Monthly Archives: April 2016

Writers Ask Writers: early inspirations

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It’s been a while since the Writers Ask Writers group has posted, but we couldn’t let the opportunity to celebrate two new releases go by! The main characters in those new novels—Georgia in Sara Foster’s All That is Lost Between Us, and Evie in Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald—are young women who are inspired to pursue big dreams. Georgia dreams of being a champion fell-runner, and her flight through the Lake District becomes a matter of life and death, while Evie dares to believe she can study medicine when social conventions say otherwise. So the topic we’ve chosen this time is: books we read as young women that were early influences on our own pursuits.

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Links to the posts from Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester, Annabel Smith and Yvette Walker follow mine.

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There are probably many books I read as a girl and as a young woman that contributed to what I would eventually choose to do with my life, but it isn’t always easy to draw a direct line between cause and effect, especially when (as in my case) the journey has been a circuitous one.

Novels as diverse as Catcher in the Rye, Little Women and Great Expectations made lasting impressions on my literary sensibility, and in that sense were early inspirations. But on reflection, I’m surprised to find that I also owe a debt to a popular historical/romance novelist for scattering a few seeds—some that grew into a love of history; others into a vague dissatisfaction with who and what seemed ‘worthy’ subjects of history and historical fiction.

English writer Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert (d. 1993), writing under the pseudonyms Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, achieved sales of more than 56 million books during her writing life. In my late primary school years, I devoured the Jean Plaidy catalogue, jumping from series to series—the Queens of England, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Plantagenets, Isabella and Ferdinand, the Medicis, the Borgias…

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These novels were enchanting, easy reads, and they took History—previously a dry subject consisting of dates and places and names and lists—and turned it into page-turner stories. I can trace the simple thread connecting the schoolgirl I was, eager to read about people rather than facts, to the writer I became.

But I also remember being curious about what went on in the margins of those stories. Fascinating though the lives of royalty and the powerful and the high-born were—not to mention the array of aspirants and pretenders and scheming mistresses—I would wonder about people who were not destined for a life at court or in other theatres of power. What did it feel like to be an ordinary person in such a society? What gave their lives value? Was life without status no life at all? Was the equation really that simple? It is only now that I can trace this other thread between the schoolgirl and the writer, and see that the debt I owe to ‘Jean Plaidy’ was part inspiration and part challenge.

As for those 56 million sales, I salute you, Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert! And I thank you for playing a part in sending me on the circuitous route that led me to convicts and gutting girls.

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Yvette Walker tells us why Graham Greene was the greatest influence on her young writing life.

Annabel Smith writes about her ‘beloved and much-underlined copy’ of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home.

Natasha Lester was inspired by Jane Eyre, and through this book her ‘love of the epic novel, the love story…was born.’

Sara Foster recalls two very different novels that she says continue to influence her today.

Emma Chapman tells a beautiful story of a former employer who taught her that anything is possible.

Dawn Barker concedes her favourite was an ‘uncomfortable read’ but knows it helped her to realise ‘the power of words and stories.’

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A small photo-poem…

Dinner for one

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2, 2 and 2: Natasha Lester talks about A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald

UnknownIt’s a pleasure to welcome Natasha Lester to 2, 2 and 2. Natasha has been a writer friend for several years (see the Writers Ask Writers series of posts) and I’ve had the privilege of reading, in draft form, parts of the novel she is about to release, so I know that readers are in for a treat!

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald (Hachette Australia) is Natasha’s third book, and she already has her fourth ready to follow in April 2017. Her previous novels are What is Left Over After (2010, winner of the TAG Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript) and If I Should Lose You (2012). She is well known as a writing teacher and mentor, and has been described by The Age newspaper as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’.

Here’s the blurb for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald:

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines—and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

And now over to Natasha:

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2 things that inspired your book

1 Bizarrely, a biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, by Lyndall Gordon, was the thing that really kicked the idea off. And no, I’m not a huge Emily Dickinson fan, nor am I a big biography reader. It was really a moment of serendipity. I was at the Perth Writers’ Festival in 2012 and Lyndall Gordon was speaking about her book and for some reason I went along to the session—I don’t know why but I’m so glad I did! Lyndall spoke so feelingly about Emily Dickinson and her biography that I just had to buy it. One of the things the biography touched on was the fact that in the mid to late nineteenth century, a very small number women began to go to university for the first time, even though it was very much frowned upon by society. Of course, these days, women go to university and nobody thinks twice about it, so I was fascinated by the idea that university used to be, for women, an exception rather than the norm. Being the evil novelist I am, I began to wonder what would be the most unacceptable thing for a woman to study at university and it was medicine, with obstetrics right at the top of that list. That was when I knew I had my book.

2 The other inspiration was a scribbled note I’d written down after watching an ABC documentary on the history of music about 10 years ago. One of the segments in the documentary was about an infamous Broadway revue called the Ziegfeld Follies and I thought to myself at the time: wow, that would be a fabulous setting for a novel. So, a woman studying obstetrics in New York combined with my scribbled note about the Ziegfeld Follies in New York became, via a long and winding road, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.

2 places connected with your book

1 New York is the lifeblood of my book. It wouldn’t be the same without that city. It’s a city I love, a city with a huge history, but it’s also a city of opposites: uptown and downtown, the east side and the west side, skyscrapers and tenements. And it’s those contrasts that I play with in my book: two sisters who are unalike, yet related by blood; two brothers who are the obverse of the other, yet love the same woman; the struggle of a woman to break into the world of medicine and obstetrics against the wishes of all the men in charge; the life that goes on in a boardinghouse in Greenwich Village versus that which takes place in a mansion on the Upper East Side. All the places I’ve used in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald actually existed, from the New Amsterdam Theatre at 42nd Street, to the Sloane Hospital for Women on Amsterdam Avenue, to Chumley’s speakeasy in Greenwich Village, and Minetta Street, where Evie lives, on one of the few curving streets in the city.
[The following photos were taken by Natasha on a research trip to New York.]

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Grove Court, Greenwich Village

 

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Perry Street, just off Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village

2 Evie grows up in Concord, Massachusets, which is where Louisa May Alcott lived, and where she wrote Little Women. I wanted Evie to grow up outside Manhattan so that the decision to go to medical school involves not only a complete shift in the direction of her life, but also a physical shift in terms of where she lives. And Little Women was a source of inspiration to me when I was writing—it’s a book about sisters, as is mine—so I thought it was fitting to set part of A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in Concord. It’s completely unlike New York City, full of pastel-coloured timber houses and so much greenery, so it lends another contrast, plus it’s close to Radcliffe College, where Evie initially goes to school. I visited both Concord and New York when researching the book, which meant I was able to write with a full and complete picture of both places in my head.

2 favourites from the book

1 The 1920s has a very specific set of slang words, which I just loved using. Terms like panther sweat for whiskey, spifflicated for drunk, hotsy-totsy for excellent, and billboard for a flashy woman. Plus the animal anatomical phrases, used to signify that something is great: cat’s whiskers, cat’s meow, cat’s pyjamas, butterfly’s boots, bee’s knees, elephant’s eyebrows. I had lots of fun with all of these.

2 One of my favourite quotes from the book is the first line of Part 2, where we jump ahead two years in time. Our last impression of Evie at the end of Part 1 is as a determined woman who’s decided to go ahead with medical school no matter what the cost to her reputation, but she’s still a relatively polite person, and a little afraid of what her decision will mean. Then she has this line of dialogue at the start of Part 2 and we know instantly that things have changed: she’s much braver now, and she’s prepared to fight. Her supervisor at the hospital, a man who can’t comprehend the idea of a female obstetrician, has just told Evie, in front of all the other medical students, that she’s not qualified to have an opinion about birthing women, and this is Evie’s response:

‘Given that I possess one, I think I have a more intimate knowledge of the vagina than any man could ever lay claim to. That should make me well qualified to be an obstetrician,’ Evie said.

Exactly!!!

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald will be in stores on 26 April.
Visit Natasha’s website
Find out more at Hachette Australia

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Creating a sense of place

I was recently invited to contribute a piece to the Scottish Book Trust’s ‘Five Things’ blog. The Scottish Book Trust is a fabulous organisation that promotes reading and writing as having the power to change lives—and that’s my kind of ‘mission statement’!

My piece is on creating a sense of place in fiction, and you can read it here.

 

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