Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Power of Enthralling Stories

I want to tell you a story. A story about a story.

Several years ago, I was staying in B&B in Provence when I suddenly realized the engaging hostess I'd been happily chatting to for the past two days was the widow of Pierre Salinger, the well-known politician, journalist, and one-time White House Press Secretary to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. I'd been vaguely aware of the connection before I checked in, but then work and photo shoots took over and I forgot, until I walked into the library one night holding a small aperitif that she'd kindly offered and noticed the photos of John and Jackie Kennedy. It was then that she began telling me a story. About Pierre. And JFK. And what happened the night that Kennedy was assassinated.

As the story unfolded, my overworked brain cleared and I began to realize the significance of what was being discussed. And who my hostess was. And so I listened. I listened for the hour that it took to tell (by which time I had pins and needles and needed to wee!), and as I did so, I realized it was an extraordinary story; the kind of story you hear perhaps three or four times in your life. I was immediately captivated but I was also conscious that it was the kind of story that needed to be saved somehow, so it could be retold to future generations. Of course some stories are not for retelling. And perhaps this was one. But, like most journalists and authors, I am of the firm belief that if we don't save such stories, if we don't archive them somehow, they will be forgotten. And then all these great stories that we hear in distant libraries will be lost in the dust of the footsteps of Old Man Time.

I vowed then that if I was ever fortunate enough to hear another such story, I would write it down.

As a journalist, I hear stories all the time. We all do. Stories that make us chuckle or laugh, or cry, and wipe our eyes, and cry again. I've even heard stories that were so astonishing, so far outside the boundaries of my beliefs, that I could only shake my head in disbelief. But those are the best stories, I think; the unbelievable ones. Because those are the ones that challenge us, and make us think. Those are the stories that force us to contemplate them, long after the last unbelievable word has been said.

I have been working on one such story for the past five years. It's the story behind the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, that beautiful, quietly haunting novel, which Peter Weir turned into an equally beautiful, equally haunting film. And after five years of research and long nights of writing, it is finally being published by Bonnier Publishers this weekend, on April 2, beginning with a two-chapter extract in the Good Weekend magazine in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

It's such an extraordinary story that I think it might even surpass the JFK story in the Intrigue Stakes.

We are taught that things only exist if they are measurable. If they are not measurable, or quantifiable, we're not sure how to categorize them. But in researching this book, I learned that there is far more to life than what we blithely assume. The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock lies somewhere between the rational and the inexplicable, between reason and wonder, and the story behind it lies somewhere in that strange realm too.

But it doesn't matter what I believe, or disbelieve -- or indeed what others believe, or disbelieve. Picnic at Hanging Rock remains a great story, 50 years after it was first published. And I hope the story that I've written, the biography of its enigmatic, beautiful, complex, clever author Joan Lindsay, is just as enthralling.

I also hope that others will write or record similar stories they hear. Because we need these stories, more than ever before. They are part of our history, and our identity, but more than that, they are places of grace; small sanctuaries amid the shoutiness and sound bites and Snapchat grabs of modern society.

So I hope you'll all record your own life stories one day. And your family's stories. And those stories you hear in a library, in a landscape far away.


  1. Dearest Janelle,

    Well done! I've been waiting for this book since I first read your blog post about it years ago. I've ordered a copy and can't wait to read it. I have loved this story since I was very young, and I'm thrilled that you took on the job of writing Joan Lindsay's story.

  2. Dear Chrissie, Thank you for taking the time to write -- and read this blog, and I hope you'll forgive me that it's been so long between posts. I'm also sorry that it's taken so long to research and write this biography, but it was important to do it right, and to tell a story that was both truthful but also respectful to all those involved, particularly Joan Lindsay. That said, there was so much left unsaid in it, so I hope other writers follow and pen their own books on the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I would certainly be interested to read more analyses! Hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think, either her or via my Instagram -- janellemcculloch_author


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