Searching for the Secret River is a memoir about the writing of Kate Grenville's international bestseller, The Secret River.
It tells the story of the research behind the novel - from the transcript of Grenville's ancestor's trial at the Old Bailey in 1805, to the information that contemporary historians are uncovering about what happened on the Australian frontier. It also takes the reader through the process of turning that research into living fiction - the false starts, dead ends and failures as well as the strokes of luck, flashes of inspiration and surprises.
It contains sections of personal memoir, the record of the research, and a journal of the evolution of the book from non-fiction to novel. It quotes sections of early drafts and compares them with the final version, and goes into some detail about technical issues such as point of view, voice and dialogue.
For anyone interested in the writing process - and in particular the writing of a historical novel - Searching for the Secret River provides a unique behind-the-scenes exploration.
The Secret River has proved to be a controversial book among Australian historians. They feel that fiction is an untrustworthy mechanism by which to understand the past. A novelist may alter, simplify or even distort the truth about history in ways the reader will not be aware of.
Kate Grenville has always had the same reservations about historical fiction. Even before The Secret River was completed, she was planning a book which would make transparent the process by which she'd adapted the historical record for the purposes of fiction, and her reasons for the decisions she made.
She says "The subject matter of The Secret River is so important, and so politically charged, I didn't want readers to be able to say oh, it's only a novel - she just made it all up. The events and characters in the novel are adapted from the historical record. These things really did happen on our frontier, even if at a slightly different time and in a different place. I wanted readers to be able to retrace the journey I took in coming to terms with what I found about our history, and to see how I chose to adapt it for a novel."
Twenty years of teaching Creative Writing in universities, and three books about the writing process, were the other impetus for Searching for The Secret River. "Writing is such an enrichment of life - whether or not it results in publication - that I wanted to leave a record of my own process, so that others might not have to re-invent the wheel completely," Grenville says. "Historical fiction has its particular challenges for the writer - I would have loved to read a book like this one while I was writing The Secret River. It would have made the process a little less laborious."
Searching for the Secret River has become a classic for book groups, students and writers looking for guidance.