I have never in my life thrown a pot. So how did I invent Russell Bass, a potter, and the central character of Hare’s Fur? And why? Always the harder question. There’s a history, obviously.
In 1979 my then-partner Ursula and I drove south from Sydney in search of a place and a house where she could pursue her ambition of becoming a wood-firing potter, and I could try to write a second book. My first, Something in the Blood, hadn’t made me much in sales, but it had led to a Literature Board grant — enough, we hoped, to give us a start. We kept driving south, prices getting lower, till we came to Moruya Heads and saw a house, a box on stumps, but with a garage for a studio, and a view of the river, and at a price we could afford, now-mythical, of course, twenty-two grand.
I wrote three books in that house, all of them set in Papua New Guinea. We built two kilns, split and burned tonnes of spotted gum, held in our hands both successes and failures still warm from the fire. Even though I never sat at the wheel, I learned to do every other job there is in a pottery, I met and observed a lot of potters — the most grounded, literally, of all artists — and I handled a lot of lovely pots.
And it’s that love of pots which gave birth to Hare’s Fur. You stay with an idea when it’s about something you love, a sense of which you hope to transmit, through the writing, to others, and to which you can bring a depth of learning and experience, in this case some forty years’ worth.
When I came to Katoomba, no longer with a potter, but with a photographer, Bette, I thought my firing days were over. Luckily, there are potters in the Mountains. One of them, Simon, heard I knew my way around kilns and asked if I’d be interested in helping at firings with Peter Rushforth. And so I had the privilege of becoming friends with one of Australia’s greatest potters and teachers. And the joy of once again getting to throw wood into a molten firemouth.
The answer, then, as to why I’m writing about a potter, is that I had to, it was time to use it all. But I truly have no notion of where the storyline of the novel came from, why I had Russell meet the kids. I wish I could say I read an article in the local paper about three siblings hiding in a cave. That would be a nice simple explanation — for me as well. But I don’t have a cutting sitting in a file. Just a mass of scribbles in an exercise book. What I do know, that did come from life, is that the teenage daughter of a troubled and violent pair of neighbours, regularly visited by the cops, gave me Jade. And she had a little brother.
I couldn’t help her or her brother with the situation they were in. Perhaps having them meet Russell was my way of healing their pain. And my own.