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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!

BOOK REVIEW: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

Friday, April 20, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1927, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother who is particularly encouraging of Nora's musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora's life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.

Ida's longs for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida's eyes, Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Set in rural Tasmania over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters, Ida and Nora. The Sisters' Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

My Thoughts:

A deeply moving examination of two sisters’ entwined lives in Tasmania during the 1930s & ‘40s, The Sisters’ Song is an assured debut from Western Australian writer Louise Allan.

The story begins in 1927, with two little girls shocked and grieving the death of their father. Ida is the elder of the sisters, and thought of as the ‘bad’ one, being outspoken and unruly. Nora, golden-haired and musical, is the ‘good’ one, always doing as she is told. The death of their father and the deep paralysing grief of their mother changes everything. The girls are sent to stay with their grandmother, who encourages Nora to sing. She is soon starring in the school musicals, while Ida feels left out and envious. Her jealousy causes a rift to widen between the sisters, and eventually Nora runs away to pursue her dream of being an opera singer.

Ida, meanwhile, falls in love and marries, but her longing for a child is cruelly denied as miscarriage follows miscarriage.

Then Nora returns, a child in her belly and her career in tatters. Married to a man she does not love, mother to children she does not want, she bitterly resents the mistake which destroyed her dreams. Ida, meanwhile, cannot help but feel that her golden sister has everything she ever wanted, and fails to appreciate it.

The story unwinds over the span of the two sisters’ lives, as they struggle with the consequences of their choices. Love, grief, loss, betrayal, and the enduring love of the two sisters weave a heart-breaking story that lingers long in the memory.

I was lucky enough to interview the wonderful Louise Allan this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.

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