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INTERVIEW: Belinda Murrell author of The River Charm

Friday, June 28, 2013

Those of you who know me well will know that I come from a family of writers.

My great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson wrote the first children's book published in Australia.

Her youngest daughter Louisa Atkinson was the first Australian-born female novelist.

There have been writers of all kind - poets, journalists, academics, novelists - in nearly every generation since, including my brother Nick Humphrey, my sister Belinda Murrell, and me. 

Now my sister Belinda has written a novel inspired by the extraordinary story of how Charlotte Waring Atkinson came to write her book, the first written and published for children in Australia. I'm very proud to welcome her today: 

For those readers who have not yet discovered your wonderful new novel THE RIVER CHARM, what is it all about?

The River Charm is a very special book to me, because it is based on the true life adventures of our great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Elizabeth Atkinson. Set in Australia, during the 1840s, it is the story of a family who lost everything but fought against almost insurmountable odds to regain their independence and their right to be together as a family. Charlotte was born into a wealthy family at Oldbury, a grand estate in the bush. But after her father dies, her mother is left to raise four young children on her own. A young widow was a tempting target – from murderous convicts, violent bushrangers and worst of all, a cruel new stepfather. Fearing for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a remote hut in the wilderness. The Atkinson family must fight to save everything they hold dear. 

How did you get the first idea for it?
When I was a child, my grandparents, Nonnie and Papa used to take my sister (that's me!) and I down to the Southern Highlands to visit the ancestral home. It was a grand old mansion called Oldbury which had been built by my great-great-great-great grandparents James and Charlotte Atkinson in about 1828. On the way, my grandparents always told us stories about the family who had lived there. The stories were filled with adventure, tragedy and joy. I can remember peering through the gate at the old house which was then neglected and shabby but being in love with the romance of the stories.

When my grandmother Nonnie died, she left me a pile of her treasures. Amongst them were a painting of Oldbury, and a pile of old books. One had been written by James and one by Charlotte. This one was the first children’s book published in Australia. 

Two years ago my mum, Gilly my sister, Kate (that's me again!) and our daughters Emily and Ella went to see an original sketchbook of drawings done by Charlotte Atkinson. It was when we were all sitting around that desk, with our white gloves on, looking through this priceless heirloom that I decided I wanted to write a story about that extraordinary family.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered during your research?

I discovered that there was a journal written in 1826 by Charlotte Waring (my great-great-great-great grandmother) which is now held in the National Library. I obtained a copy of it and it was so fascinating to read her words in her own handwriting about the beginning of her voyage to Australia. The journal covers just a short few weeks but during this time she left her family and homeland for ever, met her future husband, enjoyed their early romance and survived a terrifying storm which nearly destroyed their ship. 

I also read a letter written by her daughter Charlotte which listed the fascinating items which James Atkinson brought out on that journey with him – including a fine stallion, several dogs, plus white lillies in glass topped boxes for his garden.  Like my family, the Atkinson family loved animals and raised many orphan creatures including a pet koala, wallabies and baby possums. 

What do you love most about writing?

Immersing myself in a different place and time. Discovering the stories of my characters. Experiencing the almost magical evolution from the first spark of an idea, to the outline of a story, to a complete book. 
I also love the feedback from my readers. One of my greatest joys is getting hundreds of emails and letters from kids, telling me how much they love my books.

What are the best 5 books you've read recently?
Of course The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth!! I love historical novels based on real people and real events, and this was particularly fascinating. (Thank you, Bin!)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This book made me laugh out loud. A fun, entertaining book.

Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (yes you gave it to me for my birthday!!). I loved the voice of Zelda and it gave a captivating insight into 1920s America, the Jazz Age and its literary stars including of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I love all of Kate’s books, particularly the way they weave together stories of different generations and different time periods, through many twists and turns, to reveal deeply buried family secrets. 

I’m now reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant about the Borgia family during the Italian Renaissance. 

What lies ahead of you in the next year? 
I am currently writing the sixth book in my new Lulu Bell series, called Lulu Bell and the Sea Turtle, which will come out in January 2014. It has been so much fun to work together with illustrator Serena Geddes to create the Lulu Bell series. The series has just been launched this week, and it has been so exciting to experience the excited buzz of a new series. I have a giant Lulu Bell cardboard character keeping me company in my office! With five books out this year, I am doing about eight weeks of touring including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and regional areas.  

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