Mary-Anne O'Connor, author of Gallipoli Street
Interviewed by Honor Auchinleck (continued)
Honor: Have you been to Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine?
Mary-Anne: I have been to Turkey and Egypt which were both amazing places although it’s difficult to understand how our men survived in some of the terrain. Many didn’t, of course. It’s also hard to believe that we fought and killed these people, they were so friendly and kind when I was there. It’s difficult for me to reconcile, imagine how hard it was for the Anzacs.
Honor: What were your most useful resources for research?
Mary-Anne: Definitely speaking to family members, especially my aunts, uncles, and parents. Nana lived with us in her later years and she taught me a great deal too, especially about having a positive attitude and strong fortitude, something that seems prevalent amongst her generation. She used to say ‘your generation really doesn’t know what hardship is,’ although she said it very kindly. She was right, I know that now.
I also read many soldiers letters to help bring the voice of that generation alive: the way they thought, what they believed in, the slang they preferred and of course, to capture what it was really like over there.
Honor: What has the writing of Gallipoli Street meant to you? Has it brought you a greater understanding of the wartime experiences of Light Horsemen and their families back at home? Please, could you tell us a little about what the writing of this book has done for you? I hope it has brought you great pleasure.
Mary-Anne: It has been a very great honour to have walked in the past with the Anzac generation, if only on paper, and it has meant so much to me to pass my family stories down. I have far greater understanding of their experiences now and feel very passionately that Australians should remember that it isn’t just about ‘lest we forget’. We should remember why they did such extraordinary things. We should try to uphold the ideals they believed in, to honour what they fought for: a just, free, compassionate Australia. That’s our challenge, our legacy.
It has brought me very great pleasure although I ultimately remain humbled in their shadow.
Honor: You bring out very vividly some of the difficulties of homecoming and settling down to post war life. Can you tell us a little about how you were able to do this?
Mary-Anne: Family story, once again, especially coming from Mum.
Da struggled to adjust, as mentioned above, especially when the Great Depression hit and work was very scarce. They moved to a farm outside Braidwood during this time where one of his friends allowed them to squat. Da built a shack and they lived on gold dust and rabbit between periods of whatever work he could find, travelling far and wide. He even traversed back to Sydney to work on building the Harbour Bridge. Nana used to cook damper in a dug out ant hill, such were the rustic conditions at the time, and washed the clothes in the creek with small children at her feet. Sadly, one child died while they were there of scarlet fever.
The rest survived, somehow, and the Clancy’s returned to Sydney, eventually settling in Gallipoli Street in Hurstville. Da certainly carried the demons of war with him although he was reluctant to ever talk about it. This made life harder still, Mum told me in later years. Still, they managed to work through it, he and Nana, and it became a happy home. Their seven children all spoke of that era with great fondness; the house became their fortress against the hardships of yet another war and I think Nana largely made it so. She was strong, strong enough for all of them ultimately, even when her daughter Iris lost her young husband Wally. Nana loved them all and brought them through both tragedy and hardship and I believe her great heart helped heal Da’s wartime scars. Mum said he came to peace with the things, with age.
Honor: I hope that the writing of Gallipoli Street has brought to you into contact with other descendants of Light Horsemen. If, it has done so, please could you describe what has happened in your life as a result of writing this book? For instance, you might like to mention how it has informed your approach to your own writing?
Mary-Anne: One of the loveliest of outcomes in getting mail from others whose families served and I do get quite a bit. I love hearing other people’s stories and the real life details actually do inform my writing. My second book, Worth Fighting For, continues to follow the real life experiences of my own family however other people’s history flows in there too. My third novel War Flower is due out in October 2017 and is based on the Vietnam War. I don’t have any family who fought in this war yet I have learned by now that everyone has a story and I was lucky enough to find some incredible first-hand experiences in the public forum to draw upon.
It takes courage to go through war but perhaps, even more, to talk about it later on when the adrenalin has cooled and the flight or fight has faded. Coming to terms with it, facing your demons, that takes great courage. I’ve come to admire that in our soldiers most of all.
My only question that Mary-Anne didn’t answer was if she thought that fiction has a place in developing our understanding of history? Perhaps this is for her readers to decide. Meanwhile, Mary-Anne has shown that you don’t necessarily need to be a descendant of a Light Horseman to be able to write about the Light Horse.