Alumni Feature July 2015

Alumni Interview: Helena Pastor

Interviewed by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Helena PASTOR As the mother of two boys – currently a pre-schooler and an infant – I was fascinated to learn about this month’s subject’s new book, since it affords a powerful glimpse into a future in which my sweet boys may well be tearaway teens. My eldest in particular strikes me as a possible future member of the Australian Aerial Ski Team, such is his need for speed and his hunger for self-propulsion. I can easily imagine the sleepless nights to come. Varuna Alumna Helena Pastor spent two years hanging out with a group of disaffected lads in country NSW; she’s here to talk about Wild Boys and I’d like to warmly welcome her to the Alumni Interview Suite.



Wild Boys cover DJ: Your memoir Wild Boys has just been published by UQP – congratulations! The MS attracted a total of four Varuna residencies on its road to eventual publication. You also had two residencies at Bundanon (one for Wild Boys and one for another project). As such, you’re a bit of a veteran resident, so I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on the value of Varuna’s residential writing programs.

Blue Mountains HP: Thanks, Di. I’m a full believer in the value of residential writing programs! The early encouragement and support I received from Peter Bishop and the team at Varuna (through two NSW LitLink residencies in 2008 and 2009) gave me hope that I was on the right track with a writing project that was a little bit ‘off the grid’.

Varuna I remember catching the train out to Katoomba for my first residency – imagining all the other writers who had travelled on this same line, who had looked out the window at the same mountain views, who were part of a long-standing tradition in the Australian literary world, and I was joining them. And then, to arrive at the yellow house down the end of the street, to be welcomed so warmly, to be fed and nurtured so well, to sleep in a beautiful room with a desk and a comfy armchair, and to have my need for solitude and silence respected. Varuna was the making of me as a writer – and I’ve learned so much from the other writers I met there over the years.

DJ: Were there key differences between Varuna and Bundanon? How important was that validation along the way, receiving encouragement that you were onto something worth pursuing?

HP: Yes, there were a few differences between the two programs. Apart from the city vs rural environment, and that the Bundanon residential program is open to artists from all creative disciplines, the main difference between the two programs is that there is no Sheila to cook the evening meal!

Bundanon Artists at Bundanon stay in self-contained cottages or studios, and need to bring all their own provisions because the property is quite isolated. Of course, it’s possible to meet with the other artists who are in residence, but there’s no obligation to do so – and some artists retreat into complete solitude for the duration of their residency. I met visual artists and theatre directors and opera singers during my visits, and we had many interesting conversations – which expanded my thoughts about my own creative practice in a different way to the sort of conversations that went on around the dinner table at Varuna. Another difference is that it’s free for individual artists to stay at Bundanon – so being in residence feels like a wonderful gift. See this post for more about the wonders of my first residency at Bundanon. Despite the differences, though, I loved Varuna and Bundanon in equal measures – and I’d go back to either of them in a flash!

DJ: You live in Armidale, in regional NSW. How has the townsfolk responded to the book?

Bernie Shakeshaft HP: The Armidale townsfolk have responded very positively to Wild Boys, and local media – such as Bernie Shakeshaft – have reported on the book’s progress along the way. Right from the start, The Armidale Express was interested when I had the idea of writing a book about his work with BackTrack Youth Works (an organisation that helped struggling teenagers reconnect with family, education and community through a welding program based in a shed).

Bernie has remained one of my strongest supporters, but I think it’s been an eye-opener for him and the other youth workers and boys involved at the Shed to discover that a book can take so long to write and publish. Along with the support I received from Bernie and the rest of the BackTrack crew, a core group of people have believed in the book over the last eight years, and that has made such a difference. Others in Armidale have been curious (and no doubt a little confused) about what I was doing down at the welding shed, but now that Wild Boys is published, they are showing their support by wanting to buy copies.

DJ: There’s a really interesting juxtaposition here between a group of disaffected young men who didn’t finish high school – happily responding to doing something productive with their hands – and an early 40s female educator and mum joining in before ultimately writing about it (also known as ‘doing something with your hands’!). How do the lads feel about your book?

HP: From the moment they first heard about it, the boys at the Shed were keen to be part of a book about BackTrack. Over the last week, I’ve been catching up with the seven boys who feature in the story – now known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ – and they’re very proud to appear in Wild Boys. It was important to me to write about the early days of BackTrack in a style the boys could appreciate and enjoy, and, judging by the responses I’ve received so far, I think I’ve achieved that goal. We’re going to have a huge launch at the Shed in early August (when Bernie gets back from his Churchill Fellowship in America and Canada), and the boys are excited to be part of that as well.

DJ: How much ambivalence do you detect toward creative people in that country town setting, or is that an outmoded cliché?

HP: The high mountain country around Armidale and the nearby town of Uralla attracts a lot of creative people – visual artists, writers, composers, musicians and actors – and the community is very supportive of people’s creative endeavours. But, even so, I think a lot of people don’t understand that for those artists who are working at a professional level, this is not a hobby – it’s work– and, for the most part, it goes unpaid and unrecognised. [DJ: If it’s any consolation, I don’t think that’s a country thing, Helena!]
At times, this lack of recognition bothers me, especially when I’m asked: ‘Why don’t you work more, Helena?’ This question usually comes my way when I’m working seven days a week – juggling two or three part-time jobs and waking up at four or going to bed at midnight trying to meet writing deadlines. Grrr … That’s why I like residencies – people understand. It’s like meeting kin.

DJ: I keep wondering about the sanctity of the Shed, and whether there was a code of conduct: what’s said in the Shed stays in the Shed? How worried were/are you about transgressing those invisible boundaries of trust that separate the relationships and peculiar intimacies inside the Shed from the outside world? Because you’ve blown it wide open now, haven’t you…?!

HP: Yes, I’ve blown it wide open … but I’ve done this with the assistance of the BackTrack youth workers and the boys who feature in the book. The writing process involved a lot of consultation – we had readings of early chapters at the Shed, I’ve asked the boys whether certain chapters should stay in the book or not, and I’ve sent various sections to people to check if they were okay with what I had written.

The shed Bernie also read and commented on several drafts and shared sections with the BackTrack steering committee. Part of the BackTrack ethos is to educate the community about young people who are doing it tough, and much of what goes on at BackTrack is open and transparent. Over the past eight years, BackTrack has become a hugely successful organisation that has helped more than 400 young men and women find a better path in life. The media regularly report on the team’s latest successes, and people are often invited down to the Shed to observe how different aspects of the programs work. These visitors are usually deeply moved by what they see and hear … and this is how change comes about in the community. As I said, the youth workers and boys are very proud of Wild Boys – they want people to know what happened in those early years because they now understand that what was going on down at the shed was revolutionary.

Orwell cover DJ: I so enjoyed reading ‘Joining the Pack’, your piece about joining the BackTrack Youth Works that originally appeared in Griffith REVIEW. It brings the project and some of the people vividly to life – tell us about your nonfiction practice and how your style’s developed over the years.

Random Family cover HP: My style has developed from a range of sources, and it’s still developing, of course. I’ve long admired writers such as George Orwell, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall who used ‘immersion research’ methods to create commentaries on social issues, and I’ve adopted the methods that Gay Talese used to write the celebrity profiles collected in Fame and Obscurity. I’ve also been influenced by writers such as Charmian Clift, Helen Garner and Elizabeth Gilbert – who use an ‘intimate voice’ to communicate with their readers.

DJ: For this project, you spent a lot of time in a welding shed with a male youth worker and a group of wild teenage boys – did you have a book in mind right from the start?

HP: Not long after I started going along to the Shed, I realised that I could write a book about Bernie and the boys – there was humour, honesty and genuine caring in their interactions, which was a total contrast to how these same boys had behaved at school. I’ve mentioned in Wild Boys how I was struck by the amount of love I saw in the welding shed, and, as the months rolled along, I started to see that the lessons the boys and I were learning through being involved in the welding program could be shared with a wider audience. I especially thought that other parents could benefit from learning about Bernie’s methods – which is why I’ve shared my own story as well. Also, with a ‘larger than life’ character like Bernie Shakeshaft, there just had to be a story … but it took me many years to work out what sort of story that was meant to be.

DJ: What were the most important lessons learned and how did the experience change your life?

Teenage Boys HP: I learned that a grass-roots organisation staffed by a team of passionate volunteers has the power to infect a community with positive change. I’ve seen boys stumble in to the Shed with all hope gone from their eyes, but sooner or later, those boys are standing tall and proud again, and that’s a powerful thing to witness – regardless of how long it takes to happen. Over the two years that I regularly went along to the Shed, I also found myself transformed as I learned the art of communicating to teenage boys and adopting a ‘tough love’ attitude. I became the parent I needed to be … and I now have a better relationship with all of my sons. One of my favourite lessons from the Shed is: First time is learning. Second time is stupid. We all make mistakes – adults and children – and we need to learn from those mistakes rather than be so hard on ourselves or on others. I really struggled as a parent, and I didn’t know how to make a better job of it until Bernie Shakeshaft came into my life. Wild Boys tells the story of how that happened, and it shines a light on a topic – parenting teenagers – that is often misunderstood. I hope others can learn from my mistakes and avoid similar years of heartbreak with their children.

DJ: What do you think of the impact of social media and the digital gaming industry on the lives of teenagers and teenage boys in particular?

Little HOuse on the Prairie cover HP: I think social media and the gaming industry have had an enormous effect on the way young people live their lives. I know technology is part of the world we live in now, but I don’t like to see boys sitting in front of a screen so much. I’ve just been reading The Little House on the Prairie series to my ten-year-old son (for the second time), and I love how the children in those books were so busy working at a young age – involved with all the food production, doing chores, keeping their bodies strong, eating healthy food, chopping wood and walking for miles … they weren’t going to sleep with a computer screen in front of their face or a mobile phone near their ear. At the end of Wild Boys, one of the BackTrack boys says: ‘You can achieve anything if you put your arse down and keep your head up with a grin … if you get your hands dirty, it pays off.’ Maybe I don’t see enough young men getting their hands dirty these days – they’re too busy sitting in front of a screen.

DJ: You’re the mum of four boys yourself. What are the major struggles you’ve faced in raising them and do you think things have changed or it was ever thus?

HP: I’ve faced a wide variety of challenges with my three older boys, and most of the time, I didn’t handle those challenges very well. I was always confused about what to do, and I usually made things much worse by overreacting and adopting an authoritative parenting style. But perhaps mothers have always struggled to understand their boys – ‘boyhood’ can be an alien place for a lot of women, another country. There’s a passage in Wild Boys where Bernie is telling me about his history, how he was ‘a young man who thought he knew everything’, and I think that’s still true of a lot of young men today. So, it’s handy for parents, especially mothers, to have a few tricks up their sleeve that will help their sons – and daughters – reach a better place in life.

I’ve written about the tricks I learned from Bernie in my book, and they can be applied to a range of situations. His method, which he uses with the boys at the shed, is mostly about making choices and being responsible for those choices. Then, as Bernie says, ‘inch by inch, a new reality is formed.’

DJ: You mentioned you like reading Little House on the Prairie to your ten-year-old. What can we learn from children’s books of the past?

HP: Although my youngest son and I read other books from the past (like the Narnia series and The Famous Five), my favourite is the Little House on the Prairie series. I especially like how Laura Ingalls-Wilder writes about the love and respect that existed between members of her family. She also describes the importance of good friends and how to appreciate the simple joys in life – the gifts her family gave each other for Christmas were small but so treasured. I often think of Laura’s delight over receiving one orange, which she took home to share with her family. Laura and Almanzo’s courtship is a beautiful lesson about the slow development of romantic love – a fine thing for a ten-year-old boy to read about! – and I also like how Laura isn’t perfect. She struggles with her emotions and makes mistakes, which enables us to relate to the events of her life, even though they happened so many years ago.

DJ: Getting your hands dirty: tell us about the benefits of that for the boys in the Shed.

HP: A lot of the boys who end up at the Shed are a bit lost when they first arrive. They haven’t been able to find their place in the world – school hasn’t worked out for them, they’ve had a lot of hard knocks, and most have already set themselves up for a life of failure and disappointment. Working in a team with other BackTrack boys – whether that’s in the welding shed, or on the dog jumping circuit, or on a farm building fences – helps them to regain confidence in their abilities and feel like they belong to something bigger than they are.

DJ: Bernie, the Youth Worker behind the initiative, sounds like quite a character. If it’s ‘not about the fuckin’ welding,’ what is it about?

HP: What happens at the shed is mostly about self-development. By providing innovative opportunities for learning – like welding or dog jumping – Bernie and the rest of the BackTrack team work with the hopes and dreams of kids who aren’t suited to mainstream education. They focus on life and relationships because these are the things that really matter to young people. As Bernie says in the book: ‘It doesn’t matter whether a kid can weld or whether he can read and write if he doesn’t know who he is and where he fits in life.’

BackTrack is also renowned for its long-term programs. The team will work with a young person for as long as it takes for positive change to take place … whether that is weeks, months or years.

DJ: You’re an emerging songwriter and performer as well – how does expressing yourself in song differ from and/or complement your writing life? How do you prioritise your creative outlets? How do your boys feel about your music and your writing?

HP: Songwriting is just another outlet for my nonfiction writing – my songs are personal, they tell stories about things that happen to me or other people, and they help me understand the world. I find writing songs easier than prose writing – probably because I don’t have the same expectations of success tied up with my musical pursuits. Whole songs, both lyrics and music, often arrive into my head unexpectedly, while I’m out walking or waiting for the washing to finish spinning – so it’s simply a matter of being open to whatever comes and writing down or recording the song before it disappears. I like how I can finish a song within a day or a week and then move on to something new … the process is so different to writing a book like Wild Boys, which I carried around in my head for years. Music isn’t such a solitary activity, either – I sing with a friend who plays much better guitar than me and who also does beautiful harmonies. It’s fun and a great way to relieve stress.

My boys don’t really say that much about my creative pursuits … Mum writing or singing (or Mum getting cranky when she’s not writing or singing!) is just part of who I am. They probably think I’m a bit intolerant and irrational at times, but I also think they enjoy seeing their mother following her dreams in life. Prioritising creative outlets can be a challenge – I’m often juggling two or three part-time jobs and I’m also a sole parent for part of the week – but I squeeze writing in wherever I can because I start turning into a monster if I don’t write. [DJ: Don’t we all?!]

DJ: Wild Boys benefited from your mentorships with editors Anne Reilly (through the Varuna HarperCollins Award) and Judith Lukin-Amundsen (through an ASA Mentorship). How much value do you think such relationships bring to process of finessing a manuscript? To what extent was the consistency of feedback beneficial, being that you had these steady sounding boards?

HP: Editorial mentorships are like gold to emerging writers, and I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to work with mentors like Judith and Anne. They were both excellent ‘sounding boards’ – and the beauty of working with such talented and experienced editors is that instead of providing all the answers, they artfully helped me come up with my own solutions to fix the problems in the story.
Anne Reilly and I met up at Varuna during the HarperCollins residency in 2011, where we had a few days to discuss the manuscript. She taught me a great deal about narrative structure, about the importance of emotional truth, and how to go about ‘writing from the heart’. After our time at Varuna, my communication with Anne was mostly by email.

Judith and I used to have ‘phone-meets’, where we would discuss my progress and she would offer her unique style of encouragement and support through conversation. From Judith, I learned the importance of putting a manuscript away for a while, that a good story has ‘brights and darks’, and how to manage the threads of a multi-layered work. I also learned to have confidence in my writing and not to show the work to anyone before it was ready. Both editors were always very affirming and had no doubt that I would be published one day … Anne always told me to: ‘Keep the faith!’ – and I kept that in mind through the hard times.

Charmian Clift Peel cover DJ: Tell us about your fascination with the work of Charmian Clift – I absolutely loved Hydra and wish I’d known about the Leonard Cohen/Charmian Clift history there.

During the 1990s, I studied Modern Greek at university. When one of my classmates told me about Charmian Clift and George Johnston ’s life in Greece, I went to the library and found all the books I could about this literary couple. I was instantly hooked. As I mentioned earlier, Charmian Clift’s writing style was influential, and I’m still fascinated by her life. She grew up in Kiama, not far from where I grew up, and her adopted daughter, Suzanne Chick, was my art teacher at high school (I didn’t know the connection at the time). Every few years, I have a Charmian Clift ‘binge’ – where I’ll re-read Mermaid Singing and Peel Me A Lotus and her various collections of articles for the Sydney Morning Herald. Even though it all went wrong, I love the idea of her and George Johnston living on a Greek island and making a commitment to being full-time writers. There’s a great quote from Leonard Cohen that I used to have on my wall – he also lived on Hydra and was part of the expatriate artist community on the island, and he says this about Clift and Johnston: ‘They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more and they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.’ I’m always interested to read about artist communities from the past, and I enjoyed Emily Bitto’s book The Strays because it was about artists bucking the system. Such communities often fall apart or end in tragedy, but the people involved in their creation are often inspirational.

DJ: Given your fascination with literary friendships, are there any fellow writers who have been significantly influential during your own development?

HP: I’m one of those writers who had to go through a ten-year apprenticeship before securing an agent and a book contract. This apprenticeship has necessarily involved long periods of solitude – and doubt and insecurity and all the traits common to writers! – so I’ve really welcomed the friendship and support I’ve received from other writers along the way. A constant throughout has been my dear friend, Edwina Shaw (another Varuna alumni). Edwina and I met through the MPhil in Creative Writing course at the University of Queensland in 2003. We became friends, mostly through a common interest in homebirth, and we also both enjoyed simple, uncluttered writing. When I moved to Armidale at the end of 2004, Edwina and I began to meet up at the coast once a year for an annual ‘writing retreat’ – where we’d bring our current manuscripts and read and edit each other’s work. A couple of weeks ago, Edwina and I met for our tenth-anniversary coastal retreat – where we did more celebrating than writing (just for once!) – and had lots of fun. I drove home feeling enormously thankful to be sharing the journey with Edwina, and I’m not sure how I would have fared without her friendship (see for an account of our latest ‘No rules’ writing retreat’). In Armidale, James Vicars and Janene Carey have also been wonderful literary companions to hang out with from time to time.

The Strays cover DJ: How do you think the majority of the population views the work of artists and writers? I will never forget the contemptuous sneer of one particularly nasty relative while I was doing my PhD…there was something so angry and genuinely hateful about it that it haunts me always. Why is it, do you think, that some people think writing is idle and not work at all?

HP: I’m not sure why someone would choose to behave like that, but it’s pretty crazy to be contemptuous of someone who is following his or her dream in life. I suppose a lot of people don’t see writers at work – we’re locked away by ourselves for huge amounts of time, and it may seem to others that we’re just hanging around the house doing nothing, but that’s not the case. I remember a friend once spoke to me about her niece who was a songwriter and performer. She said her niece was finding it hard to survive as an artist, and added: ‘But it’s not my role to support her.’ I reminded my friend that many Australian artists are just scraping by so that others can have the pleasure of listening to their music or reading their books – so maybe something different needs to happen in the future. I don’t know what the solution is, but recognising that writing is work would probably be a step forward.

DJ: Let’s talk about Australia’s culture of giving, such as it is. I think many writers and artists probably do have patrons in the form of supportive family and friends, but do you think there’s a place for more formal benefaction to support individual practitioners, as used to be the case?

HP: There is definitely a place to provide more artists with financial support, especially since the Australia Council lost so much of its funding recently. I think it’s interesting that writers have started donating part of their awarded prize money to worthy causes or to ‘buy writing time’ for their peers. Even though writers are probably the last people who have money to give away, I like that they are encouraging a culture of giving, and perhaps others with more to spare can pick up on that.

DJ: Where and how do you write? Any superstitious rituals?

HP: In the mornings, I like to sit in bed and write in my journal – that’s a great way to catch early morning thoughts and ‘clear the way’ for other writing to flow easier later in the day. I don’t have superstitious rituals, but I like to write with a black Papermate 0.07 Grip Roller pen, and I always buy the same sort of Marbig A4-sized ‘ColourHide’ notebook from Coles to use as my journal. Also, whenever I start a new journal, I do a collage for the first page – a visual representation of whatever my hopes and dreams are on that day. My ‘serious’ writing area is in a corner of the living room, where the light is good and where I feel most settled (and it’s close to the fire in winter!). Because I have a Dutch background, I also like to have everything clean and organised before I start writing – but once that’s done, I’m ready to begin.

DJ: Finally, you mention other projects you have on the boil – what can you tell us about your next project?

HP: I have two fictional projects on the boil, but I’m feeling like it’s time for me to confront some ghosts in Amsterdam soon. I’d like to go to Holland sometime in the next 12-18 months and do some research around my family history, the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-45 and the Dutch Jewish music tradition. Also, a composer friend has just asked me to have a go at writing lyrics for a new work he wants to do, so that’ll be an interesting challenge.

DJ: Maybe you can include a little detour to Hydra? It remains a very special place and I’m sure it would inspire some great lyrics. Thanks for playing, Helena. It’s been great talking to you.

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More in this category: « Alumni Feature June 2015


  • It's good to hear your voice again, Helena, and to see that your book has made it into print. Such a journey and so many strange crossovers we've had and now I hear mention of the Dutch hunger winter, such a feature of my ancestry, too. I look forward to reading your book soon and to hear more about your journey. Congratulations.

    Elisabeth Saturday, 04 July 2015 17:00 Comment Link
  • Diana and Helena, thanks for addressing the issue of being misunderstood by others wrt writing as an occupation. I have a relative who drops in for a coffee and a chat in my prime writing time. Never does the same with my brothers who have well-paid jobs in offices. They are too busy, and a woman in solitude must want to talk. And so, a grumpy writer is made. Best wishes with Wild Boys, a great project.

    Elizabeth Smyth Sunday, 05 July 2015 11:00 Comment Link
  • Great interview, not just about the book but the writing life. That was one of my favourite parts about my Varuna stay too - going for a walk and looking up to see other writers at work - no, not just twiddling our thumbs, but writing - working hard! It's a great book, hope it finds lots of readers who will cherish it.

    Edwina Shaw Monday, 06 July 2015 17:45 Comment Link
  • Thanks Elisabeth! I hope you're surging forward as well :-)

    Helena Pastor Tuesday, 07 July 2015 21:35 Comment Link
  • Elisabeth, I hope those crossovers with Helena continue all the way to publication.

    Elizabeth, I have had that experience many, many times - in its way as undermining as the outright ridicule directed at me by that relative. Needless to say, we no longer speak. I agree - Wild Boys is a great project, borne of a great initiative.

    Edwina, so glad you enjoyed the interview. I also love those glimpses from the garden of other writers at work. It soothes my soul in a very fundamental way.

    Diana Jenkins Thursday, 09 July 2015 16:36 Comment Link
  • Having been out of the world for a while —how wonderful when I come back into it to see so many fabulous projects coming to fruition! Congratulations Helena —I always wanted to know more about what was happening in my old home town of Armidale —and I always wanted this book to be out in the world and read and doing good –showing that there are paths, and that paths don't have to be grim slogs —the best paths are fun!

    And Di —what a great interview you do!

    Peter Bishop Tuesday, 14 July 2015 23:25 Comment Link
  • Lovely to hear from you, Peter! Thanks for your congratulations. I'm sending a copy of Wild Boys down to Varuna soon :-)

    Helena Pastor Monday, 20 July 2015 13:52 Comment Link
  • Thank you, Peter - lovely to hear from you!

    Diana Jenkins Saturday, 05 September 2015 21:29 Comment Link

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