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Interview: Mary Garden talks about Sundowner of the Skies

Mary Garden is a freelance writer, with a PhD in journalism. She is also an avid cyclist and works in the family bicycle business. Her first book The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction (1988; 2003) is a memoir of her years in India in the 1970s. Mary has been writing feature articles since 2002 and these have appeared in print newspapers and magazines, as well as online publications, worldwide. She lives in the rainforest in Maleny on the Sunshine Coast hinterland with a dog called Ivy and a cat called Elsa.

Tell us a little about Sundowner of the Skies: the story of Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator.

It is the story of my father who was once a famous pioneer aviator in the 1930s and went on to become Chief Pilot of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd. He resigned in 1947, three years before I was born. He never flew a plane again. He was always very bitter at what had happened at TEAL, for reasons that are detailed in my book.

What inspired you to write this book?

In the last decade when my father was alive, and after my first book had been published, I toyed with the idea of writing a book. But I was living in Australia and by then I was a mum with two children. I did write one article on his solo flight from England to Australia in 1930. He was very chuffed about it and made a few corrections. I posted it to the Sydney Morning Herald with a note that I had photos to accompany it. It was returned with a note, “Sorry, SMH does not publish fiction.” We had a good laugh about that one. In 2002, I became a freelance journalist and began writing feature articles for a range of publications including The Australian and the Australian Financial Review (AFR). The AFR has a Friday review lift out section of essays and opinion pieces, not on financial matters. In 2005, I decided to have another go at writing about my father’s flight. How thrilled I was to see my 4200-word essay in the centrespread pages of the AFR’s Easter edition: Sundowner of the Skies: Mary Garden takes flight with her father. I thought that article would be all I could write on him, as there was just not enough material. But I was overwhelmed by the feedback I got, from readers all over the world, wanting to know more. A few wanted a book, which I thought would be impossible as Dad died in 1997. But that was the beginning of a long journey

What research was involved?

A huge amount of research was involved. When I began, even though the internet had arrived, a Google search revealed only one entry on Oscar Garden: a piece in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography compiled in 2000 by Margareta Gee, who is my half-sister, and from my father’s first marriage. She is married to Maurice Gee (the author) and without their help and encouragement I could not have written this book. Margareta was a librarian and worked for many years at Turnbull Library. She had a large collection of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings in her garage at Nelson. What a treasure trove.

I also trawled archives in New Zealand, Scotland, Orkney, Australia etc. For a few years it was like walking into Aladdin’s Cave. I was given a grant to go to the South Island and interview people and visit aviation museums etc. Luckily mum was alive then so I was able to interview her at length. She was very excited about it all and insisted it be a “warts and all” account. It was a very healing time for us as we began to understand more why Dad became the person he was: harsh, cold, bitter. Mum had a miserable life with him. He clearly was a damaged man from his traumatic childhood in Scotland and subsequent events. I did not want the book to be a dry hagiography. I wanted it to be a full picture of him, not only his incredible flying achievements, but also the father and husband he became.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I had no routine, although I’ve always been an early riser and my best work is from 4am. In the beginning it was just collecting all the information I could. I had large trays for various chapters in his life! Childhood. The Flight, and so on. I just began writing from there, adding stuff as new information was uncovered. After a few years, even though I had collected most of the material I needed, and had a rough draft of the book, I gave up. I felt it was too hard, I wasn’t a historian, I doubted myself. During that time Mum became very ill and I made many trips back and forwards across the ditch to help her. I also went back to university and completed a PhD in Journalism. When I had finished, I realised that if I could write an 80,000-word thesis, then I could damn well complete my book! Also, some of the readers from the AFR article had kept hassling me: “when will your book be completed?” I realised I couldn’t get on with my life until I finished it. The breakthrough came when I decided to thread my own personal story throughout. That changed everything.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Come Fly with Me by Frank Sinatra or maybe Learning to Fly by Pink Floyd.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Sundowner of the Skies?

I enjoyed the early days of research when I felt I was in Aladdin’s cave, and the last part of the journey: weaving my memoir throughout – especially, those rare times the muse arrives and the writing feels like it is a gift from the skies! Also, the connections to people, including aviation buffs who were all so excited about Oscar’s story and people who knew Dad, such as the pilots he trained to fly the flying boats for TEAL. And most importantly, meeting or reconnecting to many Garden relatives – cousins, second cousins etc. and even children of mum’s friends. I have made some very close friendships through this journey.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Nothing. The big journey ahead was to get it published, as I did not want to self-publish!! Incredibly after a number of rejections – I came oh so close with Harper Collins, but the sales people thought it wouldn’t sell (I’ve proved them wrong!) – two publishers wanted it within several days of each other. I had a big party to celebrate my book contract. And a wonderful book launch in my home town of Maleny in the Sunshine hinterland. We had almost 100 people attend and they came dressed up in 1930s clothing. We had music from that era as well. It was a hoot. We also had another launch in Tauranga last July, and on the same day at Tauranga Airport there was the unveiling and Maori blessing of a beautiful portrait of Dad by Graham Hoete. It is on the wall in the visitors’ lounge and next to it there is an information box with my book displayed!! Sundowner of the Skies was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020 (what a thrill!) and the judges’ comments are included there.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Honey Bee by Craig Silvey. Beautifully written, this is a compelling coming-of-age story about a young Australian teenager struggling with gender dysphoria. It took my breath away and grabbed me by the throat. I didn’t want it to finish.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Even though my book was released June 2019, I am still giving talks about my Sundowner of the Skies, and doing events at bookshops. I also was a guest speaker at the recent High Country Writing Festival in Glen Innes, NSW.

I am working on a memoir of family violence, writing it with my daughter Natalya who works in the family violence sector in Victoria. Even though it will be a minor part, we will include much of the family stuff that happened after Dad died! We ended up leaving this out of Sundowner of the Skies, as the editor said it was going in another direction, it was another book!


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