Pickle to Pie by Glenice Whitting
Published by Ilura Press
Available at www.ilurapress.com
I talk to fellow author Wendy J. Dunn about my novel and the writing life.
Pickle to Pie is the story of Frederick, a man caught between the pickle and sauerkraut culture of his German grandparents and the meat pie world of Australia.
Grossmutter said that I was squealing like a tortured mouse when she pulled me from my mother’s womb. One more squalling bundle in a crib in the dim parlour. It was Grossmutter who named me Frederick Joseph Heinrich Frank Fritschenburg. Over my cradle she sang of great ancestors and past riches. Told stories of Hänsel and Gretel lost in the forest, of witches and goblins and Onkel Gustav and Tante Teresa singing Auf Wiedersehen. Of tears falling on her piano that last night in Magdeburg.
Q: Tell us, Glen, when did the journey to writing Pickle to Pie begin?
A: The seeds of the journey were planted long ago in my childhood, but like many other writers, it was an unexpected incident in my life that made me write about a previously forbidden topic. In 1995 I discovered in the family home, a box of postcards dating back to the nineteenth century. The messages were written in Old High German. On translation, they revealed my hidden heritage. During my childhood I was told that in 1885 my Australian born father’s grandparents immigrated from Belgium. Later I discovered that my grandmother was German and our family name had been changed, but by then, I also knew not to ask questions.
In 1997, during a fiction writing class, my short story titled Lilliana, based on the translated postcards, was highly commended in the Judah Waten Short Story Competition. That story became the basis of Pickle to Pie.
Q You say Pickle to Pie started its life as a short story. Did writing that make you decide to write a novel?
A: I never set out to write a novel, however, every time I wrote I felt myself pulled back to into that particular story. I began experimenting with characters. Lilliana became Frederick, a man at the end of his long life, lost in his memories. Issues of personal courage, the sins of the father, the unknowableness of the past, snatches of remembered stories, family members and funny incidents all made their way onto the page. I became obsessed about the effect of conflicting cultures on following generations and constantly researched and wrote about the German/Australian immigrant experience.
With a name like Fritschenburg many Australians will not accept me. All they have for me is the label Kraut. I am a nothing, a nobody, but I want to feel like I did when I was eight: Before the wars, before the death of the Archduke of Austria, before Germany had ever heard of Hitler. I want to feel special again.
Q: When did it begin to solidify into a novel?
A: I’d lived with this story for years and had two huge folders full of newspaper cuttings, handwritten notes of things I wanted to write about, the outline of a plot, historical references, character descriptions and old German recipes, such as Grossmutter’s Scripture cake and Tomato Jam. After university, I began studying Professional Writing and Editing at TAFE and during that course, I realized that I had the bones of a novel
Q: Do you think you were supposed to write this novel? Why?
A: Looking back I can see two main reasons why I was so passionate and committed to the story. The first is the feeling that dominant cultures can control written history and I desperately wanted to add this minority voice to existing narratives. I wanted to tell the untold story of the children of German descent. There was also the desire to record and preserve the wonderful German/Australian homeopathic remedies, favourite recipes and nursery rhymes of that era.
Cry baby bunting
Daddy’s gone a hunting
I didn’t discover the other reason until a month before the book was launched. I suddenly realized that researching and writing the novel has been my own personal journey and my way of dealing with the negative whispered background to my childhood and my inability to talk openly about my past. I’m amazed to be able to say that I’m now at peace with myself. I’m finally comfortable in my German/Australian skin.
Q So, Pickle to Pie really made you own your German heritage
Was it difficult to write a novel drawn from family history and turn it into fiction?
A: In the front of the book I have the inscription, Based on fact, veiled in fiction: a melding of imagination, historical events and scattered memories and feel that this aptly describes what I’ve written. The story is based on family history but it is also part of the historical fabric of Australia. I think I must be mad to even attempt to cover an entire century, two world wars and a depression. An amazing amount of research was needed to cover these historical events. Every little detail had to be checked, and double-checked, but it didn’t seem a mammoth task because I simply researched one chapter at a time. I was also aware that memories and oral histories are often fallible. Every person has their own story and sees an incident or event from his or her own perspective. I became very aware that my perception of the past was different to other members of the family. I didn’t want to hurt anyone so I decided that I would not talk to close family members about my project. At this stage I couldn’t bring myself to even think about publishing the story. I just kept on writing.
However, once the story moved into fiction I had the freedom I needed to play with plot and characters while remaining true to the subject. The manuscript shifted from the personal to the historical representation of a minority group and for that reason I became convinced that it should be published.
The book is dedicated to the children of German descent who lived in Australia during the last century and struggled to come to terms with their opposing worlds.
I still consider Pickle to Pie as biographically based, but also consider imaginative reconstruction as a valid means of truth. It is the only way to put flesh on the bones. Grossmutter is modelled on my great grandmother who died before I was born. The essential facts are there; that she was a midwife in Footscray and used herbal remedies to help women, but the only way I could bring her to life was to use my imagination.
‘What they know about the Kinder?’ she would say, cradling a baby in the crook of her arm as she sat drinking herbal tea in her green and white kitchen.
Q What were the steps towards publication?
A: There were many small steps that led to the publication of Pickle to Pie. I entered my writing into everything and anything, magazine, literary journals, competitions etc. I applied for funding, and the manuscript was shortlisted with Varuna and also in the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. However, two years later I was still sending out the first three chapters to agents and publishers and received enough rejection slips to cover my walls.
Q: After such a long time in the wilderness of rejection, did you ever come close to thinking that Pickle to Pie would never find its publisher?
A: I was just about ready to put it in the bottom drawer when I heard about a new Masters of Creative Writing course at Melbourne University and decided to give Pickle to Pie one more chance.
Q: Tell us, please, how Pickle to Pie got finally published?
A: My tutor for Writing the Unconscious, Dominique Hecq, sent a class email outlining the details of the 2006 Ilura Press International Fiction Quest and I hastily posted a copy of Pickle to Pie. When told that the manuscript was short listed, I hardly dared to breath. Pickle to Pie had made it to many shortlists but had always just missed out. After much nail biting and hovering over the phone I was overcome with relief when told that the manuscript had co-won, along with English author James Friel, a publishing contract and $5000 advance.
Q: How did you find the publishing process?
A: Fantastic. A wonderful learning experience. I am so lucky to be with www.ilurapress.com They are a new independent publishing firm that is quite unique, the members of the team are all writers. Can you imagine the joy of having people who understand the writing process, who are considerate and nurturing, in charge of publishing your book? They produce a literary journal titled Etchings featuring essays, art, photography and poetry from writers from Switzerland to Kuwait. To provide an avenue for, as they put it, ‘Creative writers whose work deserves a receptive and willing audience,’ and to launch their move into publishing novels, they ran the 2006 Fiction Quest.
Q Do you think P&P was published in the right moment of time to be appreciated by the reading public?
A: Yes, especially with the recent release of the film, Romulus My Father http://romulusmyfather.com.au/about.html The story is about an immigrant family’s struggle to survive and a boy growing up in an Australian county town. I also feel that it is the right time historically. It is over sixty years since the end of the Second World War and it is important that these stories about minority groups within Australia are told.
Q: Tell us of some of the highlights of being a published author of award winning book?
A: When I saw the postcards, remedies, recipes, and rhymes, plus customs and culture in print it gave me an overwhelming sense of relief to know that they have been recorded and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Another highlight was to read the wonderful endorsements by yourself, Anne Bartlett, Liam Davison and Ian Harmstorf, President of the South Australian German Association. To see Pickle to Pie, Pick of the Week in The Age newspaper and to read Cameron Woodhouse’s review was very gratifying. I’m also enjoying giving radio interviews, author talks, a workshop titled, ‘The four P’s of Writing and Publishing a Novel: Procrastination, Perseverance, Publication, Promotion, and taking part in panel discussions. At the moment Pickle to Pie has been entered into several awards, so keep your fingers crossed that it does well.
Q: And, finally, are you working on a new book?
A: Definitely. For at least five years, this story has been simmering alongside Pickle to Pie and I now feel free to put all my energies into it. It is titled Hens Lay, People Lie and is about my chance meeting in 1977 with an elderly American poet at the Burke and Will’s Dig Tree in Outback Australia. For over thirty years our letters have criss crossed the globe. This special relationship has withstood the pressures of time, distance, age and culture. I like to think of the story as being about ‘Two women, two countries, one dream. It is also a comparison between American culture and landscape and that of Australia. The book is based on the five times over the years that Mickey and I have managed to meet and will contain several of her poems. However, once again I’m standing at the crossroads between historical fact and fiction, and can’t wait to see where the future will take me.
A glint of metal wings lingers annoyingly in my thoughts. Anything man-made seems out of place this close to our outback camp on the bank of cooper’s Creek. I watch my children play in the shallow milky water of the lagoon, splashing and jumping like happy aboriginal children. The same precious gift, just a paler wrapping.