[missing asset] Rosalie Ham made her name with her much-loved debut, The Dressmaker, continuing her success with Summer at Mount Hope. It’s been more than five years between novels now – but both fans and newcomers to Ham’s dark wit and stubborn characters will embrace There Should Be More Dancing, a novel set in her home suburb of Brunswick. The Age’s Michelle Griffin spoke to Rosalie Ham for Readings’ New Australian Writing series.
In the 25 years that Rosalie Ham has lived in Brunswick, she’s watched her corner of the suburb change in fundamental ways. ‘When we came here, there was no one in the park,’ she says. ‘There was no one there, just a bunch of teenagers who would smoke and drink and root each other, and some older people passed out in the toilets. Now you have to queue for the swings with your toddler, if you have one.’
Ham, 56, is not one to decry the ways of New Brunswick – ‘now there’s good coffee just there and a good pub – you don’t have to travel far’ – but her third and latest novel does work on one level as a serio-comic love letter to the old Brunswick, to the pub-reared boxers and pub-soaked fathers, the linoleum kitchens in the tiny worker’s cottages and the broken cars in the front yards of the share-houses.
While Ham’s first two novels were decidedly rural, almost all the action in the new book takes place within 500 metres of her home. The house where her protagonist Margery sits fuming over her cross-stitch is ‘just down there’, she says, gesturing down the road. ‘I pass it four or five times a week walking my dog.’ It is one of those un-renovated opportunities that the real estate agent son-in-law in the novel paws so covetously: ‘a detached, two-bedroom weatherboard cottage with kitchen and bathroom tacked into the back and outdoor lavatories’. Ham took a photo of the house down the road so she could physically map the landscape her characters inhabited. ‘If it’s true and it’s real, it comes out of your head and down your arms and onto the page. There’s the park and the pub and Sydney Road and Union Square – it’s easy to map their progress. They covered a huge terrain by going not very far.’
She thought that if she wrote an urban novel, it would change her style along with her landscapes. Her break-out first novel, The Dressmaker (2001), was set in the Mallee. Her second book, Summer at Mount Hope (2005), unfolded in a Victorian vineyard a century ago. But as Ham readily admits, her readers will recognise both the stubborn, honourable characters and the assured comic voice. ‘I put all the standard goodies in it,’ she says. ‘Love and deceit and betrayal and lies and lust.’
There Should be More Dancing had a lengthy and troubled gestation, unlike The Dressmaker *which Ham calls ‘the one I got for free’. ‘Tragically I came under the influence of Marilyn Robinson. I read *Gilead and tried to write my book in the first person. But I’ve found it’s better to write in the voice of Rosalie Ham. It’ll come out anyway. So I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. It took probably five years from the nucleus of the idea and mapping out and not writing anything until the time I actually sent it out.’
The story begins outside Brunswick’s borders, on one of the top floors of what is recognisable as the Sofitel in Collins Street. Margery has booked a room and plans to fling herself to her death rather than face the injustices visited upon her by her family and other enemies. This, says Ham, was not the most attractive pitch to shop around to publishers. ‘It’s not a very good premise – a little old lady about to end her life. If you’re going to tackle something like that, you need to do it with humour.’
If nobody else writes with quite the same wry warmth and pitch-black wit of Ham, she does share something of the melancholy and humour of local animator Adam Elliot. There’s lot of fine-grained detail, from the perfectly slicked hair of Margery’s sweetly punch-drunk ex-boxer son, to the daily indignities suffered by the tiny, arthritic and almost silent neighbour Mrs Parsons. Both are based on real people, says Ham.
‘He was someone who used to visit his mother in the nursing home where I worked. He visited every Friday at the same time and he wore shorts and a Collingwood guernsey no matter what the weather. He’d obviously drunk a little too much in his time but he was just adorable … he had to go in.’
As a child, Ham would travel down from Jerilderie to visit her grandmother in Castlemaine. Next door lived the little old lady who would become the novel’s Mrs Parsons. ‘Her blind would go up or down during the day, and we would go over and tie or untie her shoelaces because she couldn’t do it. It stuck in my mind that you could do that for a person.’
The 25 years Ham spent working in nursing homes has given her an eye for the way the aged move, an ear for the timbre of older Australian voices and an abiding affection for the stories that can be spun out of a life span’s experience. ‘If there’s a roomful of people and I don’t know anyone, I’ll go talk to the old person,’ she says.
The old ladies of the latest novel are neither twinkly vessels of wisdom nor bitter husks of malice, two of the archetypes set out so often for the oldest woman in a story. Instead, we get a spirited heroine with a sharp tongue, a fierce sense of outrage and an opportunity to learn some home truths she’s been avoiding for decades.
In the novel, Margery uses her cross-stitch samplers as both a shield and a weapon, brandishing parables ripped from a doctor’s calendar to comment on indignities, and avoiding any real engagement with the world as she bends over her threads. The dramas that play out, betrayal and love and honour, remind us, too, that love and anger do not always fade away.
‘A theme I had in A Dream at Mount Hope was how to live a life. That was a kind of anti-romance where romance and passion lost out to friendship and loyalty. This is the same thing, a book about how to live your life well. I think I’m done with that now.’ With a third novel finally on the shelf, Ham is ready to start digging away at the next idea for a novel. She’s also waiting with fingers crossed to see if the film adaptation of The Dressmaker is going to be filmed next year. The director attached is Jocelyn Moorhouse, who is best known for Proof – but also, perhaps, for her attempt to film Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, before Russell Crowe started demanding rewrites. Strong-willed actors permitting, Ham is hoping she’ll get an opportunity to play an extra in a dance scene. Otherwise, her only involvement with the production is enthusiastic support and ‘beaming idiotically on the red carpet,’ she says.
Which brings us to the endearing title of her new novel: There Should Be More Dancing. Should there be? Ham says yes. The title is a family heirloom. ‘There’s a bit of a family joke that comes from my mother and now has been taken up with my boy [her stepson],’ she says. ‘Every now and then, when things are serious, we always exclaim “there should be more dancing!”.’
Michelle Griffin is a journalist at The Age. You can follow her on Twitter - @michellegriff.