An island idyll – Christine Bell on the HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency

The moment I opened the HNSA newsletter with news of the inaugural HNSA Colleen McCullough Writing Residency, I felt such a yen and connection, it was almost as if it had my name on it. I don’t have a psychic bone in my body, so perhaps it was really only because I’d always, always wanted to go to Norfolk Island. Or because I’d so long admired Colleen McCullough’s prolific talent and her abandonment of the world to go and live on an island – an idyllic writerly existence that I coveted.

When I began to write my application for the residency, the words just flowed. I knew exactly where and what on Norfolk Island I wanted to visit and why – the historic precinct of Arthurs Vale in Kingston. There lie the ruins of several buildings – roofless, windowless shells – which I hoped would inform me on the ruined buildings in my work-in-progress, a French village destroyed in WW1. They did not let me down, but I digress.

The moment my name was called as winner of the Established Author residency prize at the biennial HNSA Conference in Sydney last October, I was in disbelief. When I went up to accept my award, I’m not sure I uttered a coherent word!

Fast forward to February 2020 and, since I hail from Melbourne, I took an afternoon flight to Brisbane in order to meet Sally Colin-James, winner of the Emerging Author prize, early next morning at the airport. Sally and I had elected to go to Norfolk ahead of the residency commencement. This proved incredibly beneficial as we’d both been hectic at home. It took time to shift to island pace, shop for food and telecommunications and generally get ourselves sorted.

From the moment we flew into Norfolk I could tell it was going to be an incredible experience. Majestic cliffs, forests of thousands of pine trees, tranquil farmlands, all sang of an idyllic setting. Island time and pace is absolutely different from anywhere I’ve been in years. No-one is rushed, the speed limit is 30 – 50 kph. The town of Burnt Pine is quiet, serene and very friendly. Cafés shut in the early afternoon, supermarkets at 6pm, but very quickly my head and body calmed to the new pace and space.

Day one was settle in and settle down time. Day two, we met our host and one of our sponsors, Les Quintal from Baunti Tours, who kindly gave up his afternoon to show us all around the island, from the Captain Cook Monument to Kingston and Emily Bay, to the lookout at Puppies Point and St Barnabas Church. Everywhere the land was drier than usual but still sublimely picturesque – Norfolk Island Pines stretch straight and tall to blue, blue skies, magnificent Morton Bay Figs with their massive roots line part of the Headstone Road, rolling farmlands and darkened forests all invite imagination and further exploration.

I’d made up my mind even before I left home that I was going to make the absolute most of the experience. Every day, in every way. I took my swimsuit, good camera (that I’d had no time yet to master) and three novels. I also went armed with a game plan for my writing, reading and rest. I swam and snorkelled multiple times in the beautiful waters of Emily Bay where the fish are curious and the water is warm. I took photos of superb sunrises and sunsets. I read all of those three novels. And I’m thrilled to say that I exceeded my planned wordcount by over 2500-words, added new scene ideas to my journal, and, in the inspirational setting of Arthur’s Vale, wrote a small, devastating moment in my character’s story that I was never expecting to find. Gold!

Part of the prize was the use of a rental car for the week of the residency. What fun and freedom it was to zip all over the island in my little silver Barina. In my own time. Taking no-one else into account. Well, Sally and I did get together for a few excursions, but largely during working hours we maintained our own schedules and work regimes.

Every morning, I was awake at sun-up. Not by design but delight in the sunrise and capturing them on my camera. Our accommodation looked over the national park where hundreds of white terns swooped from the treetops, soaring serenely on the breeze. A delight to watch, and looking back, I marvel that I wrote any words at all. Norfolk filled my creative well and the writing flowed. The gift of time and headspace was both intoxicating and inspirational.

As part of our prize, we were able to choose two Baunti tours. We couldn’t resist the Fish Feast on a clifftop overlooking the ocean at sunset. We were entertained by young Tahitian-style dancers as the sun sank behind them, spreading liquid gold across the water. Then a guitarist sang all the James Taylor, Bee Gees and Elvis songs of my youth as if he’d been handed my playlist. The meal was a feast of local fish and salads, the setting sublime and a photographer’s paradise.

The weather was a perfect 27-28 degrees every day, the nights 20-21. I could’ve stayed forever for the weather alone. We did have a couple of wet days that the locals particularly welcomed after months of drought – a good excuse to bunker down and write.

Though the McCullough Estate Out Yenna opens the lower floor of the main house to public tours, we were fortunate to have our very own private tour. No tour visitor gets to see inside Colleen’s personal library. But we did, as a very special part of our residency prize! What an incredible treasure house of history books, crime novels, medical and surgical tomes, encyclopedias, cookbooks, art books and classics. Around each corner, an eclectic chair or another interesting curio or artefact graced the shelves. Bookcase after bookcase, from floor to ceiling; all set out in categories, orderly and arranged. Plus, of course, all Colleen’s considerable works. I was surprised at the full breadth of her ouevre from her acclaimed The Thorn Birds to her prolific Roman series, to cookbooks and a biography. Her meticulous research was clearly based on some of the rare and valuable resources held in her personal library. I took time to view the bibliography for her novel Morgan’s Run and it ran to many, many pages. I can only imagine the length of the biblios for her Roman books.

My favourite room, after the library, was the conservatory, where Colleen did most of her writing, with its psychedelic chairs and magnificent Mexican agate table. Ferns tumble from the ceiling and you have to weave your way through the foliage as if in an exotic oasis. Though Colleen’s office is nearby, Ric Richardson, Colleen’s husband assured us when we’d met in the same room earlier in the week that this was where Colleen mainly worked.

The McCullough house is an incredible treasure trove of eclectic art works, furnishings and collectibles. To do it justice would encompass an entire travelogue.

In closure, I’ll happily share a snapshot of my residency achievements and joys:

  • 6000-words written
  • 3 scenes planned
  • 3 novels read
  • 6 swim/snorkels
  • 2 radio interviews: Thanks to Pines FM 99.9 and Radio Norfolk 89.9
  • Thinking time
  • Nature appreciation time
  • Silence appreciation time
  • Great food, company and creative bliss!

I’d like to sincerely thank HNSA and the sponsors: Burnt Pine Travel, Baunti Tours, and the McCullough Estate for an incredible, productive and inspiring experience that has undoubtedly added to my work-in-progress and continuing writing journey. Thank you all so much!

Christine Bell is a Melbourne fiction writer. Her debut novel No Small Shame is published by Ventura Press (Impact imprint). In October 2019, Christine was awarded the inaugural Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Writer. In 2014, she was awarded a Varuna Creative Retreat Fellowship for her YA manuscript Prison Boy. Christine holds a Master of Creative Writing and a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. Christine has had 35 short fiction works published for children. Her short stories have been published in various anthologies. No Small Shame is her first adult novel. You can connect with Christine Bell via her website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. No Small Shame, is available at Readings, Dymocks, Booktopia and Amazon.

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