Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anatomy of a Novel: India Dark

Anatomy of a Novel: India Dark*
Guest post by Kirsty Murray

* congrats Kirsty on winning the 2011 NSW Premier's Young People's History Award for India Dark!

1.    Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company

India Dark is a work of fiction about a troupe of child performers  - Percival’s Lilliputian Opera Company – that toured India from 1909-1910. Although Poesy, Tilly, Charlie and all the other children in the novel are characters that I invented, the Percival troupe is closely based on Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company. The Pollards were a real troupe of child performers that toured the world from the 1880s onwards. Real life tends to have an impossibly sprawling and messy shape and it was only through fiction that I could tell the story of the last disastrous tour of the Pollards. Peter Downes is a New Zealand historian who has written a history of the NZ branch of the Pollards that was helped me to imagine the life and times of my characters:

2.    Theatres, popular culture and Shirley Temple
Popular culture feels so powerful in your own era but most of it fades quickly from memory and from history. If you look back more than 50 years, you’ll find a lot of the things that were valued and thought really important in terms of film, theatre and mainstream culture is badly documented. If Poesy Swift and Tilly Sweetrick, the teenage girls who tell the story of India Dark, had been real actresses they would be as forgotten as the Pollard kids. Most child performers, no matter how much they are loved in their own era, are abandoned by their fans and by history. There are a few exceptions, most notably Shirley Temple.

I loved Shirley Temple when I was a kid. I still admire her hugely. Her life’s trajectory was incredible. As a child labourer in the film industry she worked like a Trojan. I wrote a brief summary of her life in an early non-fiction book, Tough Stuff (Allen & Unwin, 1999) and focused on the work she did in the Baby Burlesques.  These films could never be made today and yet they were made when my own parents were children and I watched them on television when I was a kid. They are disturbing on many levels and make the Lilliputians look very tame in comparison.

Shirley Temple in War Babies
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3.    India and Southeast Asia

I grew up as a total USA/Europhile. With the exception of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ and ‘Kim’, I read nothing much about India until I stumbled across Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until I started thinking about writing India Dark that I started to explore the shared history that Australians have with India.

I could never have written India Dark without spending time in India. If I hadn’t scored an Asialink Literature residency, I probably wouldn’t have been able to wrap my brain around what my characters went through. I wouldn’t have found the vocabulary to describe the heat, the colour, the scents and sights, the turmoil and richness of both India and Southeast Asia.

4.    Annie Besant and Theosophy

Annie Besant appears briefly in India Dark but she loomed large in my imagination as I wrote the novel. In one chapter, Poesy and Charlie row across the Adyar River to the Theosophical Society Headquarters in Madras in the vain hope that Annie Besant might be able to save them. If they had met her, she just might have changed their lives.
Besant was possibly the most influential woman in the world in the early 20th Century.  She spent her childhood in her widowed mother’s boarding house in England and ended it in India as President of the Theosophical Society. She abandoned her first marriage to an Anglican minister to become a famous social reformer, women's rights activist, and member of the Fabian party as well as an avowed atheist. She abandoned atheism, the Fabians and Europe to move to India and become a Theosophist. She fought for the rights of Indians, was arrested by the British and was the first woman president of Indian National Congress. There was so much about Annie Besant and her life that connected to Poesy that I simply had to put her in the novel.
Theosophy was the spearhead of what we now might describe as the New Age movement and Australia was a hotbed of Theosophist activity in the early 20th Century. So the links between Australia and India and Annie Besant and Poesy Swift grew more and more complicated as I wove these seemingly disparate threads into India Dark.

5.    Magic

I’ve never written fantasy. My idea of magic is intrinsically linked to this world and its endless, mysterious and convoluted realities. But stage magic was an obsession of Edwardian boys like my character Charlie Byrne and just as Annie Besant connected to Poesy and India, so magic drew Charlie more deeply into India.

While writing and researching India Dark  I scored a Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria. One of the collections in the SLV that I had the most fun exploring was the William Alma Magic Collection. With around 2,000 books of magic, it provided me with a huge amount of material to use in the novel.

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