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Beyond Alice by Tanya Heaslip

Riased on an isolated cattle station north of Alice Springs in the 60s and 70s, Tanya Heaslip spent many hours dreaming of the overseas lands depicted in her childhood storybooks. Now a successful lawyer and author, Tanya is President of the NT Writers' Centre and has published two memoirs. Her third memoir, Beyond Alice, is due out this month.

It’s a raw but ultimately joyful retelling of her challenging experiences at boarding school, 1600km from her outback home. NT Writers’ Centre caught up with Tanya to discuss the inspiration behind her latest work.

Tanya HeaslipIn a few sentences, can you tell us what Beyond Alice is all about?
In 1975, at age 12, Tanya is torn from her isolated home in outback Central Australia and sent 1600km south to boarding school for an education the bush can’t provide. Beyond Alice is a memoir about how Tanya survives five years of institutional life inside stone walls with the help of her fellow boarders, a guitar, an orange typewriter and by recounting stories about her cattle station home.

What was the inspiration behind it?
After I’d finished writing my first memoir, Alice to Prague, people said to me, “You think Central Europe is exotic, but for most Australians Central Australia is just as mysterious.” So I began writing about growing up on our cattle station in the 1960s and 70s, and that became An Alice Girl. Once I’d finished writing, people said, “Now we want to know what happens next! Tell us about boarding school,” so I started writing about my teenage years, locked away in a strict, all girls’ college, far from my outback home.

What challenges does writing about your own life pose?
With Beyond Alice, I had to make myself go back into very painful memories. I was 12 when I was sent away as a free-spirited and unworldly bush child to a place of rules, bells, uniforms and loneliness. I was crushed with homesickness and confusion. But the best part about writing about my own life was remembering the other boarders, who became my second family, and helped me survive. The hardest part with all my memoirs has been getting my facts right – and being brutally honest on the page! I have to work out what’s interesting, not just to me subjectively, but to a reader.Beyond Alice

Are you working on different kinds of writing projects?
Oh yes, I hope so! I have a fourth book in mind and its working title is Return to Prague. It’s about the Czech people fleeing communism, and an exploration of dislocation and dispossession, and what home ultimately means. I have met many Czech people who escaped to Australia and have since struggled with where they belong. Finding home is a ceaseless, aching topic for refugees, especially for those who escaped tyranny.

After that, I’m going to try my hand at fiction – set in the outback!

If we were to take a peek at your bookshelf, what kind of books would we find there?
Mostly autobiographies and memoirs, as I love reading about people’s lives for inspiration and wisdom. I am also obsessed by crime fiction, as it is the ultimate escape. And, of course, there are loads of “how to write” books, plus picture books of Prague!

Are there any Territory authors you’re enjoying at the moment?
The Territory writing scene is rich and diverse. I feel very proud to be part of it. I love Renee McBryde’s memoir, House of Lies, so raw and powerful, Dani Powell’s Return to Dust, a stunning tribute to Central Australia, and I’m very excited about Penny Drysdale’s forthcoming poetry collection, I am the Glass.


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