Writing Cultural History: An Interview with Laura Ginters

The SCWC has engaged Dr Laura Ginters to facilitate a workshop as part of the Wollongong Writers Festival: ‘Writing Cultural History’, a highly practical workshop about how to plan, produce and finish a complex book.

Dr Laura Ginters is a senior lecturer at the Department of Theatre & Performance Studies, USYD. Laura has been teaching for a long time, knows pretty well everyone in the theatre industry, and is a warm and intelligent teacher. If you are writing any sort of book that requires compiling research and extensive ideas, there will be valuable tips for you in this workshop, and practical exercises to improve your method.

Laura: Hello Kirstin, and thank you for inviting me to speak to your members! I’m an academic at the University of Sydney, so writing non-fiction is part of what I do as an academic – but this book in particular was special, and it came about purely by chance. Robyn Dalton and I happened to sit next to one another at the theatre one night and got to chatting. She mentioned that she had a collection of memorabilia from her own days as a student at the University of Sydney from the late 1950s when she was a very keen participant in student drama, but she didn’t know what to do with it all. She wondered if perhaps she should just toss it out – but then she started telling me about what they had done, and who had been involved: John Bell, John Gaden, Bruce Beresford, Ron Blair, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Ken Horler, Leo Schofield… the list went on!
They had been doing adventurous, large scale productions of contemporary British and European plays – their productions were often the Australian premieres of significant writers like Beckett, Genet and Brecht. This was very exciting to me, as Australian theatre history is often told as though it all began with the New Wave in the 1970s, but here were many of the New Wave people all busy making theatre together a decade earlier. So it wasn’t so much a burning question as a burning desire to document this previously totally overlooked moment in Australian theatre history.

Kirstin: What is like to collaborate with another person on writing a book ?

It’s challenging and also deeply satisfying. Robyn and I were coming from slightly different perspectives: she wanted more of a memoir of her student days; I wanted to make a contribution to Australian theatre history. But we worked very hard together to make this a story that achieved both goals. Even though I’m an academic, it was really important to me that this was a book that the general public would be interested in reading – and I think we did manage that.

What advice would you give to writers looking to work on a non-fiction project?

First of all, make sure it’s a project you’re really happy to commit to: books always seem to take longer than you think they will to see them into print. Then, do your research. Make sure that you really understand not only the events you’re writing about, but also the context in which they took place. You may well need to do a whole lot of background research into the era that you’re writing about – even if you’ve lived through it yourself. And check everything! We gathered a lot of rich and wonderful information and stories firsthand from people who participated in drama in the 1950s and 60s, but we needed to make allowances for memories fading over that long intervening period. Someone might be absolutely sure in their own mind that that Beckett play was put on in 1960 – but if all the newspaper reviews tell you it was 1961, you’re better off going with the documented source!

You have worked within the performance area for many years, in fact you teach what is arguably the best course on Dramaturgy in the country. Not everyone understands what dramaturgy is, so could you explain it to us?

Dramaturgy is one of those really slippery terms. It’s come to be almost synonymous with 'performance-making', especially in some collaborative contemporary performance contexts these days. But from my point of view, the part of dramaturgy which I most love engaging with is working with playwrights (and sometimes also a director and actors) to help them with the development of their new play or piece for performance.

What sorts of skills will you help participants develop in this workshop?

I discovered after writing a PhD that by the end of it, I finally knew how to do it. It was the same for this book. What I hope to be able to share with participants is how to go about the process as a whole: from the organisational stuff (and we had lots of programmes, posters, interview materials, spreadsheets and so on) to the conceptual stuff – and indeed some ideas for working out what it is you want to write. I’d like to share some of the primary materials we drew on and then demonstrate how they then got crafted into a section or chapter of the book. I’d also love it if people came with their own projects and ideas that they want to work on: I’d like to include a few practical writing exercises in our workshop.

What was your writing process? Given you have a full-time job, how hard was it to work on this mammoth book – a wonderful investigation of Australian theatre history that needed so much research on top of the work of writing itself.

My writing process was… slow. Robyn was unbelievably patient with me, as this project took a very long time to come to fruition, especially as she – being retired – had much more time to devote to it than I did. I had to fit the research and writing in around my teaching and other academic commitments, and two babies who arrived during the course of it. Robyn and I are, however, both very pleased with how the book finally turned out, and we think the very positive reviews and media coverage seem to indicate that others like it too! Certainly our publisher was happy it went straight into a second printing.

You come from a very creative family; how do you manage work/family/creative kids/creative husband and your own writing career? Do you have to run around claiming ideas before someone else does?

It’s very fortunate that we’re all good at different things! My husband’s strengths lie in writing for performance (opera and theatre) whereas non-fiction is what I do better. He is, however, also a very good editor, so I have benefitted from that.

How important is it for writers of non-fiction to delve into the stories that interest us?

Critical! I can’t see how you’d keep up the momentum and enthusiasm over a book project otherwise. Unless, I suppose, you’re being paid really, really well to write the book, which might very well be its own motivation. But for Robyn and me, The Ripples was totally a labour of love, and that was its own reward.

Any advice for pitching your non-fiction idea to a publisher?

We started by talking to Richard Walsh who happened to be one of the students at Uni with Robyn at this time. He’s still an editor with Allen & Unwin, so he was able to give us some good advice about suitable publishers. We were lucky, because that was a personal connection through Robyn, which helped us refine what we were wanting to do. But generally, it’s worth doing the research to work out which publisher is the best match for your work. For us, Currency Press was the ideal fit: as Australia’s performing arts publisher, with a record of publishing theatre history works, they were just right.

How did you handle people who told you juicy bits of information but said “that’s off the record”?

That was an interesting dilemma for us. Of course you want to write a book that is “juicy”, as you say, and a good read – and there were plenty of wonderful stories that the participants related to us. But there were also stories we heard, sometimes secondhand from other participants, which were – even all these decades later – too painful and too personal for us to include. We toyed initially with the idea of fictionalising some stories so that we could include the material without identifying the people involved, but we ultimately decided to focus more on the theatre side of things and less on the personal. I think we see this book as belonging to all the people who contributed to it, and to the era, so we held back a little on some of those “difficult” moments in the final version.

Thanks so much to Laura Ginters for sharing her insight! Book your ticket for her workshop at the Wollongong Writers Festival here, and learn everything there is to know about writing cultural history.

Written by SCWC

Posted on November 13, 2019