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BOOK REVIEW: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Friday, May 04, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

It's been twenty years since Cormac Reilly discovered the body of Hilaria Blake in her crumbling Georgian home. But he's never forgotten the two children she left behind...

When Aisling Conroy's boyfriend Jack is found in the freezing black waters of the river Corrib, the police tell her it was suicide. A surgical resident, she throws herself into study and work, trying to forget - until Jack's sister Maude shows up. Maude suspects foul play, and she is determined to prove it.

DI Cormac Reilly is the detective assigned with the re-investigation of an 'accidental' overdose twenty years ago - of Jack and Maude's drug- and alcohol-addled mother. Cormac is under increasing pressure to charge Maude for murder when his colleague Danny uncovers a piece of evidence that will change everything...

This unsettling crime debut draws us deep into the dark heart of Ireland and asks who will protect you when the authorities can't - or won't. Perfect for fans of Tana French and Jane Casey.

My Thoughts:

For me, the best crime novels are tense, evocative reads, set somewhere misty and atmospheric that raises the hairs on your skin, with characters who are complex and alive, who you cannot help caring about, and written in terse language that nonetheless has the power to haunt you with its beauty. I want to be moved by the characters’ plight and gripped by the compulsion to know what happened, and I want to be genuinely surprised by the denouement.

It is, unsurprisingly, difficult to find all that in the one package. When I do find it, I tend to be very faithful to the author, reading every book of theirs I can find.

The Ruin, by Irish-born Australian-resident author Dervla McTiernan, gave me all that I wanted in a contemporary crime novel, but since it is her debut, I can’t rush out and buy all of her backlist. I am, however, impatiently waiting for her next book.

The story is set in Ireland, a suitably misty and atmospheric setting for me. It begins with a young rookie policeman, Cormac Reilly, discovering the corpse of a drug addict in a cold and filthy ruin of a house. It seems clear enough that she died of a drug overdose. The real trouble is what to do with her two young children. Regretfully Cormac arranges for them to go into foster care, but something about the brother and sister haunt him. He never really forgets them.

Now, many years later, Cormac is back in Galway, after having taken a demotion in order to move with his girlfriend, who has taken a plum new job in the area. He is frustrated because his new commander gives him nothing but cold cases to work on, and he wants to get his teeth into something real.

Then a body is found floating in the freezing black waters of the river. It’s a young man named Jack – and he is the little boy Cormac put into care so long ago. When the detective begins digging, he finds that Jack’s death was not a suicide, as the police believe – and that the roots of the mystery lie in the death of Jack’s mother so long ago.

I really loved the character of Cormac, who has troubles of his own but is not one of those drunk, damaged detectives that seem to have taken over so much of contemporary crime fiction lately (I am really tired of that trope, are you?) Cormac is clever, dogged, and wants to help people, and his love for his girlfriend and his willingness to make sacrifices for her makes him a very empathetic character.

Best of all, the dramatic tension in this novel never flags. I was absolutely riveted to the page, each new unexpected turn tightening the screw. And, no, I didn’t guess the murderer!

The Ruin is world-class crime fiction, and Dervla McTiernan cannot write fast enough to please me.

For another great crime thriller, check out my review of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

INTERVIEW: Eleanor Limprecht

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Photo by Louise Hawson

Today I welcome Eleanor Limprecht, author of The Passengers, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes! The constant refrain on my report cards in school was: Eleanor seems to be in her own world most of the time. Now my eight-year-old son is getting the same feedback from his teachers, and I can’t help but be a little bit proud.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, not until I was in my twenties did I even consider writing a book. I wanted to be many other things: a park ranger, a farmer, baker, even a Marine!

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Washington DC. I grew up in many different countries (my father worked as a foreign service officer for the State Department). Now I live in Sydney, near the beach in Maroubra. I love hiking and camping with my family, baking, running (especially trail running), travel and just taking the dog to the park.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

About four years ago I took my husband and kids to visit my Great Aunt Marge in San Diego. Her boyfriend Bert, who was in his 90s, was talking about the time he went to Australia during World War II. He was an American Serviceman in Sydney on R&R, and he was remembering “the beautiful girls and how they loved to dance”. He mentioned how some of his friends married “these Aussie girls”, and for the first time I began to wonder how many war brides there were, and how the marriages turned out. I married an Australian in my twenties so I knew what it meant to leave behind my family and the culture I had grown up in, but I imagined it must have been more difficult for these women, who didn’t have the inexpensive overseas travel or even phone calls to stay in touch.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

Not extensively at all. I tend to write first and organise later - which means that I write far more than I end up using. But I’m convinced that it is the process of writing which shows me the direction the story is meant to go.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Sometimes, but it is less dreams than those 3am thoughts that inform the story - so I always sleep with a notebook beside the bed.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
While researching the book I travelled to the US - both to meet and interview war brides and to attend the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop in Portland Oregon. The workshop had nothing to do with my research, but was going to be a place where I workshopped an early draft of this novel. There are around 200 participants from around the world, and we all ate meals in the dining halls together. The very first day I was there I sat down for lunch at a table with a stranger, and when we began talking she asked where I was from. I told her I was from the US but lived in Australia. “My mother was from Australia,” she said. “She was a war bride during World War II.” I couldn’t believe the coincidence, and this woman ended up helping inspire the story I ended up writing.

Where do you write, and when?

I write in my studio when the children (aged 8 and 10) are at school, between the hours of 9am and 3pm. For many years I wrote at the kitchen table, but a few years ago my husband finished building the studio out the back, and I love having a space of my very own. It also means that I’m less distracted by the housework that needs doing. Out of sight, out of mind.

What is your favourite part of writing?
When I get lost in the story and time disappears. Also when things fall into place unexpectedly.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I read, or walk, sometimes I go work elsewhere, like the library. I always have a few projects going at once so I might work on something else.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Travel is inspiring to me, as well as reading widely. I find it inspiring to teach and help others find joy in writing. I love to be outdoors, and to watch children and animals outdoors. And finally, conversation with interesting people.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Coffee is a big one. And after checking my email it helps me to turn off the internet for a few hours. Then I know that I won’t be distracted as easily.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This is hard! I have many….and they change regularly, but here are today's

1. Louise Erdrich
2. Barbara Kingsolver
3. Anne Enright
4. Toni Morrison
5. William Faulkner
6. Rebecca Solnit
7. Gillian Mears
8. John Steinbeck
9. Helen Garner
10. Arundhati Roy

What do you consider to be good writing?
Increasingly I am drawn to writing that is less ornate but more powerful. Writing that looks simple but simmers beneath the surface.

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

Read read read and read some more. Write because of the joy it gives you, not because of the joy you expect it to bring you when it is published. And practice taking criticism without being devastated by it - this is a difficult but important part of being a published writer.

What are you working on now?
A few things: some short stories, an essay about my father, and I’m beginning to research a new novel.

You can read my review of The Passengers here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht

Wednesday, May 02, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Sarah and Hannah are on a cruise from San Diego, California to Sydney Australia. Sarah, Hannah’s grandmother, is returning to the country of her birth, a place she hasn’t seen since boarding the USS Mariposa in 1945. She, along with countless other war brides, sailed across the Pacific to join the American Servicemen they’d married during World War II.

Hannah is the age Sarah was when she made her first journey, and in hearing Sarah tell the story of her life, realises the immensity of what her grandmother gave up.

The Passengers is a luminous novel about the journeys we undertake, the sacrifices we make and the heartache we suffer for love. It is about how we most long for what we have left behind. And it is about the past - how close it can feel - even after long passages of time.

My Thoughts:

A young woman and her grandmother travel on a cruise together from the USA to Australia. For Sarah, it is a journey to the country of her birth, a place she has not seen since she left as a war bride in the 1940s. For Hannah, it is a chance to leave behind old hurts and discover a new land. Each tell their own story, in their own voices, each regretting mistakes they have made and people they have left behind.

Sarah’s story begins as a girl on a diary farm in New South Wales. Times are hard, and her father sells the farm and moves his family to Sydney. Sarah is forced to leave her beloved cattle dog behind. She finds work, and dreams of marriage, putting a white dress on layby. Sydney is full of American soldiers. There are fights and dances and flirtations. She falls in love and marries, and has just one night with her new husband before he is shipped out to Papua New Guinea. When the war ends, Sarah must leave her home and family and travel thousands of kilometres to a place she has never been, to live with a man she hardly knows.

As Sarah tells her story to her granddaughter, Hannah reveals some of her own secret vulnerabilities. Slowly the two stories echo and reflect each other, in clear lucid prose that glows with its own inner light.

You might also be interested in my review of The Pearler’s Wife by Roxane Dhand.

Recently I was lucky enough to interview Eleanor Limprecht, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

Monday, April 30, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Some people's lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks' isn't. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.

My Thoughts:

James Rebanks’s family have been shepherds in the Lake District for many generations. Growing up on the land, learning his craft at his grandfather’s knee, James has never wanted any other life. His long-ago ancestors would recognise the pattern of his days and seasons, even if they would not understand his Land-Rover or his Twitter feed, for the work of the shepherds on the fells and lake valleys has not changed in centuries. Lambs are born, crows circle, the hay must be harvested, the long snows endured.

A memoir of place as much as of a life, James Rebanks writes with great simplicity and warmth. He is a reader and lover of words as well as a shepherd, and that familiarity with the English language gives his prose a wonderful lilt and rhythm.

Like many people I have always been enchanted by the Lake District because of the great poets and writers that were inspired there – William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome. I made a pilgrimage there a few years ago, and wandered the green hills and tramped through the trees, imagining daffodils dancing and bunny rabbits frisking. I wish I had read this book before I went, as I now have a much deeper and more profound understanding of the landscape – its history, its way of life, and the people who life and work there.

You might also be interested to read my review of A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price, which I loved.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Friday, April 27, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

My Thoughts:

I’ve had an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) of this book on my shelf for literally years, but had never found the time to read it (although I wanted to). Then the movie came out and I always like to read the book before I watch someone else’s creative response to it. So the book jumped the queue and I finally got around to reading it.

It’s a simple enough story.

August Pullman was born with a genetic disorder that resulted in a childhood of hospitals and operations. Despite this, he has been left with facial deformities that make many people who see him for the first time uncomfortable. He’s been home-schooled, but his mother thinks it is time for him to go to a mainstream school. Auggie is reluctant. He is afraid of the other kids’ horror and unkindness. But finally he agrees, even though he knows it will be an ordeal.

The first part of the book is told from his point-of-view, with succeeding sections told by his older sister, her boyfriend, and some of the other kids at school. This device allows us to see how Auggie’s struggle to be accepted impacts on those around him. R.J. Palacio does a good job of creating different voices for her characters, though it is Auggie’s point-of-view which is most memorable. Auggie is funny, brave, and caring. He just wants to be an ordinary kid, and yet those around him can’t help but treat him differently.

R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness”, and this is the book’s great strength. Wonder has been criticised for being over-sentimental and over-simplified, but you know what? I had a big lump in my throat when I finished it. It’s true that this is a big, difficult and complex topic, and that – for people who suffer differences and disabilities - there is rarely any such happy ending. However, this is a book written for children, with a very important message about learning to live with empathy, compassion and thoughtfulness, and I believe that many child readers will find themselves fundamentally changed by reading it.

You might also be interested in reading my review of The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear what you think.

INTERVIEW: Frances Hardinge

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


Today I welcome Frances Hardinge, author of A Skinful of Shadows, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes, I've always been a daydreamer. When I was very young and extremely shy, I always had secret stories alive in my head, which I told to myself over time.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I certainly can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. As a child I always had a shortlist of things I wanted to be, and this would change a bit over time, but "writer" was always on the list, as were "artist" and "international spy".

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Brighton, on the 13th floor of the hospital. I now live in a rather green part West London, near to the Thames path and lots of parks. My hobbies include scuba diving, hiking, role-playing games and traveling.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

It wasn't exactly a flash. A number of partial ideas had been floating around in the back of my head for some time, and started to make more sense once they finally came together. I think the first of these to come to me was the idea of the ghost bear. I'd heard about the historical mistreatment of dancing bears, and it had made me angry, so I liked the idea of one of these bears coming back in ghost form to wreak revenge, unshackled at last.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
This varies from book to book, but I'm definitely a planner. I create brainstorming documents, outlines, maps, character lists and sometimes chronological spreadsheets. I also do a lot of research, even if I'm using a fantastical setting. I like to know the main things that happen in the book, and how the story is going to end, before I start writing in good earnest.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes, occasionally! A childhood nightmare of mine was the indirect inspiration for a dream sequence in The Lie Tree. Another nightmare gave me ideas for a short story.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Historical research always unearths lots of fascinating details. I learnt a lot about seventeenth century spycraft, including how to make invisible ink from artichoke juice, and a way to hide a message inside an apparently unbroken egg. I also learnt about fascinating superstitions still lingering at that time, such as the belief that bear cubs were born as shapeless blobs that had to be licked into shape by their mothers. Some remedies were a bit bizarre too - 'snail water' was a treatment for gout, and newly killed pigeons were sometimes laid on a patient's feet if they were in imminent danger of death!

Where do you write, and when?
I usually write in my little study, which doubles as a storeroom and is very cluttered. Most days I try to work nine to five, but often this schedule breaks down. When I have a deadline looming, it's not unusual for me to work until 2, 3, 4 or even 5 in the morning.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Coming up with the initial ideas, in the first flush of excitement and enthusiasm, is fun. Also, there are times when the writing just flows. Of course, you never know when these times are going to be.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I create more brainstorming documents to help myself think things through. Sometimes I take a break and go for a really long walk, which also seems to help me untangle things.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I'm curious about everything, I always want to try new things, I love talking to people who know things I don't, and I'm a great fan of travel.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Not unless you count making industrial quantities of tea.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I would have trouble whittling my list of favourites down to fifty, so this list of ten is a bit arbitrary: Lewis Carroll, Susan Cooper, Douglas Adams, Richard Adams, EM Forster, Terry Pratchett, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte.

What do you consider to be good writing?

I think that there are hundreds of different kinds of good writing. Elaborate, lyrical writing takes skill, but so does clear, concise use of language. Multi-faceted novels and ingeniously brief picture books require different kinds of craftsmanship. Books that succeed in being funny, entertaining, scary or suspenseful are examples of good writing, even if they're not the sort of book that gets shortlisted for literary prizes.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Here are the tips I usually give young aspiring writers.

What are you working on now?
I'm writing another rather weird YA novel, this time set in an alternative world. I'd rather not say too much at this stage, but some of the action will take place underwater...

BOOK REVIEW: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

This is the story of a bear-hearted girl . . .

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide.
Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding.

Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard.

And now there's a spirit inside her.

The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defence when she is sent to live with her father's rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.

But as she plans her escape and heads out into a country torn apart by war, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession – or death.

My Thoughts:

Frances Hardinge is now officially my favourite writer for young adults. Her novel The Lie Tree was one of my best reads of 2016, and now she has enchanted me anew with A Skinful of Shadows which is just as dark, magical, intelligent and surprising.

Set during the English Civil War, one of my favourite historical periods, A Skinful of Shadows tells the story of Makepeace, a twelve-year old girl growing up in a Puritan community. Her mother locks her in a crypt on moonless nights, so that she can learn to fight ghosts. Makepeace begs her not to, but her mother is relentless. So Makepeace tries to break free. Her impetuous action leads to tragedy, and Makepeace finds herself a prisoner of the very people her mother had been trying to protect her from.

And Makepeace carries a dark and terrible secret inside her. She is possessed by the ghost of a bear.

A spellbinding and compelling tale of necromancers and cavaliers, hungry spirits and treasonous spies, A Skinful of Shadows thrums with magic, danger and intrigue. Makepeace is a wonderful heroine – clever, resourceful, compassionate and brave. And Bear, the wild fierce and unpredictable force within her, will just about break your heart. I am now eagerly hunting down Frances Hardinge’s other books!

I was lucky enough to interview Frances Hardinge, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason

Monday, April 23, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A gripping blend of family mystery, contemporary stories and the beautiful and bloody Viking tales, set against the starkly stunning landscape of Iceland. Broadcaster Richard Fidler and author Kari Gíslason are good friends. They share a deep attachment to the sagas of Iceland - the true stories of the first Viking families who settled on that remote island in the Middle Ages.These are tales of blood feuds, of dangerous women, and people who are compelled to kill the ones they love the most. The sagas are among the greatest stories ever written, but the identity of their authors is largely unknown. Together, Richard and Kari travel across Iceland, to the places where the sagas unfolded a thousand years ago. They cross fields, streams and fjords to immerse themselves in the folklore of this fiercely beautiful island. And there is another mission: to resolve a longstanding family mystery: a gift from Kari's Icelandic father that might connect him to the greatest of the saga authors.

My Thoughts:

I loved Richard Fidler’s earlier book, Ghost Empire, about his journey to Constantinople with his son, which entwined travel writing with history and legend in a very personable and beguiling way. And I’ve been interested in Iceland and its astonishing sagas for quite some time. So, I was keen to read Saga Land from the second I heard about it.

Subtitled ‘The Island Of Stories at the Edge of the World’, Saga Land is the story of how ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler became friends with one of his guests, the author and academic Kári Gíslason. After his interview on Richard’s show ‘Conversations’, the two stood chatting by the lift for more than an hour. They shared a deep interest in the sagas of Iceland – ‘true tales … of blood feuds … dangerous women, and people who are compelled to kill the ones they love the most,’ as the blurb describes these ancient and eerie stories.

Eventually Richard and Kári travelled together to Iceland, to explore the landscape and history and folklore of this bare fierce country. Kári was born in Iceland, but did not know his father or his father’s other family until he was an adult. So, for him, the journey is a homecoming and a chance to explore his ancestral roots. For Richard, it’s an adventure and a discovery.

Like Ghost Empire, the book weaves together memoir, travelogue, history and mythology, which is one of my favourite types of books to read. The memoir and travelogue sections of the book feel real and warm and intimate. The recountings of the ancient sagas are fresh and clear and simple, bringing them back to powerful and immediate life. And the history of Iceland is bloody and fascinating. I also really loved the photographs included in the book.

Usually I read non-fiction in small bites, squeezed in between my reading of novels. I read Saga Land in one big gulp. It was utterly mesmerising.

You can read my review of Ghost Empire here.
And you can listen to Richard Fidler's most recent intereview with me here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

THE BLUE ROSE: Reaching the Halfway Point

Sunday, April 22, 2018

For almost a year I have been working on a novel called The Blue Rose.

It tells the story of Viviane de Ravoisier, the daughter of a French marquis, and David Stronach, a Welsh gardener who travels to her chateau in Brittany to design and plant an English-style garden. The two fall in love, but their passion is forbidden. David is driven away  and Viviane is married against her will to a duc. She is taken to the palace of Versailles where she witnesses the early days of the French Revolution. Through her eyes, I tell the story of the fall of the Bastille, the abolition of the nobility, and the beginning of the Terror.

I imagine the Chateau de Belisima-sur-le-lac looking a little like this chateau in Brittany, the Château de Trécesson:

I first discovered this chateau when someone posted a picture of it on Facebook, wondering what the chateau was called. It was so like what I imagined Viviane's home looking like, I went and searched on the internet until I located it and it has been my desktop picture ever since.   

I have a very visual imagination and so I am always printing out pictures and sticking them in my notebooks, or pinning them on Pinterest (you can check out all the pictures on my Pinterest page if you like.) 

I also like to collect small artefacts that help inspire my imagination. 

The first is a small miniature of a 18th century French noblewoman that I bought on Etsy. It's the most exquisite little painting, and it has work dits way into the story as a miniature of Viviane's mother, who died the day she was born.  

My other treasure, I found in an old antique shop in France when I was there two years ago researching this book. 

It is a huge old key. The man in the antique shop told me that it was the key to a chateau that had been burned during the french revolution. The key was found in the chateau well 270 years later. No-one knows who threw it in the well, or why. This story really intrigued me and so I bought the key, and it now hangs on my wall. 

This anecdote too has worked its way into the story.

This week, I finished Part II of The Blue Rose and reached the halfway point at 60,000 words in total.  

My action now moves from France to a ship sailing around the world to China. 

I plan to go to China with my son in mid-May. Maybe I will find some fascinating artefact there that will inspire me anew. I hope so!

INTERVIEW: Louise Allan, author of THE SISTERS' SONG

Friday, April 20, 2018


Today I welcome Louise Allan, author of The Sisters' Song, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
My mind is never on what I’m doing but always gallivanting about in the clouds. If I’m washing up or doing the laundry, it’s usually preoccupied by what I’ve been writing, wondering what type of person that character really is, or what I’m really trying to say in a scene.

For me to write well, I have to immerse myself in my story, so even when I’m cooking dinner or walking dogs, I’m still in the world of my story. My family usually call me a couple of times before I hear them!

I’ve always been like it and I used to think there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t stop my mind wandering. But it’s come in useful for novel writing! It does make me hard to live with, because people must tell me things at least three times before they register!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

No, I didn’t start writing until I was 43 years old. I enjoyed writing stories in primary school, but when I reached high school and our creative writing was assessed, I believed I wasn’t good at it because my marks in English were average. In fact, I didn’t think I was artistic or creative at all, so I pursued a scientific pathway and went into medicine and became a doctor.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I realised books took many drafts and much editing. Before that, as ridiculous as it sounds, I viewed authors as magical people, for whom writing beautiful prose and books came naturally. Because I found it hard to express my thoughts in words, and anything I wrote needed countless revisions before I got it right, I didn’t view myself as someone who could write. Those marks in English really coloured my vision of myself.

My children showed me what might be possible when they started writing books and winning young writers awards. In 2010, I quit medicine, because life as a working mother of four was too hectic and, knowing I’d need something to keep my mind active, I enrolled in a writing course. I had no idea if I’d like it or not, but by the second assignment I was hooked and knew I wanted to write a novel.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Launceston, Tasmania, and grew up there. When I was 18, I moved to Hobart to study medicine at the University of Tasmania. I worked as a GP for a number of years before moving into the field of breast cancer. In 2000, my family and I moved across the country to Perth, Western Australia, which is where we still live.

I love anything to do with nature—bushwalking, camping, swimming in the ocean. I also have an interest in photography, and that’s one of the ways I renew the creativity well when I’m feeling depleted. Of course, I also love to read!

Fishing at St Patrick’s River, Tasmania, with my sister.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
The beginnings of my novel came from a short story I wrote in 2010. That piece was set in the ‘60s, and was about a good girl who’d been abused by her mother. 

Throughout 2010 and 2011, I worked on the story from time to time, taking it forwards in time and trying a couple of different characters’ points of view. The story didn’t seem to be going anywhere, though, until the day one of the characters knocked on her Great Aunt Ida’s door. Ida invited that character in for morning tea, and began telling the family’s story. She went back in time, from the ‘60s to the ‘50s, then the ‘40’s, and the ‘30s, and I was worried she’d never stop. But she did stop, in 1926, and I knew straight away that I’d found my narrator and this was the story I wanted to tell.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
Not at all! I have no idea where my story is going when I start. I truly fly by the seat of my pants, and would win the ‘Biggest Pantser’ award. To give you an idea of how much of a pantser I am, I added 12,000 new words during the final edits of my novel.

I have a belief that our subconscious is better at determining the course of a story than our conscious ‘planning’ brain. Having said that, I recently sent my publishers a synopsis of my second novel before I’d written it. It took a lot of self-discipline to write and was completely against my natural tendencies. The only way I managed it was by telling myself that I could still write anything I wanted later!

So far, though, I’ve kept to plan and haven’t changed much. But who knows what will happen in the future?

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I’ve written a couple of my dreams down if I’ve remembered them the next morning, but I haven’t used one as a source for a story … yet.

Sometimes as I’m writing, I get a feeling of déjà vu, like I’ve been in the story before, although I have no memory of it, and I wonder if it was in a dream.

I think that our dreams and our imagination come from the same place, which is why I believe that anyone who has dreams can also imagine a story. We have creativity as children, but as we grow up, we’re taught to ignore that side of ourselves, ridiculed for it even—I certainly was. So, we protect it by hiding it away because it’s so personal and fragile, and tell ourselves we’re not creative. What rubbish! We’re all creative, some of us have just learnt to shield it for our own protection.

We can get in touch with it again. It’s scary at first, but it’s an important part of ourselves and we should be proud of it.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

All. The. Time! The main theme of my novel—that women aren’t allowed to have dreams—was one of them. I set out to write about child abuse, but as I kept digging between the layers, I found what I was really trying to say.

They say all art is autobiography, and I’m a firm believer in that. It’s not necessarily in the storyline or in the characters, but in other ways, like the themes that arise as you write. I learnt much more about myself from those unplanned things than from anything I based on real life events or people. This theme is probably the most autobiographical part of the story.

Where do you write, and when?

My favourite place to write is in my lovely attic, but I can write anywhere and anytime—I learnt to while ferrying children about. Carparks are a specialty.

I can also write anytime of the day or night, but my favourite time is in the early hours of the morning, when it’s still dark and quiet because no one’s awake.

I have a favourite writing weather, too: rainy days, especially when no one’s home and I have the house to myself.

My attic on a tidy day.

What is your favourite part of writing?
My favourite part of writing is editing. I love being able to refine my sentences and ideas, and turn them into something closer to the ideal I have in my head.

This is because I’m an obsessional perfectionist. I hate first drafts because I have to ignore all the mistakes and just keep moving forwards. I usually give in, and go back to edit. Of course, then I lose the forward momentum and have to refresh my memory of where the story was going. I know I should just keep writing ...

What do you do when you get blocked?

Writing by hand is always the first thing I try. If that doesn’t work, I’ll take the dogs for a walk, or read a book. Sometimes, I pull out my camera and take photos.

A photo I took one day when I was feeling a bit blocked.

There have been times I’ve been unable to write because something is bothering me. Sometimes, I can work through it by writing about it, but other times, I have to let the writing go for a while.

Whenever I’m blocked, I worry it’s permanent, that I’ve written all the words and ideas I have inside me and I’ll never write again. But it’s never permanent; it always returns. Well, it has so far!

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I fill up by binge-reading and getting outside with the dogs, in amongst nature and the ocean. I also listen to music, go to the opera or a concert, or visit an art gallery. Even going to a movie helps me refuel. I find it inspiring to spend time with other writers and artists, too.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Only ten! Okay, I admire: Hannah Kent, Charlotte Wood, Tim Winton, Ann Patchett, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kent Haruf, Thomas Hardy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Bronte Sisters.

(I think that’s more than ten but I can’t count!)

What do you consider to be good writing?

Beautiful imagery moves me. I also love original ways of using language, but I don’t like it for the sake of it. It has to flow and sound natural, not forced. After all, the purpose of writing is to impart meaning to a reader, and no matter how beautiful your prose, if the meaning is tangled, you’re not doing your job.

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

Get rid of that internal censor! Give yourself permission to write whatever comes up and get back in touch with your creative self.

Also, just get your bum into the chair and do it. Don’t put it off any longer.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my second novel, but I’m finding it hard at this ugly first draft stage. However, I’m ploughing on, because if I ever want to publish a book again, I need words, no matter how unsightly they are!

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