May 13th, 2014
The multi-talented author Bianca Nogrady invited me to participate in this blog tour. Topic: how I write. Bianca is a science journalist who has already written two immensely readable nonfiction books (The Sixth Wave and The End) and is now working on not one but two novels of adult science fiction. I don’t know when the woman sleeps.
I’ve read sections of her novel Biohunter and love how she brings her science and medical knowledge to writing about a post-climate change world (one that is refreshingly non-apocalyptic). You can read her post here.
Now (deep breath) here are my answers:
What am I working on at the moment?
I am writing a historical novel set in Sydney in the first decade of the 1900s. It is based on the true case of a young female abortionist who was convicted of manslaughter and served out her sentence in the newly opened Long Bay Women’s Reformatory – the first reformatory of its kind in Australia. The woman, Rebecca Sinclair, was pregnant when she went to prison (and married, her husband Don was convicted of manslaughter as well). She gave birth to a daughter six months into her sentence and was able to keep that child with her in gaol.
The novel follows Rebecca from her impoverished childhood to meeting and marrying Don, who is never quite what he claims to be. Don’s mother is a known abortionist called Nurse Sinclair who advertises her services in the back of every Sydney newspaper.
I am writing the novel as part of a Doctorate of Creative Arts at UTS, under the supervision of novelist Debra Adelaide and historian Paula Hamilton.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The dialogue is free of dialect or a consciously historical “voice”. I find that when authors use a lot of dialect it draws attention from what the characters are saying, and while I do use some words that are no longer used, I am conscious to keep the attention on what the characters are saying rather than how they are saying it.
On the other hand, the detail in my book is meticulously researched and everything from what people wear to how trams work and what they eat and how they sew a collar, wash their clothes, and perform a backyard abortion is a crucial part of the story.
Long Bay is set during a neglected period of history. Pre-World War I and post-1880s depression, Australian society was in a state of flux. The Industrial Revolution opened up the labour market so there were more options for women, women campaigned successfully for the right to vote, fertility rates plunged as women chose voluntary rather than enforced motherhood, gaols were being reformed, and increased institutionalisation meant that there were records of the marginalised poor. Yet the options for women were still severely limited, class was still a crippling issue and shame meant many things went undiscussed and secrets were kept from even the closest family members. It is a fascinating time about which little has been written, particularly from the perspective of those in the working class.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I am utterly and unquestionably drawn towards it. Because it calls out to me, it wakes me up in the middle of the night, it steals into my thoughts while I’m washing dishes or walking the dog or folding the laundry. I have always been drawn to the past and so historical fiction was a natural fit for me. I love research. I could spend every day in the Mitchell Library or the State Archives, searching through boxes of old papers, waiting to find the page which helps the pieces of the past fall into place. Also because I am drawn to stories which have never been told. Stories which, because of shame or simply the passage of time, have fallen between the cracks.
How does my writing process work?
Differently now than for my first novel, What Was Left. This novel has involved much more research and I had to consciously force myself to put aside the research and write a first draft. Then I picked up the research again, looked up a few details which I had left out, and then wrote another draft. What Was Left only went through a few drafts. Possibly three? Long Bay has taken closer to five drafts. I wrote a lot of chapters this time which I ended up taking out, but still they helped. I have become less precious about this lost writing than I used to be. It is part of the discovery of character, part of the process.
The plot, however, was easier with Long Bay because it is based on real events. There was an outline, a map of sorts for me to follow. The problem was when I tried to stick too closely to this map and didn’t allow the character to lead me. The map is not the truth, the map is the court documents and newspaper reports, it was only one version of what the truth might have been. In addition to all of the written documentation, I also used a lot of old photographs to help me while writing. They gave me a way of seeing a past that I have never lived.
next in a few weeks:
I’m lucky that the superb author and lovely friend Poppy Gee has agreed to take part next in this blog tour. She has mentored me on many aspects of the writing and publishing journey and it is amazing what she has accomplished. Poppy Gee’s debut novel Bay of Fires is a murder-mystery set on Tasmania’s east coast. It was published in 2013 in the USA, UK and Australia by Little,Brown, Headline and Hachette. Poppy wrote the novel at the University of Queensland as part of a creative writing Masters Degree, for which she received the Dean’s Award for Excellence. Her second novel, another literary thriller set in a ski lodge in Tasmania’s Ben Lomond village, is currently being read by her US publisher. Poppy lives in Brisbane with her husband and two young children and is working on a murder-mystery set in Launceston in the 1830s. Visit her blog in a few weeks to see how she does it.