Women’s History Month – Vashti Farrer

Vashti Farrer is an Australian historical fiction writer.

There has never been a time when I haven’t been conscious of writing – as a woman, even if it has only meant having to think like a man or a little boy when my protagonist was male. Clearly, they have a different outlook on life and that needs to be reflected in their speech and behaviour. Germaine Greer may have urged us to give our sons dolls instead footballs to bring out their more sensitive side, but mine was adamant he would have preferred a football.

I first encountered an obstacle in trying to write as a woman, when I married. Before that I’d had adult short stories broadcast on the ABC and published under my maiden name / pseudonym of Vashti Farrer. Having married, however, we moved to Canberra where I approached The Canberra Times seeking to become a book reviewer. Yes, but they said, not as Farrer. It was newspaper policy apparently to pay married by-lines, so any work I’d produced in the past had to stay there, because even with an unusual Christian name, the average reader would now regard me as two different people.

Needless to say I swallowed my pride and accepted cheques addressed to Mrs.

Years later we moved back to Sydney and I contacted The Sydney Morning Herald and was again accepted as a reviewer. “I suppose you pay a married by-line?” I asked. “Whatever for?” said the editor. I explained, thinking the newspapers were co-owned, but she said, “I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous!” So I went back to being Farrer. When the Society of Women Writers NSW Inc was asked to appear before a Parliamentary Inquiry into restrictions placed on married women I gave evidence explaining what had happened to me only to find, on returning to Canberra, that things had changed. Now, the Times would allow my Farrer by-line which then caused several raised eyebrows in our former babysitting club because the gossip was that we must have divorced!

Children presented another challenge to writing. I’d foolishly thought that a career writing from home with small children would be easy. After all, I only had to wait till they were asleep. Haha! I hadn’t envisaged the days when I would finally manage to get the eldest to take a nap while I juggled breastfeeding the baby and typing up the final draft of a story with one hand. Tricky.

We couldn’t afford a nanny to allow me the luxury to write in peace and by the time I had three children and needed to undertake research I would end up taking all three to the Australian War Memorial where the library section in those days was divided into small glassed offices. This allowed me to hand the older two their colouring books and pencils and settle the toddler with his toys on the floor. It only happened a few times and luckily they seemed to sense that this was not the sort of place where you made any noise.

Deadlines were always a problem. Children have the strange habit of demanding that their needs be met first. This of course meant having to wait till they were in bed to sit up, sometimes till 2 am to finish a review or story. On one occasion my husband was away and it was 9 pm before all the bedtime stories had been read and the lights out. Then, and only then, did I sit down to write a short story I had to post to a competition the following morning. Fortunately it was all in my head, so to speak, so it flowed onto the page and I finished it at midnight. I was delighted when it came second, but couldn’t help thinking that the young man who won it, probably didn’t have to contend with the obstacles I’d had to get it written.

Motherhood, by definition, carries with it a certain amount of guilt, like a permanent shawl around the shoulders. Another time I told the kids I had to get a story in to The Canberra Times by 5 pm, (it was then 4.55). I charged into the office, thinking, “All systems go!” only to hear the 2 year old say to his siblings, “Shut up, darling, mummy busy!” and I felt terrible. No doubt I’d committed my kids to years of psychiatrists’ couches for my neglect – because of being a mother trying to write.

But all three grew up realising that writing was important to me. So when they were teenagers, and I said I had a story to finish for a competition, and if they could get their own lunch and not worry about me, I’d make it up to them by taking them out for a slap-up afternoon tea. Okay so it was bribery and I thought no more about it as I tapped away at the keyboard. Then suddenly the door of my study opened and a disembodied arm came round and deposited a mug of coffee on my desk. Then another arm, equally disembodied, came round and lowered a plate with a sandwich on it onto the desk. This was the point at which I realised that maybe they wouldn’t end up on shrinks’ couches.

Now I’ve come full circle. My kids are proud of what I’ve written, but even more so, my grandchildren are. They tell their school mates and teachers. I’ve managed to dedicate a book to all but one of them (and I’m working on that) and they are inspired to write stories of their own. They ask for tips and regularly report on plots and ideas. So, writing as a woman, may have had its problems in the past, but no longer.

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