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INTERVIEW: Kelly Gardiner author of Act of Faith

Friday, December 13, 2013

I hugely enjoyed Kelly Gardiner's two YA historical novels about the adventures of Isabella Hawkins, a brilliant and highly educated young woman fighting to find a place in her world - Europe in the dangerous years of the 1640s. The first is entitled Act of Faith and the second is The Sultan's Eyes - I'd recommend reading them in order.

Here Kelly joins me to chat about inspirations, serendipity, favourite books and my usual preoccupations:

Are you a daydreamer too?


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, although I did go through a phase where I wanted to be an archaeologist - until I found out you had to be really good at maths and science. 

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

I was born in Melbourne, and lived here most of my life although I did spend several years in Sydney and then on an island in New Zealand. Now I'm back in Melbourne and I live in an old cottage called Thelma. I spend a lot of time gardening. And day dreaming.

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

A few different things came together. I was thinking about how the impact of the early printing press in Europe felt similar to the impact of the web; it changed the world, but there were also crackdowns on information and ideas, as there are in many countries today. And I was also getting cranky about media reports and all the rhetoric about refugees, as if it's a new thing, when of course there have always been refugees, sadly. But then I had a flash of a scene in which a young woman is on a ship about to be wrecked - I didn't know who or where or even when she was but then she became in my mind someone who was a refugee from the kind of political and religious oppression many people have faced throughout history.
Isn't a gorgeous cover?

How extensively do you plan your novels?

It depends on the story. I don't usually have a complete plan at the start, but once I've done some research it all becomes clearer and then I do plan quite precisely, especially where the story rubs up against real events in history. But when I'm writing I always forget to look at my plan.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I sometimes have scenes flash into my mind in those minutes between sleeping and being fully awake, but not dreams as such. More often it's the case that I can't sleep for thinking about the work, and have to get up and scribble things down. Then the next morning they make no sense at all.

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

I hadn't understood that the Puritans in England had really gone all over the countryside and smashed up everything in the churches and especially the universities. I'd decided to set the first part of Act of Faith in Cambridge, and it was only then that I read about the attacks on the colleges. Amazingly, all the proceedings of the House of Lords and Commons from the Civil war era are digitised and online, so you can actually read the transcripts of Parliament, for example on the day the King turned up to arrest some of the members and the House refused. It gives me goosebumps.

Where do you write, and when?

I have a tiny writing room lined with books and looking out into the garden. But I can write anywhere - on the train, in a cafe. I try to have a couple of writing days in the week, but I also have a part-time job and do some teaching so I have to be very careful to lock in some writing time. 

What is your favourite part of writing?

It's those moments when you have no idea how much time has past or what day it is because you are somewhere else completely.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I don't really get blocked, but if it's not working for some reason I will just keep writing through it, even if what I produce is rubbish that I'll never use - or watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

How do we stop it from overflowing? There are so many stories I want to write.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Not really, though I do find it hard to work in mess, so I tidy up beforehand. Because I can only write part-time, I have to be very good at managing time. This is what I do: I block out two-hour sessions in my diary. And in those hours I just write - no email, no facebook, no putting loads of washing on - nothing. I don't even answer the phone. Within those hours I do 25 minute writing sprints. This is called the Pomodoro method. You just write for 25 minutes, then have a five or ten minute break, and keep repeating that for the two hours. I use a little app which dings when the time's up. 

I can fit three blocks of two hours into a writing day - or more if I write into the night. I don't look up anything or fuss over words, I just write. Then in the breaks I can check my research or find a missing word.  It's quite intense but great for drafting or really focusing on a task. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Gosh, what a hard question. Let's see...
Jeanette Winterson
Leo Tolstoy
Ernest Hemingway
Hilary Mantel
Primo Levi
Sarah Waters
David Malouf
Umberto Eco
Jan Morris
Antony Beevor

My favourite writer for children is Margaret Mahy - she was a genius and I miss her. And there are so many fantastic local writers for children and young adults I can't even begin to list them here.
I love Margaret Mahy too!

What do you consider to be good writing? 

I like precise writing, not too overwritten or self-conscious, moving without being emotional, and with a strong narrative and rhythmic voice. Those elements are important in writing for readers of any age, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, but precision is critical in writing for younger readers. I live in hope of mastering it one day.

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

Read everything you can get your hands on, even genres you might not normally read. And just write. Don't get obsessed with all the stuff about publishing - just write the best work you can, and tell the stories that only you can tell.

What are you working on now? 

I've just finished a novel for adults called Goddess, based on the real life of a seventeenth-century French swordswoman and opera singer, Mademoiselle de Maupin. It's taken four years to research and write, and I feel a bit bereft without it. It's being typeset at the moment, so I'll get pages to proofread in the next week or so. It comes out in the middle of 2014. 

Over summer I'll go onto the next project, War Songs, which is set on the Somme during World War One - it's a major redraft and I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into it.

You can read my review of Act of Faith here and visit Kelly's website here 

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