My guest today is a fellow Australian. She is debut author Elizabeth Jane Corbett. When Elizabeth isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Celtic Club and writes articles for the Historical Novel Review. In 2009, her short-story, ‘Beyond the Blackout Curtain’, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, ‘Silent Night’, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. An early draft of The Tides Between was shortlisted for a HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Development Award. Elizabeth lives with her husband, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne’s inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away. You can connect with Elizabeth Jane via her website and blog, Facebook and Twitter.
What or who inspired you to first write? Which authors have influenced you?
I have always wanted to write. Ever since I got lost on a lonely moor with the Famous Five, I’ve dreamed of writing a novel. I grew up with stories of an historical novelist in my family – John James, my mother’s cousin, who wrote in the 1960s. I even set out to write a horse novel in my childhood. But I didn’t know anything about horses, so the project didn’t get far (an early lesson in the importance of research). Once I hit my teens life took over and it wasn’t until my fortieth birthday that I revisited the dream. It was one of those OMG-what-have-I-done-with-my-life-? moments. I figured if I was going to write a novel, I’d better get started before it was too late.
I have always read historical fiction. Edith Pargetter/Ellis Peters fuelled an interest in Wales’ history, as did Sharon K Penman’s books. I was heavily into Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels at one stage, and have read all of Diana Gabaldon’s books. I also enjoy Joanne Harris’ and Emma Donoghues’ work.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
I moved to Australia as a five-year-old. It. was the defining event of my childhood. So, I knew I wanted to write about immigration. Not my own story, something historical, set in Australia (so I could access resources easily). I started by reading a biography on Caroline Chisholm – an upper-class English immigrant who was instrumental in improving the conditions for steerage migrants (she is featured on our five-dollar note). I then broadened my research to encompass government assisted immigration in general. In 1841 (the date I settled upon), the voyage to Australia took over three months, in some cases as long as five. Migrants were orientated in depots prior to embarkation and divided into Messes – a group they cooked, cleaned and were rationed with throughout the voyage. As I read about this process, a young girl entered my mind. I called her Bridie. Having lost her father in tragic circumstances, she was travelling to Australia with her mother and stepfather. I had this idea that a creative young couple would be in their mess. They would help Bridie overcome her grief. I intended the novel to be a sweeping saga, spanning several decades. But my creative couple became Welsh storytellers and totally high-jacked the novel. So, although, I have depicted the conditions in steerage as accurately as possible, the book has ended up being an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth. It explores themes of loss, trauma, and the power of myth.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
The decision to include a Welsh storyteller not only hijacked my story, it hijacked my life. Mum was Welsh. But having been in Australia since childhood, I knew very little about Wales. Some quick research had shown me that Wales had a strong bardic culture (hence the storyteller decision). I also recalled the Wales had their own language. To my surprise, I learned there were Welsh classes in Melbourne. I enrolled for what I thought would be one term. But I had no idea the Welsh language was so beautiful. One term became two terms, then three. Before long, I was totally smitten – the words, the sounds, the letters were like a soul-song to me. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student. I had four teenagers still living at home. I’d been rubbish at languages in school. It was enough to simply be in the presence of those ancient words.
Then, we went through a difficult time with our youngest daughter. My writing ground to a halt. I found myself in a pretty dark place. My husband suggested, I need to get away for a while. We had loads of frequent flyer points. So, I decided to go to Wales. At which point, I came across a free online course called Say Something in Welsh. The tutor, Aran, was so encouraging. He told me I was doing well, that I would succeed, that I could become a Welsh speaker. His words were like rain on parched earth. I felt like a failure in every other area of my life. So, I chose to believe him. And it worked. I now tell everyone I walked through that difficult time holding onto the tail of an ancient language.
I have no doubt the cultural connection has given me a great empathy for my characters. But more importantly, I have found my way home. I can’t imagine ever writing a book without a Welsh character. So, for me, it is not so much an era, but a place.
What resources do you use to research your book? How long did it take to finish the novel?
For The Tides Between, I read reference books about the voyage to Australia and then combed their bibliographies for primary source material. Much of it has been digitised – diaries, letters, instructions for surgeons on emigrant ships, pamphlets on the immigrant experience. I spent loads of time in Covent Garden (my protagonist’s father was a theatre musician), slept on a sailing ship overnight, went underground in the Big-Pit Museum (my Welsh storyteller was a miner’s son), visited the sites of my Welsh fairy tales, learned a language… Did I mention I have a mildly (cough) obsessive personality? Research is the easy part. Getting the words down is tougher. I wrestle constantly with self-doubt and fall into a slough of despair every time I have a manuscript assessment. But some days, the words sing and that makes it all worthwhile.
I knew nothing when I started writing. But I figured if I took everything I need to know to write a successful novel I’d be too scared to start. I simply gave myself permission to write. As a consequence, the first draft was a mess. I knew nothing about viewpoint, dialogue, pace, or story structure. Nevertheless, it was shortlisted for a manuscript development award. I also had a paid manuscript assessment. The assessor, Alison Goodman, suggested I learn about story structure in order to “do consciously what you have tried to do unconsciously”. I therefore enrolled in some college novel writing subjects. That took two years, during which time my youngest daughter worked her way through a checklist of every parent’s worst fears. Excuses, excuses, this is a long-winded way of admitting that re-wrote the novel four times, over a process of twelve years.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
If it is a first draft, I use any old word but put brackets around it to indicate it needs thought. On subsequent drafts, I use a thesaurus. Or try to come up with a unique way of saying it.
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
Sometimes, when I am trying to imagine a person’s actions, I mime them in front of a mirror and then describe what I see.
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
I write in Scrivener. I like the ability to take snapshots of work and refer to them in a side panel. I also like the way you can move scenes around, compile research folders and make notes on scenes.
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
There are loads of paintings and also newspaper artwork for the era. I created an image file when I started working, for inspiration. But here are my two of my favourites. The painting by Ford Maddox Brown captures the bleakness of leaving home forever. The black and white newspaper image gives an idea of how crowded and claustrophobic steerage would have been. You will notice the immigrants slept dormitory style on an open deck. There was no privacy.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
It will be hard work and you may have to wrestle with confusion and self-doubt (even after you’ve won prizes and been published). So, focus on the journey and learning your craft. And remember, writing is the real magic. It is worthwhile, regardless of the outcome. My all-time favourite writing book is Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Tell us about your next book.
I had a number of ideas for my next book. I could have written a second instalment of a trilogy based on the characters I had created in The Tides Between. I suspect I will at some stage. I have the story all plotted out. However, I had this idea that working on the second book in a series while receiving rejection letters for the first may not be good for my mental health. I toyed with writing a novel based on my grandmother’s life. But she was English and lived in Ilford. I found myself desperately trying to work out how to include a Welsh character. J
While living at Stiwdio Maelor, a residency studio for artists and writers in North Wales, I did some research on Owain Glyn Dŵr – the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. I realized he’d had a wife, who ended up in the Tower of London as a consequence of his revolt. I thought: what would it be like to be that woman? A story concept was born. I am currently up to my elbows in research on fourteenth century Wales. I’m having a ball. Research is by far my favourite part of the process. No, nagging self-doubt, or wrestling with words, just dreams and endless possibility.
She fancied herself part of a timeless chain, without beginning or end, linked only by the silver strong words of its tellers.
In the year 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bridie Stewart’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her precious childhood memories, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairy-tales to the far side of the world.
When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark, double meaning.
As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairy tales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.
Congratulations on releasing your first book, Elizabeth Jane! I look forward to hearing more about Owain Glyn Dŵr and his wife in your next one.
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