Welcome to Sunday Spotlight. Our guest today is Tracy Sorensen, author of the delightfully unique novel, The Lucky Galah.
1. Is there a special galah in your life that inspired the character of Lucky?
Oh yes indeed. Her name was Myrtle Skippetyhop. She came into our lives shortly after we arrived in Carnarvon in 1969. I was five years old, my sister three. Mum and Dad had bundled us into a Volkswagen Beetle for a trip around Australia but we got stuck in Carnarvon for 12 years, so that became the place of my childhood. Myrtle Skippetyhop was with us all through those 12 years; we gave her away when we left town at the end of 1980. We were told that female galahs don’t talk and for this reason we got her for free. She was barely more than a baby. But she did talk. She spontaneously copied noises like the flushing of the toilet or the clopping sound of ladies’ shoes on the cement floor of the house we moved into on the big highway heading into town. At first her name was just Myrtle, after an old lady we knew, but she got her second name from a little rhyme we taught her.
Skipetty hop to the grocery shop
To buy a box of candy.
One for you, one for me
And one for sister Mandy.
But she’d lose her way after the word box. She’d say, “buy a box, buy a box, buy a box” and then scream in frustration. So her second name became “Skipettyhop”.
At first, she got a lot of attention. Then she became the novelty that wore off. Sometimes she was let out of the cage for a good spray under the hose. She couldn’t fly because she had a clipped wing. She’d make a beeline for our toes and nip them, hard. By our last year in Carnarvon, she was in a large, spacious cage but it was behind the laundry, out of line of sight of the back door. You had to remember her existence, and then make the effort to go out and see her. There were probably long stretches when the only person she saw regularly was Mum, who fed and watered her. It makes me want to cry, now, to think of that lonely galah.
I barely thought of her all through my twenties. And then one night, I had a dream. I dreamed that I lifted the little gate on her cage and she flew out in a glorious shimmer. She flew in a circle over my head nipping at large coloured tropical flowers as she went. She gave me a sort of nod or full-body salute in mid air and flew off, free. It was a beautiful and profound dream that stayed with me. From then on, the galah was my muse, my inspiration.
2. At what point in the creation process of this novel did you decide that it was going to be narrated by a galah?
For a while I was writing the novel in the third person. The stretches in which Evan and Linda come to town and begin to interact with the Kelly family were all written this way. Then I began to experiment with writing sections in the voices of the characters. When I wrote a section from the point of view of the galah in a cage between the back door and the toilet at the Kevin Kelly’s house, I had tears streaming down my face. I was deeply moved in a way I hadn’t been when I’d simply been telling the human stories. I showed this section to a friend who said, “Why don’t you let the galah tell the whole story?” Yes! knew I had to do it, but how?
3. There is a frankness to Lucky’s observations that would have not been possible if you had narrated with a human character. Was this liberating or technically more difficult to work with?
This decision was both liberating and technically difficult. The galah liberated the sort of raw emotion that I wasn’t able to get at with the Johnsons and the Kellys. I could go for it with Lucky. All that Australian emotional reserve could just go out the window. But what does Lucky know and how did she come to know it? For a long time I was tying myself in knots trying to resolve this problem. A highly restricted point of view could work, and there are other books with animal narrators that work very well. I’m thinking of Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition, the story of the Shackleton voyage to the south pole told from the point of view of the ship’s cat. But I was greedy: I wanted access to the bigger picture as well as the very small one. One day over lunch I showed another friend a passage in which I describe the ruined NASA-era Dish as having a presence, “as if still alive, as if still sending and receiving messages”. He said why settle for as if alive? Why isn’t it actually still alive, still sending and receiving messages? Another big lightbulb moment. Oh yes, of course. The Dish has the big picture; the galah can combine this with her smaller observations. We’re all set.
4. One of the things I enjoyed most about The Lucky Galah was the time capsule feel to it. There were so many instances where I felt like I was stepping back through time, long forgotten aspects of my own childhood coming back to me in the daily incidentals and particular products and way of doing things that are now entirely gone from our daily lives. Were you operating entirely on memory to capture this Australian essence or meticulous social research?
A bit of both! My conscsious memories – as opposed to vague, displaced sensations and traces – really begin in the 1970s and this novel is set just before that time. But life in 1970s Carnarvon was still very similar to life in the 1960s and even, I realise now, to life in the 1950s or even ‘40s. In my early years in Carnarvon (the novel is not set in Carnarvon but a town in a sort of parallel universe called Port Badminton) there was still no television, and older people were wearing 20 year old frocks and hats. I did a lot of Googling, but it wasn’t random Googling because I had such strong starting points in my own memories. So for example I remember the sheer joy of finding a cereal toy in the Cornflakes packet, of cracking it out of its little celophane packet and putting it together. Googling around Australian cereal toys in the late 1960s, I discovered the Crazy Camel Train. There it was, in all its glory, in close-up pictures on the Internet. And the tiny pieces – like the monkeys and their bed pans – were now selling on eBay for big sums. And it just so happens that Carnarvon used to have a lot of camels, when they were used for transporting wool through the outback. So much felt serendipitous on these Google trails, so many connections and resonances.
5. The Lucky Galah is quite visual in its narrative. Do you think your experience as a film maker influenced the way you told this story?
I’m not sure about that. I think I’m actually a writer first and making “films” (films seems too grand a description – they’re better described as “videos”) is more something I’ve done to earn a quid. That said, I guess I do have a visual mind. The novel came to me in a series of scenes: Lizzie as this figure in the landscape; the great red outback; the glittering Indian Ocean with a jetty pointing out into it, like a finger; the blue EH Holden on the mostly dirt road heading north, kicking up a great pinnk dust plume. That is of course an aerial shot. I would love to see this story as a movie.
6. The north coast of Western Australia was brought to vivid life within The Lucky Galah. Are you a north coast WA girl at heart?
Oh my goodness yes. At heart and soul. I have no other heart, no other soul. I live here in the central west of New South Wales with my partner, which is great, but I feel like I’m in exile from my true home. I only feel truly at home when I get back to the north west of Western Australia. I need that red earth, that twisted grey acacia wood lying on the ground, the sound of the chiming wedge bills, the smell of rolls of seaweed on the beach. Fortunately I’m able to get back there every few years to lap it all up.
7. Are there any particular childhood memories of yours that made it into The Lucky Galah?
Oh yes. In general I have been careful to fictionalise but some things are just too good not to steal in their entirety. My Dad and his mates really did hatch a scheme, in the pub, to water ski from Useless Loop across Shark Bay. Shark Bay has that name for a reason: it is full of sharks. So they decided to get the local shooters to help by riding along in an accompanying speedboat to shoot any sharks they saw. We all got to Useless Loop (yes, this is the real name), car loads of people and kids, but the weather was bad so it was called off. I have a suspicion that Dad may have been secretly relieved. For some reason we got to fly back to town in a light aircraft. This was my first experience of flight, and the view down at the bay and the salt pans and samphire flats below was extraordinary.
Then there’s the day of the Moon Landing. I wasn’t there myself because Mum sent me to school (I was five and in Grade One), but my little sister got to go with Mum down to the Memorial Theatre to watch the moon walk. It was shown on a household television set on the stage, rigged up by Overseas Telecommunications Commission technicians just for the event, because there was not yet a regular television service in Carnarvon. At the back of the hall there were shooters using their rifle sights to get a better view.
Other memories are more general, not so much specific incidents. My mother was a dressmaker and later a curtain contractor all through my childhood. We had ladies come to the house – ladies with more money and social status than us – for fittings. Mum would be on her knees, circling around their feet, getting the hems level.
8. Do you have plans to write more novels or, as a film maker and writer of other mediums, are you creatively moving in a different direction now that your debut has been finished and published?
Well, what is the honest answer to this question? To be honest my life was suddenly thrown up in the air when I was diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian cancer in 2014. I immediately regretted not finishing my novel, so once treatment ended, I finished it and here we are. I feel I got this incredible repreive; I got to tick off a life goal at what seemed the very last minute. But I’ve been extraordinarily lucky (there’s that word!) and find myself in long-lasting remission. I may even have been cured. So having thought that I was finishing something before heading for the grave, I find myself with my health and writing hands intact. What will I do with these things? I have a lot of ideas for fiction and non-fiction writing and also for documentary film. Once the dust settles after the publication of Lucky, I’ll zero in on something and go for it.
A magnificent novel about fate, Australia and what it means to be human… it just happens to be narrated by a galah called Lucky.
It’s 1969 and a remote coastal town in Western Australia is poised to play a pivotal part in the moon landing. Perched on the red dunes of its outskirts looms the great Dish: a relay for messages between Apollo 11 and Houston, Texas.
Radar technician Evan Johnson and his colleagues stare, transfixed, at the moving images on the console -although his glossy young wife, Linda, seems distracted. Meanwhile the people of Port Badminton have gathered to watch Armstrong’s small step on a single television sitting centre stage in the old theatre. The Kelly family, a crop of redheads, sit in rare silence. Roo shooters at the back of the hall squint through their rifles to see the tiny screen.
I’m in my cage on the Kelly’s back verandah. I sit here, unheard, underestimated, biscuit crumbs on my beak. But fate is a curious thing. For just as Evan Johnson’s story is about to end (and perhaps with a giant leap), my story prepares to take flight…
Tracy Sorensen is a writer, filmmaker and academic. She was born in Brisbane, grew up in Carnarvon on the north coast of Western Australia and lived in and around Newtown, Sydney, for about 15 years. She now lives in Bathurst with her partner Steve and a black Labrador (Bertie). The Lucky Galah is her first novel.