For those not familiar with your fiction writing, how would you describe it?
Sweeping, epic stories usually with historical backgrounds. I’m very interested in how massive historical events such as wars impact on the individual lives of my characters. Each story is a journey of endurance, courage, love, tragedy and triumph. My style is clean cut with an eye for sensuous detail and a touch of magic realism.
You have depicted a number of early to mid twentieth century settings in your novels, from the border region of Japanese occupied Russia and China during World War 2 in White Gardenia to provincial France at the outbreak of the war in Wild Lavender, to 1920s Sydney in Silver Wattle, to Tuscany during Mussolini’s rule of Italy in Tuscan Rose. What kind of research do you do for your novels?
Apart from the academic research to understand the history of those times, I pore over as much first hand material as possible – almost like an actress preparing for a part. I read the newspapers, learn the language of the culture I am writing about, read the interior design magazines, popular novels of the day and listen to the music. I even research cookbooks of the country and era to make sure any recipes given are true to the times. For Wild Lavender I learned to dance the tango, which is how I ended up meeting my husband.
You have written, “I’d studied modern history for my HSC but had been bored mindless by the endless essays on the political causes for war. I was interested in the impact these catastrophic world events had on individual people.” What advantages, in terms of storytelling, does concerning yourself with particular characters offer over trying to make your characters symbolise political ideas?
It’s very important to me that my characters live and breathe authenticity – that they are never wooden. Therefore I do spend time focusing on their particular beliefs and mindsets so everything they do and say (even when they contradict themselves) makes sense to their point of view of the world. I obviously have very passionate ideas about world peace, the nature of human beings and animal welfare and some of my characters do too … but as I don’t have all the answers myself and am constantly learning, I put my characters on a search for their own truths. This way they can be inspiring (or dreadful) but they are always human – as opposed to one-dimensional characters voicing political points of view.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters, and what makes them stand out for you?
Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I first read that book when I was 16 years of age and the ability of Carton to transcend life and death through love made a huge impact on me.
You have written, “The end of my novels always comes to me first – I see the end of the story and then I have to work out who these characters are and how they all got to the position they are in.” Could you give us an overview of how you worked back from the ending to develop the story for one of your novels?
This is a bit tricky to do without spoilers. But I can say that working this way gives my work a sense of narrative drive. I see a character that has been through a lot, who has learned something very important, on whom truth and knowledge weigh heavily … and I have to answer what’s happened to them and how they got there.
If you could attend your ideal 2-day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?
Not doing any work, I need a rest! 🙂 Seriously, I love improving my technique and although I do spend time working on exercises most of my improvement comes from studying books where the story grabs me from the opening sentence and gives me plenty of ‘ah-ha’ moments by expressing life through the characters. But my style always has to be my own … so my ideal weekend would be talking to other fiction writers about life, about what inspires them and absorbing the energy that I get from being around other creative minds, but basically being left to work on my style and technique on my own.
Do you read much fiction by Australian authors, and do you have some favourites?
I am always hanging out for the next Kim Wilkins and Kate Morton novels. I love how their stories unfold. I have always admired the styles of Helen Gardner and Drusilla Modjeska. Their styles are different to mine – I often find Gardner’s work a challenge to my vision of beauty, but that’s good. It’s always good to be challenged.
What is the one piece of advice you would most like to offer for new fiction writers?
That good writing is all in the rewriting – whether you do that revision on paper or in your head. Keep working and layering a scene until it is just there so clearly before you in every sensual detail. A scene that breathes with life has a lot of thought behind it, whether conscious or subconscious.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I am constantly challenging myself to become a better and better storyteller. I’m currently working on a novel set during the Spanish Civil War.
The Australian Literature Review