I’m delighted to have as a guest writer one of WA’s most respected and loved writers: Amanda Curtin, the author of a collection of short stories, Inherited; and two novels, The Sinkings and Elemental (the latter shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards). Amanda is also one of our great editors, always meticulous, thoughtful and diplomatic, and is much admired for her unstinting support of other writers. She kindly agreed to share her thoughts about the challenges and pleasures of researching and writing her new book, a work of creative non-fiction called Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.
What attracted you to the subject of your new book?
The fascinating Kate—Kathleen Laetitia O’Connor, daughter of C.Y. O’Connor—has intrigued for several decades, ever since I heard about her and saw her art while working in a minor editorial capacity on the first biography about her, which was published in 1987. I loved her work, and the story of how this strong young woman defied social and family expectations to pursue a career in art in Paris was something I never forgot.
The path between that first impression and the publication of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris winds its way from artform to artform. I wrote a short story inspired by Kate’s art and an episode in her life that I had heard about back in the 1980s, that story led to an exhibition by Fremantle artist Jo Darvall, which then prompted Georgia Richter from Fremantle Press to tentatively enquire whether I might be interested in writing a work of creative non-fiction about Kate. It was a big decision to make, in the sense that I was working on something else at the time—something that would have to be put aside for a few years—but my heart said yes straight away!
What was the most startling discovery you made in the course of your research for this book?
I remember one day when I was working my way through the Battye Library archives pertaining to Kate—a huge job that took several months—and I came across a beautiful original sketch tucked into the back of a manila folder. I knew it wasn’t Kate’s work, but there was something arresting about it. I studied the signature, partially obscured by a tear across the bottom of the board: it looked like ‘Steinlen’. That rang a bell: there was a catalogue, inscribed to Kate, among her papers for an exhibition by Steinlen in 1917. I checked the signature, and yes, it was the same.
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen is perhaps not a name everyone would know, but his Black Cat poster is instantly recognisable, probably as famous as Toulouse-Lautrec’s as symbols of Paris.
Kate’s connection with Steinlen probably dates back to the prewar period. He was one of the tutors at Académie Colarossi, where she had taken sketch classes. But I continue to be intrigued by the presence, without context, of this original sketch among her effects.
You are the author of three works of fiction, and your new book is classified as creative non-fiction. What similarities and differences did you find between the two genres?
Creative non-fiction is a factual narrative that makes use of fictional techniques, as well as facts, to tell a story, and often involves the author in the narrative. Within this loose definition lie the greatest similarities and the greatest differences.
It was my own presence in the narrative that presented me with the greatest challenge. I am not accustomed to stepping into a story, and prefer to let my characters do the talking! But there is no doubt in my mind that this was the most effective way to tell Kate’s story. It allowed me to speculate, to question, to imagine in a transparent way, honouring the pact that any non-fiction writer makes with the reader not to ‘make things up’. It also gave me a way to take the reader along with me through the process of research—although only the highlights! Probably the bulk of any research effort would be classified as ‘not a spectator sport’.
What was the most pleasurable aspect of writing your new book?
I love research, period. But when I think of my research for Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, three things stand out. First, travelling to the places where Kate worked or lived. I believe people and place inhabit each other, and the search for traces of Kate never disappointed.
Second, thanks to the generosity of Kate’s family, I had the opportunity to spend time with her personal possessions, the things she left behind when she died. These remnants of a life gave me insights into the way she lived and the things she valued, and it was thrilling to find items like her famous tortoiseshell bracelets, her paintbrushes and the ‘African rug’ that appears in many of her outstanding still lifes of 1920s Jazz Age Paris.
What difficulties did you encounter, and how did you set about resolving them?
Oh, there are many difficulties associated with writing about someone who was notoriously reticent about their private life, and who very likely weeded their papers of anything too personal. These were problems for which there was no neat solution, but I chose to handle them by writing the gaps and absences into the story, where they become part of the narrative of travel and research and provide a framework for speculation.
I knew from the outset that there were also difficulties with identifying and cataloguing Kate’s artworks, because she deliberately changed titles and even dates from time to time, for various reasons—to disguise her age, for example, or after reworking old paintings. I decided to keep a very detailed inventory based on all mentions of particular works—no matter how small—so that details could be cross-checked and, occasionally, identifications made. It was laborious but it paid off on a number of occasions.
Choose one extract from the book that you particularly like, and why you chose it.
I like the following piece, set in late nineteenth-century Fremantle, because it offers a little glimpse of the girl who became a defiant, determined woman, an acclaimed artist and a famous eccentric. It always makes me smile:
It’s an unusually mild day in March 1893, and the police paddock in Fremantle has been cleared of horses to make way for a cake fair. There’s a jostle of people, bright and loud—a good turnout that promises well for the Swan Boys’ Orphanage. Children with sticky fingers zigzag between long skirts. There are lamingtons and wedges of cream sponge and moustaches dusted in icing sugar. An occasional yelp and a frantic scraping of heels on the grass—reminders to the crowd of where they are, and to watch where they step. Little flotillas of ladies, hatted and gloved, gather around the cake stalls, arranging baked goods, dispensing tea, taking pennies and shillings and handing back change—cheerfully playing at shop girls for a day in the name of a worthy cause. There’s the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers Band playing lively airs, there’s a maypole dance for the children, there’s a large crowd gathered around Mr Watson, electrical engineer, who is demonstrating the operation of a galvanic battery. And over there, a play is about to be staged.
For conservative colonial society in the port town, Bluebeard seems a surprising choice.
It’s a grisly fairytale with a salacious reputation, and the three-act performance being stage-managed and directed by Aileen O’Connor is an exotic version that will become popular in Arthur Rackham watercolours just seven years after this little production. The wife-killer Bluebeard is an ‘Eastern despot’. The characters have names like Selim, Hassan, Fatima. The costumes on stage on this Saturday afternoon no doubt feature pantaloons and veils, and a lurid turban on Bluebeard’s head.
And here is Kate, in the starring role of Fatima, the wife entrusted with the keys to the forbidden room in which the corpses of her husband’s former wives lie rotting. Fatima, unable to resist the temptation of unlocking that door…
I wonder whether she had to badger Aily into giving her the lead role. Did she have to compete for it with Eva? I can imagine Kate disdaining the lesser role Eva was given: the supporting part of Sister Anne, to whom Fatima calls piteously for help in the minutes before she is to be beheaded. It could be argued that Anne’s is the more heroic role of the two, but it’s a species of heroism consisting of sending the girls’ brothers to the rescue—essentially passive, enacted offstage. Where is the glory in that?
According to the press report, ‘The piece was considerably interrupted by unruly boys’, who were probably delighted with the whole thrilling affair. But while the newspaper commended Mr Fred Moore, who acted the part of Bluebeard ‘in a very decided manner’, Kate earned herself a reprimand: ‘Fatima seemed to be far too merry under the circumstances.’
I can almost hear Aily’s sigh from the wings: Oh, Kate…
It’s a gift, this snapshot of Kate at sixteen: an irreverent girl centrestage, playing against the grain.
More interesting information about the book and Kathleen O’Connor’s life can be found at the following links: