In your first novel, Stillwater Creek, you told the story of a Latvian concentration camp survivor who, following the death of her husband, moves to the (fictional) town of Jingera NSW in 1957 with her daughter to start anew. How would you describe the story told in Stillwater Creek and why readers connect with it?
Stillwater Creek begins with the arrival, in the remote coastal town of Jingera, of a Latvian immigrant Ilona and her daughter Zidra. In 1957 many adults were still bearing the scars of the Second World War and the enormous upheaval it caused in peoples’ lives. At a time when child abuse was not explicitly on the social radar, the immigrants’ appearance in Jingera sets in motion a series of events affecting the whole township. The novel dramatises the moral dilemma arising when a woman discovers a secret about her husband and she has to decide what action she should take.
Stillwater Creek has a number of interweaving stories, each contributing to the whole. While the main story involves the immigrant child, Zidra, being threatened by a respectable town figure (whom no one has guessed is a paedophile), subplots involve the developing love affairs between Ilona and a local farmer, both of whom have been scarred by their experiences in the Second World War, and between the paedophile’s wife and the schoolmistress.
Reviewers of your second novel, The Indigo Sky, have described it as charming and heartwarming. In your opinion, what makes for a charming and heartwarming story, or what is an example of a charming or heartwarming novel you have read and what made that work so well?
Charming and heartwarming are not the words I would use to describe my novels, although I’m really delighted that others have described them in this way. My guess is that people have chosen these words because the characters are quirky and because good triumphs over evil. While there are some horrible events occurring in the books, the main characters manage eventually to overcome their difficulties and to make new lives for themselves.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island is ‘charming and heartwarming’, and so too is Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.
In terms of novel writing, it helps if readers can identify with – can empathise with – the characters. From a technical viewpoint, I think it is important to avoid omniscience, and write as closely to the individual as you feel comfortable with. (This is one reason why I really like multiple points of view; it allows you to have a greater involvement with each individual character whilst also building up a many-faceted picture of the whole.)
In your third novel, A Distant Land, the lives of people in Jingera are affected by the Vietnam War. How do the impacts of the Vietnam War in A Distant Land compare to the impacts of World War 2 in Stillwater Creek?
Stillwater Creek was set twelve years after the end of the Second World War and so memories of it were still fresh in people’s minds, as was the threat of communism. The society was still very conservative. The main character, Ilona, is a concentration camp survivor, and a local farmer, Peter, is the survivor of a prisoner of war camp. Both are deeply scarred by their experiences. Neither imagines that, in just a few more years, another generation will be affected by war.
The characters in A Distant Land – set fourteen years later – are experiencing a present war. This direct experience is especially the case for the two brothers, Jim and Andy Cadwallader. Others from the township of Jingera are also affected – through conscription, through the moratorium marches, and through being monitored by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
In an interview with Blanche Clark for The Herald Sun, you said, “I did a lot of surfing of the War Memorial website. I think it is a fantastic website. […] And the National Archives. I went and looked at the newspapers to get a feeling for the issues and politics of the time.” How research-intensive was it to write your novels, and were the sources just mentioned your primary methods of research?
I love reading history. At the end of each novel I have listed my main historical sources. In researching Stillwater Creek I read about the area around the fictional town of Jingera located near Bega in southern NSW, about the Second World War, about Aborigines living on the south coast at the time, and about the Stolen Generations.
For The Indigo Sky I read more widely about the Stolen Generations, and also about the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Reserve, just north of Bermagui.
The third book, A Distant Land, was the most research intensive, as I had to read about the Vietnam War, ASIO accounts of being a prisoner of the Vietcong, and so on.
But as you noted, I also read newspapers of the time — this was largely to get a feel for the times: clothing, social and economic issues, what was hitting the headlines from other parts of the world. So in general I would say that I’ve used newspapers to get an impression of the times and the deeper historical accounts in scholarly books for accuracy and inspiration.
What are some of your favourite novels and what makes them stand out for you as a reader?
That’s a big question! I have too many favourite novels to list here, so instead I’ll tell you what I’m currently reading: Charles Dickens. Having been put off Dickens at school, I decided in this bicentenary year of his birth to try again and I am loving his books; the characterisation, the plotting, the concern with social issues, the humour. I have also recently been reading Graham Green’s novels, which I read last when I was in my early 20s. I love the parsimony of his writing, the clever characterisation, and the wise observations about the human condition. Toni Morrison and Kate Grenville are also favourite authors.
What makes novels stand out for me as a reader? Good characterisation, an absorbing story preferably with a bit of suspense in order to maintain my interest, and original descriptions of landscape and people. But most of all, some insights into what it is to be human. I think it was Anthony Trollope who said that novels chronicle life’s daily lacerations; I’ve always liked that definition.
You have a background in Economics. What attracted you to write Stillwater Creek?
My first degree is actually in architecture, and I began to study economics only at the postgraduate level. Architecture and academic economics attracted me because both are based on internal consistency, logic and structure, attributes that are useful to the novelist. And of course architecture is also strongly visual. In addition, I’ve always loved literature and history.
The reason I began to write Stillwater Creek was partly because, in returning to Australia myself after so many years away, I began to wonder what it would be like arriving as a new immigrant in a small country town. I chose the town of Jingera, which I like to view as a microcosm or perhaps as a stage on which a few actors play out the universal stories. It’s easier to observe these actors in small towns and tell a story about them and that’s why I wanted to set Stillwater Creek in fictitious Jingera rather than in a city. The final few scenes, which came into my head very early on, also required a small town setting.
You will be one of the monthly contributors in 2013 for Writing Novels in Australia, re-launching on Jan 1st. What might readers be able to look forward to as they follow your contributions throughout 2013?
I’m really pleased to have been invited to write a monthly article for this website for 2013. The first one will briefly cover my own experiences in first getting a novel published and will also offer some advice about what to avoid if you are embarking on your own first novel. The second is entitled ‘Why have an agent?’. I’m not quite sure yet what the other topics will be; perhaps how to cope with rejection (whether its rejection of your manuscript or disapproval of your writing once you have been published). Also, I plan to write about the pros and cons of a two-book deal.
What words of wisdom do you have for writers about to start their first novel with the aim of commercial publication?
My first article for Writing Novels in Ausralia is about writing a first novel, so I won’t duplicate that material here. However, you do specifically mention commercial publication. My publisher terms my books ‘quality commercial’. I never had any intention to write ‘quality commercial’ fiction. I just wrote because I wanted to.
Publishers advise authors to know their market but in my opinion this should not be a person’s main concern when they begin to write a novel. First, check that the story you want to tell hasn’t just been published. Then, once you’ve found it hasn’t, write because you’re driven to tell a story. Write because there are some interesting characters obsessing you. Write because you’ll be miserable if you don’t. Publishers are full of marketing people and if you have a good and original story to tell, they will find a market for it. However, if you wish to write to a particular genre, there are masses of how-to-write books out there that will give you guidance.
My advice is to be true to yourself and to your own unique vision. And to remember that writing fiction is a craft with a long apprenticeship. If you expect this, you will not become downhearted about the length of the journey.
Alison Booth author site: www.alisonbooth.com
The Australian Literature Review