Please welcome Pamela Hart, author of the wonderful World War I novel THE SOLDIER'S WIFE!
Tell me about five authors who have been influential in shaping the writer you are today? In what way have they shaped you?
It’s always hard to pick a list. I would say Shakespeare, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer and maybe Ursula Le Guin.
I started reading Shakespeare in primary school, and loved him from the start. I have no idea how he’s influenced me, but he must have – I’ve spent so many hours reading or watching him!
Tolkien was my first adult fantasy novel, although I’d been reading speculative fiction all the way through my childhood in the form of the ‘Best SF/Fantasy of X year’ series. He influenced in terms of understanding the emotion of longing in a work; the desire to be somewhere, somewhen, elsewhere; the sense of wonder.
Dorothy Sayers has a beautiful, classic style. I’ve read her so often I know her rhythms and syntax have influenced me, and I’m just fine with that! She’s an economical and intelligent writer with great characters and terrific plots.
Georgette Heyer (along with Rosemary Sutcliffe) got me interested in historical novels. It’s taken a long time to bear fruit, but I know I would never have written The Soldier’s Wife without having read her. She also got me interested in how people spoke in the past.
Ursula Le Guin influenced me in two ways – by expanding my imagination, and by moving away from speculative fiction at one point in her career to write Searoads, which is a series of interconnected stories about ordinary people who all live along the same road. It made me start thinking about the lives of ordinary people as the subject of fiction.
And then, as an adult, there are people like you, Kate, whose work keeps challenging me to do better!
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned about the art and craft of writing?
The most important lesson I have learnt is that how I feel doesn’t count. What I mean by that is that my ego, my attachment to certain scenes or sentences, can’t get in the way of the story. It’s a lesson I think you keep learning your whole writing life, because with every book you develop some darlings, and you have to kill them more often than not.
The other lesson is my mantra: the difference between an amateur writer and a professional is the number of drafts they’re prepared to do. First draft, second draft, third draft is never good enough. I know my process now and I know that I need beta readers and good editors to really reach the potential for each story.
Do you write full-time? If not, what else do you do in your life? How does that affect your writing?
I teach two nights face-to-face and a couple of online courses a week at the Australian Writers’ Centre – my students range from absolute beginners to people who have already had some fiction published. I love teaching; I know I’m a better writer because I’ve had to really think about the processes of writing in order to explain them to my students.
Of course, it does take up a fair bit of time – but it gets me out of the house!
How would you describe your latest book?
The Soldier’s Wife
is an historical novel set in World War I Sydney. It’s the story of Ruby Hawkins, a newly-married girl who comes from a country town to Sydney to see her husband Jimmy embark for Gallipolli.
While he is gone, she gets a job as a bookkeeper in a timber yard - a man's job.
Ruby makes a new life for herself; a full and complicated life with new colleagues, new enemies and unexpected challenges. She is changed by it, of course... and when Jimmy comes home wounded from the Dardanelles, he finds a woman, not the inexperienced country girl he left behind.
The story is based partly on my own grandfather’s war experience, but it concentrates on the lives of the people the soldier’s left behind.
How did you first get the idea for this book?
My son’s teacher asked me to talk to his class for ANZAC Day two years ago, as he was the only one in the class with a direct link back to Gallipoli, as my grandfather, Freemie, and great-uncle had fought there. So I took Freemie’s medals and dog-tags up to show the kids. We also have copies of the telegrams his family was sent when he was wounded, and I read them aloud to the class. They are a terrible litany: ‘We regret to report Private Arthur Freeman wounded’ was the first one. Then the second said he was seriously ill (with a fever in a Cairo hospital), the next that he was dangerously ill, then ‘still dangerously ill’ and, about a month after the first one, ‘out of danger’.
It was very moving, reading them aloud, and I started to wonder: What would it have been like to be the person who got the telegrams? That was the beginning of The Soldier’s Wife.
Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
The most extraordinary part of this research wasn’t a person, but a thing. I went to the Victoria Barracks museum where they have quite a display of the uniforms, etc., worn by the AIF over the years. What I didn’t know was that they had a tablecloth there which came off the first hospital ship to come back from Gallipoli, the Nestor. Someone on board had got all the men to sign the cloth, and then the Red Cross ladies had later embroidered over all the signatures, and auctioned it off for war widows and orphans.
I knew my grandfather had been on the Nestor, so I looked – and there was his signature! He died before I was born, so it was a moment of connection across years and generations. I was particularly moved to see that he signed his name the same way my father and I do (when I’m signing as Pamela Freeman).
Here’s a photo of it:
The volunteers at the museum were very excited – none of them had been there when a relative found a name before!
What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?
My biggest reference tool was the National Library of Australia’s Trove database. It’s fantastic. It has all of the editions from just about every newspaper in the country, all searchable online. And the best part was the ads! That’s how I could tell what things cost, what fabric, for example, was available in the stores, and so on. An invaluable resource.
Also, of course, I drew on my own family history – my father is 92 and I’ve been asking him a lot of questions!
What do you think most characterises your writing?
This is always hard to say… but my editor says I’m a storyteller, and I’m happy with that. I’m interested in bringing a good story to the reader, and I try not to let the mechanics of writing get in the way of that. I’m not interested in looking clever by making a story hard to read or figure out.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
The hardest part was getting the character of Jimmy, the Soldier, right. Jimmy is very different from my husband, and I’ve always had trouble writing a love story where the main male character is very different from Stephen. So I had to work very hard to make sure that Jimmy was as lovable as I could make him, even though he was flawed as well. I came to really care about him in the end.
Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured in your book?
Well, I made sure I had at least one Aboriginal character, Albert Smith. It’s so easy to whitewash history and leave indigenous people out of the story. And it’s important to also recognise that Australia has always been a diverse place – that the shameful White Australia policy came in precisely because people were getting worried that it was too diverse.
As for ideas… well, there’s a general assumption in scholarly literature that the ‘first wave of feminism’ which occurred during World War I was a deliberate act of independence on the part of the women who took what had been men’s jobs. That might have been true in Britain – I don’t know. But in Australia women already had the vote (since 1901), so the surge of feminism which accompanied the suffrage movement had died down. Most women here went to work because a) their husbands were away at the front and the allowance they got from them wasn’t very big and b) prices went up enormously in the early days of the war. Bread doubled in price in 1915. Women went to work to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads and their families’.
So I guess that’s one ‘underrepresented idea’.
What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
I think it has a very bright future! People are engaging with text far more now than they did when I was a kid. Far more children describe themselves as bookworms or devoted readers – I was the only bookworm in my class at school! I think we have this rose-tinted view of the past. In the same breath people say, ‘Kids don’t get to play outside all day the way I did’ and ‘Kids aren’t reading as much anymore.’ They can’t both be true, and the truth is that children read more now than they ever have. Text is also a big part of games, and gamers have a particular relationship to text as both communication and a necessary part of the game (especially MMOs). So I think that words are working their way deeper and deeper into our culture, which can only be good for writing.
And in the end, it’s all about stories and people’s need for stories, which never goes away.
What process did you go through to get your book published?
The Soldier’s Wife is my 28th book, and I was very lucky to already have relationship with my publisher at Hachette, Bernadette Foley. So I told her what I was working on, and she asked to see it. I showed it to her earlier than I would normally send it to a publisher, because this was a new genre for me, and I knew there were problems with the book – frankly, I wanted some advice!
Bernadette gave me some very good advice, and I did a new draft taking those ideas into account and cutting 10 000 words out. Bernadette liked that version and took it to a publishing meeting, and fortunately everyone else liked it as well!
She has since left the company, but I’m very lucky to be working with Rebecca Saunders in her stead. I was a bit nervous when Rebecca first read the book, but
she liked it too. That was a great relief.
How do you find or make time to write?
When you are obsessed, you find time!
What are some ways in which you promote your work?
My website is pamela-hart.com and I have a newsletter readers can sign up to (they get a free short story if they do!). There’s also a lot of content on there – extra scenes from the book, videos, the first chapter, the story behind the book told in more detail than I’ve been able to do here, etc.
I am on Facebook
and Twitter (@pamelahartbooks). I’m also happy for people to be my friends as Pamela Freeman on Facebook (/pamelafreeman.author).
I’m happy to talk to book groups via Skype and I do talks at libraries, etc. As a children’s writer, I also do talks at schools.
Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?
Oh, it’s so easy to convince yourself that you’re really working if you’re updating FB or Twitter! It’s something to be wary of, I think. But I love connecting with readers any way it happens.
What do you like to read in your free time?
I read just about everything, including a lot of non-fiction. Because I teach novel writing, I have to keep up with a wide range of genres, so I can properly advise my students about their work. That forces me to read things I might not pick up otherwise, and that’s great.
What projects are you working on at the present?
I’m working on the next historical novel, The War Bride, which will be out for Mother’s Day next year in 2016. I take one character from The Soldier’s Wife and follow what happens to him after the war, as well as introducing an entirely new cast of characters, including Margaret – a war bride who comes to Sydney from England only to find that her husband has apparently abandoned her.