Tuesday, 18 February 2014

An interview with the author of 'Unforgivable'

Last week I enthused about Sharon Robard's novel, Unforgivable. It's so good, I thought I'd give space to Sharon this week to tell me a little about the background to the book and how she wrote it.

You have written a novel (A Woman Transported) set in the 19th century, which is much more what people think of as a historical novel. Unforgivable is also classified as a historical novel, but it's set in 1966, within the lifetime of many of your readers. How do you think writing a novel set in the 20th century differs from writing a novel set in the 19th?

I found Unforgivable possibly a fraction harder to write. Capturing the essence of the period, in particular that year and within the nine months or so that the story covers, was really hard. Most people who were teenagers or adults in the sixties recall certain aspects of the period as a whole. For example, some people I asked if they knew what day Jean Shrimpton arrived at the races in that mini skirt , which brought great changes to our hemlines shortly after. Most responded with Melbourne Cup day when it was actually Derby Day, which is held a few days before the Cup. I was more fearful of people who were young adults at the time saying things never happened a certain way or a certain clothing article or car wasn’t around then.

Unforgivable tells a very moving story of one young woman's experience against a tightly observed historical background. To what extent did you feel that you were writing Sylvia's story and to what extent was the historical background your main interest with the story just being the vehicle for discussing the issues?

My aim was to tell the story of more than a hundred thousand women, using Sylvia to represent them, but without the historical background the story couldn’t be told. It is that background, a time when sexual liberation was in conflict with religious and social beliefs of the time. Especially in relation to Catholics.

I felt Sylvia was an utterly believable character, and I was very moved by her emotions and what happened to her. I felt I was reading about a real person. What, if anything, did you draw on from your own life to be able to communicate these emotions so well?

I’ll have to think about this…how do we convey emotions? How do we get them from the mind and put them onto paper as if from the heart? MMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmm One of the last scenes in the book I wrote first. It is a scene where Sylvia sees her baby for the first time, and I kept thinking of when my daughter was born…those first few hours with her snuggled against my breasts, and how her little fingers wrapped around my finger, that wonderful smell of newborns and how I might have felt if she were about to be taken from me when she was so small and vulnerable.

There's lots of suggestions in the book that only a mother can really understand what it is like to lose a child in the way that these unmarried mothers did. Do you think that your book speaks differently to mothers, other women and men?

What an interesting question. There was a reader who left me a very insightful review on Goodreads. She was adopted and never had children. I’ll quote part of what she said, “My experience of this issue is from the other side of the fence - as an adopted child (more than 10 years after this time, so I'd like to think things had changed by then), and I haven't sought my biological mother/father, nor have I had children myself. As such, I suspect that there's still a lot to this issue that I don't really get and that can be explained by the proverb quoted several times in the book - To understand a mother’s love, bear your own children.

While writing the book I was trying to understand how the nuns might have felt and what readers would think when they read the book. I wondered if I had conveyed the emotion I wanted. When I found that Chinese proverb, I hoped by placing it in the book that it might provide a link to that understanding that would be needed for some readers, both men, women, and young adults, who had never experience motherhood.

I've met Australians who complain that they feel cut off from the mainstream of Western cultural life. To what extent do you feel that being an Australian author makes it difficult for you to be taken seriously outside of the Antipodes?

We have quiet a few very successful Australian writers and a very large book market, but a look on the Australian Readers forum on Goodreads will show that until recently a lot of Australian readers were not reading books by Australian authors. A Woman Transported was and is overwhelmingly brought by Australians, and I suspect that is because potential readers from overseas assume that the book is largely set in Australia, not so much because I’m an Australian author.

Although your book is very clearly set in Australia, I felt that the situation and the issues translated easily into UK experience (although I suspect that the situation in the UK was slightly more liberal by 1966). To what extent do you feel that you were writing an "Australian novel" rather than just "a novel"?

I very much thought of Unforgivable as an Australian story and rather unique in relation to what was happening around the world in the same context due to the figure per capita for adoptions in Australia being higher than any other country for the same period.

I was completely unaware of the importance of the Catholic Church in Australia. How significant is it?

Oh gosh, I really don’t know how significant it is today. I’m a non-practising Catholic, due to breaking a few of the Ten Commandments.

There is a whole school of writing of what are often referred to as "Catholic novels". The best example, I guess, is Graham Greene. Do you feel that you are writing a "Catholic novel"?

I don’t feel this falls into any religious genre although the Australian National Library catalogued it under religion as well as historical and few other things.

I remember reading excerpts from this when you were working on it what seems a very long time ago. How long did it take you to write?

I was astounded that I wrote the first 30,000 words in a week. From there I struggled for the next seven months to finish the first draft, which came in under 80,000 words. I then spent another year or so on rewrites of Unforgivable. The first draft of A Woman Transported took two years. Then another two years of rewrites.

I have the utmost respect for people who manage to write around their other work. How do you fit in writing round the rest of your life?

I never wrote for about eight years when my daughter was young, and I had a demanding job, but these days I sometimes think writing is my life. At times I think I spend too much time doing it, but I can’t help it. As you know, it’s addictive.

Did you try to get this published by a mainstream publisher and, if so, what was their response?

There are only around eight agents in Australia. I contacted two and one requested a partial and the other a full. Both kindly rejected it. I then went back to A Woman Transported and spent two years or so on rewrites, before deciding to pick up Unforgivable again. By this stage A Woman Transported was selling well, and I decided I wasn’t going to pursue the traditional route again.

Sharon Robards is the author of 'Unforgivable' and 'A Woman Transported'.

Isabel is faced with only one choice — fight her way out of the rookery of St Giles with her wit and beauty and somehow follow the ship that sent her mother to the sunburned convict land of Australia, or else die too young after a short life of wretchedness.

At the height of the convict transportation to Australia, an unseen boundary separates the poor from the rich. Isabel’s stunning beauty and strong will attract the attention of a wealthy man, but the upper classes have their own secrets, secrets entwined with hers. Daily, she has learned hard lessons on the mean streets of London, but they can’t teach her fast enough about the treachery of the wealthy. She must navigate both the gardens of the upper class and back alleys of the downtrodden in two continents. And she will, or die trying to find her mother.

Unforgivable is the story of a teenage girl and a young nun caught up in the great religious and social upheaval brought on by Vatican II, and a thriving adoption industry driven by society’s fierce disapproval of unmarried mothers.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvia, like many unmarried teenage mothers across Australia in 1966, is forced to wait for the birth of her child in one of the homes and hospitals run by the Catholic Church. St Joseph’s Hospital, managed by the Sisters of St Anthony, has never had a girl walk out the front gate without first leaving behind her baby. But the sisters had never met Sylvia, defiant and headstrong and determined to keep her child.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Historical novels and the 20th century

Historical novelists are rather prone to worry about what constitutes a historical novel (something that I've touched on before). A big issue is whereabouts in the 20th century historical novels end and contemporary fiction begins.

It seems to me that the question isn't primarily about the date, but rather about the way that the whole issue of period is addressed. This has been rather highlighted for me by a couple of books that I've read recently. The first was a crime thriller set in 1953. Although I was asked to review it as a historical novel, the period is almost incidental to the action. The writer touches on social issues, like the position of women and minority ethnic groups in the 50s, but it's purely incidental to the central business of finding out whodunnit. Some of the period details are just plain wrong and the analysis of society's attitudes is superficial.

Immediately after I finished this book, I turned to Sharon Robard's novel, Unforgivable. It's set in Sydney in 1966 and tells the story of a young woman who is sent away to have her illegitimate baby in a Catholic hospital so that it can be put up for adoption and she can return home with no one having known that she was pregnant. It's an extraordinary book and I found myself absolutely gripped by the story and wanting to know what happened to the girl and how the tragedy (for it was a tragedy) would work itself out. But quite apart from the quality of the writing and the storyline, the book works for the insight it gives us into Australian life in 1966. Everything that happens is firmly rooted in its time. The attitudes to unmarried mothers reflected the way in which women were perceived more generally. Robards repeatedly contrasts the young women in miniskirts with their mothers in hats and suit dresses even in an Australian summer, highlighting how, in those days, women's fashion was a political statement. The nuns are struggling to come to terms with the changes brought about by Vatican II, just as the Catholic Church is struggling to come to terms with the modern world that sees it as increasingly irrelevant. Australia has been dragged into the Vietnam War and the effect this has on the way that young people see society and, in this story, the immediate impact of the war on the women left behind is a recurring, if distant, motif.

Overall, you might well learn more about society in the 1960s from reading this novel than from many historical texts. It is, in every sense, a historical novel.

You probably haven't heard of Sharon Robards. The publisher, GMM Press, is so small it doesn't even show up on the first page of a Google search. This book is almost certainly doomed to obscurity because of the ludicrous state of modern publishing. If there were any justice, it would be a bestseller. Please do yourselves a favour and buy it.

I interview Sharon in the next post on this blog.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Mending the Holes in History

Today I am hosting Christopher Hawthorne Moss on my blog. He is the author of Beloved Pilgrim and Where My Love Lies Dreaming, both historical novels which deal with characters who (like my own John Williamson) do not have mainstream sexual preferences. 

For me, John Wiliamson's homosexuality was not a big issue. I was writing about James Brooke, who almost certainly was gay, so it was natural for him to be involved with a gay man. I was surprised (innocent that I was) at how big an issue this seemed to be for some readers. Christopher, though,is a transgender writer and he sees his novels as a way of reclaiming the history of people whose sexuality conventional historians ignore or deny. His post explains why this matters to him and how a writer can address these issues in a historical novel.


I remember when feminists coined the expression “herstory” to counteract the overt and subtle mascullinism of the word “History”.  Of course, we all know that the “his” in “history” is not actually the masculine pronoun, but it was an acknowledgement that what we were taught in school was, in fact, the history of men.  Women were a side issue.  The impetus for developing “herstory” was to bring to light the equally central role of women in our past.  The impact of this effort did more than just add female names and faces to the story of humanity.  It helped change the way we looked at how we both learned of and interpreted our collective past.  We stopped reciting the dates of battles and started looking at the records for clues to the actual lives of people of the past.

People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer deserve a history/herstory too.  There is even less record of our lives.   Much of what we have in the records consists mostly of religious diatribes and criminal records, for that was the interface between the dominant culture and us: their attempts to control our behavior through threats and punishment.  Sadly, there is little alternative if you want to tell our story.  The evidence of our lives and loves is at best spotty.

That’s where I believe historical fiction can mend our lack of a history.  Intelligent people realize that times change, but every type of person alive today has existed in every era.  If the estimate that ten percent of people are GLBTQ now, then we were in those numbers at every point in the history of humankind.  The capable storyteller can see the forest for the trees, that is, see just where and how people like us found a way to be no matter when.  It is our job, in essence, to tell the stories of our forebears in sexual identity.  That the people we write about may or may not have actually lived is irrelevant.  They are our history… our story.  As Monique Wittig wrote:

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

Deprived of concrete records it is our job, and in the case of GLBTQ historical fiction sites such as Our Story – GLBTQHistorical Fiction, our purpose, to invent.

My novel, Where My Love Lies Dreaming, used the title of a Stephen Foster song to introduce the ourstrical, to coin a term, tale of two men from different cultures who make a life together in spite of intolerance and also in spite of the American Civil War.  More ambitious, perhaps, is my current novel, Beloved Pilgrim, which attempts a plausible transgender character at the beginning of the 12th century.  The main character is a woman who has known all her life that she is a man in heart and mind and takes the tragic event of her twin brother's death to strike out as a knight, using his identity.  The biological origins of transgenderism make it absolutely certain that people like this character did exist, everywhere and throughout time, and it is my job as a historical novelist to show how this could happen.

But where does plausibility come in?  In the instance of Beloved Pilgrim clearly the surgical and pharmacological advances that would make sex reassignment possible are many centuries hence.  Would a person even have the framework to realize he or she is not in the right body?  The simple fact that ancient cultures, the Romans, Plains Indians, and Hindu, had transgender gods and traditions points to this being more than possible.  On a practical level, could a female-bodied person really pass as a man?  Yes.  Our histories are full of examples of this, including surgeon James Barry, numerous Civil War soldiers, and others throughout time.  The person would simply need to be clever and lucky.  And as Elias tells Albrecht, people tend to see what they expect to see.  I have a female body, but I was called "he" and "sir" just this morning.

It is the responsible novelist's task to reason this out and represent it plausibly.  It would be a mistake in Beloved Pilgrim for anyone to use the term "transgender", an expression that will not exist for hundreds of years.  But my own experience and my knowledge of historical examples tell me that the individual can and at least sometimes would have recognized when a body did not match a soul.

For more examples of how GLBTQ people may have lived and loved in times less tolerant and educated as now visit Our Story – GLBTQ Historical Fiction will provide a collecting place for that invention with book reviews and more.  We want to hear about your work and your ideas.  We want to know how you are writing another piece of “Our Story”.

CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE MOSS can be contacted at christopherhmoss@gmail.com
His Facebook account is at https://www.facebook.com/kitmoss2012

Monday, 3 February 2014

In and out of other people's houses

This is an unusual week for this blog. My own post, on writing in the Gay Ghetto, appears on Adrian J Smith's blog, while, on Thursday, my own blog will be featuring a piece on LGBT characters in historical fiction written by Christopher Hawthorne Moss, author of Beloved Pilgrim. I hope you enjoy both of them.