make too many mistakes in terms of the research, not that I’ve been pulled up on any yet, but you know I may well have done. It’s a funny book, because it’s about whaling, which is a fairly grisly topic, but it’s actually quite light in its tone. It’s quite comic a lot of the time, the book, and it’s also a bit of a romance and a family saga. I hasten to say it’s got something for everyone.

 

Rob:
Do you think the topic is …? I mean, it’s quite controversial and anti-PC I suppose at this time, of whaling. How is it sort of dealing with that?

 

Shirley:
That’s a tricky, tricky thing. It certainly was interesting to me how the sensibilities towards whales have shifted in the intervening hundred years. Back then, you know, the local townsfolk would stand on the cliff tops and cheer on the whalers. They routinely referred to the whales as monsters and leviathans. They didn’t seem to show a lot of sympathy for the whale. I also have to say that they didn’t catch that many whales. It was really subsistence whaling. A good season would have been like five to ten whales seemingly. Some seasons went by when there were no whales caught, even with the assistance of the killer whales.

 

Rob:
Now, your background’s in cinema and TV. What was it like writing a book, traditional narrative?

 

Rob:
What was it like for you? How did you go back to 1908 to write?

 

Shirley:
Well, really largely from just the research. Then you have to take a bit of creative leap and hope for the best really. You try not to use words that weren’t in the common palates at the time. Sometimes you have to guess. You just try to not make too many mistakes in terms of the research, not that I’ve been pulled up on any yet, but you know I may well have done. It’s a funny book, because it’s about whaling, which is a fairly grisly topic, but it’s actually quite light in its tone. It’s quite comic a lot of the time, the book, and it’s also a bit of a romance and a family saga. I hasten to say it’s got something for everyone.

 

Rob:
Do you think the topic is …? I mean, it’s quite controversial and anti-PC I suppose at this time, of whaling. How is it sort of dealing with that?

 

Shirley:
That’s a tricky, tricky thing. It certainly was interesting to me how the sensibilities towards whales have shifted in the intervening hundred years. Back then, you know, the local townsfolk would stand on the cliff tops and cheer on the whalers. They routinely referred to the whales as monsters and leviathans. They didn’t seem to show a lot of sympathy for the whale. I also have to say that they didn’t catch that many whales. It was really subsistence whaling. A good season would have been like five to ten whales seemingly. Some seasons went by when there were no whales caught, even with the assistance of the killer whales.

 

Rob:
Now, your background’s in cinema and TV. What was it like writing a book, traditional
narrative?

 

Shirley:
Well, I have to say I really enjoyed it once I got the hang of it. It took me awhile to get the hang of it, because I write feature scripts as well. It’s just a completely different approach. Script writing is quite sort of structured. There’s a lot of rules to it seemingly, quite boring rules, and because it’s such an expensive enterprise, film making, the scripter has to be obviously in solid shape. There’s less opportunity for play, I think, where as when I was writing my novel, I suppose because I had no real expectation of it ever being published, it was quite fun. I mean, I really just wrote it for myself. It’s the ability, I think, to jump, to get into your character’s mind that’s fantastic. There’s no real substitute for that in film. The way you can kind of deviate and go explore other things, which you can’t in the rigorously structured scripts.

 

Rob:
Yeah. You’ve got a hundred and twenty pages. You’ve got your two Brads going through the script.

 

Shirley:
That’s right, and your first plot point has to happen within the first ten pages. It’s really boring.

 

Rob:
That said, in my rating of it it’s very visually exciting and screams out to be filmed at some stage. Is that a dream?

 

Shirley:
Oh, it’d be great if it went full circle, because it was originally a feature film script, which I couldn’t get made. It would be lovely, it would be beyond my wildest dreams if someone was to know on my door and say, “Here’s the money to make it into a feature length script.” I don’t out a huge amount of hope for that, because it is a very expensive thing to do.

 

Rob:
Naturally, as you know, this is going to many university or post-university students. Have you got any advice for potential writers?

 

Shirley:
Yeah. Well, I just think you should just write to please yourself. That’s what I do. If you read a fair bit, you become reasonably discerning, I think, over the years, and you just write the book that you’d like to read, and have fun with it, I think. Work is play. It shouldn’t be boring and dreary. You should have some fun with it.

 

Rob:
Who do you read now?

 

Shirley:
Well, I read … At the moment I’m reading Kazuo Ishiguro, I don’t know if I’ve pronounced his name correctly, who I’m a big fan of. I’m actually just rereading The Unconsoled, which is one of my favorite of his novels. Who else do I read? I read a lot of the British novelists. I read Franzen, obviously. He’s got a new one out. I like Richard Ford. I have a real taste for the slightly domestic fiction of the British early thirties and forties. In particular I love Barbara Penn and the classics of course. Whenever I’m asked this question I completely blank.

 

Rob:
That’s all right.

 

Shirley:
That’s as good as it gets.

 

Rob:
What’s next, Shirley, like a novel, TV? What’s the next step?

 

Shirley:
Well, yeah, so I’ve got a fair bit of TV lined up, because that’s my day job really. I’m a TV director. I’m also actually writing a script of Offspring. Offspring’s coming again. It’s just been announced, and I’m going to do a script for that, which is fun. I’ve never written from Offspring before. I’ve directed for it. I’m writing another novel. I’m about twenty-five thousand words into it, and it’s a horror story. I’m going to try and emulate Stephen King.

 

Rob:
Well, if you get half way there, you’ll get a lot of ratings, I tell you. Shirley, thank you for your time.

 

Shirley:
Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.

 

Rob:
Good luck with Rush Oh! Anyone that gets a chance, grab a copy from the Co-op.

 

Shirley:
Thank you very much.

 

Rob:
See you later.
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