Rosalie Ham: on writing & The Dressmaker

Rosalie Ham interview

It was the picture of Kate Winslet, looking like a 1960s screen siren against the backdrop of rural Australia that brought The Dressmaker to my attention — after that, I started to read more about the book and the author, Rosalie Ham. It’s such an unusual mix — haute couture and rural Australia — would you have thought of that mix? But, the book is a story about prejudice in a small town, and, as Rosalie Ham points out below, haute couture in a small town away from the city boutiques worked well highlighting that.

Rosalie has written two other novels — Summer at Mount Hope and There Should be Dancing. Summer at Mount Hope is about the choices women were faced with in the late 1800s in Australia, and There Should be Dancing is about grief, about admitting truths to oneself her character would rather not. It all sounds like intense reading, doesn’t it? But her books are also known for their humour as well.

Read on to learn more about the women in Rosalie Ham’s books, her love for rural Australia and what she learned from writing her own screenplay for The Dressmaker.

When you look back at the time you wrote The Dressmaker, what is the first thing that pops into your head now?

It was ‘free.’ It was the most enjoyable book I’ve written because it was my first novel and I had no assumptions except that it probably wouldn’t get published, so I just put everything in and let loose with the writing muscles and my imagination.

Is there anything you would change about that time?

I’d pay more attention to the inner life of the characters (especially Tilly) and their emotional and psychological development.

You’ve written your own screenplay of The Dressmaker too – what was that experience like? Culling or rewriting or changing the book for the screen? Was it harder or easier being the author to do so?

It’s a different skill and I suspect most authors should let the experts write the screenplay to their novel. I understood that characters had to go so that the story would fit a screen time, and I understand film’s a visual medium rather than an interpretation through words, but a script needs to be written so that it can be re-edited beyond the final cut for different territories. That’s tricky. It’s was an interesting exercise but we all knew mine would never be the one that was filmed. Happily the second producer, Sue Maslin, came on board and brought Jocelyn Moorhouse and the resulting screenplay is a fabulous adaptation, I think.

Rosalie Ham interviewDid anything about turning The Dressmaker into a movie give you pause? For example, were there things you feared would be lost in the translation to screen?

Sue Maslin, the producer, and I went to school together. We spent our childhoods in the same area so Sue understood the story. Once I knew that Jocelyn Moorhouse was to adapt the screenplay and direct I let any remaining reservations go. Those women were driving the project and they both understand the irony that lies where comedy and tragedy collide. The last thing I wanted with my particular brand of comedy was that it be conveyed in a cold, obvious ‘quirky’ way, or slapstick.

Jocelyn Moorhouse described the movie as “Unforgiven with a sewing machine” – and I thought it was the best, most unique description. What did you think of the quote?

It’s perfect.

The Dressmaker and Summer at Mount Hope are both set in rural Australia – what drew you in to the setting and the time periods in the past with those books?

I like rural landscapes. I was born and raised on plains and I think they’re mysterious and dramatic and therefore a good setting. I’m also a farmer’s daughter so I’m fond of issues to do with farming. Both novels dealt with themes that were relevant then and now; The Dressmaker contains ideas about prejudice, hypocrisy and vanity so haute couture worked well in a small community far from city boutiques. The hypocrisy attached to the theme of illegitimacy works as a scandal in a small town in 1950s. Tilly’s presence is the catalyst for action. Summer at Mount Hope was that old chestnut – should I marry and have children or establish a career, and what if that career is traditionally a man’s career? Both are about women trying to make worthwhile lives and it seems us girls always been up against it.

There should be more dancing though, sees you writing about Margery in a city, Brunswick. I read an interview where you said you thought you’d have to change your writing style because of the urban setting, but that you didn’t – what differences did you find, though? Were they what you expected?

I didn’t use the weather or the landscape as dramatic backdrop so much, more as a reflection of the emotional state of the characters. I still ended up using a small setting – a street – but the shifts were through time and voice. The small setting allowed me to write the ‘universal truths’ within a landscape that’s easily travelled by people identifiable as those you might have encountered in your neighbourhood. I still tend to allow meaning to be found beneath the surface, in this case, readers observed Margery’s unresolved grief through her family and the characters on her street. They were humorous characters, but poignantly so.

The women you write about, I think they are all rebels in a way – against the Rosalie Ham interviewconventions of their society or expectations – they’re strong women and flawed. Who or what were their influences?

Where I grew up there were definite gender roles in some things, but men and women work on a landscape where it’s easy to observe what’s needed and to work as a partnership in a community to accomplish things. And to thrive in the country everyone has to be able to shear a sheep, shoot a gun, change a tyre, drive a tractor, herd cattle, trade grain online, stare down the bank manager, cook dinner and pretty-up when required. I was expected to do my share as were my brothers. I’m just accustomed to seeing women in that way and when you leave that environment you see it as something you can use for dramatic effect. And I try always to write something that’s a bit ‘not usual.’

Your novels have all been applauded for the humour/comedy (however dark) within them – I’ve always thought that humour/comedy must be the hardest thing to write – or have you found it the easiest thing to write?

Sometimes it’s hard to write humour, but I come from a family of wry sardonics and we love to laugh. I’m not entirely sure what it is that makes me see the world as I do but there’s humour in most things, I find. Where humour and tragedy collide there’s irony and I like irony as a literary device. I don’t want to come across as cliché but on a farm there’s a kind of pragmatism about life and death that possibly makes my attitude a bit ‘dark.’

What’s next for you?

I’m trying to write a homage to that landscape and the upbringing I had, it’s a story about irrigation and how water divides and unites a community. There’s a love triangle and a death and horrible people and lovely people. As ever, time to finish it eludes me…

I can’t decide if I have the patience to read the book and wait to see the movie, or go see the movie and then read the book given how much Rosalie approves of the adaptation. AHH, I think I win either way, lol! What about you? Which will you do first? 

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