Wednesday, 25 March 2009

At Arm’s Length

How close do you get to your characters, the real ones not those made up, when writing narrative nonfiction? Can the writer still be objective in a book length project when that means digging deep into the lives of their subjects?

The issue was discussed at the session At Arm’s Length during the 2009 Perth Writers Festival.

Chris Pash followed two groups of people – Australia’s last whalers and a group of activists – for his book, The Last Whale published by Fremantle Press. Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, stayed close to a neurosurgeon and his patient for her book, Life in his Hands published by Picador.

Susan said: “The traditional way of being a journalist is to remain on the outskirts of your subject observing closely not injecting your own opinion, not becoming involved.”

In her book, Susan does both the subjective and the objective. “I didn’t pretend that I didn’t admire these two men (pianist Aaron McMillan and surgeon Charlie Teo) and yet I reported the story.”

The news that Aaron had secondary cancer came as a terrible blow to Susan personally. She was a friend to the characters as well as the reporter. "I was the first person who Aaron’s mother called the day he died."

Chris Pash said he liked the people his book, both the whalers and the activists. “I have an overload of empathy but that also allows me to understand their views.” His view is that the whalers didn’t have a voice in 1978 when whaling off Albany, WA, came to an end. Part of the motivation for writing The Last Whale was to record the lives of the whalers and present their lives accurately.

He maintains contact with the two groups of people and while he put a massive effort into being fair to both sides he acknowledges that the act of writing the book brought about change. “What has happened is that the two sides understand each other and they are friends.”

Thirty years ago the two groups were pitched against each other in duel across the Southern Ocean, the whalers in steel ships, the activists in open rubber boats. There was a lot of anger and heartache for the whalers when they lost their jobs. They were discarded by their community. The activists also were forgotten, their direct action against the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company a blip in news coverage.

It was satisfying for Chris when one of the last remaining Australian whaling ship masters, Paddy Hart, went to Japan in December 2008 to protest against whaling. He went at the invitation of Steve Shallhorn, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, whom he met at the launch of The Last Whale.

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