Searching for the Secret River is the extraordinary story of how Kate Grenville came to write her award-winning novel. It all begins with her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life, but who later became a wealthy man and built his colonial mansion on the Hawkesbury.
Increasingly obsessed with his story, Grenville pursues him from Sydney to London and back, and then up the Hawkesbury itself. Slowly she begins to realise she must write about him, and begins to discover what kind of book she will write. Grenville opens the door and invites the reader into her writing room, and tells us about how this novel was formed, the research she did, the false starts she made and the frustrations she experienced.
Having devoured The Secret River, I felt lucky to have this to hand. I am always fascinated by other people’s writing processes, and there were a number of things I really enjoyed about this book. I felt a strong kinship with Kate’s search among archives for pieces of information that would help her put together her story, having just done something similar for Shallow Breath. I thought she did pretty well in not getting the book bogged in details that were probably fascinating to her but perhaps not so much to an outsider – there were only a couple of times I felt I was getting a bit lost in facts and figures.
I really valued the importance Kate placed on visiting the places she was writing about, where possible, to get a feel for them, to try to become a part of the story, and flesh out the small details that would make the book interesting and memorable. I loved envisaging Kate climbing down to stand next to the Thames, and pocketing a bit of old roof tile!
What I also liked very much was how Kate outlines her struggles to find the way to tell this story – the false starts, the realisations, the certainties becoming uncertainties. I think it’s a wonderful thing for all writers to see that a fantastic book comes about through hard work, through being prepared to question your own decisions and change your mind, and that it is not just an effortless slipstream from mind to paper for even the most talented of novelists.