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.
Christine released No Small Shame with Ventura Press in April, and like many authoors, had her events surrounding the release of the book cancelled. In this environment, reviews online and interviews like this are crucial in getting the word about the books out – in a time when authors cannot physically and socially connect with their readers, it must be done virtually. Christine also has a background in educational writing for reluctant readers, and this historical fiction novel was inspired by her own family history.
Hi Christine and welcome to The Book Muse
- To begin with, what is the premise of your novel, No Small Shame, which came out with Ventura Press in April 2020?
No Small Shame is the story of a young Catholic wife faced with a terrible choice between love and duty during WW1. Mary O’Donnell sets out for Australia in hope of a better life, but one foolish night of passion with a boy from her village back in Scotland leads to an unexpected pregnancy and a loveless marriage. Mary’s journey from powerlessness to agency is an epic story of loyalty and betrayal, friction in families, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.
- What inspired this novel and its World War One setting?
The idea for the novel emerged through researching my family history. In 1913, my great-grandparents emigrated from the tiny mining village of Bothwellhaugh in Scotland to the new state-owned coal town of Wonthaggi in Victoria. While I was visiting the State Coal Mine Museum, a little voice kept whispering, ‘there’s a story here. There’s a story here and what a great setting!’ Instead of writing the novel I’d begun a few months earlier, I found myself researching the long-demolished village of Bothwellhaugh and pre-WW1 steam ship journeys to Australia. Once my main character, Mary, turned up, I could ignore the pull no longer and had to set aside the other novel and write Mary’s story.
- When researching the themes, characters and era of your novel, what sort of sources did you consult, and where did you begin your research?
My initial research was done through libraries and the internet. I accessed archived copies of local newspapers and spent hours in the Public Records Office of Victoria studying the correspondence files of the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine. I studied primary sources, such as: diaries, oral histories, letters etc. And I gathered more specific resources through historical societies and heritage centres: ie: booklets, texts, maps and photographs. During a research trip to Scotland, I visited a replica of miner’s rows from the era, ventured down a coalmine and visited the site of the demolished village of Bothwellhaugh. I met with a local park ranger and studied photographs and maps, and learned of some of the characters who’d once lived in the village. I walked the battlefields of France and visited several WW1 war museums to learn of soldier’s lives and read a lot of non-fiction to gain a greater understanding of the effects of war and shellshock.
- Did you complete your research prior to writing, or did you do some research as you wrote?
I did four months research while I fought the urge to switch novels. Once I commenced the writing, it seemed like I was continually needing to query or verify some small detail ie: When were matches invented? When did electricity come to Melbourne? How many days did it take a steamship to reach Australia from England? Plus I spent many hours researching the timeline and progress of WW1 and its impact on the Australian homefront?
- Was this story planned out when you began writing it, or was it written as you went?
I began with the idea of exploring the life and choices of a young immigrant coming to Australia in the hope of a better life. I wanted to use the timing of my great-grandparent’s migration to Australia – even though the story is fiction – so the war was always going to be a backdrop to the novel. From there, the plot developed organically which led me down a few dead ends while I worked out what I ultimately wanted the story to say. Writing without a plan, I loved the unexpected turns in the characters’ journeys. Some plot twists occurred naturally as a result of the character’s personalities and circumstances. I was shocked when I realised what would be the inevitable outcome for one character. My urge was to fight it, but after considerable research I realised it was consistent historically and too often true.
- What events were planned for the release of your novel prior to the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling them?
I was so excited and keen to get my choice of day and date, I booked my launch at Readings Hawthorn way back in December. So it was really disappointing when it became a casualty of Covid-19. I was also booked to be one of the featured authors at Dymocks Camberwell First Tuesday Book Club in April, but, sadly, that too had to be cancelled. I was very fortunate that I got to speak at the Women Writing History Day at Eltham Library the weekend before restrictions were enacted.
- Prior to having this novel published, you’ve had stories for younger readers published – can you tell my readers about these stories?
I’ve had over 30 short fiction titles published for children from picture story, middle-grade to YA for reluctant readers. I wrote mysteries, adventures and even a few humorous titles though I’d never call myself humorous. I loved to write action books where lots was happening. It’s interesting now to look back and see that as my children grew up, I began to write for an older and older readership!
- Are any of these works for children still available?
The majority of my children’s titles were published in the education market and so not available for purchase in general bookstores. It’s a few years since the last one was published, but, wonderfully, many are still selling and yielding royalties, plus ELR and PLR.
- What are the challenges writing for children versus writing for adults, and as someone who writes, or has written for both audiences, is one easier than the other?
Many similar craft skills are needed when writing for both children and adults. Young children need to be quickly engaged and love action and fun language. With illustrated texts the author needs to trust and leave room for the illustrator to contribute equally to the story. I found once I began writing novels, I gravitated to writing more gritty, complex characters and difficult situations. I love the scope of novel to explore the complexity of relationships and why people make certain choices.
- You’ve worked with CYA and SCWBI Victoria – what sort of grounding did these experiences give you for your career as a writer?
I loved my five years working as Assistant Coordinator with SCBWI Vic. It’s such a valuable and inclusive organisation and offers so many opportunities for writers and illustrators to gain knowledge, and meet both peers and industry contacts. Acting as a judge for CYA, I learned much about my own writing through reading the competition entries with a critical eye. Both my SCBWI and CYA roles were wonderful opportunities to contribute and give back, as well as make many friends and contacts in the publishing industry.
- What have you been doing to pass time since the pandemic shut many things down?
The day cancellations began, author Kirsten Krauth set up a Facebook group Writers Go Forth. Launch Promote Party. Within hours, posts appeared offering, authors who’d had launches or events cancelled, blog spots, interviews, the chance to apply for podcasts, among many other opportunities. An online launch became a real possibility and I instantly became very busy both organising it and responding to various opportunities, as well as those set up by my publicist. So through the pandemic, I’ve been busier than ever.
- Many people are turning to reading in these difficult times – what have you been reading, and what recommendations do you have for people?
I’ve bought a heap of new books in recent weeks and my TBR pile is about to topple off my bedside table. I try not to read fiction when I’m in the thick of writing, so during this promotion period for No Small Shame it’s a chance to catch up on some of the amazing historical fiction that’s coming out right now, including: Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater; The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks; The Lost Jewels by Kirsty Manning; The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams just to name a few.
- Which local booksellers do you regularly use?
Sadly, we don’t have an independent bookseller anywhere nearby but it’s usually no trouble for me to travel to an independent bookstore. I do buy from Booktopia on occasions and have been buying a lot of books online at present. I always go through the local store rather than order online through headoffice as I want the individual store to get the benefit of my purchase.
- How important do you think the arts are in Australia, now and in other times, and what can people do to support the local industry?
The arts are hugely important in Australia, though it seems they’re no longer well supported by the Government who deleted the Arts portfolio and shoved it in with infrastructure, transport and communications, as if the Arts is a floater that can be slotted in anywhere rather than acknowledged as an important contributor to this country’s cultural life and well-being. We need to support our creators more than ever and whenever possible send that message to the Government. Also please BUY BOOKS!
- When not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I’m more dedicated to taking time out for activities away from my desk these days. I’m learning, albeit slowly, to play the piano. It’s been a lifelong dream and I’m learning to produce simple tunes – though strictly for my own enjoyment. I’m also getting into photography. I loved my recent writing residency (pre-Covid) on Norfolk Island which gave me time to practise photographing nature and some truly amazing sunsets and sunrises.
- Any plans for a future novel, and what are they?
I can’t give away too much yet. But my work-in-progress is set in the year directly after the First World War and tells the story of a young Australian soldier who stays on in France and the traumatic reason he refuses to go home.
Thank you Christine