IDEAS BEHIND THE WRITING OF THE CREATIVE NONFICTION NOVEL STRANGE OBJECTS
By 1988 I had written two novels for teenagers. I was not especially proud of them and wanted to stretch my literary wings. Still, in spite of my personal dissatisfaction, they had done very well, so I was pleased when Heinemann asked for another. I agreed, but put to Heinemann that I would like to try something that came up out of history; something that might link to my doctorate on post-colonial fiction. I was focusing on a comparative study of the fiction of the Caribbean author Wilson Harris and the Australian Patrick White. (I never did finish it.) My publisher said 'Go right ahead,' so I did.
I made several decisions before starting. Since I was already known in
the youth fiction field, I decided to stay with that audience and genre
for the sake of sales and promotion. Having taught both ancient and modern
history in high school, I knew that teenagers generally hated History
and worse, knew virtually nothing about it. I was also familiar with what
was known as 'fictionally reconstructed history' which in children's literature
went right back to The Children of the New Forest. Even I
hated this genre with all its terrible quoth he's and saith
she's - not to mention its inherent didacticism and stilted costume-drama
I then went looking for my seminal historical episode involving a castaway
My next possibility was to develop the story of the fate of William D'Oyley and John Ireland of the Charles Eaton, wrecked in Torres Strait in August 1834. After a terrible massacre of the remainder of the passengers and crew, these two boys were spared by the Islanders and allowed to live among them. They were eventually found and returned to England.
Maybe it was this degree of historical finality - the 'happy ending' - that had warned me away from these possibilities. This could be, since the next account that I found really grabbed me. It had NO KNOWN ending. To me this was an author's dream.
The Dutch vessel Batavia had been wrecked off the Western Australian
coast on 4th June 1629, whilst on her maiden voyage to Batavia, now Jakarta.
Although the initial loss of life had been minimal, once the passengers
and crew were settled on the God-forsaken Abrolhos Islands, they began
to murder each other. Captain Pelsaert managed to get back to Batavia
and return, 14 weeks later, to the wreck with a rescue yacht. He tried
the murderers (over 120 of the marooned had been stabbed, bashed, raped,
beheaded, drowned or strangled) and hanged most of the culprits, but decided
to castaway two on the barren mainland coast of Australia.
Wouter Loos was in his thirties but Jan Pelgrom was only seventeen. He
was a mass murderer and probably a psychopath. Accounts of the trial detailing
the men's crimes are fully documented and included as an appendix to H.
Drake-Brockman's Voyage to Disaster: The Batavia Mutiny. Simply
put, after their trial, this pair were dropped on the Western Australian
coast with some trading goods - being Dutch, Pelseart hoped that they
would trade with the local 'Indians' - and left to their own devices...and,
of course, the devices of an author eager to write creative nonfiction.
The resulting novel, Strange Objects, is essentially audience-less (neither specifically for adults nor teenagers) and non-definitive in narrative structure/prevalent genre, being a combination of fact, fiction, reportage, journalese, personal and stream-of-consciousness (automatic) writing.
I think that I did the right thing. I certainly love the exciting possibilities of the creative nonfiction novel.
Gary Crew is a full time writer living in Maleny, Queensland. He specialises in books for children and has won many international awards. He also writes shorter fiction for adults. Gary lectures in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. His novel Strange Objects has sold over 100,000 copies.
Letters and Debate
TEXT Special Issue Website
No 1 April 2000
General Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady