In this excerpt from “Wedding Bush Road,” David Francis explores fractious relationships and the difficult journey of an L.A. transplant returning home to a family farm in rural Australia. He then joins us for a Q&A where he delves into how distance has allowed him to write more freely and how the current climate challenges writers “to be more aware of the ‘political’ in their work.”
“In the middle of the night, that bloody Sharen’s car was up in flames,” my mother shouted down the phone.
I imagine her moving through the paddocks in the dark towards the distant flicker, the way she knows the land by heart. The shapes of the concrete water troughs, the shadows of the rabbit warrens. And a siren wailing. The fire truck already on the highway and my mother breathless by the windmill. She’d leave the gate open, let the wild-eyed cattle shuffle through, the clatter of their hooves. The shadows of those three black horses retreating and advancing, snorting at the burning Mitsubishi, arching up with fear. My mother too old for fighting fires in the dark. Said she gave up swinging her coat when she noticed a piece of my grandmother’s sideboard, an ornate hacked-off corner.
My grandmother’s antiques had survived the passage from Coventry ninety years ago, but not the wrath of Sharen Wells. Not even the bed where my grandmother died with The Book of Shrubs on the pillow beside her.
“Then I saw the burnt rocking horse,” my mother said.
I imagine its silver mane and leather bridle incinerated.
My grandmother rocked me on it as a boy; hers as a child in England, shipped out to what she coined these frightful antipodes.
“Your father’s a sloven and a slut,” my mother said. “Going for a loon like Sharen.”
My father’s name is Earley, a family name. “Better Earley than not at all,” My mother used to say but she doesn’t say that anymore. He now lives five miles away in a sad-looking brick veneer in a coastal subdivision my mother christened Bitter Snug, after she threw him off his own farm, out of the big house, sentenced him to life with Elsie.
I roll my bag along the bluestone path. A lump in my throat as I push the door open. The vague smell of compost and frantic yelping. And I glimpse my mother in the dining room, alive and mobile, armed with a broom and flyswatter.
As I enter the dining room, a brushtail possum scratches its way along the picture rail. It pisses with fright on the portrait of Aunt Emma Charlotte, then over the pastel of me as a boy. The innocent eyes that were never quite mine.
My mother doesn’t seem to notice me, mesmerized by the leaping dog and the hiss of the possum as it plummets to a corner table, smashing plate. It hurtles out past me through the open doors and into the warm Gippsland evening.
My mother turns. “Hello, my boy,” she says, as if knowing I was here all along. “How was your trip?” She hoists the broom over her shoulder like a rifle.
I give her a hug but her body stiffens as if she’s afraid it’s too American. “Did you get yourself an upgrade?” she asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer, already involved in a project on a kitchen bench, as if I’m a ghost that often appears. Still, I wonder how she’s heard of upgrades. She’s irrigating ants from a cupboard, wiping them up with an ant-speckled cloth. My mother slaughters armies of them, shows off piles of the dead to occasional visitors. Magpies and noisy miners fly down these chimneys, seeking shade, the black and tan dog lies in wait to land hem stunned and breathless on the hardwood floor.
On the silent television, the marsupial eyes of the new prime minister.
A dark hump appears in the gray light, the blackened frame of the car hunkered among the charred remains. Steel and ash and wood. Thirty yards beyond it, the garden fence, the yard that was once tidy, now a carnival of corrugated iron, engine parts. My grandmother grew hibiscus there, black-eyed peas and black-eyed Susan.
The cottage door opens a crack, a woman’s face—sun-worn, creased smoker’s cheeks and bright turquoise eyes, her hair a tangled sunbleached nest. “Daniel?”
Her nipples press at a long red Cold Chisel T-shirt that stretches down to bare, slender legs, what look like purple welts on her thighs. “‘Scuse the mess.” She clasps her shoulders and blames “the boys”; a maze of laundry on the floor but no sign of boys, just the skunk smell of weed.
In a kitchen I barely recognize, she offers herbal tea. I have to remind myself this woman lit a fire that could have burned a thousand acres and the town. But her eyes are strangely alluring, a blue glinting green that reminds me of coral, staring back so boldly.
“Sorry about the furniture,” she says.
Her hands shake slightly as she plugs in a kettle. How old is she, forty? Australian years, all the sun and squinting. “I kinda lost it with ya father.”
I’m nodding, looking around to see what’s left; the floorboards bare, stripped of linoleum. The kitchen where my grandmother baked here scones, the sun beaming in on her delicate English face.
“The Landlord and Tenant Act requires twenty-four hours’ notice for a visit from the landlord,” she tells me, so ballsy.
I try to remember I’m a lawyer. “I’m not your landlord.” I don’t look at her eyes as she pours hot water into my grandmother’s pale green cups.
“I know,” she says too easily. “But I’ve been having trouble with Earley.”
“We’ve had trouble with him too,” I say, take a sip and scald my tongue—serves me right for being disloyal. “But we don’t set things on fire.”
She looks down at herself, the cotton clinging to her narrow body. “It was self-defense,” she says. “He appears on a horse at the window at all hours. I rarely wear clothes in the house.”
According to my mother, he hasn’t been on a horse in years. “I believe he can barely walk,” I say.
“He’d crawl if he had to, Earley,” she says. “He’s at the door at midnight and when I don’t answer he pulls out my marijuana by the roots.”
“Why don’t you let him inside?” I imagine her in tightfitting jeans, his eyes out on sticks.
“He reckons he wants to move back here. Wants to die in his mother’s house. Well, I want to die in his mother’s house too.”
I feel the grim onset of jetlag. “Ruthie owns this now,” I tell her.
I don’t mention the whole five hundred acres, houses and all, are now in my mother’s name, since my father was banished. I scan the squalor, the sink of plates angled precariously. No sign of Christmas here either. I walk into the bare living room. The Munnings is gone from above the mantelpiece. The faded print of horses being led back from the gallops with blankets over their loins. I loved that picture.
“I’ve had him up to here,” says Sharen, the roach in her nail-bitten fingers cutting across her throat. She looks at me as if to gauge loyalties, her blue-green eyes more defiant than tearful. Is she really angered by his unexpected visits, or that he skulks no more?
“I’ll take him to the tribunal if I have to,” she says.
“You won’t take him anywhere,” I say.
Walking back, I make out a frail shape in the dark.
On the hill by the chicken coop my mother’s climbed the stile, unassisted. Balancing in the dry breeze, wearing only her nightgown, like a sheet above the fence.
“Hello old girl,” I say.
“When I was a kid,” she says, “we used to ride our ponies bareback to help spot bushfires from up on Two Bays Road.” She shields her eyes as if we’re in broad daylight. Goes to step over the wire but stops.
“I’m a good firefighter,” she says.
A sudden desire to defend the dignity of this old woman, who stands up in the dark like something immortal, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
“You’re the reason I stay alive,” she says, then boldly steps down to the ground.
She walks on ahead through the wood chips by the chopping stump, leaves me split in pieces of my own—the part that yearns to be here with her always; and the part that longs to lose myself in cities far away.
The Journey Home: Q&A With David Francis
AFLW: You’ve said that your move to Los Angeles enabled you to write about your experiences growing up in Australia and your family who still lives there. How does the concept of distance help you explores truths, struggles and conflicts in your writing?
David Francis: First, I believe fiction rather than memoir is the best (and safest) avenue for relaying the truth, especially a kind of inherent, emotional truth. It’s less constrained by the actual particulars and the story is given permission to become a creature of its own making.
I doubt I’d ever have written at all if I’d stayed in Australia. Los Angeles is a place for reinvention. It gave me the chance to explore what I secretly wanted, which was to write. When I was at law school in Australia, I had a job training racehorses about 70 miles from my university. My 98-year-old grandmother lived on the way to college and I’d visit her. She’d gone blind and had no short-term memory but vividly remembered growing up with her Austrian mother and Scottish father deep in the outback in the 1860s. I took notes as she whispered her strange childhood stories of Aboriginal tribes warring at the waterhole at the bottom of the garden, the mudbrick house her mother tried to make into a home with her antiques from Salzburg. A flood sheeted across the desert and washed it all away. I
It took me 15 years (riding jumping horses in Europe and on the East Coast and then lawyering in L.A.) to sit still enough to experience my grandmother’s tales in perspective, and to see Australia through the lens of distance. I wrote my first novel “The Great Inland Sea,” set between the Riverina in Australia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland between the 1930s and the 1950s from the safety of L.A. “Wedding Bush Road” returned me to the vagaries of a less deeply rural Australia, exploring my own experience and the ideas of yearning, return, fidelity and belonging from a more contemporary perspective.
AFLW: “Wedding Bush Road” is about an Australian lawyer who lives in L.A., and many of the locations mentioned in the book are specific: Laurel Canyon, the Sunset 5 movie theater, Providence restaurant, etc. How does your own experience of “being from one country and living in another” inform the way you approach place and character?
DF: I’ve lived away from Australia for more than 30 years, more than half my life. In many ways I’m an outsider there and here. Perhaps, this allows me to be the observer of the cultures, characters and landscapes in a particular way. One country settled mostly by criminals, the other by religios. Maybe this is why the American settlers shared food with the indigenes before they slaughtered them. The Australians went straight to the slaughter. But I digress. The straddling of cultures is a bonus as a writer — it’s a way into a perspective that might be unique and a voice that might be original. That’s what I hope I’ve achieved in “Wedding Bush Road.”
And Australia is still a place I can run to when “the Trump” hits the fan. Let me know if you want to join me back there on the farm.
AFLW: You went on your book tour overseas in the first weeks post-election. What was it like for you to be in Australia during that time and to come home to America post-11/9?
DF: It was a great relief to be out of the political melee. Still, my more sophisticated Australian friends seemed to be in a terrible post-Trump funk. Me, I couldn’t get out of bed for a day. It’s still hard to believe it isn’t TV. More will be revealed, as they say. But I can’t see how it can go well. It makes me think what a great little country California would be.
AFLW: At a recent book release party hosted by Pen USA, you said that in your last visit to the family farm you found that some events you had written about in “Wedding Bush Road” were actually happening, for the first time — sort of fiction-to-reality. What do you feel the writer’s role is in affecting change, whether personally or globally — and how might this be especially important in light of the current political circumstances?
DF: Since the election, I think the role of writers in effecting change has changed. I was on a panel at Lit Quake in San Francisco recently with a writer from Romania who talked about how her work is inherently political due to the repression and hardship of her Soviet-era experience and since. It made me realize how my own work is deeply personal and not so infused with any political notions or agendas. While my second novel, “Stray Dog Winter,” for example, was set in Soviet Moscow, it was nonetheless written from the perspective of a Western narrator on an adventure gone horribly awry. But my stories, while the themes may be universal, are essentially emo-personal in scope.
The regime change here in the U.S. challenges me and I suspect other writers of fiction to be more aware of the political in their work, and perhaps to write more non-fiction so as to be heard. Giving credence to a sudden awareness that freedoms of speech and thought need to be protected and expressed, even here, yet again, and still. As vce president of PEN Center USA, I suspect PEN’’s domestic “freedom to write” agenda and caseload will be even more of a focus during this new era in which the freaktoid, orange lunatic helms the asylum.
David Francis, based in Los Angeles, spends part of each year back on his family’s farm in Australia. He is the author of “The Great Inland Sea,” published to acclaim in seven countries, and “Stray Dog Winter,” Book of the Year in The Advocate, winner of the American Library Association Barbara Gittings Prize for Literature and a LAMBDA Literary Award Finalist. He has taught creative writing at University of California, Los Angeles, Occidental College and the former Masters of Professional Writing program at University of Southern California. His short fiction and articles have appeared in publications including Harvard Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, Southern California Review, Best Australian Stories, Australian Love Stories, Los Angeles Times and The Rattling Wall. He is Vice President of PEN Center USA. “Wedding Bush Road” was published by Counterpoint Press in November, 2016. For more information on David Francis, visit his site: www.davidfranciswriter.com.