Spinning Yarns: Creative Collaboration

Recently I attended a talk by Marilla North, author of Yarn Spinners. This is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. Creative endeavours between women, and in particular the weaving and creation of stories through collaboration, is illustrated through letters between Cusack and Florence James, as well as correspondence with their contemporaries. The novel written by Cusack and James, Come In Spinner, won a Daily Telegraph manuscript competition. The competition was during the period of the broadsheet circulation wars of the 1940s with a prize of £1,000 on offer.

But the Cusack/James novel was much larger than the newspaper expected: the intention was to print the winning entry in two weekly instalments – an incentive to further drive circulation numbers. Attempts to reduce the novel size, initially submitted at 120,000 words, were not agreed to by the authors, and it ended up being printed through a London publisher when the manuscript was released by the Daily Telegraph three years later. The size of the manuscript wasn’t the only issue: its portrayal of abortion, war-profiteering, prostitution, black marketeering and the role of women during wartime was regarded as extremely controversial at the time.

Cusack and James lived in the Blue Mountains for a spell, moving towards the end of the Second World War to a cottage in Hazelbrook. North gave an overview of the household of two women and a clutch of children with regular visitors from the city and further afield. This included Miles Franklin bringing up bantam chickens for their mountain garden. Cusack had collaborated with Franklin previously to write Pioneers on Parade. The hallway in the house was used to assist with managing the book structure: newspaper articles from the week in which the novel was set were pasted to the butcher’s paper lined along the hallway, the real events forming a backdrop for the  novel.

This was the second project that Cusack and James had worked together on: the first had been a children’s book called Four Winds and a Family. James later recalled that they each contributed chapters, ‘did some editing patchwork’ and realised that their writing matched well enough. The same approach was used for the novel. Cusack, who suffered from health issues (neuralgia, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) would dictate as James typed, and James would edit and write when Cusack rested. The arrival of a dictaphone for Cusack speeded up the project.

There is a link to the website for Yarn Spinners here, and The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books by Geoffrey Dutton also provided interesting background on the creative collaboration between Cusack and James. There is an excellent post by Michael Burge providing further insight into the time James and Cusack spent in the mountains here.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project?

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A Different Track

The journey from Sydney to the Blue Mountains by rail is a well-travelled one, particularly for the people who commute each work day to the city. Depending on where you start and finish, it can be quite a lengthy journey through the mountains and the ever-extending suburbs of Sydney.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I embarked from Central Station on the Indian Pacific. The Indian Pacific leaves every Wednesday, heading to Perth via Broken Hill and Adelaide. My journey took me to Adelaide in 24 hours.

I could quite easily rave about the train and the trip as it was extraordinary in many ways. Once I got over the excitement of getting onboard, patiently waiting whilst the two sections of the train were coupled together (it is too long for a single platform with 2 locomotives and 27 carriages on my trip), I settled back to watch the Sydney suburbs slip by before we began the slow climb up the mountains.

The gradual ascent was felt physically through the train – you could feel the engines at work, and I sat by the window entranced as it curved around the bends. There were sandstone segments as we approached Lapstone, moments of darkness through tunnels before bursting out amongst an ocean of trees. At Warrimoo there were houses tucked into gullies. Then a glimpse of a sandstone cottage built in 1867 near Springwood. Passing by the Corridor of Oaks at Faulconbridge, then scorched tree trunks came into view. There were vistas towards Sydney or acres of wilderness, depending on the turn of the track.

It was interesting to see what was familiar from a different angle, a higher viewpoint. I spotted some lovely character cottages near Hazelbrook, then we were running alongside the Great Western Highway and the shops and pub at Lawson sped into view. Little ferns poking out of stone walls, a kid practising discus near Wentworth Falls. As we approached Leura I saw the last lingering remnants of autumn colour and the beautiful sandstone cliffs in the distance. Then Katoomba, the soft glowing lights of guest houses, welcoming weary travellers. Tree branches slapping the side of the train, then the Hydro Majestic, lit up amongst the darkening shadows. Towards Blackheath, the depths and folds of the valleys in the last light, through Mount Victoria, last light over the Hartley valley.

Have you taken a different track on a well-travelled road?

[Photo taken near Emu Plains before the climb up the mountains]