My first encounter with the work of Sidney Nolan was when I was a boy working on an Exmoor farm. An Australian gave me a book on the outback. The book was illustrated with black and white photographs of a vast silent land that was mysterious to me and which compelled my imagination. Although I didn’t know it at the time the haunting photographs in the book were the work of the Australian artist Sidney Nolan. I came to Australia on my own at the age of 16 in search of Sidney Nolan’s outback. It was the most important decision I have ever made. I still revisit Central and North Queensland and have many friends there. That strange and beautiful country photographed with the imagination of Nolan has been a deep and lasting influence on my life as a writer.
My second (recorded) encounter with the work of Nolan was in 1961 when Thames and Hudson published in London the first major monograph on the Australian artist’s work. Though I had very little money at the time – I was earning a living in Melbourne cleaning cars while studying at night for my university entrance exams – I thought this expensive book so important that I bought a copy and sent it to my father as a Christmas present. Nolan’s art, it seemed to me, would reveal to my father more about Australia than my letters ever could. It was through my father’s encouragement that I had first developed what proved to be a lifelong interest in art. He wanted me to be an artist. I did the next best thing and became a writer.
When my first novel, The Tivington Nott (Robert Hale 1989) was distributed in Australia Sidney Nolan’s old friend the poet Barrett Reid wrote to tell me he thought highly of the book and that he wished to meet me. Barrie, as his friends knew him, lived at Heide, the home of the Reeds, where Nolan’s art had found its first and most important champion in Sunday Reed. When I told Barrie about the inspiration of the book given me by the Australian in Somerset all those years ago it was he who told me it was Nolan’s photos I’d been looking at. On more than one occasion during the years of our friendship Barrie suggested to me that I write a novel based on Nolan’s life. Barrie revealed Nolan’s art to me in a way I could not have done for myself and he educated me about its sources and the life of art Nolan had lived at Heide. Barrie remained a dedicated friend and champion of Sunday Reed to the end of his life.
In Autumn Laing, the resident poet laureate of the group of artists whose work is favoured at Old Farm is Barnaby. Like Barrie, Barnaby was born and raised on a cattle station in the Central Highlands of Queensland. Barnaby is my private homage to a dear friend who is no longer with us. The connection of Nolan and the Queensland cattle station that I made through my friendship with Barrett Reid was a compelling one that was rich in those emotions that make us feel as if we not only belong to a certain place but that we are in some sense fated to belong to it. Sooner or later I knew I would attempt to write about Nolan. What I wrote was not, however, what I expected to write. Novels are a kind of dream for the novelist. Although they are based on reality the writer is not in control and must follow the compelling prompts of imagination. For me it has never been possible to plot or plan a novel beyond a few very basic elements. The story reveals itself to me as I proceed with a book and is nearly always a surprise. This book, Autumn Laing, was no exception.
I first wrote what is now chapter two, Autumn’s portrait of the artist’s first wife, Edith. After writing this chapter I had to leave it while I spent a month on tour in the UK with my previous novel Lovesong. At the end of the tour (the end of September 2010) I was sitting on a bench in Holland Park watching squirrels and remembering my boyhood in London’s parks when the idea for the present form of the book suddenly occurred to me. I hadn’t given the book a thought for a month. As I was sitting there that lovely September afternoon watching the squirrels diving about the place I suddenly heard the voice of Autumn Laing, ‘They are all dead,’ she said, ‘and I am old and skeleton-gaunt . . .’ It was a realisation. The realisation that the character I had originally based on Sunday Reed, Nolan’s muse and lover and his greatest supporter during his early years, might have lived on until the age of 86, alone, deserted, betrayed. This woman was no longer the Sunday Reed of history but was my own fiction, a fiction of how such a person might have become had she lived another ten years and had she decided to tell her story, telling it at a time of her life when she had nothing left to lose.
When I got home to Castlemaine from London in early October I wrote for ten hours a day six days a week for five months in the voice that I had heard in Holland Park – the voice of Autumn Laing. It is the longest novel I’ve ever written and the quickest. I loved every minute of it and was sorry when she finally left me. I don’t think I will ever find anyone like her again. She is confident, well informed, passionate, cultivated and very down to earth. She is, in some ways, the personification of a cultivated Australian woman. She couldn’t possibly be English or French. Her commitment was always to Australia and to our art. She was never tempted to live in England or Europe. In her person my own early life as a stockman in North Queensland is connected to my life as a writer in Melbourne, just as these aspects of my own life were connected for me by my friendship with Barrie Reid, a faithful friend of Sunday Reed until the end, and a faithful admirer and interpreter of the art of his old friend Nolan. It is the experience of the artist and of Autumn in this book while they are visiting Barnaby’s parents’ cattle station in North Queensland that changes them both forever.
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781742378510 | Hardcover | 456 pages | ARP $39.99
Order your copies from James Bennett today!