Writer Kim Cook attempts to describe the creativity and wit displayed by The Dressmaker author Rosalie Ham during her October 26 Conversation with Bruno Lettieri.

A Night with Rosalie Ham

We know what to expect when we turn up to a Twilight School event. Good food, wine and company. The beautiful interiors of Rupertswood Mansion. Representatives from Australia’s creative and literary community. To quote our own Bruno Lettieri, as he described it in his opening of our recent conversation evening with author Rosalie Ham, “conversation and learning and making and dancing all find their sweet convergence”. I doubt anyone in the audience will disagree.

As a writer, there with the intention to repackage the essence of the evening into words on a website page, my expectation is a little different.

The truth is that you can’t know, ahead of time, just what you’ll have to work with. You plan, as much as you can, but you do so knowing that you’re walking down a road with no idea as to where you’ll end up. I read Rosalie Ham’s most notable book, The Dressmaker. I researched her whilst designing the flyer for the event. I thought, perhaps, to write a piece on Rosalie’s process or on The Dressmaker itself. I thought to write about the joy of the sheer, unbridled Australianness of her setting, or the way her descriptions of store and home interiors took me back, so vividly, to the displays in historical societies and museums I’ve seen in rural Australian towns.

You plan, but you have no idea what you’ll write until you hear the speaker speak.

“There’s nothing wrong with women,” Rosalie announced when Bruno, easing the audience into the conversation, indicated that women, by and large, filled the room. “I love them all dearly.”

I knew then we were in for something that the reader won’t get just by picking up a copy of Rosalie’s books. She came in, a bundle of cheery wit and good humour, and spoke in down-to-earth, pragmatic, Australian fashion about her writing, her characters, the process of being a writer and the experience of seeing her book turned into film. She had no time to waste on pretension or illusion. “I wanted to be a famous actress,” she said in answer to the stock question about her intended career, and the room laughed and smiled, for what woman there didn’t once harbour that dream, no matter how fleeting? Several times, especially when asked questions about any responsibility she felt, as the creator of The Dressmaker, for the success of the film, she simply referenced the practical, financial benefit it brought her: “The film paid for my mortgage, my agent, my tax and a bottle of Chanel No. 5!” She parried questions about the meaning and intent in her work with wicked honesty, voicing the truth we writers only admit to ourselves: “What’s it about, what’s it really about … shit, what’s it about?”

In Rosalie Ham, there is no sense of creativity as a sacred, alien process divorced from real world matters of life, family and finance. When asked why it is she puts so much time and effort into writing, something she calls “a dedicated craft”, her answer is honest and curious: “I don’t know.” One is left with the sense that writing is no different to any other passion or job, but there’s something empowering in that: Rosalie takes writing and places it firmly in the grasp of anyone, no matter the seeming mundanity of our experiences, who reaches for it. “When I wrote The Dressmaker,” she said when discussing the influences of her childhood in Jerilderie, “the thing that got up my nose was […] the hypocrisy, the bullying. They got up my nose, and I really wanted to say something about those.” I was left with the encouraging sense that we too can go and write on whatever feelings drive us to create.

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Photo credit: Amanda Piper

She didn’t just talk her craft. It was hard not to be amused by her comments on style and fashion or her experiences on the set of The Dressmaker. The room laughed when she described herself sweltering in corsets and praying for “bloody Kate Winslet” to “nail this scene”. The real gems she had for the audience, though, came at the end when Bruno asked her about the advice she had for other writers. She spoke of the importance of dialogue being true to the character and a willingness to let the plot change and be shaped by one’s characters; she spoke of the importance in endings, and in forthright Rosalie style, proclaimed, “They happen … it might come sooner than you think.”

Her advice on beginnings, though, is something I as a writer will take to heart: “The beginning isn’t really the beginning. The beginning is you finding your way into the story, and you’ll probably rewrite that same beginning fifteen million times. […] Tell yourself to stop writing the beginning and move on; come back a few months later and cut the beginning out.” She finished with something most writers have heard but always bears repeating: “[You’ve] got to have a hook on the first page … that will carry the reader through.”

Anyone who has read Rosalie’s work, though, knows she is at heart a character writer. She spoke of the discovery process, of the feeling of universality her characters inspired from even international readers, of literature and consequently characters as revolution. She offered up these wise words about the power of loving something in your characters, even those you and the reader alike are meant to despise: “If you’ve got one thing that you love about your character, if it’s an instinctive thing and you like it, you can build around that … writers know that if you get a character, you can’t get them to do things they wouldn’t do.”

It feels real and right that a woman who has written characters that speak so widely to readers is herself a unique, engaging character who held the room in her hands.

Her last words of writing wisdom, though, speak everything about the honest creative life: “People have come along for a reason, so you’ve got to make a bit of an effort.”

I think it’s safe to say that we, the Twilight School audience, are grateful that she extended that willingness and effort to us.

Kim Cook

Kim Cook is an autistic, quirky, queer creative who writes novels and short fiction, blogs about gender and mental illness, designs flyers and administrates the Twilight School website.