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THE GRASS WAS ALWAYS BROWNER
Releasing May 1st, 2016
The Grass Was Alway Browner by Sacha Jones is the story of a strong-willed, smart yet often less than sensible, curious and questioning girl growing up as the middle-child of three children. Her parents are old, and old-fashioned, deeply impractical, idealistic and naive, not best suited to negotiating the rough and rugged terrain of suburban Sydney in the 1970s-80s.
Sacha is not only the middle child, but she is stuck in the middle of the muddle and mess of her family’s situation. She sees and suffers more than her siblings do – or so she feels. However, one advantage of her position is that she is sent to study ballet to treat her asthma, and through ballet she finds a way out of her predicament.
Sacha’s determination to escape her humdrum existence and ‘become Russian’ saw her push through and succeed against the odds (wrong-shaped head, wrong feet, overall wrong build) and a father who is strongly against her becoming a ballet dancer. He describes ballet as ‘a frivolous and selfish pursuit, too focused on appearances.’ His own dreams are focused on a desire to save the Third World. However, in their very different ways, Sacha and her father are more alike than either would care to admit.
In becoming a dancing star, Sacha surprises no-one more than her legendary dance teacher – an actual Russian – Mrs P, Tanya Pearson. However, her father was right about ballet.
Although it gives Sacha the escape she desires, there is a heavy price to pay. And when she sets off for London to further her dance career, it is in part because the Australian dance scene betrayed her trust.
Award-winning playwright, poet and novelist Stephanie Johnson says of The Grass Was Always Browner, “Nineteen seventies suburban Sydney comes winningly alive in Sacha’s light-hearted girlhood memoir of boundless optimism, pink milk, tutus, triumph at the Eisteddfod and a horse in the back garden.”
The Grass Was Always Browner is a laugh-out-loud memoir and a cautionary reminder that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.
Dad’s homecoming I left entirely to Tim. On Fridays these would consist of him standing hand-in-hand with Mum on our front veranda, which was elevated above the street level, not unlike a stage, and when Dad pulled up to park on the verge down by the road, Tim would yell out in his best stage voice: ‘Have you got the grog, Dad?’ for Fridays were grog-buying night and thanks to Tim the entire neighbourhood knew it. There was nothing Mum could do to curb his enthusiasm, try as she might, and despite the needlessness of his inquiry (Dad always had the grog)...
It was good of our laundry to squeeze in a second toi let, because it had recently been called upon to accommodate a second fridge – chiefly for the purpose of storing Dad’s back-up grog. Toilets and fridges are not entirely natural roommates, and indeed the arrangement may well have been illegal. And because of the lack of space in the laundry, when you sat on the toilet, one knee bumped the washing machine and the other the second fridge. This leant a certain rustic quality to the experience, but the advantage of the arrangement was that if you ever overheated whilst sat on the toilet, a not uncommon experience living in Aus tralia, you could reach a short arm out and relieve yourself by the cool of the open fridge door. And while there, you were free to peruse the contents of the fridge, beyond the grog, to consider your next meal while eliminating your last. Some might call that efficient.
Efficient or not, I avoided the laundry toilet for all but the gravest of toilet emergencies, especially at night when the slugs came out. I did not like slugs. Indeed sitting with the slugs I felt was only fractionally better than literally exploding with poo, which is why I put it off until that was nearly the case. The laundry door naturally did not reach all the way down to the con crete floor so it was a free for all for the slugs to come and go as they pleased, congregating around the base of the toilet, pos sibly because it was inclined to leak. And being Australian slugs they were naturally well fed, and roughly the dimensions of your average-sized seal.
Sacha Jones has a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Auckland and has variously taught politics, preschool and dancing. She lives with her family on the outskirts of a proper forest (in Auckland, New Zealand) and returns as often as it will have her to the land of fake forests and improbable fruits where she grew up (Frenchs Forest, Sydney).
Q) Where are you from?
A) I am from Frenchs Forest, a suburb on Sydney Australia’s north shore, which is neither French nor Forest. From that basic confusion, all others followed.
Q) Tell us your latest news.
A) In February this year I celebrated (survived) my 50th birthday party in the garden of the house in which I grew up, and where a good chunk of my memoir is set. The grass was quite green.
Last week, back in NZ, I had my first media appearance to promote my book. The two-page article with photo published in our local rag, was more about me than the book, but as that is also about me perhaps it’s all the same in the end. I look a little hungover in the photo, reclining sideways on our living-room couch as if I’ve lost the ability to support my own weight, but the couch and house look quite good to compensate so I can’t complain too loudly about camera distortion. At least I am smiling.
On Tuesday week in Auckland I will be launching my book. A fair crowd of friends have promised to attend and Stephanie Johnson, the popular NZ writer who endorsed my book, has graciously agreed to introduce me. I will follow with a few words about the joy of living before reading a segment from my book and signing copies for anyone who might wish to buy one then and there. What could possibly go wrong? I am terrified.
In my wider life, my youngest child (17) last night returned safely from a camping trip to the coast with seven of his friends, all intent upon celebrating in style the momentous achievement of the legal drinking age by the oldest of them. I was terrified; now I am relieved – until the next one turns 18 and they head off again. I think I need a drink.
Q) When and why did you begin writing?
A) I’ve written long letters since I was a child, finding an almost perverse pleasure in the process. Even my birthday and Christmas thank-you letters sent to distant and invariably aged relatives were lengthy epistles on the myriad potential uses for a machine-embroidered handkerchief – never mind three!
But despite this early pleasure taken in writing, and my kindergarten teacher’s assessment that I was ‘good with words’, it was a very long time before I considered working with words as a career. The lure of the stage was much more powerful for me as a child and once I’d made it onto the stage and into the spotlight, I was so lost to that lovely lure I think I forgot what words were for a time.
Then, after that all came to a crashing end, university presented itself as the ultimate challenge and mountain-to-climb, being nothing whatsoever like dance. And as I had left school at age 14, I felt I needed to make up for lost time; there were gaps in my education the size of canyons.
At university I remembered what words were indeed, writing my way to a PhD. But academic writing (in political theory) is not creative writing. There is no play with words and certainly no opportunity for humour, so there was little enjoyment for me in the process. I can’t quite believe I stuck at it as long as I did. Indeed twice I suspended my PhD and seriously considered chucking it in to write more creatively, my passion for words having come back with a vengeance by that stage.
I stuck at it though and completed my PhD after ten long years, rather aptly on April Fools’ Day, 2008. But the second it was in the bag, I turned around and enrolled in a creative writing programme at a different university. That was when I really started writing.
Q) When did you first consider yourself a writer?
(A) I guess I first considered myself a writer when I came top of my creative writing class and my teacher, a professor of English literature and a published poet, told me he couldn’t teach me anything more. Self-doubt lingered, of course, few writers escape that, I believe, but while writing my memoir in 2014, I really felt I was becoming a proper writer and managed to enjoy much of that process.
They say write a book you’d like to read, and I think I’ve done exactly that in my childhood memoir. You’re not supposed to laugh at your own jokes but in the privacy of my study I would fairly frequently find myself laughing out loud at something I’d written. I guess I figured I was a writer then (or a lunatic), but the self-doubt has not gone away entirely and probably never will.
Still, you know you’re a writer when you put ‘writer’ in the ‘occupation’ box on your flight documents. I first identified as ‘writer’ for a flight in 2015.
Q) What inspired you to write your first book?
A) This is my first published book. As it’s a childhood memoir, I’d say the main inspiration for writing it was my lively and somewhat unlikely early life and dancing career. But when I began writing creatively, my first book-length project was not a memoir at all; it was a 65,000-word fable about a family of sparrows living in the remotest corner of the South Island of New Zealand. It was not published.
Q) Do you have a specific writing style?
A) I like to have fun on the page, so I’d say my writing style is playful and comic. That said, I do write quite a bit of poetry, which tends to be a deeply unfunny form, and, as mentioned, I have undertaken a heck of a lot of formal academic writing in my time. But my default creative writing style is light-hearted and humorous. This is largely achieved by turning my back on the world and focusing on me, a much less serious subject.
Q) How did you come up with the title?
A) The Grass Was Always Browner more or less wrote itself. I see it as a wry comment on life growing up in a dry and dusty brown land, far from the centre of culture and sophistication – and Russia (I was obsessed with Russia as a child).
It also refers to my green eyes, which I make a fair bit of in the book, highlighting my green-eyed envy of all and sundry: skinnier dancers with dark hair, anyone with an in-ground swimming pool, all people who live in snow, to name but a few examples.
Q) Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
A) The memoir is a cautionary tale of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety because my dream of becoming a famous ballet dancer and getting out of the suburbs and Australia for good came true, but at a significant price (I’m still paying it in some respects). That said, I suspect most people reading the memoir will consider the price worth paying, so it is not through and through a cautionary tale. It’s also a book about dreaming big.
Still, the basic truth in the proverb the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, is that what you haven’t got and want always seems better than what you have got, but it rarely is. This point is well illustrated in my book. When I got to the other side of the fence (the Greenroom of the Sydney Opera House), it was not so green after all.
I guess I learnt that truth the hard way, as most truths are learnt. But in the learning, if you’re lucky, you come round eventually to appreciating that all those people and places that seemed so embarrassing or ordinary or mean – or insufficiently green – as a child, made you the person you are today and weren’t so bad after all. It doesn’t hurt when you get a memoir out of the experiences, either.
I would like to think readers could find some comfort in this and, ultimately, a way to better appreciate their own beginnings, as I now do through writing this memoir, which is dedicated to those people and places that provided the challenges of my childhood.
Q) How much of the book is realistic?
A) It’s a memoir, so most of it. I’d say about 96% of what happens in the book happened in real life. But as it’s a creative memoir in which I endeavour to bend my life into a romping farce and drama, these happenings are not always written in the precise way, order or tone, in which they occurred. My childhood, indeed, was not all that funny at the time.
Q) Are the experiences based on someone you know, or events in your life?
A) See previous answer.
Q) What books have most influenced your life?
A) The 1975 autobiography of the legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn that I read as a child was probably the first book that affected me profoundly, driving my early aspirations in dance. I didn’t know it at the time, but it may well have also sown the seeds of my later ambitions as a memoirist.
Virginia Woolf is always mentioned by women writers in this context, it seems to me, but it really was her book The Waves, which I first read in my thirties during one of my suspensions from my PhD, that convinced me I wanted to write and nearly caused me to chuck in seven years of PhD research to try my hand at expressing myself creatively – more like Woolf. It’s important to aim high.
I was so charmed by the spirited Sybylla in My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin that I nearly called my memoir ‘Sybylla in the Suburbs’. As it is, Chapter twelve: ‘My Brilliant Year’, is named in tribute to this book and its genius teenage author.
Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs is surely the funniest memoir ever written and certainly the funniest Australian memoir, and when I read it I thought, “This is what I want to do; all I need now is to become a world famous television personality first.” That never happened, alas, but I think my interest in writing an amusing, self-deprecating memoir like his began there.
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was another influential book for me, funny yet poignant, and capturing the voice of childhood so beautifully that I hoped I might one day emulate this style in my writing.
The Diary of Anne Frank, Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mocking Bird, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye were other early influences on me and I like to think my writing owes something to each author’s precocious wit and wisdom, though I am far too old now to be considered precocious.
Lastly, but firstly, before all else, there were the books Charles Dickens and Katherine Mansfield, for my money the two greatest writers in the English language. Their books kicked off my serious enjoyment of reading and made me realise that the best creative writing need not be beyond the reach of people who haven’t studied literature. Also, that at its most creative, literature is hilarious. Who knew? Not I, for one.
Q) What would you like my readers to know?
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