Kate Grenville

24th February 2012 at 00:00
The best-selling author had an early induction into the persuasive power of the pen

One of my most influential teachers was Mrs Linney. She was my classroom teacher in Grade 3, so I would have been eight or nine. It was when we were starting to write what was called compositions. I was spectacularly bad at everything in class, but when it came to writing these compositions, I finally found my metier.

We would be given a title and we would have to write about it. One I remember was called "an encounter with a bear". The first sentence was "Two woodcutters strolled through a darkening forest". I had never seen a woodcutter and I had certainly never seen anything I would call a forest, growing up in Australia. Mrs Linney was very encouraging. She praised me - excessively, probably - for my "interesting words" and several times I had to read out my contribution to the class.

At one stage she made us do a composition across two weeks and she said "you can write about any subject, but the first week I want you to get the people into a situation of difficulty, a problem, and in the second week I want you to write the solution to it." This, I think, was the turning point of my life, really.

Mine was called "Trapped by the tide", and I had in mind the kind of tides you have here in Britain, which actually we don't have in Australia. The first week I got my characters trapped by the tide, and the second week, as I sat down to write it, I thought: "I could let them die if I want to, or I could have a submarine come and rescue them, or they could suddenly find an old smugglers' tunnel." At that moment, I remember thinking I wanted to be a writer.

Mrs Linney was probably about 30. I remember her having mousy hair, perhaps grey, and wearing the sort of pleated, checked woollen skirts that I associate with librarians. Perhaps even a twin-set. She was very nondescript to look at and very mild in manner.

I remember the naughty girl in the class one day stood up at the back of the class and said, "I hate you, Mrs Linney." We all sat there rigid, waiting for the thunderbolts to strike her dead, and Mrs Linney could have over-reacted and sent her to the headmistress, but she just said: "I understand that you're angry, now why don't you sit down and we'll continue with the class."

She sat down, the wind completely taken out of her sail, and I thought: "This must be an extraordinary woman." I think that was the other great lesson I learned from her - to be mild-mannered is sometimes more powerful than dancing up and down.

I now write books about early Australia, and it was with Mrs Linney that we learned the little we did learn about that. Mainly, we learned about explorers, and the Aboriginal people were only ever mentioned in terms of either chucking spears at the explorers or being their guides through the desert. They were always marginalised.

I remember tracing around the outline of Australia and drawing yet another dotted line and thinking there was more to this story. I articulate it much more clearly now, but it was in Mrs Linney's class that I first began to feel like the history we were taught was probably less than half the story, and that I probably found the untold history the most interesting part of it.

I never saw Mrs Linney again, and it took me many years to realise what she had done for me. Children are such ungrateful little brats - or I was. She is probably no longer with us, but I hope her spirit is hovering somewhere up there and I do hope they get my books up in heaven, because I would love for her to be reading them.

Kate Grenville's latest book, `Sarah Thornhill', published by Edinburgh publishing house Canongate, is out now. She was talking to Julia Belgutay


Born: Sydney, Australia, 1950

Education: North Sydney Demonstration School, Cremorne Girls High School, Sydney University, University of Colorado in Boulder; University of Technology in Sydney.

Career: Author, winner of 2001 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction for The Idea of Perfection and the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for The Secret River; also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

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