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INTERVIEW: Pamela Hart

Friday, September 14, 2018


Today I welcome Pamela Hart, author of The Desert Nurse, among other books, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Not so much since I became a mum! Mostly, I’m a night-dreamer… the time just before I fall asleep is when my imagination takes off. Which makes getting to sleep a bit tricky, some nights.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I guess I figured out when I was about 12 that being a writer was a far-off possibility, but I thought at the time that only people who’d lead ‘interesting’ lives could be writers, and my life seemed far too boring to allow me that privilege - so when I was 15 I decided to work in television. Apart from being fun in itself, that seemed to me to be ‘interesting’ enough to qualify me as a writer-in-potential. And, of course, that was what happened - I was working at ABC Kids when I began to write children’s stories (as Pamela Freeman).

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Sydney - in Parramatta, in the Western Suburbs. Now I live in the inner west, quite close to the city. As for what I like to do: well, read, mostly. And wander up to the café on the corner to have a nice bacon and egg roll for brunch. I also love theatre, live music, opera, jazz… we make a lot of music in our house, and I do spend some time practicing the drums and playing my guitar. Also cooking. I like to make things from scratch - today I made cumquat marmalade!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
The inspiration for The Desert Nurse came quite a few years ago, when I was writing The Soldier’s Wife. That book was based in part on my grandfather’s experience of being wounded at Gallipoli and coming home having to cope with the consequences of the injury. The focus of the book was on the relationship between that soldier and his wife, and was based in Sydney. But I knew that my grandfather’s life had been saved by good nursing, since he developed a very dangerous fever after he was operated on in Cairo. Without anti-biotics, it was only dedicated nursing that saved him and thousands like him. So as I was writing The Soldier’s Wife, I knew one day I wanted to write a story honouring those extraordinary women.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
That varies enormously from book to book. In some, I know exactly what’s going to happen. In others, I have no idea at all! I’ve found it’s best not to get too attached to any one way of working. Each book has its own challenge.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Only once - and it turned into a not-very-good story, so… but I am not much of a dreamer. I very rarely remember my dreams (I’m assured I have them by science, but sometimes I have my doubts!)

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
No… I think a lot of my discoveries were made during the research for The Soldier’s Wife, which I’ve written about here.

Where do you write, and when?
At the moment, since we’ve just renovated, I am setting up my office. In the meantime, I’m writing as I have done for some time, sitting crosslegged in an armchair in the living room! As for when - I write best in the afternoons.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The playing with ideas at the start. So many possibilities - it’s like trying on clothes in a fabulous store, where everything fits but some things just feel better than others. I try on lots of ideas about my characters and story before I begin to write, and it’s the best game ever!

What do you do when you get blocked?
I write something else. As Pamela Freeman, I write children’s books, and I usually have some work I need to do on one of those, so I switch across - and vice versa. It’s a great way of getting some perspective on the current problem. During the writing of The Desert Nurse, my kids’ book was Amazing Australian Women, and that gave me lots of impetus to write about wonderful women.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Research! Writing historical fiction is fantastic because, every time I do the research for one book, I find half a dozen stories I might like to tell. There are so many great, true stories out there, I doubt I’ll ever run out.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Nope. I began to write seriously while I was a consultant in organisational communication, and I ran the writing parallel to the consulting work. I had very little time to devote to writing, and I learnt to ‘flip th switch’ in my head whenever I had the time to spare. ‘Flipping the switch’ for me means changing the way my mind works, from the very logical and presciptive way it had to for my consulting work, to the imaginative way I needed for fiction. That’s my only ritual, I guess. It took some time to develop, but it became quite reliable. Of course, it doesn’t work if you haven’t been thinking about the story in your downtime moments, getting ready for the moment when you have time at the keyboard.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Well, you, Katie, of course! (And you know that’s true!)

I have very wide tastes. I started as a Shakespeare girl, and he’s still right up there. I also read a lot of poetry. For fiction, though, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart - and, recently, George Saunders, Ben Aaronovitch, Sue Whiting, Anita Heiss.

What do you consider to be good writing?

I guess I look for three things. Any one of these will keep me reading, but a great book has all three:

A story to keep me interested,
Characters I can and do care about
A style which reinforces the theme and feeling of the book.

So that might be Austen at one end of the literary spectrum, and Matthew Reilly at the other. They are both very good at what they do, and in the right mood, I can like either one. John Banville’s detective fiction, for example, is basically a series of tone poems. I love it - but I’m just as keen on Val McDermid’s darker and grittier style, because it fits her stories. I try not to be a snob about writing - in the end, if a story keeps the reader’s interest and engages her emotions, that’s what counts.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Just do it.

Seriously. Just start. It doesn’t matter what you start with - the main thing is that you need practice in creating characters and stories, so start practicing! I teach writing, and it’s so satisfying to take absolute beginners, who’ve never written anything before, all the way through to publication. It’s possible. It’s very possible - but it won’t happen if you don’t write, and rewrite, and write again.

What are you working on now?
My current book is Dancing with the Prince of Wales. It takes two minor characters from The War Bride, Jane and Jonesy, and follows them to London where they go on to be stars on the English stage in the 1920s. It’s inspired by two Australian actors who did just that - Cyril Ritchard and Marge Eliot. I’m having to do a HUGE amount of research for this, because so many real people are characters - Noel Coward and Fred Astaire, Gertie Lawrence and Ivor Novello - and of course the Prince of Wales (the one who later abdicated). It’s a lot of fun, but rather nerve-wracking. The only one I feel really comfortable writing is Fred Astaire, because I’ve been an Astaire tragic my whole life! It will be out in 2020.

You can read my review of Pamela Hart's latest book, The Desert Nurse, here.

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