The outback – real, imagined and seen by most only in photographs or television shows – holds as much an allure for the armchair traveler today as it did for the men who traveled there from afar in the good old days. Days of gold mines and striking it rich, the stuff of which dreams are made. It seems that in real life we all crave the exotic – and what is more exotic than an outback gold stealing yarn, a made up story, that had more truth in it than this writer ever imagined. A story of ti-tree farms in Port Stephens, of haul trucks late at night, a load here or there not quite making it to where it would be accounted for in the ledgers of the Mine Manager, where a ‘them and us’ mentality makes it a game, where the blokes take what they want in the dark and nobody is any the wiser, and a local gold-stealing squad interested in my story, not for its entertainment value, but for what it tells about a town’s activities in the dark. Things fall off the edge of the Nullabor, a local policeman tells me by way of explanation. East to West, West to East, it’s what keeps him busy. A local servo on the edge of town with a few light-bulbs blown on its neon sign, checkered plastic tablecloths with sauce bottles ringed in the middle, and I made a story of it all.
This essay is my attempt at understanding the myth I’ve created. It’s both the story of how I wrote a novel and a story of the life I lived. As for truth, it’s all true in a way, a truth I’ve wanted to explore ever since I heard that the guys who proffered the gold stealing yarn for my novel are now in jail. As it turns out, the stories they were spinning me on the golf course weren’t the tall tales of romance on the goldfields I had come to expect, but a version of a truth told by them to me, an unsuspecting newbie. And, as is often the case, when it comes to the truth, the versions thereof often verge on the cusp of tall tales and myths built on over years of miners spinning their tales over beers at the local pub after twelve hour shifts down the big hole. What is truth, after all, but one man’s (or woman’s) version – or versions – of a story.
My novel, The Miner’s Wife, is in part a version of a truth I witnessed on the West Australian goldfields, goldfields perched on the edge of the Nullabor, a place where men are men, and tales are truly tall. How much is truth and how much is made up in my story I’m no longer sure. Like all good stories should be, it is left for the reader to decide. And I wish you all the best of luck. Because I lived it and I wrote it down and I haven’t got a clue about any of it. As Shiner, a character in my story, would say, I saw some shit and I made up the rest. It’s how stories are made and how stories turn into myths. And where better to write a story about mythical heroes and tall tales of gold than the place that has a reputation for such stories?
Welcome to the Western Australian goldfields, where anything is true if you want it to be. Why else would grown men walk hundreds of miles pushing wheelbarrows if they hadn’t fallen for the myth? Striking it rich, a horse called Norseman and a main street you can swing a camel in, and a clock struck on midnight. It’s the stuff of stories told at the pub after a hard shift down the big hole. Told by a city girl where the outback was nothing more than a wide open space to fill with words of dead mens’ dreams. The working title of my novel was Bringing Down the Moon, broken into three parts; Dead Men Weeping, Dead Men Waking and Dead Men Rising. There are still traces of the idea in my novel. But simplicity won out and my story became The Miner’s Wife because that’s what it is, a story of a woman finding herself in a world she’d only read about in books, where men were heroes and women cooked their heroes dinner. Or at least it’s assumed they did, because women rarely earn a mention in the tall tales of gold strikes, exploration and settlement of the outback. I rarely saw streets, towns, prominent buildings or creek-beds named after women, although there was more than a fair share of river crossings called Dead Man’s Creek. Mines, however, were often named after women. I chose the Rosie O’Grady and she became a character in my story – a bitch of a character if truth be told – like Glory, my heroine, whose only options were wife or whore and like, the best of heroines, she chooses both.
Sometimes, it’s only by looking back that is it possible to move forward. It’s been awhile since I released The Miner’s Wife and I’ve been thinking about writing a companion non-fiction story for even longer. And it seems now is that time. As I travel the country, promoting and selling my novel, I find myself fielding questions about what it was really like living in the outback. There seems to be a slight emphasis on the word outback, like it is some exotic place. My life, apparently, was as exotic as the story I had written.
This is, in part, the story of that life. The rest I made up as I went along.