Page last updated at 17:21 GMT, Monday, 30 January 2006

Author's convict ancestor inspires book

Kate Grenville
Grenville won the Orange prize in 2001
Orange Prize-winning author Kate Grenville has said she got the idea for her new book - telling the story of one of the first convicts sent to Australia - while thinking about her own family history.

The Secret River is set in the early days of Australia being settled from abroad, when large numbers of convicts were sent there from London.

Grenville, who describes herself as "European-Australian," said that she got the idea for the book when she started wondering what her own European ancestor had done.

"I knew that he'd settled on 100 acres near the Hawkesbury River, which is not far from Sydney, and I also knew vaguely that there must have been Aboriginal people there, because it was like a little bit of paradise," she told BBC World Service's The Ticket programme.

"So it began as this little niggling anxiety at the back of my mind - what did my great-great grandfather do when he met those Aboriginal people? Was he one of those settlers who got out his gun and shot them?

"Or was he one of the other kind, who tried to make peace?"


The book explores the psychological reasons behind why many of the convicts acted with hostility towards the Aboriginals.

"It's quite a common thing - the bullied become the bullies," Grenville said.

Sign saying Aboriginal Sovereignty Never Ceded
The controversy surrounding early settlers remains current
"One of the reasons the book is set in London is that it seemed to me very important to show how little choice they had.

"Apart from making money and the climate, they could see that they could rise in the social system in Australia in a way that would never have been possible."

The plot examines the conflict between two sets of people both wanting the same piece of land.

While the Aboriginals, who had been on it for 40,000 years, tried to defend it, the book also looks at why the white settlers hung on to it so fiercely.

"I wanted to show that those settlers had a choice - and they didn't all choose violence," Grenville said.

"There is a character in the book who makes a different kind of choice - he chooses assimilation with the people who are there.

"The choices were open to all of them - and that's where the psychology comes in. They were different characters with different backgrounds."

The author also explained that almost all of the novel is based on historical fact. Although the Aboriginal side of the story has not been written down, she said there is enough known to "open it all up" through the documents of the time.

History wars

She added she had tried to approach the highly controversial subject as a historian.

"This subject is a very potent and political one in Australia - and in other parts of the world of the moment - so it seemed really important that people would not say 'oh, it's just a novel - she made it up'," she explained.

"Actually, all this did happen. It didn't all happen to one man, but all these events and these characters are based very solidly on fact."

Australian historians are currently very polarised over what happened during the early settling of their country, and their debates have been termed "history wars."

Grenville said that for this reason, she expected the book to be controversial - adding that because fiction allows more leeway than straight history, it required greater responsibility to write.

"If you get it wrong, you're really telling a big lie," she said.

"That's why it was important to me with this particular book to be as honourable in my interpretation of the sources as it was possible to be."

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