Emily Bitto interviews Kate Mildenhall

Emily Bitto interviews Kate Mildenhall about her debut novel, Skylarking.

At a low point during the writing of her debut novel, Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall wrote herself a letter in the voice of her main protagonist, a young nineteenth-century woman called Kate Gilbert.

‘I don’t totally believe in that idea of channelling characters,’ Mildenhall tells me, ‘but writing the letter did have the impact of being able to do that for me. She said to me, this is what you need to tell. This is the part of my story you need to get across.’

Several examples of such channelling and synchronicity emerge as Mildenhall talks to me about the writing of Skylarking, a story inspired by real-life tragic events that occurred on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. The novel centres on the deep and complex friendship between best friends Kate and Harriet, who grew up in the small lighthouse community at Cape St George, near Jervis Bay. Mildenhall stumbled upon the story when camping with her own best friend, whom she has known since childhood, and their respective husbands and children.

‘Between our camp and the shower block, there was one of those tiny white picket fences and a grave site… As we went to look at things, we went to see the ruins of the lighthouse, and found out about the grave: that it was a girl’s grave, and that she was the best friend of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter.’

The story sparked her interest, initially, she tells me, ‘Because I was camping with my best friend, and these girls were best friends,’ but the more she thought about those girls, and the mystery surrounding them, the more they began to obsess her.

Mildenhall was studying professional writing part-time at RMIT, and on her return home, she checked whether anyone had written about the events at Cape St George. ‘It seemed ridiculous that no-one would have,’ she says.

Then, during a writing exercise in class, she began to experiment with the story herself. ‘It was just a really quick exercise,’ she says, ‘but Kate’s voice was in that. And it stuck.’

Over the following year, she researched lighthouse-keeping, visited lighthouses, and read journals written by young women who had lived at the same time as Kate and Harriet. She was also able to obtain the original transcripts from the inquest into the Cape St George tragedy, which allowed her to access ‘Kate’s real voice’. Uncannily, this voice from the past, and in particular Kate’s repeated use of the phrase I remember, was ‘a perfect fit’, with her own imagined rendering.

In another case of synchronicity, Mildenhall had spent a lot of time during her teenage years camping on a different isolated cape, at Point Hicks, and had even stayed in the lighthouse there.

‘That piece of the coast and the weather and the atmosphere and the landscape was what I kept as my touchstone,’ she tells me. And indeed, Mildenhall seems to have channelled this place, as well as her main character, during the writing process. Skylarking is viscerally alive with the light and weather of its rugged coastal setting, luminous with sea spray and salt air. Kate and Harriet spend their leisure time exploring the cape, swimming in rock pools, hiding out in shady caves, or rock-hopping to a point that becomes accessible only at low tide. They lie on warm stone, ‘counting the beats between sprays as the waves shlock into the point’ or follow with their fingers ‘the seagulls wheeling and diving above.’ Place, in this book, as in so many other iconic Australian novels before it, exerts a presence as powerful as its human protagonists.

Skylarking is also a quintessentially Australian coming-of-age novel in that Kate and Harriet are deeply connected to the landscape they live in, their daily lives fitted to and determined by its rhythms, and yet they find themselves yearning for a more exciting or significant life they see as existing ‘elsewhere’.

It is partly Harriet’s first trip to Melbourne, which separates her from Kate symbolically as well as physically, that sets in motion subtle changes in the two girls’ friendship. Ultimately, it is Mildenhall’s exploration of the relationship between Kate and Harriet, with all its complexity, ambivalence and ferocity of feeling, that forms the beating heart of this novel.

Kate_mildPhotograph by Heath Warwick

‘They are so formative, those early friendships,’ Mildenhall says. ‘They tell you who you are and who you’re not. And then it can take a while to either shake that, or to embrace it as truth.’ Truth, and the blurry line between events and the way we allow ourselves to interpret them, is also at the centre of this novel.

‘It’s about how we remember, how we make meaning out of what we remember, and how we interpret the gaps,’ Mildenhall says. While she stuck true to the inquest findings in her re-imagining of this story, Mildenhall preserves a sense of ambiguity in her rendering of the case. One thing she could not discover in her research was what happened to Kate after the events of the narrative.

‘There’s every chance that someone will come forward and say, “I know what happened,”’ she says. ‘And the curious part of me, and the historian part, absolutely wants to know. At the same time,’ she says, for her, ‘this is what happened to these characters, and it couldn’t have happened any other way.’

I have to ask her… what about her main protagonist’s name? Does their shared name represent a nod to their similarity in some way? A post-modern device? A way of channelling her more easily? Or simply Mildenhall’s respect for historical accuracy?

She laughs. ‘When my editor first looked at the manuscript,’ she says, ‘she was like, “um … Kate’s name? Have you thought about changing it?” She kind of had to point out to me that it was the same as mine. I was so deep in it that it hadn’t even occurred to me.’

I’ve sometimes heard of writers being gifted with particular stories, and this is clearly the case for Mildenhall and Skylarking. ‘Lots of things with the process of this book have been serendipitous,’ she says. ‘It just felt right.’

Emily Bitto has a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including the Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Heat and the Australian Literary Review. The manuscript of her debut novel, The Strays, was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. The Strays was shortlisted for the 2015 Indie Prize and for the Dobbie Award and was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize. She lives in Melbourne where she runs Carlton winebar Heartattack & Vine.

Kate Mildenhall is a writer and education project officer, who currently works at the State Library Victoria and is studying part-time at RMIT University in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing. As a teacher, she has worked in schools, at RMIT University and has volunteered with Teachers Across Borders, delivering professional development to Khmer teachers in Cambodia. Skylarking is her debut novel. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Hurstbridge, Victoria.

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