On writing The River Wife
This novel came to me as a character sitting beside a river. A woman who understood nature and stories. A woman who was more than a woman, who was nature herself, who was a changeling bound by a spell. And so the story came as both myth and fairy tale, for of course, there was a man, and love. Something timeless.
The story, in truth, was one of those rare gifts authors receive if we are immensely lucky. Although I listened to the river wife speak for seven years, when life finally allowed a window of time to start work I finished the complete first draft in just 7 weeks.
There were several challenges that inspired me in the writing. The first was to write a novel with only two characters. In literary theory this is deemed nigh impossible but I wanted to attempt it. I have always loved theatre and it had the attraction of a play about it.
Second was the challenge of capturing the river wife’s ‘voice’. Here was a character who thought and expressed herself in a unique and unusual way. Her sentences wound themselves about as water swirls and returns when caught between rocks in a river. Her metaphors and observations were products of her entire life spent in the landscape. She knew of the human world only by what her father had spoken of, and the little she has glimpsed on the lakeshore. She does not read or write, and yet she has access, through her alchemical relationship with water, to all the stories of this world since time as we know it began.
The third challenge, and perhaps the most difficult, was to make this a novel without time and yet with a sense of time passing. The river wife had lived for some centuries and her mother lived long before her. The narrative had to be without the constraints of a particular era. The war her father had experienced could be the First World War, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq, or any future war. The world that Wilson James comes from could be now or one hundred years ahead.
And the fourth challenge was to bring the microcosm of her world to life in the minutiae that can only exist when we are utterly familiar with a landscape and its rhythms and seasons. A story to celebrate the beauty of Tasmania’s highlands between Lake St Clair and Cradle Mountain – a land full of wild forests, lakes and rivers. A story that slipped from the land itself, as Greek myths once sprang from those islands and skyscapes, and as the fairy stories of Europe arose from that land and those people, here was a story I wanted to draw from the earth and trees and rivers and Tasmania itself.
I am passionately Tasmanian and my family has lived here many generations. I think of this book as the third in a trilogy of books that dives into the Tasmanian landscape. The first – my first novel White Heart – creates a sweeping view of the island told through the lens of childhood. The second – The Butterfly Man – dives closer into the seasons and landscape of Mt Wellington, the mountain that is the backdrop to Hobart. And this third, The River Wife, is my diving even more deeply into the central highlands, the very heart of Tasmania, and finding there a story, a myth, a fable that is uniquely Tasmanian. Perhaps it is no surprise that is it also a love story.
'One day love laid down by the river. It slept in a blue patterned shirt and through the afternoon, though I watched, it did not stir but dreamed with the river and when it woke it saw me. '
A beautiful modern fable about the price we pay for love .