An interview with Molly Schmidt, shortlisted for the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award

Molly Schmidt is a writer and journalist, currently undertaking the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program with Fremantle Press. By day, she works as a radio producer and reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where her passion for storytelling is put to good use. While writing her first manuscript, Molly has been collaborating with Noongar Elders from her hometown of Albany, with the goal of producing a novel that actively pursues reconciliation between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples. Molly completed her thesis on the topic in 2021 under the supervision of Professor Kim Scott and Dr Brett D’Arcy.

Describe your manuscript in your own words.

Salt River Road is a coming of age story set in regional Western Australia in the 1970’s. My manuscript draws on my personal experience of losing my father to cancer, exploring the reality of a childhood lost to hospital corridors and the gaping hole a parent leaves behind. It gives voice to the ‘part no one considers. When the life has ended, but the chaos continues.’ In a parallel narrative, Salt River Road acknowledges the stories and wisdom of the Traditional Custodians of the Great Southern region, the Menang and Goreng Noongar people.

My protagonists are teenage siblings, Rose and Frank Tetley, whose worlds are thrown off kilter by the death of their mum. Their sheep farm goes to ruins, as Eddie, their father, is grounded by his grief. When Noongar Elders Patsy and Herbert find Rose marching along the highway away from all the mess, they take her home in a storm of red gravel dust that brings up memories Eddie would rather forget.

The story itself is told with a mix of prose and poetry as I naturally turned to poetry to express emotional scenes. In different draft stages, I edited the poetry out but now I see it as one of the strengths of the manuscript.

I wrote this story in consultation with Noongar Elders from the Albany area and I am so grateful for their time and friendship. I hope Salt River Road can become a poignant example of the possibilities of cross-cultural collaboration.

What inspired you to write it?

The concept for Salt River Road began over ten years ago, an idea scribbled in a notebook by my then teenage self as I attempted to come to terms with the loss of my dad. Back then, the story was called Boat Dancing, and while I loved the characters who sprang to life before me, I came to realise I had not so much a novel, and more a work of therapy that had provided cathartic release. For many years, throughout my journalism and creative writing degree, Boat Dancing remained in a desk drawer, untouched. It was after spending three years working as a journalist and engaging closely with Perth’s Noongar community that I became aware of the disregard for and omission of Aboriginal stories and voices in the media in general. It occurred to me that as a Western Australian writer I had a responsibility to write in a manner that is inclusive of First Nations People. I decided to include Noongar characters in Boat Dancing; however, I also understood the importance of avoiding cultural appropriation, stereotyping and tokenism. I knew that despite the best intentions, I did not have the answers. I went back to university and undertook an Honours project in which I returned to Albany and consulted directly with Noongar Elders, asking them if and how they would like to be included in a work of local fiction. The privilege of working with these Elders was enormous and, with their guidance, Boat Dancing became what is now Salt River Road.

How long have you been working on it?

I was fifteen when I first looked out the passenger window on a trip from Albany to Perth and saw the sign ‘Tenterden’ and wondered what people did there. I decided to make up the answer, setting my story on a sheep farm there. I’m now 27, so … it’s been a long journey and it’s not over yet.

What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award?

In March this year, when I submitted Salt River Road to the Hungerford, I was a few months into a six-month stint back in Albany. I’d just started a new job at the ABC bureau there, and my partner, Pete, and I were still surrounded by packing boxes. There was so much else that needed to be done, a dog that needed walking, emails that needed checking, and yet I’d written ‘Hungerford Award’ on my whiteboard in big red capital letters. I never for one moment imagined I would be longlisted, let alone shortlisted, but it was the first time I had a complete draft of my manuscript, and I had that niggling feeling of ‘if not now, when?’ So, the boxes remained stacked around us and Pete held the fort and walked the dog and Brett D’Arcy engaged in lengthy phone calls from Perth (as did my mum, who is an avid reader and editor of my work) and after weeks of spending every scrap of spare time on the manuscript, I hit submit.

I thought that was the end of it. I was proud to have merely polished the draft and submitted. Fremantle Press has long been my dream publisher for Salt River Road; so to have been recognised by them? I am still pinching myself.

Excerpt from Salt River Road

A car in the gravel dust. White with the orange dirt that decorates all the cars round here. My salt snot-grief and sadness in the dirt. The passenger door opens and a sneaker hangs out, hesitates with a little side-to-side dance, then steps. I’m crouching, knees all jammed up and aching, folded up like a frog and not going anywhere fast. She has a purple skirt with big orange spirals on it.
      ‘Girl down here doing sorry business,’ says Orange Spirals.
      ‘Hmmph,’ comes from the driver’s seat, engine still running.
      I close my eyes. Over there somewhere, down at the house, Dad and the boys are moving in silent circles round each other. Even though inside them, nothing is quiet at all. Inside them is screaming and yelling and lots of why being asked with big question marks. I can feel it. But outside, the picture looks like cornflakes pouring in bowls and fingers rubbing eyes and things might seem quite normal except it’s three o’clock in the afternoon.
     So that’s why I’m out here making tear tracks down my legs. I was walking along the road to Jenna’s place, behind the Tenterden General Store. But when I got there, I realised I didn’t feel like going in at all. The Betts’ family dog Pippa barked and wagged her tail at me, but I kept walking past the fence and along the highway.
     So. On and on. Flies in my nose and my ears. Tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. Sticks scratching my legs and gumnuts trying to roll my ankles. My mind calling out names of native plants as I pass them. Mallee bush pea, moojar tree, jam wattle.
    Then sharp suddenly, catching my breath, pulling my chest in. Everything too bright and too sore. My knees folding and my hands holding my head trying to keep it in, but everything, everything coming up like the dread of rising vomit.
     Pain and relief at once.
     The letting out of things.
      Then this. This woman with her orange swirls, who looks down at me, says, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ She turns to the flowering tree beside us, like nothing is wrong at all. ‘Get it out,’ she says, and pats my back three times, firmly. ‘Real nice moojar tree out here, Herb.’ She looks towards the car.
      The driver turns the engine off and the radio cuts suddenly.
      ‘Lemme see,’ he mumbles, door swinging shut. ‘That’s Eddie’s kid, that is,’ he says like he’s naming a species of rare bird. ‘A Tetley, that one.’
      I am. A Tetley. This one.

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