On the blog today, I am delighted to host Eleanor Limprecht, author of The Passengers, published on the 21st of February, and reviewed on the blog as well. Eleanor has kindly answered some questions about the book, war brides and her research process, so I hope you enjoy and that it gives some insight into a very interesting book and a history not often taught in classes.
Hi Eleanor, and welcome to The Book Muse. I’m happy to host you here today.
Hi Ashleigh and thanks for having me!
I’ll start by saying how much I enjoyed The Passengers. It had a little bit of everything, and I liked that each journey was connected by the sea and the cruise, and a sense of self for both Sarah and Hannah. This was a very well executed story.
Thank you very much.
Now down to the questions.
Was there anything in particular that got you interested in the stories of war brides from Australia during the Second World War, and what was this?
There were two things – firstly, in 2013 I took my family to visit my Great Aunt Marge Fogel in San Diego, she was living in a retirement home and we met her boyfriend, Bert, who was in his 90s. Bert was telling us how he’d been to Sydney in the 1940s on R and R, when the war was on, and how he remembered, ‘the beautiful girls, and how they loved to dance’, and he told me how many Americans had married those Australian girls. It got me thinking – wondering how those marriages had turned out.
Then we were visiting a family friend of my husband’s a year or two later in Northern NSW and his wife spoke of how her aunt had married an American GI during the war and ended up moving to Kilmarnock, Virginia – and she’d never seen her again. I knew the town of Kilmarnock very well as one of my best friends is from Kilmarnock, and it’s a very small town, and I was intrigued by how that woman would have settled in. The culture shock coming from Sydney, the sheer distance, and then that knowledge that she had never returned. That her family never saw her again.
Prior to World War Two, had war brides been a common societal change in the modern world, or did this trend, and these experiences evolve as a result of American troops staying in Australian cities after 1941?
War brides have been around as long as there have been wars fought in foreign lands. However, what changed with World War II is the numbers of women who married foreign soldiers. Up to 15,000 Australian women are estimated to have married American GIs and moved to the US, but even more German and British brides married foreign soldiers. So war brides were around, particularly during World War I, but the numbers grew massively in WWII.
If inspired by family, are there any interesting stories from family members that informed the narrative and characters you have created?
They are more second hand stories, the ones I related above. But there is also my own story: that I met and fell in love with an Australian man while travelling in Italy in 2001. We spent less than a month together and a year later I left my home, my family, the degree I was studying for, my friends…everything (except my dog – I brought my dog) and moved to Australia to be with him. So in a deeply personal way I related to the stories of these women. I compared my own experience and felt privileged to have the ability to travel back and forth, to FaceTime with my mother and sister, to have the freedom to work and travel and expect some degree of equality. These women really ventured into the unknown. They were incredibly brave.
One thing I am always interested in is how much research authors do, and what kind of sources they use. How many sources and what kinds of sources did you consult for this novel, and which were the most informative and useful?
I love the process of research, and I can get a little carried away! I read everything I could find about war brides – the best sources were social histories and interviews in which the women spoke about their experiences. Trove is an excellent source of old newspaper and magazine articles. I went to the Australian War Memorial and read the pamphlets and letters in their archives, I spent a night on board a restored bride ship in Long Beach, The Queen Mary, which is now a floating hotel, and I travelled up the West Coast of the United States to interview two war brides from Australia who met and married American GIs.
The most informative and useful sources were the women themselves, just meeting them in person and seeing the way they have straddled two worlds – fully at home in neither. One has a collection of old Arnotts biscuit tins and porcelain koalas and kangaroos in her house, but only managed to get back to Australia thirty years after leaving. That was the most moving thing to me, seeing their strength in the face of adversity, how they built new lives, sometimes with everything against them. I also love the coincidences – the reason I was able to meet the war brides on the West Coast of the US is because I was doing a writing workshop in Portland Oregon in 2016. My first day there I sat down in the cafeteria for lunch at a table with a complete stranger. We got to talking, I mentioned that I had come from Australia, and she said: “My mother was Australian.” It turned out that her mother was an Australian war bride. It was the most extraordinary coincidence, and her mother’s story which she told me was one of the most moving and transformative to the way I thought about the novel.
You’ve told Hannah and Sarah’s stories in alternating first person narrative, and both in a present tense format. Was there any reason to do this, or was it a natural progression as you wrote the novel?
The present tense came about because I was also writing Sarah’s memories, and I wanted to delineate between the memories (in the past tense) and the present voyage with Hannah. So it happened fairly naturally. I did experiment with third person narrative voice several times during drafting, but it didn’t have as much power. My previous two novels have been in third-person limited voice – it is generally what I prefer – but I found the intimacy of first person here integral because it is a story being told.
Sarah’s experience after marriage was interesting, and I found it intriguing that Roy’s mother supported her leaving, and Roy seemed to hint that he didn’t want to come. Was Sarah’s experience of leaving, getting a job and divorce and eventually settling down with Jim a common one that came through in your interviews? Why or why not?
I don’t think Roy knew that Sarah was going to leave, but the experience with the mother-in-law being hostile was certainly a common one. A lot of war brides felt as though their mother-in-laws resented them for not being American, and a lot of the brides found themselves having to live with the in laws because of the post-war housing shortages. Getting a divorce was not a common experience, but it was certainly one which I heard and read about, there were definitely marriages which did not work out and there were also instances of the war brides marrying another American. There were also those who went back to Australia. I also realised while researching this story how many unhappy marriages were just tolerated because divorce was frowned upon. But there were definitely divorces as well.
You’ve managed to write for a modern audience whilst at the same time, maintaining certain attitudes of the time, but presenting them in a way that readers will understand these were the attitudes of the time, such as the line “take delivery of his wife after signing for her” – referring to the collection of war brides at the other end. Was this a challenge for you, to maintain authenticity of the time and write for a modern reader? Why/why not?
I have a real desire to maintain this authenticity so I’m really pleased that you found this to be the case. The novel I wrote before this, Long Bay, gave me so much experience in how to avoid placing my own sensibilities on my characters; understanding the social fabric of the time and what their desires, capabilities and expectations would have been. I wrote Long Bay as part of a Doctorate of Creative Arts at UTS and the Professor of History Paula Hamilton advised me early on in my degree to consider carefully how the way we think is a product of the time we live in, and the expectations that society has placed upon us. Discovering what these expectations are is always an important part of my research process.
Sarah’s struggles are with leaving her family, and Hannah’s are with her health – the journey back to Sydney felt like a healing process for both of them and brought Sarah’s story full circle from her departure in 1945. Was this what you intended for the characters?
It is certainly what happened, but I’m not sure that I intended it because I’m not much of a planner when I’m writing. I’m more of the “sit down and write what comes to you” school. It probably takes more drafts but I find the process of discovery enjoyable. And when I discovered what Hannah struggled with I realised that in hearing her grandmother’s story, Hannah gains new perspective on her own. And in journeying back to Australia, Sarah has to confront her past. I was very close to both of my grandmothers, and I loved hearing about their lives and considering the challenges they had to face, and how I would have managed in the same circumstances.
When she leaves Sydney, there are some children travelling with their mothers to meet their fathers in America – which was more common – wives with or without children
Wives (and fiancées) without children were more common, but there were plenty of children and babies. For instance – a typical ship was the SS Monterey which arrived in San Francisco in March, 1946 with 562 Australian and New Zealand war brides and their 253 children on board. All of the war brides had free passage to America. Interestingly, fiancées were allowed free passage but a $500 bond had to come from the American fiancé which would cover the return trip to Australia should the marriage not take place three months after arrival in the US!
Was the cruise motif meant to be used as a journey and transitions into new lives at both ends for both women, and what inspired you to use the cruise motif in this way?
I didn’t think I would write part of the novel on a cruise ship, but I was so captivated by the experiences of the war brides on the ships to the US that it got me thinking about how travel is this time of limbo – of being stuck between. And sea voyages make for a longer period of limbo, there is more time to consider where you are coming from and where you are going.
Not long after I moved to Australia, my Grandma Lorraine and my Great Aunt Marge took a cruise to Sydney from San Diego, we picked them up and saw their cruise ship, the huge white behemoth at Circular Quay, and they told us the stories of playing bridge and dancing. And I remember thinking then that a cruise is a return to a slower pace, which was part of why my grandma loved them. There was nowhere else to be. And when I thought further about this, I realised it was the perfect place for Sarah to remember, and tell, her story.
As a finale, could you give some more insight into war brides and their experiences, and how an experience like Sarah’s would have been viewed in society at the time?
I think we’re coming to realise that the experiences of war brides were an integral part of the stories we tell about WWII. For so long these stories have been dismissed as the ‘domestic’ side, but I think they are incredibly important. Women certainly had more freedom to work, to fall in love, to be in control of their own lives during World War II. But when the war was over there was a backlash, and those who married men who had been away at war found themselves dealing with a generation of husbands who were scarred by their experiences and didn’t have the language to talk about it. Women were told to ‘not ask him too many questions’. They were meant to stay at home and raise the children, but now they had experienced so much more.
Sarah’s experience would have been looked down upon. Australian women who married Yanks were disparaged by Australian men and the Australian media. In America, they were given a hard time for ‘stealing’ American men – who were in short supply post-WWII. And then divorce was highly controversial as well. Sarah would not have been viewed well in society at the time, which was what would have discouraged her from speaking openly about her experiences. Divorce is something we discuss now quite openly, but in the recent past it was still a great source of shame.
Any further comments on anything you think I have missed?
No, this was so thorough and I hope my answers are useful and not too long!
Thank you for allowing me to interview you, and appearing on my blog.
Thank you Ashleigh for reading my novel, asking such thoughtful questions, and for having me on your blog.
All the best – Eleanor
The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht is published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99. Out now.
You can purchase The Passengers through Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-passengers-eleanor-limprecht/prod9781760631338.html?bk_source=PASSENGERS&bk_source_id=QWEEKREVIEW