Vale Alison Nisselle OAM, a tribute by Glen Dolman

20 November, 2023

It’s unfathomable to me that I’m writing this. That someone with such vivid, dynamic talent – whose ideas and stories felt limitless and unbounded by the laws of nature – might no longer be with us. “What do we want to see next?” was a regular question Alison asked when we were deciding on the progression of a story. Well, I know how I want this story to progress. I want to pull up a seat at her dining table - like I’ve done hundreds of times over the last thirty years – so that we can continue to unravel the unfinished stories from her brilliant mind.
I met “Al” when I was a way-too-eager 17-year-old; a trainee at Crawfords when she and Tony McDonald were brought in to write the telemovies, The Feds. The in-house team were thrilled to have them onboard. They were the creators of the acclaimed, meticulously crafted series Phoenix and Janus. Al was also known as the “closer” for writing the finales of some of our most beloved series including Prisoner, and she had created my childhood favourite, Zoo Family, that made every kid who saw it want to live in a zoo. The way she spoke about story was electric. Her characters seemed to spring from her fully formed and fiercely autonomous. To me it was all so revelatory. And how lucky I was to bear witness to it. For Al it was all so instinctual.
Having transitioned from journalism to drama, she saw little difference between the two forms. They were both about searching for human truth. Her deep curiosity drove her. She knew that a writer’s life is singular and limited, and that engaging with others - mining their experience - was essential, irrespective of whether you’re writing about a Prime Minister or a bartender... even though Al had several lives’ worth of experience herself. She spent her childhood in Japan, in the aftermath of the war, and would casually tell me about the time she helped her father to pick up little pieces of an elderly man - who fell victim to a landmine - with chopsticks.
She was fiercely resilient, stunningly funny, doggedly determined and a perfectionist in the best sense.
Before writing Phoenix she and Tony spent an entire year – before it was greenlit, with no payment - sitting at a desk inside the Major Crime Unit soaking up their secret, machismo world before starting to write. One year. They became so much a part of the furniture that when they were left alone in their headquarters, I’m told, they would answer the officer’s phones. It’s why her work is so richly authentic and specific. It’s how she took screenwriting to a whole new level.
And I clung onto her. I asked her if she would help me write a feature. Remarkably she agreed. We use the term “script editor” in Australia, but that title is utterly inadequate for the role she gifted me. She had a psychic-like ability to untangle and sharpen my intentions. More than that, she valued my instincts, wholly empowering me, while simultaneously molding my skills. The power of a mentor to shape and change a life is astonishing. Yet she never used the word “mentor” or “protégé”, she was too humble for that. There was never a power imbalance. But transform my life she did. And I never wanted to write anything without her.
Little by little I gained confidence and soon I was able to fulfil the supporting role for her own projects. One talking, one listening. Only pausing to feed her wild birds or visiting possums, or for a wine-and-soda at the end of the day. Between us, it’s how Hawke, Curtin, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Parer’s War and Bloom came to life.
For Al, writing was never work, it was essential to her existence; her way of deciphering and reflecting life. You often feel like an observer as a writer -- not quite participating; never making a direct impact, perhaps. But Al made the most monumental of impacts, not just in my life and to countless other creatives, but to Australian culture, her audiences around the world, and to those lives she so respectfully mined and made immortal.

- Glen Dolman