• Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Penrith, New South Wales, when it was just a one-horse town, although I remember nothing about it. Not long after I was born my mother left my father, as he was involved with another woman. We went to live in Cronulla, on the edge of Gunnamatta Bay, with my grandmother, Daisy Entwistle. When I was six we moved to North Narrabeen, to a house overlooking Narrabeen Lagoon on the edge of Garrigal National Park and not far from the beach. It was an idyllic childhood but I was a
• What kind of a family did you grow up with?
I grew up with my mother and grandmother. My mother owned a hairdressing salon, and she was very focused on that. My grandmother basically brought me up. I had enormous freedom. She did not want me hanging around the house as she was not well, so from a young age, around three or four, I was out the door exploring the bush and swimming.
My mother had a lot of male admirers, so there was never a shortage of men who wanted to take her out. She was stylish and beautiful, with a charming, naturally lovely personality that made her very attractive. But I don’t remember seeing much of her when I was little. We did have a trip to Hawaii and the States when I was six, on a propellor plane. She had met an American who wanted to marry her. We stayed with him in West Virginia, which at that time was plagued with racism. My mother hated the atmosphere and the segregation, so after nine months we returned to Australia.
Because my grandmother was ill, my mother sent me to a strict Church of England private boarding school, St Catherine’s Girls’ School in Waverley, Sydney. It was unusual for a child so young to be a boarder—I was only six—but the headmistress made an exception. I made a lot of friends, but from the start I got into trouble for climbing trees. This was such a natural part of my life that I was shocked when the headmistress punished me for it.
I had several female cousins who my mother enjoyed spending time with, but I found it hard to relate to them, being an only child. I preferred being on my own. It was difficult mixing and I always felt like the odd one out. It didn’t help that they bullied me. I was on the outside looking in—again, good early training for a writer. I’m very observant. I like analysing people’s behaviour and motives. In many ways a writer is an untrained psychologist. My mother says this about hairdressing. So, in that way, we are alike. We have a good understanding of people. It’s not a cynicism, it’s an awareness. With that comes a level of self-preservation. We have both been hurt deeply by people, and that also makes you cautious.
• Where did you go to school?
When I was twelve, my grandmother died. Three months later my mother re-married. I hated my step-father and the feelings were mutual. Suddenly there was this stranger in our home, a man. We did not get along. I didn’t like the way he treated my mother. He was a bachelor and he brought that outlook with him into our home. I felt it was unfair on my mother. I became very angry and resentful and uncooperative. This was interpreted as rebellion, of course. I spent another two years at St Catherine’s, then they sent me to the local high school at North Narrabeen.
It was a shock going from a strict private boarding school to a more liberal environment. The school had a bad name at that time. Many of the girls had fallen pregnant. I was unhappy about going there as I was getting a good education at St Catherine’s. But my step-father wanted to save money.
On my first day at Narrabeen High I met the girl who was instrumental in changing my life. She was the opposite of me. Wild, promiscuous, crazy, fun. I was captivated by her daring and independence. She had a real zest for life that was dangerously attractive. I was growing more and more conservative at St Catherine’s, and I was sheltered from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. I knew nothing about feminism or the hippy movement and flower power, and even less about the Vietnam war. All of a sudden I was exposed to all of this. It was such an amazing time. My friend got me into live music and dancing, and hanging out at the beach with boys. So after the freedom I had as a child, and the lack of it at St Catherine’s, I once again craved the freedom I’d enjoyed when young. I think that has never left me, the need for independence.
• In 1970, at the age of 16, you chose to attend Australia’s first-ever pop festival at Ourimbah. Three months later you were arrested. What happened next?
The Children’s Court in Albion Street, Sydney, committed me to Parramatta Girls’ Home for nine months for being ‘uncontrollable and exposed to moral danger.’ It changed my life and who I am, forever.
• You departed Australia when only 17. Why did you leave?
I was determined never to go back to Parramatta. Many girls were in and out for years. I wanted to avoid that happening at all costs. But my original arresting officer, PC Reilly, a nasty woman, had other ideas. She stalked me, looking for a reason to arrest me again. I felt hounded and intimidated. So I decided to go to New Zealand. In those days backpacking had not yet become popular, so it was unusual for a young girl to go to a new country alone. But I went to make a new life, not to travel. It was difficult, but I made a success of my time there. I made new friends, studied journalism, and learned a lot. I spent eight years there and loved it.
• When did you first take an interest in writing?
I was interested in reading and writing from a young age. It was my favourite subject at school. My grandmother and mother read to me every night, and I grew up surrounded by books. But it took many years to realise I could actually choose it as a career. I went into journalism first, because novelists seemed to me distant, mysterious figures who were somehow gifted and special. I did not think I could ever do what they did. It seemed like an unattainable dream, one that did not even occur to me. In those days there were no writers’ centres in Australia, no writers’ festivals and it wasn’t the norm to even go to university. The literary scene in Australia has boomed since I left in 1980. I think it’s amazing, and very exciting to think so many Australians love reading and writing.
When I was in Parramatta, my teacher, a Scot, encouraged me to write poetry and stories. She thought I had talent as a writer. She also got me to read out loud because she thought I was good at it. In that way being sent to Parramatta was a positive thing. Her support and encouragement is something I’ve never forgotten.
• You wrote several stories which contain elements of your experience, starting in the late 1990s. Tell us a little about each of your books.
I am interested in adoption and therefore, in rejection—my father rejected me before I was even born, so I am able to relate to people who have had a similar experience, whether through adoption or divorce. I am also interested in absent fathers, and family dynamics. These themes recur in all my books.
My second novel, Under the Green Moon, is loosely based on my mother’s life as a young child growing up in Botany Bay, long before it was developed and had an international airport. There were very few houses in Brighton-le-Sands, where she lived. It was all sand dunes and creeks—beautiful and pristine. There was an Aboriginal settlement at La Perouse, and they often pulled into Brighton-le-Sands Beach in their fishing boats. I asked myself: what if my mother had befriended a young girl from the settlement? So the story went from there.
I loved doing the research for that book. Australian history is fascinating, and I learned a lot about the Depression years and early immigrants from Russia and Italy. I also weaved in elements of my mother’s experience with her first husband. At eighteen she was basically a child bride, a marriage arranged by her parents and her husband’s. He was a family friend, and although she liked him as a friend, it stopped there. He eventually went off to fight the Japanese in Borneo during the Second World War, and on his return he settled in Queensland and they got divorced. At one point they live in a deserted house near Penrith. This is also based loosely on my mother’s experience, when she was pregnant with me and my father rented a convict-built sandstone house in a remote valley. He wanted her out of the way so he could carry out his affair with a woman he’d met.
My third novel, The Past is a Secret Country, is also about adoption and separation. The story is about three sisters who are separated at birth and reunited years later as adults. I wanted to stretch myself further as a writer so I asked myself, What if two of the sisters were born black to white parents? I researched this subject and found that it has indeed happened. I was fascinated by it, and how the parents might react, and how the sisters would cope with being separated and adopted. Through my interest in Aboriginal culture and spirituality I thought it would be interesting for one of the sisters, the one who looks white, to be born with an innate Aboriginal spirituality, but not be aware of it until meeting her two black sisters. She is conscious of being different, but has no idea why, until meeting her two sisters. My research for that book taught me a lot about Aboriginal culture. It is complex and so misunderstood.
• What was the path that led you to a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Kingston University, London?
I wanted to develop and improve my teaching skills and thought this would be a great opportunity to work at a university in London. So I applied. It was a fascinating experience. It is a role that also allows you time for your own writing, in a quiet space on campus. I worked with business and law students, which was quite challenging as they use language and jargon that was unfamiliar to me. It was my job to help them improve the quality of their writing. I met some very interesting people from all over the world—Russia, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Poland, Greece, Italy, America. It was really satisfying watching their writing improve and this in turn being reflected in their grades.
• I know you’ve been working on a screenplay. What is happening with that project?
I am working with the Australian film company, Aquarius Films. Their most recent feature production, Wish You Were Here, won several awards. I am heading up research on the project. We now have a professional screenwriter with a proven track record who is based in Los Angeles to write the script. This seemed a more sensible option than for me to try and write it as a beginner. Screenwriting is a special skill, and although I have learned a lot about it and worked with another producer on the same project, it’s a huge opportunity to work closely with someone so experienced and successful.
• Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about writing something of their own life story?
In October this year, I will be running a Masterclass on Life Writing as part of the Parisot Literary Festival here in south-west France. My advice to my students will be to learn all the elements of writing fiction first. The craft of life writing or autobiography is the same as writing fiction. You need to pull all the same elements together: characterisation, plotting, showing not telling, dramatising events in scenes and using effective dialogue. Remembering also to include the five senses to bring the story to life and put your reader right there in the depths of it: smells, sounds, sights, taste, touch. So many people want to write about their life but they make the mistake of telling, and not showing, their story. When you have the above ingredients plus a good story, you can’t go wrong.
• If you had to suggest just one book about writing to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James Frey.
I’ve got a comprehensive library of books about writing next to my desk. I can safely say that these equate to two, perhaps three MAs on creative writing. I am self-taught, and that’s fine. Writing is a skill that evolves and improves with practice and you can never know it all. I learn something new every time I write. That’s one of writing’s enduring attractions. I will never be bored as a writer. Words thrill, move and fascinate me.
• What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
The Pianist (2002)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Samson and Delilah (2009)
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
• What’s next for Maree Giles?
The film based on Girl 43 and the story of Parramatta Girls’ Home. I’m also working on a collection of poetry. And writing the first book in a romantic adventure series set in the Australian outback, an idea inspired by Australia’s Queen of Etiquette, June Dally Watkins. June gets a lot of flak from people, they think she’s snooty, but she’s actually a really kind person, and her belief in etiquette stems from having respect for other people.
I think kindness and putting others first is underrated these days. Selflessness is out of fashion. As a result the world can be an unpleasant place. I am exploring this theme in the book, but there’s a lot of humour too—and romance. So it’s a big leap for me as a writer, although I’m still writing it in a literary style because for me the language is just as important as the story. I love building up what I call word pictures, layer upon layer, until you can see clearly the characters and scenes vividly in your mind. I love the shape and the sound of words and finding the most accurate word for the job. My most precious book is my thesaurus. Of course, you have to be careful not to use words that are inaccessible, you can’t over-egg the prose. I love condensing and editing my writing too—getting to the point without over-writing. It’s a balance. And endlessly creative and enjoyable. I can’t imagine doing anything else.