Last month Annabel Smith, author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (Fremantle Press), tagged me in the latest book meme, immodestly titled ‘The next big thing’, which asks writers to answer ten questions about their forthcoming work. (You can read Annabel’s responses about her exciting work-in-progress, a multimedia novel called The Ark, here.) So here goes.
2. Where did the idea come from?
Different sources—some I’d been thinking about for a long time and some that sprang from research. I don’t keep journals but I accumulate ideas, often just words, on scraps of paper in a folder. Elemental came, in a roundabout way, from three of these scrap words—‘fishermen’, ‘consequences’, ‘butterflies’—and from my fascination with things like memory, inheritance, generativity, history, ethics, families.
3. What genre does your book fall into?
Literary fiction—three parts historical and one part contemporary.
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Well, the lead role of Meggie would need several actors as we see her from childhood through to her forties, and then as an elderly woman. And the actor would need to manage a Doric accent (the rich dialect of north-east Scotland), with flourishes of Shetland and Australian thrown in. I don’t want much, do I! Maybe Cate Blanchett or Miranda Otto? (I can dream!) I don’t see either of them as ‘my’ Meggie, the one in my head, the one I think I’ve written, but that would not matter as long as the actor caught the heart of the character. Film is its own art.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Meggie Tulloch is writing to her granddaughter—a story of a tiny fishing village in north-east Scotland at the turn of the twentieth century, of the wild, witchy sea that gives and takes, of the herring girls who escaped the lives mapped out for them from birth, of women’s work and women’s friendship, of a love that carries Meggie across the world to Australia, of the secrets she has spent a lifetime trying to forget.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by UWA Publishing in May 2013.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I began the research in 2007 and finished the first draft just after midnight on 22 May 2011, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland. I was so elated that I crept down to the kitchen to celebrate with leftover cake, accidentally scaring the hell out of German artist Maria Maier. When Maria recovered, she and I shared the cake and toasted the draft with tea.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I don’t think writers are always the best people to judge these things—I know I’m not—so this is more a wish list on my part: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx; ‘In the Machine’, part 1 of Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham; Possession by A. S. Byatt.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Mostly covered in #2. But I have an enduring interest in exploring the past and how it affects the present.
10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Part of the story highlights the history of the herring girls—gutters—who were contracted by curing companies to travel in teams around the north-western islands of Scotland, up to the Shetlands, then down the north-east Scottish coast to East Anglia, following the shoals for nine months of the year. The more I read about the phenomenal skill and speed of these women, the more I admired them and wanted to know more. It’s reported—in so many disparate sources that it’s hard to doubt the veracity of the accounts—that many of them could gut and grade fifty, sixty, up to seventy herring a minute!