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North Melbourne Books: William Buckley (1780 – 1856) was sent to New South Wales for 14 years for receiving stolen goods. He arrived in 1803, but soon bolted, with three other prisoners. Buckley lived a desperate existence for several weeks until he made contact with local Aboriginals. He went on to spend 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people, until he returned to white society in 1835. He worked as an interpreter, saw many abuses of the people who had saved him, soon grew weary and moved to Van Diemen’s Land for the rest of his life.
What made you want to write William Buckley’s story?
Garry Linnell: I grew up in Geelong, which is right in the heart of Wadawurrung land. There was a marvellous series of waterfalls there called ‘Buckley’s Falls’ – and down on the coast is ‘Buckley’s Cave, which is set high on a windswept sandstone cliff beneath the Point Lonsdale lighthouse. But we were never taught about the man in school and apart from various stories about a towering white man with a long beard who lived with local aboriginal people for three decades, no-one seemed to know much about him. The story stayed with me for decades and when I finally got the opportunity to do some serious research, I was absolutely staggered to discover what an extraordinary life he’d led. He’d fought Napoleon’s army, been sentenced to hang until he was transported to Australia and then spent more time living with an indigenous people than any other European in history. It turned out the real story was far more exciting than the skimpy legends and myths I’d heard as a kid.
NMB: Buckley’s Chance is written in a fascinating style. The book almost reads like fiction, or an epistolary novel, as the text repeatedly addresses an imaginary Buckley, speculating on what he would have thought, felt and feared.
How did you approach the writing of the book?
GL: I was worried at the start that because Buckley was illiterate and had left very little on the record, there wouldn’t be enough detail to sustain a book-length story. But I realised pretty quickly that his story encompassed such a remarkable era filled with so many amazing characters that he could become almost a guide for the reader (and for me) and help explain a period in history that dramatically changed the planet. Buckley was born before Europeans first settled Australia and just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning. He became immersed in Aboriginal culture and so fluent in several dialects he forgot the English language. He then witnessed the remarkably fast destruction of that culture. So William kind of became my escort through the 19th century and its litany of rich characters and events. I wrote the first 20,000 words in a traditional non-fiction narrative style. But I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted to convey the enormity of what Buckley faced – and what that period of time was like. So I scrapped it all and started writing in the second person and that seemed to bring so much more to life.
NMB: Your book is brilliantly researched. The quotes from Buckley’s contemporaries, and the way they are inserted into the text, help build up an intriguing portrait of a very reticent man. Was the William Buckley you had in mind when you began the book the same as the one you finished with? Were there any surprises during the research?
GL: I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the man during the early research. I could find so little about his personality – and what I did come across was hardly flattering. He seemed gruff, withdrawn, almost monosyllabic. But that was the way colonial historians and some of his contemporaries portrayed him – and they had their reasons for that. They never trusted him. They feared his close ties with the local aboriginal tribes. They never believed aboriginal people had any real form of culture or concept of history and so they figured that if a white man had lived among them so deeply for so long, he could not have been intelligent or curious. But the more I read, the more hints I came across that there was far more depth to the bloke. And let’s face it, to achieve what he did in one lifetime required huge reserves of physical and mental stamina, an ability to adapt and a willingness to embrace a completely alien culture. I’m not sure many of us would survive a similar experience. By midway through the book I actually felt as though he was in the room with me, telling me what he thought. It was a little unnerving. But my wife soon got used to sharing her life with two blokes…
NMB: William Buckley straddled two worlds – European and First Nations. He was a conflicted figure, one who didn’t reveal much of his inner life. What do you think his story has to teach modern Australians?
GL: I always think there’s a real danger when you look at people and events in history through a modern lens. But there is no doubt that William Buckley stands as one of the original symbols of reconciliation in this country. No other European before him had a deeper appreciation and understanding of aboriginal culture. He accepted the First People for what they were – and all their good and bad. He interceded on their behalf many times and even though he was eventually trapped in that no-man’s-land between two colliding cultures, he did his best to help them during a very difficult time. And let’s remember, too, that they accepted him. If you want to talk about Australia being a truly multicultural country, then surely the Wadawurrung’s decision to save a starving and delirious man from a simple rural town in England is the first example of multiculturalism in our history!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
GL: I’ve been doing a “retro tour” of some old greats. I’ve just finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Wow, what a novel. I don’t understand why it’s taken me 40 years to get to it. It’s the sort of book that reminds you why television, movies and all the noise of this digital age just doesn’t compare with a beautiful story told brilliantly. My next book is set in Australia in the second half of the 19th century and there are so many similarities between McMurtry’s West and our colonial society. Last month I went back to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and for the second time in a decade couldn’t put it down. I’ve also just started reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and I’m completely mesmerised by it. It’s another book – a futuristic one – that I never read when it first came out. It’s written in a language entirely invented by the author. It’s the kind of book that makes any writer say: “I wish I had written that…”
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. $34.99