in which Selina talks about her collaboration with Chris Rowett and her
travels around the State...
A conversation between Selina Baxter and Phillip Winn, Leederville, December 1997
in which Selina talks about her collaboration with Chris Rowett and her travels around the State...
|Space being at a premium in the school where Selina works, we sit at a makeshift conference table on the landing near the photocopier. Greetings of "Good afternoon..." rise from the secretary's office as she answers the phone. An experienced writer and teacher of English, Selina is modest about her publications with FACP: an evocative volume about shearing and a colourful celebration of the port of Fremantle. In this interview she speaks frankly about the joys and difficulties of researching and writing while holding down a full-time job.|
Obviously as an English teacher you have a love of language and books, but at what point did you cross the divide from reader to writer?
I first worked on a book with Chris and a number of other writers - a community project - called In and Out of Town, about Narrogin. It was published for the centenary of Narrogin. We were invited to just write. I had about seven pieces in there.
So, in a sense, Chris Rowett's photography went hand-in-hand with your writing?
Yes, with In and Out of Town he had photographs of country life and I wrote about what it was like to live in a country town - like going to the swimming pool after school, when it's hot. The railway line goes right through the town so I wrote a couple of things about waiting at the railway crossing. There's a really good photograph of his of a railway station, but with weeds starting to grow up through the railway line. I wrote a piece to go with that about my father-in-law; it was about night-shift on the railway line. So the visual image was of this semi-dead railway line and the writing was about this frosty night where you could lose a finger if the carriages are shunted into each other. He also had to string up the train in a particularly logical order - as a shunter that's what your job is. It worked pretty well and the end line was "and now there are weeds growing in that railway yard", or something like that, indicating his sense of loss. I thought the photographs obviously do something for my creative juices, and it works, so I said to Chris I'd like to work with him again.
Was it easy to settle on the next project?
We nutted around a few different topics - we didn't really mind what we did then I came up with the shearing idea.
Which you took straight to FACP?
Yes, we were able to get the interest of the editor, Ray Coffey, at the beginning of To Ring the Shed, even before we began, because we had worked on In and Out of Town. We were able to go to the publisher to show them our proposal. Chris went with a paragraph from me, his photographs, and the book to show them. They said they'd be very keen to publish it.
So you didn't present FACP with a finished manuscript?
No, it was basically "go away and come back and show what you can do".
I guess you would have entered into some form of formal agreement before you began work on the project?
We didn't actually sign a contract until later. Some people might think: "I'm not going to do all this work without a contract", but because it's a local thing, and because of their reputation, you tend to be a little bit more trusting. Although we did get a little bit rattled towards the end, when it got to the legal part of it. But we saw them at the beginning and then there were evaluative stages along the way, to see how it was going and discuss presentation.
So your first book with FACP was about shearing?
Yes, it was called To Ring the Shed and it was about the world, the environment inhabited by shearers. Shearers are the focus, but everyone is in it: stock owners, farmers, leaders of the shearing team, the young rousie. It has a broad range of themes; one of the most interesting guys is an old Aboriginal. I think of it as being an evocative subject. We went as far as we could with it, rather than just doing a history of shearers. There's a few jokes in there. A lot of people said to me: "I'm writing about shearing" or "Have you read Patsy Adam Smith's book called The Shearers" - that's a very comprehensive description of the shearing world and its history. I knew this was a good idea, that it would work. In the sense that it's not a history; it does cover how shearing used to be, but it's about what shearing is like now. Mostly they don't go away on the camp-outs where you go and live on the site - except in the more remote locations. Anywhere near a town they try to go every day - so there's still a sense of team, but not the same as it used to be. With Chris we covered the modern side of it - we even investigated robot shearing at Murdoch University and looked at all those machines - but we left that out because visually it jarred too much with what we'd created with the series of nostalgic photos. Interestingly, although we covered the whole State, a lot of the photos ended up being of the North-West, because of the amazing landscapes. The book is a series of black and white photographs, and the structure is of a shearing day - or the sequence of shearing. It starts off with mustering photos and then goes into the different sections of the day. Finally, there's the sunset and the last photo is at night. In between is whatever text came up. It's quite individual; there's oral history in it, but it's not a history. It's an unusual project.
Travelling around the State to do the research must have been quite enjoyable.
We had a lot of fun actually. We went around and about and finally we got the chance to live with a shearing team for a while so we really listened and talked to them a lot and really understood what it's like. I lost my voice completely for about two days. That was semi-hysterical, but it was probably quite good for my observation skills. I couldn't talk to them so I just had to listen, and get what I could out of it.
Travelling around costs a lot of money, did FACP provide you with any financial support?
No. We got that from a grant from the Arts Council because we had to fly to places and ring up all the time. We couldn't have afforded it without that.
So producing To Ring the Shed required a lot of time, energy, and money. Do you think that the book paid for itself?
You don't get any money out of any of this. You only just get the pleasure of doing it. We decided to divide up the royalties. If you sell 10,000 or so you get back more, but FACP do small print-runs. Probably the best thing for an author would be to just go on producing, but maybe not such a labour intensive thing as we did - it involved a lot of interviews, a lot of travelling, a lot of research, a lot of thinking...
The text and photographs in To Ring the Shed complement each other really well. I imagine that you spent a lot of time with Chris working things out.
We talked about topics and what we'd like to do next, then we'd work independently, then I found I had the role of saying: "We've left this out", or "Try to get a photograph of this aspect..." Which he would do. But he didn't very often ask me to write anything.
You seem to have developed a successful working style together, especially as your more recent Working Port follows similar lines.
Working Port is similar, only it's all in colour instead of black and white. Although we tried both, we ended up going with colour. It celebrates an aspect of working life. There's not so much about the brawn there used to be in a history of workers. It's more of a visual feast with the sounds and images of interest in Fremantle. It really shows the life of the harbour. It has a great cover and it looks good. It was very hard work doing it while I was working full-time. It's probably good to just see it as a finished product. How I would've described it while I was working on it would be different from how I describe it now, because I've finished. It looks nice, it's in colour. I think it's good for Fremantle.
So FACP was the logical choice of publisher, given the local subject?
We decided to stick with FACP because we liked the idea of working with the same team and we really liked the designer, John Douglass; we could work with him, and we thought it was an exciting project for him. We thought it would be a good idea because we knew them. Trying to deal with people in the Eastern States where you can't just sit down and have a discussion is very difficult, especially when you've got photographs. So we were quite limited because of all the photographs, whereas if you just have a text you simply send a disk back and forth and get on the phone. For a while with Working Port we though we might publish it ourselves, or we might try someone else because it was a very special project which we wanted to do because it was our artistic interest. But against that you have to weigh up how many people are going to buy it, or who wants to buy it. And in that particular case there's a much more restricted audience. Whereas the shearing topic appeals to more, since anyone has rural connections; New Zealanders, South Africans, as well as Australians. There are many advantages of having a really good local publisher. As well as that they have a really good distribution deal, that was important for us when we chose them for To Ring the Shed because it's pointless having a local publisher if the distribution is very weak. While there are other local publishers we didn't go with them for that reason.
One of the advantages of a local publisher is the possibility of regular contact with the editor, did you have much interaction?
Probably not a lot. As a beginner and as someone who wants to develop the writing, I probably could have talked more about the actual writing, or he could have appointed someone to nut it out with me a bit more. It was pretty much up to me to do it. He did say cut this bit out or aim to do this, occasionally, but that was pretty rare. I think also that because I write in little bits it's less important to check that chapter seven fits in with chapter six, because you can move the bits about. We did discuss that a bit, but not too much.
So how useful did you find the publisher's comments on your work?
Pretty on the ball. He's very accurate. One of his strengths is his overall ability to have a sense of the narrative, about what works and what doesn't. With both books there were masses of material which we had to bring down to a very small amount. So we had a fair bit of time discussing the photographs and less time discussing the writing. They're generally very professional and also they're very friendly if you ring up about things. They're very approachable. Sometimes it's a bit friendly, and not enough answers to something. But I think I'd rather have the friendliness than them just be assertive and formal and inaccessible. They're very good on things like submitting books for competition - it was short-listed for the Premier's award - and they wouldn't be things you would think of. They're really good on handling that. And the public lending rights scheme - they send you all the forms to fill out.
What have you done since Working Port?
Since then I've edited a book called From Ink to Internet. It has an absolutely beautiful cover in a sumptuous blue and red. It was a Cottesloe School project. We only printed 500, but we had to do everything; the proof reading, the whole thing. This was a very good experience to teach me what they had to do with my manuscript. I really enjoyed that.
Do you hope to continue with similar projects?
Now I'm just thinking what I want to do next. I'd like to do something with Chris, but maybe not that sort of project where it's so time consuming. It takes 18 months if you're working as well. I'd really like to just sit and write a nice 30,000 word novel, where all I have to do is sit with my computer and a bit of research and imagination and a lot of sweat, but not going anywhere.