My First Job
• Bestselling crime novelist
I was “Princess of the Amazon” in a sideshow at the Royal Melbourne show.
I was 15 and had been working at the shooting gallery next door, handing out guns with bent sights.
The man who ran the Princess of the Amazon tent, a Mr Chastalaine, had a Shakespearean voice, which I fell in love with. His “Princess of the Amazon” had knicked off with a mechanic so he asked me to fill in for a week.
I was red-haired and pale-skinned, so I had to put greasepaint all over me and wear a black wig.
I also had a nine-foot boa constrictor named Cleo around my shoulders. She was very heavy, but perfectly amicable.
I walked around with her and did a little wiggle dance to some vaguely African music. I performed four times a day for 10 minutes each and got paid double what I got at the shooting gallery.
Cleo was asleep most of the time so there would always be one kid to ask, “That’s not a real snake!”. I scare them by giving Cleo a little tickle and she would flick her tongue out.
I didn’t tell my mother I was doing it, but my father knew. He was a wharfie, a knock-about bloke who trusted me not to get into anything I couldn’t handle.
The carnies wouldn’t let anything happen to me because it was like a family working with them. So it was a safe environment.
I was sad when the other “Princess of the Amazon” came back after a week. Previously, I never thought of myself as someone who could be “Princess of the Amazon”. Never in a million years did I imagine doing something like that.
I always had a flair for drama, but this job taught me I could do anything.
It also taught me how to play a crowd and how to please an audience – skills that came in handy when, as a solicitor, I needed to please a magistrate.
I used my experience of the carnival to write Blood and Circuses: A Phryne Fisher Mystery.
I love carnivals. Working at one set me up for a lifetime of adoring carnivals and shows. They’re electric, exciting and alive, but a bit grimy, grubby. They smell like frying chips and horses. They’re very real as opposed to theatrical stage shows.
The last time I went to the Royal Melbourne Show was about five years ago. It has got terribly clean now. It’s so respectful and full of politically correct things. I like shooting galleries and sideshows like that. Back then, it was bawdy and rollicking.