An interview with Sharron Booth, shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award

Sharron Booth was born in Yorkshire and emigrated with her family to Western Australia in the 1970s. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have been published in The Australian, Southerly, LiNQ and other journals, and broadcast on ABC Radio.

Her short fiction has been recognised in the annual Katharine Susannah Prichard (KSP) Writers’ Centre short fiction competition. She is a former writer in residence at KSP Writers’ Centre and has recently completed her PhD. We asked Sharron to tell us a little bit about her and her work.

Describe your manuscript in your own words.

It’s about family secrets, and what it takes to cover them up over generations – and what happens if those secrets are exposed. How does it change a person’s sense of self? Who am I if my understanding of my history is based on a lie?

In The Silence of Water, the secret is a murder committed by a man who is then transported to Western Australia as a convict. Decades later, his young granddaughter finds out what her grandfather did.

It’s also about exile, and what ‘home’ is, and the many ways we can all find ourselves transported somewhere against our will.

And I hope it has something interesting to say about Western Australia and our understanding of who we might be, because of some of the lies and omissions in our history.

What inspired you to write it?

I wrote this novel as part of my PhD in creative writing and it involved archival research in Western Australia and the UK. In the process of doing the research I discovered a lot about Edwin, and the crime, but hardly anything about his first wife, Mary Ann (whom he killed) and his second wife, Catherine, whom he married in WA. I was driven by curiosity about Mary Ann and Cath and a desire to give them some kind of voice, presence and dignity. While ultimately we can never truly know, I felt a way for me to ‘know’ these women was to write about them.

I also really wanted to find out what would happen if I could get Edwin, his Australian daughter Agnes and her daughter, Fan, in a room together, with the recently uncovered knowledge of Edwin’s long-ago crime. What would happen? How much did Agnes know about her father? How would this affect the already difficult relationship between Agnes and Fan? What would Edwin do? So many possibilities.

Inspiration also came from the wonderful novel by Amanda Curtin, The Sinkings, which examines aspects of WA’s convict history.

How long have you been working on it?

I’m scared to add it up! Perhaps eight or nine years, maybe longer. I started my PhD in 2007 and finished it last year. I wasn’t working on it the whole timeI took lots of time off and ended up quitting for a few years. I gave up on it. My novel sat in a drawer and the files sat on my shelves. I moved house twice and lugged them around with me, unable to look at them, yet unable to throw them away. Two years ago I decided I needed to finish what I started. I spent considerably longer on this project than Edwin spent doing time for murder.

What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Awards?

It means everything. I am honoured, humbled and so grateful. It says that this story is worthwhile, that it is worth telling.

The Hungerford is one of Australia’s most important opportunities for unpublished writers, so to make the shortlist is fantastic encouragement for me as a writer. It nudges me to keep going.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to say a big thank you to the City of Fremantle, the judges and to Fremantle Press for continuing to make this award possible and for nurturing new Western Australian writers. Now, more than ever, I think we need stories to help us navigate (or escape) an uncertain world.

Extract from the Silence of Water

They were married on a freezing November day in the small church of St Peter in Birmingham. Mary Ann wore a once-white, loose-fitting dress, not really a dress for weddings or for winters, but Mrs Blunt hadn’t minded giving it away. Eliza took in the waist, took up the hem.

‘See? Custom-made for you,’ Eliza said.

‘You should open your own shop,’ Mary Ann said, and both women laughed loudly at such an absurdity.

Eliza stitched a yellow silk rose to Mary Ann’s waist. ‘It almost matches your hair.’ Eliza brushed Mary Ann’s hair. ‘You look perfect.’

There was nobody at St Peter’s when they arrived.

‘It’s bad luck to be early,’ Mary Ann said.

‘Rubbish. Stupid superstition.’ Eliza said. ‘Besides, I want to draw you. Goodness knows when there’ll ever be another proper bride in the family.’

Eliza positioned Mary Ann in the doorway. The crisp early morning sunshine made her hair shine.

‘I never been drawn before,’ Mary Ann said. ‘How long’s this going to take? It’s freezing in this damned dress.’

‘Serves you right for getting married in November.’

‘Edwin got his first transfer. A promotion, he says. He don’t want to leave me behind.’

‘Of course he doesn’t. Now smile, please.’

 Mary Ann grimaced.

‘I mean smile properly,’ Eliza said.

‘I’m trying to stop my teeth from chattering.’

Eliza drew big sweeping pencil strokes over the paper. Mary Ann shuffled and sighed, but didn’t complain.

‘Here you go. See, I missed my calling.’ Eliza gave Mary Ann the picture. ‘Call it a wedding present.’

Mary Ann smiled at the sight of herself as a bride, a long train tangling with her hair in a curly frame around the edges of the paper, her husband in a smart suit with his arm around her waist.

‘You got Edwin perfect, and he’s not even here.’

‘He’s always looked the same,’ Eliza said. ‘I’ve been looking at him all my life.’

‘Thanks for standing up for me,’ Mary Ann said. ‘I got nobody else.’

‘Do you know what to – you know, expect?’ Eliza asked.

‘I been in Birmingham for a long time.’ Mary Ann coloured. ‘It pays to know enough to keep out of trouble.’

Edwin could see the fine hair on Mary Ann’s bare forearms bristle with cold. She looked ghost-like: white, shimmery, the sunlight bouncing off her hair. He wanted to get the wedding part over and take her to his room. He wanted to uncoil her hair, touch her bare shoulders, scoop his hands into the absence of flesh that was the curve from her ribs to her hips.

On Edwin’s side of the church: Da in his best suit, Mam in her good hat, Mary eyeing off William Neville, the dozen or so excise men who came to cheer him along. His two brothers were at the front, standing up for him. Samuel, George and Edwin, the three Salt boys, identical brown eyes, identical brown hair. Small, medium and large. Cut from the same cloth, Da joked, and everyone except Edwin smiled.

On Mary Ann’s side: Mr Blunt the brass founder, and Mrs Blunt.

The minister nodded. Mary Ann held her head high and began her long walk into the sea of his witnesses.

Later she cried, but not with fear. She opened herself eagerly to him and afterwards he watched her as she slept in the smudgy light. Her lips were plump and blood-red from all the kissing. He stroked her breast and she quivered, her eyes still shut while the feeling awoke her. He took another swig from the gin bottle and buried his face in her beautiful hair. She moved her hand underneath him. His last thought before the tide of feeling overtook them both: you are my wish.

The winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award will be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Thursday 22 October. Tickets are free but places are limited so RSVP soon

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