Today we welcome Emily Brewin to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for an in-depth look at her debut novel, Hello, Goodbye.
About Hello, Goodbye: It’s 1968 and free-thinking country girl May Callaghan’s world is turned upside down when she finds out she’s pregnant to her boyfriend Sam, who is awaiting draft orders. A profoundly moving story of love during a time of great social change, with an ending that will leave you cheering.
May Callaghan is seventeen years old and on her own. At least that’s how it feels.
Her devoutly religious mother and her gentle but damaged father are fighting, and May’s boyfriend, Sam, has left their rural hometown for Melbourne without so much as a backward glance.
When May lies to her parents and takes the train to visit Sam at his shared house in Carlton, her world opens wide in glorious complexity. She is introduced to his housemates, Clancy, an indigenous university student, and Ruby, a wild bohemian. With their liberal thinking and opposition to the war in Vietnam, they are everything that May’s strict Catholic upbringing should warn her against.
May knows too well the toll that war has taken on her father, and the peace movement in the city has a profound effect on her. For a while, May’s future burns bright. But then it begins to unravel, and something happens to her that will change her life forever.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
I’ve always been a bookworm, so writing felt like a natural next step. My first major work was a short story about the Easter bunny, at age five. Beyond that, I studied journalism at university because I was interested in social justice and felt words had the power to make a difference. I still believe this.
The catalyst for going back to writing fiction though came in the form of a tough period in my life. A wise woman at the time asked me what made my heart sing. When I said writing stories she told me to go ahead and do it then… and I did.
What inspired Hello, Goodbye?
The novel was inspired in part by my aunt’s story of forced adoption. In 1970, at age nineteen, she gave her newborn son up. She was unmarried and thought adoption was her only option. Like many other young mothers at the time, she didn’t know her rights and wasn’t aware she had choices. Instead, she was secreted away to an unmarried mothers home interstate where she worked in a laundry until her baby was born. Later, she was drugged during labour and her son was removed from her care straight after his birth.
Her story really got under my skin. The small details especially, like the song she sang him in the first four days of his life and the protective medallion she pinned to his blanket before flying home. She told me she used to rock herself to sleep at the mothers’ home then found out years later that her son did the same as a small child. It was heartbreaking.
The loss of her child has had a profound impact on my aunt’s life. She has carried an immense amount of grief, shame and guilt around with her for many years. I don’t think she’ll ever be completely rid of those feelings.
Many of the women I spoke to or read about during my research for the book said, despite sometimes reconnecting with their adult children, that they never got their babies back. The newborns that were taken from them were lost forever, as were the children and teenagers they grew into.
Between 1951 and 1975 an estimated 150,000 babies were put up for adoption in Australia. The majority of mothers who relinquished these children were young and unmarried.
Many of these adoptions happened at a time of immense social and cultural change in Australia. The women’s liberation movement was mounting, the sexual revolution was in full swing and people were out on the streets protesting against the Vietnam War. Yet, many young women fell victim to the archaic social standards that still existed. Their presence in the community struck at the heart of what it meant to be a civilised adult Australian at the time. Put simply, to be white and married. Society punished them by ignoring their mistreatment.
Hello, Goodbye is the first novel you have published, but have you written any others prior to this?
No, but I have written two since.
My second novel is due for release with Allen & Unwin next year. It is contemporary but is also set in Carlton, an unconscious decision on my part. It follows the lives of two women from very different socio-economic backgrounds that find themselves bound together by a tragic incident. It explores themes of infertility and living with intellectual disability. My third novel is in early draft form.
I write short stories too, in between drafts of my manuscripts. Doing this ensures that I shelve drafts, giving each room to breathe. Writing short stories is a great way to hone your craft. They are a microcosm of the novel, a limited space in which to work on technique. Their length demands tight writing.
How long did it take you to write Hello, Goodbye?
That’s a hard question to answer, as it took on so many forms. Initially, it was a story told from a teenage boy’s point of view. Then I realised I had absolutely no idea what goes on in the head of a sixteen-year-old boy (does anyone?), and that it might be wiser to stick to what I know. From there, I wrote from a mother / daughter perspective, which still didn’t gel. I can’t recall exactly when my protagonist, May, came to mind. As a teacher, I work with teenage girls. Often, I am buoyed by their pluck and courage. The 1960s was an exciting, tumultuous era and my character had to be strong to deal with the trials that came her way.
Eventually I did a YA class with author, Simmone Howell, while undertaking RMIT’s Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing. Although, Hello, Goodbye is adult fiction, Simmone’s class helped me refine my idea. From that point I aimed to write one thousand words a day, and had a VERY rough first draft within three months. It took another three years or so to get the manuscript to publication standard.
Is Australian History and/or Sociology one of the areas you teach in your profession as a Secondary School Teacher? If so, have you had the opportunity to explore any of the social and cultural themes raised within Hello, Goodbye with your students? If not, do you see this as a gap in what we are allowed to teach to our young adults with regard to comprehensive Australian history and Social/Cultural focused studies?
I teach Year 9 Humanities this year. So far we have studied the Industrial Revolution in Britain and convicts, so I’d probably be clutching at straws to find similarities there.
My year 8 Media class did do a unit on the representation of young women in Australia’s mainstream media though. Much to my dismay, nothing much has really changed since May’s time in the late 1960s. Sure, we see some positive images, the occasional female sports star or businesswoman, but advertising in particular still uses the same old stereotypes.
Most ads feature women that are thin, white and conventionally beautiful. There is a distinct lack of diversity, and I worry about the message this sends. Our young people face enough challenges growing up in the world today without having to think about being ‘perfect’ as well. Advertising in particular aims to disempower young women by telling them that beauty is valued above all else. It shifts the focus away from the things that really matter, like being themselves, whatever shape they are, and standing up for what they believe in.
May, too, faces stifling social expectations in Hello, Goodbye. In the 1960s, most young women followed a set script into adulthood. They went to school, and university or college if they were lucky, worked until they married, had children then stayed home to look after them. May and her female friends, Ruby and Lucy, challenge this paradigm, as many young women of that period did.
We need to teach our young adults to believe in themselves and the power they have to make a difference. We should encourage them to be curious and to always question the system, even if the media tells them otherwise.
I think one of our biggest challenges as educators is to teach meaningful curriculum within limited timeframes. There is so much more to Australian history than what we read in textbooks. I would love more time to explore the personal stories behind the events. Listening to and telling stories is one of the most engaging ways to learn.
How much research did you do for Hello, Goodbye? What were the main sources for your research?
I did a lot of research for the novel to ensure an accurate depiction of the events and time that my characters experienced. Writing about a period I haven’t lived through was tricky, because often it’s the small details that make a story feel authentic. For instance, in Hello, Goodbye there is a scene where silver wine bags are pegged to a clothesline. Cask wine, however, wasn’t common until the early 1970s, so the bags became wine bottles stuck in the ground. You don’t want anything to distract the reader from the story. The Internet is a great resource for seemingly useless facts.
But of course, the big subjects in the book, such as the Vietnam War, the social stigma directed at unmarried mothers and the anti-conscription movement required more in-depth analysis. For these things I conducted interviews. I spoke to women who had had their children removed through forced adoption and read a number of government reports on the issue. I also read testimonials, which were incredibly sad but absolutely illuminating.
In terms of the Vietnam War, I interviewed returned servicemen as well as Michael Hamel-Green, one of the co-founders of Melbourne’s draft resisters union. All of the people I interviewed were tremendously candid and generous with their time. All wanted their experiences to help others.
Additionally, I read autobiographies and news articles from the time. My parents came in handy too, when I needed finer details, like popular brands of chocolate bar. My parents lived through the 1960s. My Dad was conscription age at the height of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, and was one of the thousands of young people who actively opposed it. I’ve always been fascinated with the era, so research was never a chore.
There’s often a balancing act that comes with writing historical fiction. How did you weight the historical facts Hello, Goodbye was based on, against telling a good story?
To be honest, it rarely felt like a balancing act. Due to my subject matter, the facts were often fascinating and could be easily used to colour and strengthen the story. I had to play around with timelines occasionally, to ensure that certain historical events worked with my plot.
I let the characters lead me through the first draft of the manuscript. Then I went back and dug up the facts using interviews and research, and applied them to subsequent drafts.
The main social issues raised within Hello, Goodbye continue to have a ripple effect throughout the lives of many Australians. In the acknowledgements section, you mention your aunt and her personal story. Did you at times feel weighted down by the importance of the story you were writing combined with the personal connection you have with a woman who was directly affected by forced adoption? Did you ever feel as though you couldn’t do it justice?
You’re right, many, many people still suffer from these forced adoptions. As we know, cutting off a person’s connection with their history, culture and family takes a huge emotional toll, often disturbing victims’ sense of identity and worth. War takes a similar toll. Many of the young men who were sent to Vietnam had no choice in the matter, and they and their families have had to live with the consequences of their deployment. Many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. So yes, at times I felt weighted down by my subject matter, because people are still suffering today.
On the flip side, the people that I interviewed for the book were very honest about their experiences, both past and present, and felt that telling their stories might help others. I was buoyed by their willingness to share them with me, and ultimately with my readers, and by their resolve that these incidents should never happen again.
Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War is still a very dark area within history. I love how you wove this into May’s story, giving a rounded perspective on the many issues that were tied up with Vietnam and our commitment as a nation to seeing that war through to the end. What propelled you to focus on this as a secondary story?
It felt like a natural parallel. In both instances, young people were being rendered powerless by government agencies and legislation. The anti-Vietnam War movement was really representative of the times. Young people began to push back at what they felt were unfair policies. They were also looking further afield, at what was happening in the US and in Vietnam itself.
For me, so many of the things we identify as cultural markers of the 1960s are tied up with the Vietnam War; the music, the protest movement and other forms of civil disobedience. However, all this butted up against traditional values of the time. May’s boyfriend, Sam, was caught in this clash between old and new worlds. He longed to be free from the conservative constraints of his hometown, but felt the same tug of duty that had led a generation of men before him to sign up for the Second World War.
How has being Australian AND a woman impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
These are the filters I view the world through. Hello, Goodbye therefore has a very Australian tone, from its settings to the language used.
I think that there is a growing appreciation for Australian stories and for stories that explore the diversity of our society, past and present. Once upon a time, we accepted only one history (the white one), ignoring anything that was controversial or likely to invite criticism. But slowly we seem to be celebrating our differences.
Hello, Goodbye has a particularly Australian flavour because of the era it is set in. In the 1960s, Australia was geographically and culturally isolated, and was often deemed less progressive than England or the US. This isolation seemed to concentrate our conservative culture, giving rise to stereotypes such as the beer-swilling barbequing Aussie. The social upheaval of the 1960s and globalisation diluted this, giving birth to a more colourful and diverse Australian society.
I write female characters from a feminist perspective. For me, fiction acts as a mirror, reflecting back the good, the bad and the ugly. The beauty of a story as opposed to a news bite is that we are able to view the world through different character’s perspectives. Fiction has the power to open our minds to new possibilities.
I saw something recently, which said that people who read fiction have a more developed sense of empathy. I think that is true. The world would probably be a more peaceful place if everyone took the time, now and then, to sit down with a good book.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
There are so many! My tastes are fairly eclectic, and there’s nothing I love more than heading to Readings in Carlton on a Sunday to browse the shelves. I have a stack of books a tower block high next to my bed and hardly any time to read them.
In no particular order, I love authors, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Anne Enright, Alice Munro, Dorris Lessing, Evie Wyld, Richard Flanagan, Zadie Smith, Truman Capote and of course Jane Austen, amongst others. Miles Franklin had a significant impact on me as a young person. I read My Brilliant Career on a family camping trip and recall being captivated by the wonderfully strong-minded, Sybylla. It still holds pride of place on my bookshelf.
I love books that investigate the complexity of human nature. Two books by Australian women authors that I’ve enjoyed recently are Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal and Zoe Morrison’s Music and Freedom. Both stories stayed with me long after I turned the final page.
I enjoy reading non-fiction too. Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl really got my blood boiling. Ford is brilliant a dissecting then articulating all those entrenched behaviours and beliefs that you feel are not okay, but often can’t explain why.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
I was the kind of kid that lived in the library at primary school. There were different books at different ages that made an impact on me. My Grandma lived in Gooligulch by Graeme Base sticks in my memory as a childhood favourite as does Jeannie Baker’s, Where the Forest Meets the Sea and the ever popular, All Right, Vegemite by June Factor. As I got older I loved anything by Paul Jennings and devoured Robin Klein’s Came Back to Show You I Could Fly. And, of course, there was Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. I also lived for L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Now that I have my own children, I enjoy reading them my old favourites as well as a whole generation of new books and authors.
I always wanted to be a writer. For me, reading and writing go hand in hand. Both help me explore and test ideas, perspectives and emotions, and are a means of escaping to another time or place. Reading, and being read to as a child, made me want to write. There is nothing quite as absorbing as a great book or becoming completely engaged in your own writing.
If you could go back in time for a year, which historical era would you choose to live in?
I always wished I could go to Woodstock. So I suppose the year would be 1969. But who wouldn’t want to spend four days listening to the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills & Nash? Just seeing photographs of it gives me the shivers. The festival made music history and was 1960s counterculture at its finest.
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
There are so many people I could easily pass an afternoon with, but I’m going to say Katherine Hepburn. She was a sassy, smart, independent woman who often shunned convention. I love watching her films. She once said, ‘if you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun’, and I couldn’t agree more.
Thank you so much for joining us today Emily and we wish you every success with the release of Hello, Goodbye.
Hello, Goodbye was released on June 28 and is published by Allen and Unwin.
About Theresa: Writer, avid reader, keen reviewer, book collector, drinker of all tea blends originating from Earl Grey, and modern history enthusiast. I enjoy reading many genres but have a particular interest in historical fiction. You can find me and all of my book related news and reviews at: Theresa Smith Writes, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter@TessSmithWrites