Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
One of my participants is Kerri Tuner, author of The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, and The Daughter of Victory Lights, both historical fiction novels published by HarperCollins Australia. Kerri was due to appear at various author events throughout Queensland about her latest novel, which she kindly sent me a copy of, as well as a tour of regional NSW called HerStory: Women Who Rebel, which sounds fascinating. This interview will touch on her books, and writing, reading, and the events she had to cancel in light of the current pandemic of COVID-19. Like many authors, Kerri is missing out on telling people about her book, and my series is a small way I can help with this.
Hi Kerri, and welcome to The Book Muse.
- Both your novels are historical fiction – what is it about historical fiction that interests you the most?
It’s the old saying about truth being stranger than fiction. I also think historical fiction creates a real sense of escape. You are going into worlds so entirely different to the one you know, yet realising that some themes are common to humanity all throughout time and place. I find that really interesting, and then there’s an added sense of wonder and awe because you know much of what you’re reading (or writing) is actually true.
- I’m yet to read the beautifully inscribed copy of Daughter of the Victory Lights that you sent me at the time of putting this interview together. Where did the inspiration for Evelyn’s story as a member of a searchlight regiment come from?
The Victory, the performing boat that Evelyn ends up working on, was where the idea for this book started. I knew Evelyn worked not as a performer on it, as my last novel had two performers as protagonists, and I didn’t want to repeat myself. I was interested in having her work with the lighting, but also knew that however she ended up on the boat, it would be as a result of her wartime experiences. So I got researching into ways to connect the two parts of her life, and by sheer luck came across the UK’s all-female searchlight regiments. All the pieces kind of fell into place then.
- Your first novel takes place in the years before and during the Russian Revolution during World War One – where did this story come from, and is it based in historical stories you heard anywhere?
It’s very much based on the real-life stories I grew up hearing and loving. I trained my whole life to be a ballerina, and knowing I didn’t have access to the high-level training I needed (I grew up in a small town), I decided to immerse myself in everything ballet in an effort to become an expert in everything else (as much as a kid can be an expert, that is!). So ballet dancers were my rock stars, their lives my celebrity gossip. Russian ballet dancers, and particularly in that era running from the late 19th century to the Russian Revolution, they dominated the ballet world and shaped ballet into what it is today. So that’s the era I was reading about the most as I grew up. As an adult, this led to the inspiration for The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers. The entire book started with a line written by Joan Acocella, a dance journalist, in the introduction to The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. It’s there that I first learned about Russian ballet dancers of that era being involved in the sex trade.
- Both these books from what I can gather focus on women in history. Several of the authors I read have focused on these untold stories. For you – what do you feel the power of telling these stories is, and why did you choose these stories you’ve used in your novels in particular?
Women’s stories have not been given the same space and attention throughout history, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Strong, boundary-breaking women were often seen as a threat to the established way of life (as is seen with Mathilde Kschessinska in my first novel), and other times women were silenced so as not to give offence to men (as happened with the women who worked during World War 2, seen in my second novel). Telling these stories redresses this imbalance and gives due recognition to women’s huge contributions to history and the way they changed the world and society. The stories I tell are just the ones I happen to find and connect with. I know there are so many more out there waiting to be uncovered.
- What events have you been booked for that have been impacted by the current pandemic?
I had a tour of author talks in libraries throughout Brisbane which was cancelled, which would have also included bookstore visits for signings and a first-ever Facebook Live event for one of the libraries. I was also going to be one of the authors in the HerStory: Women Who Rebel tour of regional NSW. I still have a couple of events lined up for later in the year, some in Townsville and one in Tamworth, but we’ll have to wait and see how the situation stands before we decide if they go ahead.
- The HerStory: Women who Rebel sounds fascinating – can you tell us about the event, who it is run by and which authors were involved?
HerStory: Women Who Rebel is a campaign being run by HarperCollins/Harlequin which features books that focus on women who rebelled throughout history. The campaign includes The Daughter of Victory Lights, The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper, The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks, The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman, and Where Fortunes Lie by Mary-Anne O-Connor. All five authors were going to be on the same tour, appearing at events as a panel, discussing our books, history, and women’s roles throughout history.
- What were you looking forward to in HerStory: Women Who Rebel?
HarperCollins/Harlequin have only recently begun experimenting with this style of tour, where a small group of authors come together for a sort of mini-festival feel. I was excited to see how that would play out. As a relatively new author it can be difficult sometimes to set up solo events – you don’t know if the audience is there for it, and libraries have to place a lot of trust in you. Coming in as a group, I think we had a chance of attracting a more wide-reaching and diverse audience. And I think the conversations were going to be fascinating.
- What are you going to miss about HerStory: Women Who Rebel?
The opportunity to connect with readers. Writers spend so much time alone at our desks, working away on our stories, and it’s really nice to get out there and meet people face to face and talk about the things we all love – books! Also, the opportunity to further connect with the other historical writers.
- Do you think we need more events like this celebrating women in history, and Australian women authors who write about these women?
Absolutely! One thing every event I’ve done has had in common is the astonishment people express when they find out the kinds of things women have done historically. Events are a fantastic way of getting this fascinating information, information that we can all learn from, out there. They are also vital in supporting authors.
- Is there a favourite untold or lesser known woman in history you think everyone should know more about?
I would have to say Mathilde Kschessinska. I included her as a supporting character in The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, but I could honestly write an entire series about her and never have to make anything up. The woman was an absolute force. Affairs with royalty, public simultaneous romantic relationships, wealth to rival the Romanov family, incredible power and influence. She had the courage to take Lenin himself to court right when he was amassing his full power; she danced for men who were waiting to kill her and so moved them that she was able to escape. She became a refugee. She taught some of the following generations’ most famous ballet dancers. She lived to nearly her one hundredth birthday. There is so much more I could say. If you’re interested in formidable, temperamental, courageous, rule-breaking women who forged their own paths, definitely look her up!
- Do you have a writing process, and what is it?
It’s changed a little with each book, as I’ve learned more as I’ve gone through the process of being published. But generally I spend several months researching, and in this time start to build an outline of the plot and characters. I then form a very thorough outline of the book, print it out and lay it on the floor, then see if any storylines have been dropped or any events could be moved to a different section to be more effective. Then I write the first draft, usually leaving small gaps here and there for the tiny historical details that I don’t know and want to fill in later. If it’s a big gap, or something that will influence the direction of the story, I stop and do the research then. After the first draft is done, I research and fill in all those tiny gaps that were left. I usually do another couple of drafts, where I will add further detail, fine-tune the writing, and keep building on the sense of time and place. Then it goes to my agent, who reads the entire manuscript and gives me feedback. I do one more rewrite, send it back to my agent again, and if she’s happy with it, it goes to the publisher. Once the publisher accepts the manuscript, it goes through three rounds of editing. In each round I’m usually still adding little touches here and there, because I can’t help myself. After the last round, I get one more opportunity to see the final, typeset pages, and then my work on it is done. Until the marketing and publicity starts, that is.
- When writing, do you have a preferred medium, and what is it?
I have a laptop that is solely used for my writing. I use the program Scrivener in the researching and first draft stage, then export the manuscript to Word for subsequent drafts.
- Favourite writing companion: cat, dog or both?
Dog, I have a miniature schnauzer called Nelson who always sits by my feet while I write.
- Favourite genre to read? Or are there many?
Historical fiction. Although I will read pretty much anything.
- Favourite author and top five books?
Too hard to pick just one author! But top five books would be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, and Persuasion by Jane Austen.
- What made you want to become a writer, and how did you find your publisher?
I always thought I would write one day. I’ve loved reading and writing my whole life, and with ballet being such a short career I had a notion that I would become a writer when I retired from ballet. But I didn’t have the right body type to become a ballerina. After a few years of trying different things, I turned to that early idea of writing, and have loved it ever since. Getting published was not easy though. It took several years, many tears and rejections, and countless moments of doubt. In 2017 I came across The Nash Agency, and submitted The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers there. Haylee Nash signed me, and within three months got me a two-book deal.
- Do you have any favourite booksellers, and why these ones in particular?
All of them! I love shopping at independent bookstores wherever possible. But there are some bookstores in particular who have really supported me as a writer. Dymocks Chatswood gave me my first ever in-store signing, Kinokuniya hosted the launch for my debut novel, Booktopia brought me in to sign books and record a podcast, Robinsons got me in to sign copies they distributed throughout their stores in Victoria, Dymocks Melbourne have supported me both online and in store with reviews and signings, Book Bazaar did the most exquisite window display for The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, and Collins Booksellers Byron Bay gave me the warmest welcome when I just happened to pop in. Plus there’s all the stores that have come along to my events, including but not limited to Book Face Pacific Fair, Burns Bay Bookery, and Dymocks Baulkham Hills.
- Which member of the Babysitters Club are you?
Jessi. The love of ballet is a giveaway!
- How important do you think the arts are for us at this time, and all the time, and does more need to be done to support them?
The arts are vital. As we can see right now, we turn to them in times of difficulty and great upset. They soothe us when we’re frightened, they allow us to escape when we feel trapped, they connect us when we’re isolated. There is not a single person in the world who has not partaken in the arts in one way or another. Yet the arts are constantly one of the first sectors to be hit with funding cuts. This is despite the enormous contribution they bring to our lives and the economy, and the countless jobs they provide. I’m so grateful to all those who are supporting all the innovative ways the arts are trying to survive, particularly in this difficult period. I would just like to see them supported on a bigger scale, the same way other industries are.
- Any recommendations for social isolation reading, listening and viewing?
For reading, I’m defaulting to light-hearted books that make me laugh. Books like The Secret Recipe of Second Chances by J.D. Barrett, The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates, and Crazy Rich Asians by Keven Kwan. For viewing, Younger because it’s set in the world of publishing (albeit a highly fictionalised version), and Kim’s Convenience because it’s warm and hilarious. For listening, I like to escape into cast recordings for musical theatre shows, because you get a story along with the music. I recommend Six, Kinky Boots, or Dear Evan Hansen. Although, if you want something a little different, I did create a Spotify playlist for my book The Daughter of Victory Lights, which is full of big band, swing, and crooners.
Any further comments?
Just a great big thank to for having me here, and an additional thank you to all the readers who are going out of their way to support authors in such an unprecedented and difficult time.