In the preamble to Foal’s Bread, there’s an exhortation: ‘Man, woman, boy or girl, when you arrive at the jacaranda tree, take a lick of your horse’s salty neck.’ Is this something you did when riding a horse? What of your own experiences on a horse did you draw on for this book?
I grew up in northern NSW, in Grafton, and probably from the age of 9 to 20 nothing was more important for me than riding horses, and horses. Grafton is a very subtropical, humid town, so often there were lots of storms. So prior to a storm, the humidity builds – and my horse would often develop a very deep sweat. So it was a just a delicacy, really, to take a little lick.
Was that out of dehydration or was it more of a physical bond you felt with the horse?
The latter. It was a playful thing to do. It’s incredible how salty a horse’s neck is. I had read somewhere that during World War I the soldiers would be very starving for salt so they would lick the light horses. That always stayed with me.
Noah Childs (and later Nancarrow) is a drover’s daughter, just a child, but a girl capable of flying through the air on a horse, capable of making a herd of pigs go where she wants. Where did the character of Noah come from?
Noah is a rich amalgam of many people from my life, including my own imagination. I admire her immensely as well as feeling appalled at her life and her character.
How do you mean appalled?
She’s so intrinsically linked into the human non-virtue that is jealousy. It kind of overrides her in my mind sometimes, that she was so viciously jealous.
She lived in a very small ‘one-tree town’, at One Tree Farm, so perhaps this loneliness and isolation moulded her character.
Throughout my different travels around Australia, I became very good friends with farming people; that loneliness of the hill, I’ve definitely seen that kind of scenario a number of times around Lismore, Grafton, where I grew up, but also further to the south. It’s kind of this piercing solitude that the marginal dairy country led to. The dairying industry was dying out when I was born but there was a residue of that atmosphere when I was growing up.
And an isolation that doesn’t necessarily seem to have any foreseeable end because of the lack of choices for young women during the interwar years.
Definitely not a lot, that’s why high jump offered such a noble alternative. It was so much their dream, the young Nancarrows’ dream, to set up their own team.
One of the early defining relationships in young Noah Childs’ life was that with her Uncle Nipper, who we discover fathered her baby. We might expect that Noah would only hate him, but instead when she thinks of him she goes ‘tingly’, feeling something like ‘the chance of victory’. How is it that the body and the mind respond to experience in such different ways?
With the uncles, it made me think of a line from an old book of mine called Map of the Gardens: that even the most beautiful tree casts a shadow. And then the reverse of that: even the most shadowy old man is full of beauty to the young Noey. She’s not inventing in her imagination, her endearing memories of wonders he has shared with her quite apart from the sexual even though paradoxically, that is part of it as well.
I recall from the book he takes her out on wanders and he shows her parts of nature she’s never seen before. That too is a different opening up into life.
One of the most whimsical things that I can remember from the book, of Noah, is, I think it’s just before her final jump on Magpie, is when Noah remembers her old Uncle Nipper showed her a bird’s nest that has got both their hair entwined within it, and I don’t know, I just found that very beautiful.
It is beautiful how memories can coalesce in a way that is unexpected, especially throughout a life that goes unfulfilled. I want to talk about that great chasm between promise and lack of fulfillment. What is it about fallen dreams that strikes us so much when we read other people’s stories?
I knew when I set out to write Foal’s Bread that I did want to fill my readers with a feeling of yearning. And the unfulfilled promise of Noah Nancarrow, nothing does that more profoundly for me. Lainey, her daughter, realises that the thing her mother most didn’t want to be was mediocre. And with all the Olympics frenzy at the moment – there’s something unbearably empty about winning, and yet it quite clearly pierces the public’s longing for triumph. So I think I was interested in writing about those things in the high jump world, something which is a totally deceased world, really.
The Olympics is the only experience I’ve ever had of watching high jump which is very different to the kind of high jump the characters participate in. Is there something about the sport that people watching from a distance would not know about it?
The main difference would be is that someone whose grown up on a horse, and jumping horses over every obstacle imaginable … it’s that feeling of, say you’d never dived into a pool of water and you were just imagining it, it’s the same as imagining trying to jump a horse before you’ve actually done so – just that incredible sense of timing and communication between the rider and the horse. It’s that that for me evokes so much beauty. I feel very glad that the writing of Foal’s Bread has been able to convey it so strongly to people who have never so much as stroked a horse. And yet they feel very connected to the equine world after they put down Foal’s Bread.
It does have a lot to do with how you portray high jump and how the riders feel when they are participating. One of the most vivid images for me is Roley flinging his arms out wide when he’s at the apex of his jump – that sense of freedom you realise he is feeling.
That is a biographical snippet stolen from a historical fragment. There was a rider who used to do that. In fact, he wasn’t the high jump champion of Australia or New South Wales. But that was his trademark. Some women jumpers would do the same to get more balance. For me, it was a symbol of Roley Nancarrow’s supreme beauty on his horse over a jump.
I can’t imagine a show jumper doing that during the Olympics, letting go …
[Laughs] Look, it’s not a commonly found book in a bookshop, but the book that provided so much of the atmosphere for Foal’s Bread was a pictorial history of Australian show-ring jumping between the wars, High, Wide and Handsome: A Pictorial History of Australian Show-ring Jumping, 1900–1950 by the vet Alan Chittick.
There are photographs of tiny ponies, and I mean tiny, thirteen hands high, I mean, that’s a little bit higher than a Shetland, and they are standing beneath these 7-foot hardwood obstacles, not anything that resembles an Olympic show jump, which is built of neat, tidy, light material, easily knocked down – this is like hardwood and great big spars of bush timber. It’s truly as if these little horses must have been facing a house. It was a lot more dangerous than anything in the Olympics. Chittick’s book has a chapter on disasters, they are indeed gruesome, sometimes fatally so.
The people in Foal’s Bread speak in a very particular way, dropping articles and dropping off the ends of words. Did you hear this talk in your head while writing it?
I did. In a sense, you could say the book is a bit of a hymn to Herbert Tout, Merv Mulligan, Tim Fricker, Tommy McVeigh, Hughie Burn and Darcy Powell, all these old horsemen I knew as I was growing up and in later life as well. I can ring them up now, those who are still living, and it’s a great consolation to me to just hear their voices. It’s exactly how they talk. They could be telling me the same story that they’ve told me six months ago but in their way of telling it, there’s such a rhythm and a humour in what they’re telling me. It’s infinitely comforting. I’ll be very sad when they all die. They were the storytellers from my childhood.
Sometimes they’d be at the Grafton Show, those who lived in the Clarence Valley, and they’d always have a shot of whisky in the morning and you could just be sure you were going to have a fantastic 10 or 15 minutes of listening to some incredible story told.
You’ve been very candid about your experience of having multiple sclerosis, which you’ve described as an ‘outrage’ and ‘intense’. In an interview with Susan Johnson, you said that ‘the simple act of being able to make a cup of coffee is now thrilling to you’ – so, even things you once thought simple are now much harder. Can I ask about the actual physical act of writing? Is it now difficult to do?
I’m now at this kind of impasse in that all of my old rituals associated with my writing table have been busted apart by multiple sclerosis. As I emerge from this novel and face life presently in a wheelchair, I haven’t yet worked out a way to work on a sustained work of fiction. It’s a huge loss to me. Walking used to be so much a part of my writing. As I wrote Foal’s Bread, I would work intensively in the morning, getting up very early, at about 4, working, working, working, then writing; and then the delight of my writing day would be walking – with a walking stick – but still walking. You still have a rhythm, and things just coalescing, and percolating through my mind. So yes, I see it as a bit of an obstacle at the moment.
Is that gap in the writing, stepping away physically or mentally, something you find necessary to the process of writing?
Definitely, yes. You know that kind of waking state when you’ve been in a deep sleep, you get a few moments of it then; entrancing changes can happen in something you’ve been writing and you suddenly realise, yes, I’ve got to change this in this way. But I think there must be a way for a person in a wheelchair to find a substitute. The epigraph to [Foal's Bread], those two bits from the old Home Doctoring of Animals book, it sums up the agony of multiple sclerosis more than anything: that lameness is the language of pain.
Gillian Mears will appear in conversation with Ramona Koval at Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday 26 August. Tickets can be purchased online here.
Thanks to Emily Laidlaw for transcribing this interview.