Interview with Rosalie Ham

April 5, 2002

rosaliehamRosalie Ham, author of The Dressmaker, interviewed by Neralie Hoadley.

Can you tell us how you became a writer?

Writing was part of my childhood because I lived in a small, isolated rural community, so writing letters was what you did. That was in the days when the postie came twice a day. I used to write to relatives. It seemed that the only thing I was ever good at at school was composition. Then I went to boarding school, as you do if you are a farmer’s daughter, and I nurtured also the writing thing. Then I travelled overseas so I kept writing journals and writing letters, and always enjoyed it but nobody ever said that you can be a writer, because I was a farmer’s daughter. They just said you could be a teacher or a nurse. Anyway, I came back from travelling overseas, and then I decided that I wanted to do something other than nursing so I went off to Deakin University and I did Drama and Literature and learned how to write essays. As part of the Drama course we had to learn how to write plays and scenes, and when I left drama school I had a friend at 3CR and asked me to write a play for her radio show, which I did. So I wrote four plays which were very enthusiastically received by our family and friends. However, it taught me that I didn’t want to write plays because I didn’t like the theatre thing. It is just too hard, you have to do everything and there is no money so I went off to RMIT. I just decided to do the short story and novel course. Part of the course was to write a novel and so I did. I was only in the course about three weeks and then I suddenly thought, this is what I am meant to be doing, this is what I prefer to do. And so I just wrote a novel. That’s it.

You started writing The Dressmaker when you were in the Creative Writing course.  Apart from starting you off, did you find the Creative Writing course helpful?

Absolutely, in as much as it showed us what was good and wasn’t good, how to progress a manuscript and make it publishable, how to write a publishable document. It made us study all sorts of styles that we would never normally pick up and read. But for me it just honed and gave me a direction for my skills, so it was invaluable to me.

The Dressmaker is currently being made into a film. Can you explain the process, and your involvement?

Well, I am very fortunate, because normally when a book is optioned, it is a bit unusual to employ the novelist to write the screenplay, a) because we tend to be a bit precious about it and tend not to want to let our characters go or change the story too much. And b) because we are novelists not screenwriters. But in my case, I had sent the manuscript for the novel off to be published, thinking that it would never be published, and it got picked up first time. It just progressed so that when it was published I had something like fourteen expressions of interest for a screenplay, and I just audaciously said that I would like to write the screenplay. I thought that since I had done one year of screenwriting at RMIT that I would be qualified.(laughing)

But it is OK, because having done that year and knowing the process of the novel I am quite happy about adapting something for a screen and letting some characters go. I know what I have to do. Even before I started on the screenplay I knew that I was going to get rid of at least twenty characters, because The Dressmaker has a lot of characters.  Also, it is a particular story with a sad bit in the middle that most film producers wouldn’t like. So I knew, before I went off and talked to any of the producers, that I had to find somebody who didn’t want to alter the arc of the story and go for a happy ending, which most of them did. Overall, the process for me has been enlightening, very joyful, because the people that I ultimately picked who didn’t want to alter the story too much, have allowed me to collaborate all the way up til now. I am about to write my fourth daft, and I am about to write it with a script-editor. I have collaborated all the way along with the director and the producer of the film to find how the story will go.

What I am finding now is that we have honed it back to such a point that for certain things to change is actually becoming physically painful for me. The producer had to do a bit of fast talking and ply me with lots of very nice wine to get me to say yes to a recent change. It is now getting to the stage where it is starting to hurt too much and I know that I would be better off stepping back and letting the experts do the polishing. But as far as imbuing it with the spirit of my characters, which is what they want me to do, they are keeping me there for that.

Are your characters coming to life as you want them to?

Yes, as it stands now, they are all going to be how they are in the book, but as I say, this beautiful working relationship might become too painful for me if they really do want to cut out a lot of things. A lot of the readers find particular favourites, and they all very enthusiastic about them and I don’t want to disappoint them.  I am emotionally involved in the whole thing too which is bit tragic. I am trying to be objective and I’m taking lots of advice but I find the process is fascinating because you write something for a screen rather than something that is read off the page.

What kind of differences have you noticed between writing for the visual images that are going to form in someone’s head through reading as opposed to writing the visual images that someone is going to see on film?

It’s really difficult because the nuances change so dramatically. You might spend a page on explaining how someone expresses something, and actor can do it by lifting one eyebrow on the screen. One of my characters indeed does that: Tilly, the main protagonist, does say a lot by raising one eyebrow. I use that, but in order for that to work in a book I have to write a whole lot of stuff around that whereas it all can be demonstrated by a fleeting visual on the screen. For me, because I write in a visual way anyway, I write what I see on a screen in my head, it hasn’t been that difficult. But I have always had to be conscious of the technical aspects of it – a bit like play writing, how to get people on and how to get them off. It is necessary to keep bearing in mind that everything has to be cut back because you have to maintain audience interest from the start to the end and it has to look good. I’m finding it a bit hard to explain but I write as if I am a camera.

In fact, the transition isn’t as hard for someone with your style of writing.

Not for my style of writing. I like words and I like making paragraphs work but I’m more interested in the story and it comes to me via the screen in my head so in that way I am quite fortunate.

Is this your main project at the moment?

No, I am currently writing my second novel. It is also set in rural Australia. It is contemporary, and it is set here in Brunswick as well. It has the same theme – it is just the thing I am on about at the moment – the idea that communities function as a microcosm of the whole world and they represent most things within them, and how boundaries are skewed, how there are insiders and outsiders.  Its about people’s flaws, there’s black humour, there is that whole thing about how country people are so used to death and life cycle, and putting that up against the city thing. It is about a country girl who does well in the city. I am also contracted to write a sequel to The Dressmaker. So, with the screenplay, that’s me tied up for the next five years.

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