Helena on course to inspire readers with her ‘Iron Men’ story

Published 27 April 2011

iron Man WeldersThe product of a research and writing project that Helena Pastor says has had “a major, positive impact” on her life is set to have a positive impact on the lives of many others.

After the publication last year in Griffith REVIEW of the first chapter of her manuscript Iron Men: Alchemy at Work, she and the youth worker who leads the project she is documenting were interviewed on Radio National’s Bush Telegraph program, and the essay was re-published in ON LINE Opinion, Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate.

“Through my work in writing creative nonfiction, always with a close personal perspective, I want to prompt people to examine the way they think and feel about contemporary social and moral issues,” Helena said. “Iron Men: Alchemy at Work explores the challenge of disaffected youth from a mother’s perspective, and reveals that all is not as hopeless as many people imagine.”

The manuscript, written as part of a “creative research practice” doctoral thesis at the University of New England, concerns a community-based program – Iron Man Welders – that is successfully redirecting the lives of teenage boys in Armidale who, for a variety of reasons, have difficulty staying at school. This project, led by the inspirational community worker Bernie Shakeshaft, provides the boys with an environment (“the Shed”) in which they can develop both technical and entrepreneurial skills – and self esteem – in making and marketing metalwork products.

Earlier this year Helena was named as one of five winners of the 2010/11 Varuna HarperCollins Awards. The award has taken her to the Varuna Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains to work for 10 days (from the 27th of April) with a HarperCollins editor on the entire Iron Men manuscript – an opportunity that she hopes could lead to its publication by this leading publisher. It will be the fourth period of residence at Varuna that she has been awarded for the development of the manuscript.

As the winner of an Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Mentorship for 2010-11 she is also working with the well-known editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen on preparing the Iron Men manuscript for publication. This is the second year in a row that she has worked on one of her manuscripts with Ms Lukin-Amundsen under an ASA Mentorship.

Every Sunday for a year and a half Helena went to the Shed in Armidale and quietly observed the activities and social dynamics of the group of boys, and – over time – the development of skills and responsibilities. “We’d never had a woman in the Shed before,” Bernie said. “I think she did it well – sitting in a corner at first and, after that, just being there. We didn’t do anything differently – even down to our language.”

Helena’s writing, which began in the early days of the Shed, even played a part in keeping the boys engaged in the Iron Man project. “I think it was partly the book that kept them there,” Bernie said. “I don’t think they grasped the concept until the first chapter was read to them – and then you could have heard a pin drop. They liked the fact that it’s told ‘just how it is’ – language and all. And they liked the humour in it.

“It’s another way of telling the boys’ stories. Often with young fellas it’s the bad stuff that’s focused on. This book shows the bad, the good, and the ugly; it’s not putting them down.”

“Helena’s book is a good idea,” said Stephanous Olsen, who has been going to the Shed for almost two years and is thinking of taking up welding as a career. “It lets people know what’s going on.”

The progress of the Iron Man project has, in a way, paralleled Helena’s progress with her manuscript – going from strength to strength. Two of the boys who appear in the story (under false names) are now trainee youth workers within Bernie Shakeshaft’s BackTrack organisation, and another is a fully qualified metalwork tradesman.

“People are looking for answers, and in writing Iron Men: Alchemy at Work, I’ve tried to bring light and a human perspective to the question ‘What can we do to help our marginalised youth?'” Helena said.

Helena Pastor and Bernie Shakeshaft are pictured here in the Shed.