Working with Words: Rosalie Ham

Rosalie Ham is the Melbourne-based author of four works of fiction including the 2000 bestselling gothic novel, The Dressmaker. She spoke with us about first novels, writer/reader conspiracies and typing her way to a clear conscience. 

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of novelist Rosalie Ham

As a small child I’m sure I would have laughed or cried at something my mother, father or teacher read to me, but I do remember early in secondary school our English class read Gerald Durrell's The Bafut Beagles. Durrell’s particular type of humour made me laugh. One of the characters was a bit of a dill, but I noticed that the author seemed to be laughing too. It was then that I could fully articulate the writer/reader conspiracy.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I wrote letters to relatives in order to get letters back, and I wrote in my diary. Happily, it was long ago incinerated. I found a copy of my first novel in my father’s belongings after he died. I was 11 years old when I wrote the story. It’s called Spend It Save It. The 350 words are divided into two chapters which humourously describe a cautionary tale of lucky circumstance and irony.

I worked in aged care, which was hugely rewarding but arduous work in many ways. It taught me everything ...

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I earned money cooking and cleaning but I also worked as a checkout chick in the local general store in Jerilderie. Other jobs included rouseabout, waitress, barmaid, driveway attendant, recpetionist-secretary and contect-lens fitter.

Mostly I worked in aged care, which was hugely rewarding but arduous work in many ways. It taught me everything and in most of my novels there are older people, like Magery Blandon in There Should Be More Dancing. In The Year of the Farmer I created Esther and her best friend Callum and through them, we see the past and the future. I think everyone should compulsorily work in aged care for six months of their lives, a bit like national service. We’d be a far better society if we did.

Cover image of 'The Year of the Farmer' by Rosalie Ham

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d probably be a teacher, or working as a nurse educator in some way, but have always fancied being a tram driver.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Stick at it.’ I wasted a year sticking at a second novel that was pure drivel, but I stuck at writing and now I’ve got four published novels.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I wrote diaries on and off as a teenager and I kept diaries of overseas travel. The diary I kept in my twenties while I lived in London and travelled through Europe is amazing but I need burn it before my kids see it. I don’t keep a diary now because I’m an idiot. I wish I did. There’s so much to say. Perhaps that’s why I don’t?

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

There’s a book called Leap by Myfanwy Jones, which combines parkour with life. It’s a story about people who are paused, either after an event and/or poised on the outer brink of something that will progress them. It’s perceptive and therefore true and affecting. Nothing is predictable but everything is identifiable so there’s empathy, and the writing asks us both to fear and trust the narrator. It’s a gem for me.

My routine’s very straight forward: get up, make a cup of tea, go to the computer and sit there typing until you don’t feel guilty any more.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

No. My routine’s very straight forward: get up, make a cup of tea, go to the computer and sit there typing until you don’t feel guilty any more.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Everything. I’d like to be able to make everything I’ve published better. But there is a point where you have to stop, and it’s good knowing this otherwise I’d still be writing my first novel.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

I’d like to have dinner with lots of clever talented people. I’d start with Vivian Maier. She was a street photographer disguised as a nanny. Whenever she took the kids out – starting from 1950 up until about 1990 – she took her camera. After her death, over 100,000 photos she’d taken were discovered. Vivian wasn’t the type to love a crowd, but if she’d agree, I’d also bring along Madame Vionnet, Shirley Hazzard and Kazuo Ishiguro. We’d talk about the human condition and how costume and landscape affect it. 

Portrait of Rosalie Ham

Rosalie Ham is a novelist and teacher.

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