An accidental author

Word of mouth has made Rosalie Ham’s first book a best seller. She talks to Karen Kissane.

THE TOWN policeman is a cross-dresser with a sense of theatre; Priscilla meets Blue Heelers. The local madwoman’s false teeth are green with neglect. The puritanical chemist puts White Lily into vaginal cream destined for an adulterous itch. Welcome to Dungatar, Rosalie Ham’s warm and nasty vision of rural Australia.

Ham’s book The Dressmaker is a kind of Lord of the Flies in frocks. Blurbed as “an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute-couture”, it has become a slow-burn best seller since its release last year.

Its fame has spread not through marketing campaigns but by word of mouth. Readers love its eccentric mix of pathos and black humor, potboiler plot and writerly insight, cruelty and compassion. So do movie makers, and Ham’s publishers are now choosing between five offers to convert the book to a film.

Ham, of course, is pleased. Few first-time novelists find themselves sitting so pretty. But success has come late -she is 46 – and has not yet brought with it enough money to transform her life. She is still in her simple weatherboard house, still squeezing her writing into three or four days a week, still making a living nursing old people.

“I’ve always done aged-care work, on and off, since I left school,” she says comfortably, sitting at her kitchen table. (We briefly canvassed sitting on the couch but she’s a kitchen-table kind of person, she says.) “I’ve done a lot of things, and a bit of travelling, but that kind of work’s always kept me alive and paid the bills. I really like it.”

It isn’t depressing? “No. The old people are lovely. They’re incontinent or they might be demented or whatever but they still have personalities. If I give them a shower and make them happy and comfortable and comb their hair and pop in with a cup of tea and a biscuit, it makes their day. I just like old people. And it also feels incredibly normal to me now to have conversations with people with dementia.”

One of the most vividly drawn characters in Ham’s book, Molly, is a neglected old woman with dementia who is shunned partly because of her craziness. Her paranoia makes her hilariously vicious but another side of her appears after her daughter, a dressmaker, returns to Dungatar to care for her. All of that came from Ham’s day job.

“As hydration and nutrition seeped into Molly’s body her faculties came back. That happens,” she says.

“Often people come into a nursing home and they’ve been eating bread and jam and a cup of tea for years and years so they’re malnourished and dehydrated and confused. After a while they improve because they’re forcefed love and attention and kindness and people around them care for them and take them to singing … They’re not cured, but they are better.”
Ham has a nurse’s brisk cheeriness and an understated, dry humor. She has a short, easy-care haircut, a direct manner, and an equally pragmatic approach to life’s big questions.

When her heroine Tilly, distraught with grief, can find no consolation in a Bible, Ham has her stab it. “I’m a bit dubious about religion,” Ham acknowledges cautiously. “Having a country upbringing, the cycle of life and death becomes somewhat matter of fact, as it does being an aged-care nurse.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife. And I’m fairly brutal about that. You were born, you live for a certain amount of time, and then you die. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point to suffering at all. Terrible things just happen to people.”

But she denies that any have ever happened to her. Ham, who was born and raised in the southern New South Wales town of Jerilderie, lays claim to a happy childhood in a caring community that functioned like an extended family for her.

“My experience in my home town was the absolute contrary (to Dungatar),” she says firmly. “I never felt any kind of animosity about anything I’d ever done. Small country towns are enormously supportive and very protective. That’s wherein lies the irony, because if you do the wrong thing, really the wrong thing, you can be ostracised by a country town and (their disapproval) will bind them together.” She grins. “So you just don’t do anything wrong.”
There are some hints that country life was not quite as uncomplicated as all that. When she was 10, her farmer parents divorced. When she was a young woman, she came back from an interstate holiday to false rumors that she had left town because she was pregnant. Perhaps neither event scarred her, but they did help sow in her imagination the seeds for the book that one reviewer called “a feral Seachange”.

The book was an accident; the product of serendipity. Ham had written three plays (“which not a lot of people outside my friends and family came to see, I must say”) and decided she wanted to learn more about performance writing. She enrolled in the appropriate course at RMIT but arrived on the day to find that subject was already full.

As she was leaving, she was waylaid by novelist Antoni Jach, a part-time teacher in fiction in the course, who insisted she try the novel unit instead. Ham reluctantly agreed. She expected to study great literature but was appalled in the first lesson to be asked for a 500-word synopsis of her book. She had landed in a novel-writing course.

She recovered quickly. “I had an idea and started writing it. Then you had to hand in 3000 words, and then you had to hand in 10,000 words, and I had 30,000 words. It was only three weeks before I realised that this was the best `accident’ that had ever occurred to me.”

Says Jach, “Rosalie’s a very talented writer and very hard-working. She went through a long process of finding her voice as a novelist.

“A lot of apprentice writers start writing in a very formal way … and it’s when they use their own voice the writing comes to life. Rosalie’s got a terrific command of the vernacular and she’s very lively as a person. She was one of those people who is very, very funny in the cafeteria. I said, `Put that energy and creativeness into your writing; put that touch of blackness in the novel’.”

Three years after she began the course, Ham had a book. It was refused by several publishers before she sent it to Duffy and Snellgrove, where its first 60 pages hit the desk of editor Gail MacCallum. “I started when I got home and got to the end of it without even having noticed,” MacCallum recalls. “I had to wait in this lather for 12 hours before I could ring her and say `Is there any more of it?”‘

MacCallum was struck by the strength of the characters and the narrative pace, “which is unusual, I think, sadly. In Australia there seems to be this gap between high literature and the more general mass market, and I think this book fills it”.

MacCallum was also struck by the book’s startling mix of kindness and venom. Ham is gentle with the broken or fragile parts of her characters, the pathetic, tawdry tragedies of the everyday. But she has a penetrating and pitiless eye for human cruelties.

The dressmaker offers the town’s small-minded women the chance to transform themselves externally but they are unable to transform their mean and petty internal selves. As a result, the book ends on a note of apocalyptic vengefulness.

It is hard to know whether Ham is exceptionally compassionate or exceptionally unforgiving. “Both,” she says without hesitation. “I do know that I am capable of great compassion and I know that I can be unforgiving; people have told me that. When I was much younger, I was a lot more caustic and sarcasm was a big thing and I had to learn to squash it down. And now I’m very good at holding my tongue.”
Her current project is a novel set in country Victoria in 1895. “My main character is in a confined, oppressive sort of environment, being rural Victoria at that time, which is a couple of years behind everybody else. But, at the same time, things are moving. Women are not wanting to wear corsets any more and they’re wanting to ride bicycles and she’s in the middle and she’s torn … And it’s all laced with humor.

“I thought I might see if I could write a more `literary’ novel, but if it doesn’t work I’ll just go back and write what I’ve always written, and that’s a cross between black comedy and something macabre and something sad. Good ingredients for a good read.”

The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham, Duffy and Snellgrove, $18.95.

Rosalie Ham, author and aged care nurse

Born: Jerilderie, NSW, 1955.

Educated: Rusden, Bachelor of Education in drama and literature; currently completing advanced diploma in professional writing and editing at RMIT.

Career: Three plays performed; first novel, The Dressmaker, published last year. Currently short listed for the booksellers’ choice for best book for 2000. Works part-time as an aged care nurse.

Lives: Brunswick, with her husband (set and props facilitator Ian McLay) and stepson (Morgan).

First published in The Age.