The Author Speaks Writing

Why Glenrowan?

Where did the idea for the novel originate? What makes the story of the Glenrowan siege so compelling?

In 2017 I embarked on a daring and ill-fated campaign with film director Matthew Holmes and Ned Kelly buff Steve Jager to crowdfund a Ned Kelly feature film called The Legend of Ned Kelly. It did not succeed but from the ashes I was able to retrieve an idea and it started with a question:

What is the legend of Ned Kelly?

Myself, Steve Jager and Matthew Holmes just prior to setting off on a tour around Kelly Country for The Legend of Ned Kelly

So I began to think about what people remember about Ned Kelly’s story and what has become enshrined about him in the cultural construction of Australia. It all came back to the helmet. Everyone knows that helmet. It’s as ubiquitous as the golden arches or the crucifix. Thanks to Sidney Nolan it can be reduced to a black square with a slot taken out of it and still be instantly recognisable. Such images are easily replicable and thus are more easily recalled, which is probably a big part of why Ben Hall never got the same fanbase. So I knew that the helmet and what it represents was the key to figuring out the legend.

Ned Kelly by Sidney Nolan [Source]

The next thing that stuck out in my mind was the name “Glenrowan”, which has become more synonymous with Ned than anything else and so I finally realised what this legend boiled down to – the ironclad outlaw facing off against the police. It’s a symbol of recklessness, of rebellion, and of tenacity. The reason we see Ned Kelly in his armour with pistols crossed over his chest emblazoned everywhere from t-shirts to mudflaps is because it is a symbol of strength and defiance. It taps into that lizard part of the brain that fights for survival and seeks dominance over foes. It also taps into that unsavoury part of Australian culture that is almost entirely peculiar to “bogans”; that being of not merely a distrust of authority but outright hatred of it. That mongrel disagreeableness that has been in the blood of Australians since 1788 finds an outlet in that cylindrical helmet that is only rivalled by the Eureka flag for potency.

Ned Kelly’s armour even inspired this add-on for Red Dead Redemption Online [Source]

So, where does one go from there? Well, the aim with storytelling is to convey an idea that will resonate with people and make them think. So, the question then shifts from “what is the legend of Ned Kelly?” to “why is Ned Kelly a legend?” After considering this for a not inconsiderable time, I settled on Australia’s need for a symbol that represents their fighting spirit but rather than the fighting spirit against an aggressor presented by the ANZAC tradition, this had to be about justice. This realisation led me to a very interesting conclusion. This legend has never been about Ned Kelly but the world around him. In order to tell this story it necessitated an exploration of the people that helped shape his destiny and it was at Glenrowan that he finally reached his apotheosis by facing off against dozens of heavily armed police in open combat.

I put the idea of concentrating on Glenrowan rather than a cradle-to-grave story to Matthew Holmes and he was in board straight away. We managed to get a screenplay done very quickly and within months Matthew’s producers were putting the feelers out. Unfortunately, the film industry is a cutthroat business and full of pitfalls. The main problem we had was securing funding. There’s a catch 22 in this phase where financiers won’t back a film without stars attached a document stars won’t attach to an unfinanced film. We had several amazing cast agree to be involved once it was funded but without a big name in the lead role it was as mobile as a truck with no wheels.

The signs were positive for Glenrowan becoming a feature film after picking up an award for best screenplay in 2018.

During this point I decided that I wanted to write Glenrowan as a novel in order to preserve all of the parts we had to trim out in order to make the film more marketable. After all the research I had done I felt like it would be a waste otherwise and I began writing in earnest in 2018 using the screenplay as the framework.

Now it is 2020 and I have completed three full drafts of the book and I am working on the final draft now. My aim is to get it rolling off presses by the end of the year but we will see if fortune smiles down on me. Fingers crossed…

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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