I met Toni through the LongLines programme at Varuna. We spent a week living in Eleanor Dark’s house along with Meg Mooney, a poet from Alice Springs, Liana Christensen from Perth and David Wright from Tasmania by way of Africa. The week was facilitated and mentored by Peter Bishop – a living national treasure! It was a wonderful opportunity to talk to other writers about their work and inspirations (and drink red wine, stoke the fire and contemplate life, of course!) Hopefully over the next few months I’ll introduce you to all of them in my blog. The question you need to answer to be in the running for a copy of Border Watch is at the end of the Toni’s post!
So welcome, Toni, it’s great to have you here. I had the privilege of hearing some of your stories when we had our nightly readings at Varuna. They are wonderful, colourful snapshots of your world, full of unforgettable characters. How did you come to be a writer? How did your childhood shape your writing?
I have always loved writing. It started with my days at boarding school when my Mum wrote me long letters from home and I wrote long ones back. I think my letters were mainly about my boyfriends and asking for more money and not too much about school, but English and Art were my favourite subjects. My Mum wrote long letters about what everyone was doing on the station – who came and went, who had babies and who won the Melbourne Cup Sweep.
I am the eldest of 10 children. I was born in Alice Springs in 1955 and returned to Katherine when my mother left my father in 1960. Very shortly after she met my step father Bill Tapp. My mother, younger brother Billy and sister Shing moved out to Killarney Station 270 kms south west of Katherine. Bill Tapp had just bought Killarney and it was a pretty wild place, no fences, no housing, very little water. My mother’s two younger brothers were working for him along with a few aboriginal stockmen. When we arrived at Killarney there was only a bough shed. We camped out in swags at night and slept in an upturned water tank in the wet season. We lived like this for about 2 or 3 years before moving to another location on the station. We built a better shed.
My lovely and sad step father rode the heights of richness and power, but died a sad lonely alcoholic at Killarney Station in 1993, with three cattle stations in receivership and 2 huge court cases with the NT Government and Elders GM – legacy for the family to sort out. It has long been settled and I put it all down to good character building stuff! I have six brothers and three sisters and 8 of us still live in NT. Some have cattle stations and most of us girls are involved in the arts, though my husband and I managed cattle stations for many years in the Borroloola area and the VRD. We all competed at Campdrafts and Rodeos.
My writing has centered around the people, the characters, and my life of growing up on a cattle station in the Northern Territory, as well as the characters and people I meet around town. I had an amazing childhood growing up with traditional aboriginal people, being part of, observing and learning about their way of life. I went hunting with the old ladies, they taught me about tracking, how to make fire, to corroboree and how to live off the land. They also taught us respect, truth and integrity, as did my parents.
Wonderful, grounding wisdom, Toni. You now live in Katherine, which to many Australians is a town somewhere near Darwin, way up north where the crocs are huge and beer bottles even bigger. Tell us a bit about the town and how it influences your writing.
Katherine is the centre of the universe…LOL. A town of 10,000 people, it is the hub centre for a region the size of Victoria which covers the area from the Queensland boarder in the gulf across to Kununnurra on the Western Australian border. The total population of the Katherine Region, outside the township, is 18,000 people. (Which is why it is the centre of the universe…LOL.)
The main industries are tourism, Defence (RAAF Base Tindal), pastoral and mining. Hundreds of thousands of white Braham cattle are sent off to the live export boats to Indonesia, Philippines etc.
Jeez, I am getting off the track. The people?…Katherine is a crazy town. 33% of the population identify as indigenous, we have the large Defence base personal and a strong Filipino community as well as a highly transient community where people come for work during the tourist season, and the mango picking in October.
Those of us who are born and bred here are considered the ‘Locals.’ Often if you ask some one how long they have been here they will say.’I have been here for 20 years but I am not a local.’ Funny how we create these unseen psychological barriers with ourselves about who we are and where we belong.
Katherine has long had a history of social issues concerning alcohol abuse, urban drift from indigenous communities and the ‘long grassers’ people living around the outside of the town and in the Katherine River. Oh … and we have an amazing River that begins in southern Arnhem Land, leads into the Katherine Gorge, the Daly River, and into the ocean near the WA Border. This River has featured in my writing in the last few years as we went through a devastating flood in 1998. 1.3 metres of water went through my house and 2 metres through the shop in the middle of town.
Our writing group KROW (Katherine Region of Writers) produced a book in 1999 covering the stories of the Flood. The River features in our group’s story writing all the time. Whether it is fishing or croc story, a drowning or a murder, suicide or sex, there is plenty of inspiration flowing from this source. I had the pleasure of working with Sydney Playwright, Alana Valentine, whom our group had met through the Varuna Longlines Program a few years ago. I conduced interviews and did research for Alana to write a play called ‘WATERMARK’ about the Katherine Flood. The play won an AWGIE in 2009 and Alana is currently in the studio turning it into a radio play for Radio National to be aired some time this year on AIRPLAY. The play is also going to be the feature performance at the annual Katherine Festival in August.
Living in a small town provides you with an up close and personal experience of people that you may not get in cities. I have written stories about picking up a drunken aboriginal women and the story she told me as we drove home, a story about a funny funeral and the conversation I had with a taxi driver one night. I find it amazing what strangers will tell you in a short space of time…It’s underlying story I guess is of loneliness and not feeling like any one is listening to you.
And that loneliness can strike anywhere, even in the middle of a busy capital city, can’t it. You’re actively involved in the Arts community in the Northern Territory. Give us some insights into your favourite events/publications?
I have just taken on the position of the Executive Officer of Katherine Regional Arts. I have worked on and off with this org for about 4 years in a contract position delivering arts projects to remote communities. I was able to instigate 2 new indigenous festivals at Timber Creek 300kms west of Kath, and Binjari just 15kms out of Kath. I have collaborated with Young Voices of Melbourne Choir to share a traditional song with the Mialli People at Kybrook Farm 90kms north of Kath. The Melbourne Choir learnt the song then performed at Kybrook (pop 100) with the Kybrook Choir. An artist girlfriend and I have produced a series of large 2m story banners in a number of communities and these are fantastic. I have organised bands and performances and have been the Chairperson of the Katherine Festival for 6 years and Chair of the Katherine Country Music Muster. I am now also doing a second stint as Alderman on the Katherine Town Council. All these experiences and activities are inspiring and creative and add to the experience of living in a small town. Not that I think 10,000 is really that small.
I’m the Regional Vice President of the NT Writers Centre. The NTWC has been a huge help to myself and other local writers in developing our writing and providing opportunities for workshops etc with visiting professional writers, and I have had the pleasure of meeting many of Australia’s top writers such as Helen Garner, Alexis Wright, Shaun Tan, William McInnes along with emerging new writers such as Helene Young from Cairns. I met Plucka Duck who came to the Katherine Festival for a duck race in the 1990’s! The arts and writing have allowed me to see and do things that most Australians will never see, all in little ole remote Katherine Town
Ha, thanks for the vote of confidence Toni! Did Plucka Duck stay in costume the whole time?? Must have been roasting in the heat….(sorry…)
I know you helped produce several anthologies. Tell us a bit about them.
KROW has produced 7 anthologies since its inception in 1991. I have seen our professionalism and experience grow over these years. Along with the ‘Katherine’s Comin Down’ Stories of the 1998 Katherine Flood we have produced ‘Limestone Lilies and Liars’ (LLL) , a collection of short fiction stories. ‘Chilies Cheats and Chocolates’ (CCC) a collection of stories with a food theme and in 2009 ‘Make-believe Magic and Mayhem (MMM)’ a collection of children’s stories. I have taught my self Photoshop and designed the covers of the books. The most recent book, MMM, we totally produced on our own and had it printed on www.lulu.com from the USA. This has been very successful and half the price of self publishing anywhere else.
There’s a core of about 5 people who have been involved in KROW for the past 10 years and self publishing has not only given us an outlet for our own writing, but helped us to develop our own skills in editing, proofing, layout etc because of the cost of accessing these can be prohibitive for a small hobby group. I have had various works published in a variety of genres and have been short listed for the NT Literary Awards.
Self publishing has worked for your group and as you point out, you learn so much about the process when you do your own editing etc. What are you working on at the moment?
I have huge vault of short stories, interviews and ramblings and am currently working on a creative non fiction collection of stories about my early life growing up on a cattle station in the outback. I have completed about 13 stories, approx 2,000 – 3,500 words.
I had hoped to get my manuscript a bit further advanced and I feel it’s close to completion. I don’t have as many stories raging around in my head as I did just six months ago for this particular project, however my social life always seems to take over. I still don’t have a title for the book which is most annoying…
I will have a story published in Meanjin in the March 2010 Issue and this came from meeting the editor and writer, Sophie Cunningham, who did an NT Writers Centre tour in the NT last year.
The Tapp family – in other words my mother and I, the family gatekeepers – have been asked to provide an exhibition about my father and Killarney at the local Museum in July 2010. I do the odd weekend work at the Museum, so this is another source of inspiration. I have a lot of material from when I started to write his story, so I intend to get this into a little book with photos for etc for that. I will self publish it on www.lulu.com
Bill Tapp sounds fascinating and it is so important to record those histories before the memories are lost. How do you write? Do you have an outline, an idea or a scene in your head that grows as the story progresses?
I just waffle as is evident from the above! LOL.
I have the storage bank of my mind from my childhood and my life in general, but I also love writing the stories about contemporary Katherine NT.
At the moment I am focusing on the first 12 years of my life. With my large family and my mother still living in the Katherine area, we have a huge intellectual base of family stories. Christmas is a good time as we get together more and laugh and share stories.
The most recent story I have written was sparked when I asked my brother Billy.
’What is your earliest memory of living at Killarney, other than mustering cattle and riding horses?’ He immediately replied. ‘The day Nita and I were playing with matches and we burnt the old saddle shed down.’
This immediately brought to mind Nita, whom I had given little thought to until he said this. Nita is (was) a full blood Aboriginal girl who was my best friend until she was sent off to her promise husband, ‘Vincent Lingiari’ who was famous for the leading the ‘Wave Hill Walk Off’ in 1966. This sparked a whole story of the games we played and the aboriginal ladies teaching us to dance corroborees, picking nits out of our hair etc etc. I wrote the story in about4 hours.
I never thought I would see her again a she had gone to live a very traditional life and I assumed she had lots of children. Then one day, thirty years later, I saw Nita in the main Street of Katherine in front of my dress shop, very drunk, fighting with her man, throwing her clothes off as she screamed and yelled. I knew it was her because she had a very distinctive hand with three missing fingers. I talked to her and convinced her to put her clothes back on and she disappeared wobbling drunkenly down the street, still reading the mans pedigree to him and telling him what she was going to do with him when they got home. I heard that she died about 3 or 4 years ago in the long grass in Darwin.
Toni, it’s been fabulous learning about life in the Northern Territory. I can hear your voice as I read your post. It’s so vibrant!
Darwin hosts the Wordstorm Festival in March and I’m looking forward to catching up with you there. There’s a fantastic line up literary talent headed up north.
And so to the question!
What’s your earliest childhood memory.
Were you four years old and your older brother was teasing you? Maybe you were an early starter and can remember the ‘terrible twos’. Or was it something like Toni’s memories of growing up on a cattle station? Is it a happy memory?
So much of what we write seems to start with those early years. We’ll put Toni in the hot seat and choose one by Saturday morning!