From idea to research to novel, how Kate Grenville writes

I gulped this book down. For any novelist, whose work involves an element of historical research, this book by Australian author Kate Grenville is a fascinating account of how an idea makes it to the printed page. The journalist is me followed the search for facts about Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman, the novelist in me was on the edge of my seat wanting to see how Kate Grenville turned the truth of family history into her award-winning novel The Secret River.

Kate GrenvilleThe trigger for her research happens on May 28, 2000 on Sydney Harbour Bridge. Grenville [below] was there for the Reconciliation Walk, in support of the reconciliation between black and white Australians. She makes eye contact with an Aboriginal woman on the bridge that day, a moment of revelation for Grenville: that her ancestor Solomon Wiseman arrived on a boat from Britain twenty years after the first settlers, but this Aboriginal woman’s ancestors had lived here for 60,000 years. “And what if my great-great-great grandfather had glanced up, and seen her great-great-great grandfather standing on a rock watching the new arrivals?” Kate GrenvilleAt this point in time, Grenville’s fifth novel The Idea of Perfection was just published and she had not started the next. She started her research of Solomon with the vague idea that there may be a non-fiction book in it, but really she was doing it because she needed to know.

This need to know first leads her to the maze of Solomon Wisemans living in London at the right time, the 1790s. Finally, she thinks she has found the right one and she stands by the Thames, looking at the water trying to imagine Solomon as a lighterman on the river, found guilty of theft and sentenced to death.

She writes: “I made my way between the muddy rocks and grit to the water’s edge. Down there I could see what I hadn’t from the steps – that the water was running along the side of a thick beam, the edge of some ancient dock that over the years had rotted away to this line of black wood, inches above the water.

“As if someone had nudged me, I suddenly realised, he was here. This, right here, where I’m standing, is where it happened.” Back in Australia, Grenville follows the trail to Wiseman’s Ferry, the cluster of houses and shops on the south bank of the Hawkesbury River which was Solomon’s home and which she visited as a child with her mother. Grenville turns her attention to the Aboriginal side of the story. How might the convict and the native Australians have reacted to one another?

I won’t say any more. If you’ve read The Secret River and are interested in history or how a novel works, then please read Searching for The Secret River. If you haven’t read The Secret River, do so now!

The Secret River was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Grenville won The Orange Prize [now the Bailey’s Prize] for The Idea of Perfection.

Grenville ran into controversy with the novel. Historians said fiction is not the right place to re-tell history, facts may be changed to suit the story, truth distorted, memories re-worked so the reader doesn’t know what is true, and what is fictional. Grenville agrees. She has the same issues with historical fiction. That, and her role as a creative writing teacher, are what prompted her to write Searching for the Secret River.

Kate Grenville


And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
SEARCHING FOR THE SECRET RIVER by Kate Grenville #researching via @SandraDanby


      • Oh! Yes! Good point. Must say I did not have that in my head. You want to know something funny? I was picturing myself going to the Bradford Library, to look up the weather conditions on the day of my ancestor’s funeral. I was thinking to start the story around the gravesite, and introduce the family through that. Thought if I looked in the newspaper and imagined myself as my great-grandmother, standing in the wind? rain? sleet? (January) I might get a feel for how she felt. So you are right – diary notes are essential!

  1. I’ve read all Kate Grenville’s books, most recently The Secret River, then bought Searching for The Secret River… and got no further. I will now move it closer to the must read ASAP end of the queue.

  2. I’m pleased you have written this. One of Grenville’s books was the one I left behind in hospital, whereupon I immediately forgot her name. I left it because it looked utterly boring every time I picked it up. Can’t remember which book it was either. It wasn’t secret river. I don’t think … One of the later ones. I’ll never know. Hopefully someone will read it? Although I seemed to be the only person reading books in hospital.

    • Ooh I am a huge Grenville fan. I haven’t read all of hers, but can vouch for The Secret River, The Lieutenant, The Idea of Perfection and Lilian’s Story, still more left to read. I always get depressed on public transport when I see so few people reading books or newspapers. 🙂 SD