Welcome to Sunday Spotlight. Today we feature Kelly Gardiner, whose latest novel, 1917, was released on 1 February 2017.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
I’ve always written stories and poetry, and worked as a journalist for years, but never truly believed I could write an actual novel. For some reason, I thought I couldn’t start until I had the whole storyline in my mind. But then one day I had an image in my mind of a girl standing on ship’s deck with a sword in her hand. I didn’t know who she was and what she was doing, but I started scribbling – and that was the start of my first book, Ocean Without End, published when I was forty. So I was a late starter and proof that you really shouldn’t wait – just start anywhere.
How many novels have you written and published?
1917 is my eighth book. I write for all ages, so I’ve written a picture book, four novels for younger readers, two young adult novels and one for adults. So far.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It depends on the research – usually about two years, but Goddess took five. It was part of my PhD project, and the research process for that has changed my practice completely. I always researched context – economics, politics, belief – but the research for Goddess was also about creating a much more complete framework of knowledge for the work, even if the reader doesn’t see it on the page. So now everything takes longer, but it’s much more thorough. And I learn so much each time.
How has being Australian AND a woman impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
On one hand, we know, from the VIDA and Stella count data as well as our own experiences, that women writers’ work is disadvantaged in terms of mainstream reviews and coverage, that books written by women for kids and young adults are even more so, and that it’s particularly true of writing by women whose experiences and voices are marginalised – including queer women like me.
On the upside, all my books are informed by feminism, even if they seem to be about something else completely, and young women really respond to that. And there’s a huge amount of reader and bookseller loyalty to local writers, which is supported by this challenge and initiatives like #LoveOzYA.
I’ve always felt supported by my publishers, but being Australian certainly influences publishing and sales – publishing out of this corner of the world can be a lot harder than doing it from London or New York, especially for women. I also lived in New Zealand for several years and was treated like a Kiwi by Australian reviewers and booksellers, which was a weird role reversal.
But in terms of the stories, many of my books are set in Europe and I know there’s a certain Australianness about them, about the humour and the rebellious edge, that comes through, even in characters that are supposed to be English or French. People don’t seem to mind, though. When it comes to stories set in Australia, like 1917 or the short stories about bushrangers I’m writing at present, I can relax about that and revel in it.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
In fiction, I like a restrained hand in terms of plot, but rich prose, willing and able to take imaginative risks – like Jeanette Winterson or locals like Paddy O’Reilly and Charlotte Wood. I don’t like having everything laid out for me, or tied up neatly. I like gaps in the narrative, silences in the dialogue, people talking at odds. I try to do that too, and I enjoy how that sits uneasily with more traditional historical fiction.
I read a lot of memoir and nonfiction, particularly history, and admire the same elements there too. Some great Australian memoirs of the last couple of years have mastered that – like Kristina Olsson’s Boy, Lost.
That said, I also love a good fantasy epic, and anything with swordfights is fine by me.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
It’s so hard to choose a favourite – perhaps Leon Garfield’s Smith – but the books I read by him, Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease and Ronald Welch are absolutely why I write what I write, and especially for kids. I re-read a whole lot of them last year and they stand up pretty well (apart from Welch’s racism). Great historical adventures with a light touch on the historical detail.
What inspired your most recent book?
1917 was originally inspired by my own family’s history. My great-grandmother campaigned against conscription during the war, and my great aunts, who were quite young, were caught up in the protests – my aunty Madge led the huge women’s anti-conscription procession of 1916 when she was eight years old. But a few years after the war, my grandfather joined the Air Corps as a mechanic and I always wondered how that little family reconciled those two passions. So when the publisher (Clare Hallifax from Scholastic) first talked to me about doing the book, I just knew I wanted to write about that tension. The characters are not my family members, and the story is very different to theirs, but many of the real people they knew, like the suffragettes Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst, make an appearance.
How much research do you do?
In short: a lot. I usually write about things I already know (or think I know) a fair bit about – I’ve read so many memoirs and histories of the First World War over the years, for example, that I knew where to start in researching 1917. Normally I spend a few months immersing myself in the period, reading contemporary diaries and studying everything from fashion to political movements. That’s just so I don’t go off on a mad tangent. And then as I write I do the more detailed research into food and furniture and place. I’m also one of those authors who tries to walk the ground, whether it’s an alley in Avignon or an old airfield in Flanders or a hill somewhere near Castlemaine. I need to sniff the air and listen to the bird song.
As an author of Historical Fiction, how do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
I learned a great deal of history from my childhood reading, and I take that responsibility very seriously – particularly for young readers. I don’t want anyone learning incorrect history and thinking it’s true. If I stray from documented fact, I always declare it in the Author’s note at the end. Usually, it’s more that I have to solve a gap in the record with a credible speculation, or that I use a scene or character to capture much more than is possible otherwise – such as a public meeting about conscription capturing the main points made by key personalities, even if they never debated each other in real life. I also try not to load in too much detail – we all do that at first, especially in the first chapter, but I’ve learned to be more sparing with the information.
Do you read your book reviews? Do you appreciate reader feedback and take it on board, even if it is negative? How do you deal with negative feedback after spending so much time writing your book?
I do read reviews, and unlike many other people I even read reviews on GoodReads. I’ve found that feedback from readers – especially young readers and teenagers – is incredibly helpful. I can tell, for example, if people have read something in a way I didn’t intend or if I was clumsy, and in a series, especially, I can correct it or clarify it if needed in the next book. I’ve had to learn to live with the idea that my work isn’t for everyone – you can know that in your head, but it still feels personal. Sometimes it’s more about their expectation than the words on the page, but then that tells you something about the way the book is presented. It’s all useful.
The only reviews that really affected me negatively are a few homophobic reviews I had when Goddess came out in the US. I wasn’t expecting that, and it was quite shocking.
How much planning do you do? Do you plan / plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progresses? In terms of characters, are they already a firm picture in your mind before you start writing or do they develop a personality of their own as the story progresses?
It depends on the story. Goddess was based on the real life of a seventeenth century swordswoman and opera singer, so I had the world’s most enormous spreadsheet of dates and events and references. I’m doing the same for my current project, Grace, which is based on the lives of Elizabeth 1 and the pirate Grace O’Malley. For 1917 I made a simple timeline of that year of the war and key events, stuck it up on the wall, and let the plot unfold around it. Sometimes I know what will happen in the end. Sometimes I don’t know until I get there.
Most main characters form very clearly in my mind early on – I often write in first person, so if I don’t get the hang of the character, I can’t write in their voice. Julie in Goddess and Isabella Hawkins in the Isabella novels were both yammering on in my ear from the first day. Others are more subtle presences. But sometimes I need to rethink the minor characters because they aren’t clear enough – stop, take some time to sort out why they’re doing what they’re doing, maybe even change their name and appearance because it’s all wrong.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise traits of themselves in one of your characters?
No. Thank goodness. But there are a few disguised portraits of dear departed family members in 1917 and I’m still waiting to hear if anyone recognises them and if I’m in big trouble.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I fenced at high school and college and was in the state junior team, which is why there are so many sword fights in my books. And I have a lot of swords, including a few in my writing room so I can act out the sword fights and make sure they work.
If you could go back in time for a year, which historical era would you choose to live in?
Paris in the 1920s. Because who wouldn’t?
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
It would have to be Mademoiselle de Maupin (Julie d’Aubigny), the brawling, wild, lost subject of Goddess, who dressed like a man, sang like an angel and fought like a musketeer.
When did you discover the Australian Women Writers Challenge? Do you think the challenge has had any impact on the awareness and discoverability of Australian Women writers? Have you personally benefited in terms of exposure of your work to new readers?
I remember when the challenge began, and what a huge, successful and exciting moment that was. It’s involved so many readers since then, and still does – which I think is extraordinary. It has been a critical part of the ongoing movement to support women’s writing in this country and beyond.
I can’t tell whether it’s brought my work to new readers, but I know it’s brought many books into new hands so it doesn’t matter whether they’re mine or somebody else’s.
About 1917: The war in France rages in the skies, and support for the war in Australia turns cold. Alex flies high above the trenches of the Western Front, while a world away his sister Maggie finds herself in the midst of political upheaval. Somehow, both must find the courage to fight on.
Historical fiction fans might be interested to attend the 2017 Melbourne Historical Novel Society Australasia conference on 8-10 September. The programme features over 60 speakers. You can read interviews with some of the participating authors at the HNSA blog.
About Theresa Smith Writes: 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, Twitter @TessSmithWrites.