Selected Poems Launched at Event

Larry Buttrose in Conversation with Elizabeth Farrelly

The Balmain Library hosted an author talk by Larry Buttrose in conversation with Sydney Morning Herald columnist and cultural critic Elizabeth Farrelly, who also launched Larry’s latest book Selected Poems (BryshaWilson Press, 2017) at the event held last Thursday (5 October, 2017).

The library’s Melinda Burrows introduced the speakers and the evening kicked off with an “in conversation” about how Larry had come to ghost-write the Saroo Brierley memoir A Long Way Home (now also known as Lion: A Long Way Home), that became an international bestseller and the basis for the acclaimed hit movie Lion.

The Selected Poems launch followed with Elizabeth Farrelly doing the honours and praising the book before Larry shared some of his poems by reading them to the audience. He started with The Buddha’s Bum, a poem that begins with him visiting his father in hospital after he had suffered a heart attack:

He asked how my mum was and I said
Not so good but okay, and he asked
How she was fixed for dough at home
And he said there’s three grand up the
Budder’s bum: I had no idea what he meant
But my mum did and sure enough inserted
Her finger up the back passage of the
Buddha statue that had sat so long and
So incongruously in the living room
And pulled out three grand or so
In scrunched up twenties and fifties.

The audience laughed at the darkly comic poem, and then at opening lines of the poem that followed it, Toast:

The smell of toast reminds me of my father,
Not only because he was cremated...

The poems gave the audience a taste of another side of Larry’s work after the engrossing session about the writing of A Long Way Home.

In explaining how he even got the job, Larry said his first contact with the story came when an email turned up in an old account he rarely checked, and it turned out to be from the publisher at Penguin Books. Reading the brief summary of the story in the email, Larry had immediately known this was a remarkable story, and called the publisher, Ben Ball. As Ben filled in the detail of the story, Larry said, ‘It’s a great story—if it’s true.’

Larry recounted how he was one of a number of writers interviewed for the job, and how startled he was when told it had to be fully researched and written in just three months—including a research trip to India with Saroo. Eventually he was told the job was his, and contracts were duly signed, and he braced himself for what promised to be a major challenge.

He said among his first tasks was to question what he saw as loose threads in the story… the first being the time the young Saroo was on the train. Published accounts up until then had accepted Saroo’s childhood memory that it was one night—about 13 hours. But as Larry told the audience, ‘I’ve travelled to India a few times, and know that you don’t get very far on an Indian train in 13 hours—certainly not virtually all the way across the country.’ He said visiting the Indian Railways website quickly solved the puzzle—the journey would take 32 hours now, and so it would have at least been as long when Saroo at age six took it in the 1980s.

Larry said there were other threads in the story that gave him cause for pause, but that eventually he came to believe it was all true.

He described his two research trips to Tasmania—sandwiched between his university teaching days in Sydney—and the interviews he did there with Saroo, his parents and brother, and Saroo’s girlfriend.

Then he talked about planning the one-month trip to India, including the route and time in Kolkata (former Calcutta), down to packing strong hiking boots to deal with the broken, dirty roads and pavements of India. Saroo he said went to India in a pair of thongs. ‘He’s more Aussie than I am,’ Larry joked.

Larry talked about how on their arrival in Delhi he’d first taken Saroo to the Red Fort, the massive Mughal-era fortification from which Nehru had declared Indian independence in 1947, and there asked him, ‘how do you feel in this key place in Indian life—more Indian or still Australian?’ to which Saroo had replied, ‘I’m an Aussie.’ Saroo had also said he intended to remain living in Australia and did not wish to return to live in India, although he would visit his family there often.

With thoughtful questioning from Elizabeth, Larry revealed how the journey the two took through India had been the first time Saroo had gone back since his journey of rediscovery the year before. That was when he had rediscovered his native town of Khandwa and sought out the family he’d lost decades before after getting lost at a railway station and being locked on a train that finished its journey at Calcutta on the far side of India.

Larry also talked about Mrs Sood, Saroo’s ‘guardian angel’. She had found Saroo in the massive, fortress-like home for lost children he’d been taken to after police picked him up off Calcutta’s streets. Her life’s work is helping lost children find new homes abroad, and through her intervention, Saroo went from a lost street kid to a child with a loving new Australian family, living in suburban Hobart—and all in the space of a few short months.

The rest as they say is history—Saroo finding his way back to his Indian home decades later using Google Earth and reuniting with his Indian family, and the huge and intense public interest in it as a good news story that led to global coverage, and ultimately the book that Larry wrote (and finished in his Kolkata hotel room—on its three-month deadline!), the book becoming an international bestseller, and then the hit movie Lion.

After the book launch which followed at this point, Larry rounded out the night by asking Elizabeth, who also has a PhD in architecture, a few questions about her writing on architecture for the Sydney Morning Herald, in which she reiterated that the Frank Gehry ‘paper bag’ building he designed for the University of Technology Sydney was not, well, her bag. She then took a few questions from the floor, and responding to one on Sydney’s churches singled out the historic Christ Church St Laurence in George Street for praise.

The evening, which was enjoyed by the audience of about 70 people, concluded with informal chat over drinks and nibbles, generously provided by Inner West Council, and of course a book signing.

BryshaWilson Press would like to thank Elizabeth Farrelly for making the event extra special, and the Balmain Library and its staff, especially Melinda Burrows for hosting the event, which they publicised and promoted widely through posters, handbills and online. Thanks also to Inner West Council, and to Amanda and her staff at Hill of Content, Balmain for selling Selected Poems at the event and in their shop.

So, if you don’t have your copy of Larry’s Selected Poems, you can buy the paperback from our website and the eBook from Amazon, iBooks and Kobo .