Sharron Booth’s debut novel, The Silence of Water, is a beautiful work of historical fiction. I admire it immensely—as you can see from my endorsement on the cover.
In constructing questions to pose to Sharron, I think I was influenced by memories of my own exploration of Western Australian convict history for The Sinkings, and the ever widening circles of research that help a writer to understand the people, places and social worlds of the past. It’s evident from her responses that, like me, Sharron formed deep emotional attachments to those she researched, and to artefacts of the past—sometimes to be found beneath one’s feet.
Sharron emigrated from the UK (Yorkshire) to Western Australia as a child, and works as a professional writer. Her creative work has been published in literary journals and newspapers and broadcast on ABC Radio. The Silence of Water was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award—once again proving what a wonderful source of new talent this award represents.
It’s the turn of the century when Fan’s mother, Agnes, announces the family is moving to Western Australia to take care of Agnes’s father—a man they’ve never spoken of before now. Fan finds herself a stranger in a new town living in a home whose currents and tensions she cannot read or understand.
Resentful of her mother’s decision to move, Fan forms an alliance with her grandfather, Edwin Salt, a convict transported to Australia in 1861. As she listens to memories of his former life in England, Fan starts snooping around the house, riffling through Edwin’s belongings in an attempt to fill the gaps in his stories. But the secrets Fan uncovers will test the family’s fragile bonds forever, and force Edwin into a final reckoning with the brutality of his past
When you witness a different crime
AC: Sharron, The Silence of Water is a work of fiction, but it is partly based on people and events drawn from convict history. Was there something in your research into that history that immediately presented itself to you as being a subject for fiction or did you arrive at that point gradually, through the process of accumulating facts and impressions? What was it that lit the spark?
SB: I knew that I needed to write about these events and people, particularly the women, immediately after I read the medical reports and newspaper accounts of the crime that Edwin Salt committed. They upset me so much. I felt as if I had witnessed a very different crime to the one being reported. In the early days, I’d imagined I might write a fairly straightforward account of the life of a Western Australian convict. Those documents reminded me there was no such thing as a straightforward account and that archives always reveal the biases of their times. I didn’t have a clue how I would do it but I knew I wanted to write about the women I had read about, in addition to the convict.
Fragments, glimpses and whispers
AC: The novel is told from the alternating points of view of three characters: Edwin Salt, his daughter Agnes and his granddaughter Fan. Fan’s narrative anchors the present of the novel—the events of 1906—while Edwin’s and Agnes’s range between 1906 and earlier times. There are always challenges in using a non-linear approach, but could you talk about the opportunities such a structure gives a writer in telling the story of three generations?
SB: Before I did much research, my original intention had been to write a past/present dual narrative. Then I discovered that Agnes had left Western Australia at around eighteen years old and started a new life in South Australia. Based on the records, she didn’t seem in a hurry to return. Creatively, I liked the idea of the family conflict that could arise from a decision to move back to Western Australia after a long absence. Plus, moving states at a young age in the late 19th century seemed like a gutsy move for a woman. It made me want to give her a bigger role in the story.
The interwoven structure allows the reader to watch Edwin, Agnes and Fan as they grow up, struggle, make decisions, lie, behave badly. The structure lets the reader know parts of each character that not even other characters know about. It makes for a richer experience of the story.
It also allows the reader to go on the journey with Fan as she uncovers long-buried family secrets. I think it more realistically reflects the way we tend to find things out about our families: in fragments, glimpses and whispers, and almost never in an ordered, linear way.
Bad wives and mothers?
AC: The adolescent Fan is my favourite character—imaginative, independent, witty, and endearing in her fascination with the past and its secrets; a strong girl in the process of becoming a strong woman. But many of your female characters—Eliza, Mary Ann, Cath, Agnes—are strong women, albeit within the context of their times and socio-economic constraints. Were you conscious of foregrounding women’s stories in a novel that is to some extent shaped by the life of one man?
SB: When I read the archival material about Mary Ann and Cath (two of Edwin’s three wives), my emotions ranged from anger to compassion. Mary Ann was decried publicly as a bad wife and bad mother and yet contemporary understanding might suggest she was suffering from post-natal depression. Cath was arrested for using offensive language, an offence that was used almost exclusively against women. I wanted to bring both women out from under the weight of the records. I consciously looked for moments of resistance; they were hard to find but they were there. I used those fragments as starting points for thinking about character. For example, one of the most enduring features about fictional Cath is her voice. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind. People pay attention when she talks. Agnes remembers the sound of Cath’s voice long after her mother has died. I did this to ‘write back’ to the fact that Cath had been criminalised for using her voice.
Flowers on an unmarked grave
AC: Your research for the novel was wide-ranging, taking you from Western Australia to South Australia to various places in the United Kingdom, and from archives and libraries to the kind of experiential research that involves communing with the past through the physical remains to be found in houses and churches, streets and landscapes. Where did you find your greatest inspiration?
SB: I loved the archival research, but visiting the places where my characters had lived got me properly under the skin of this story. Two moments stand out: one in Semaphore and one in Edinburgh. I was walking along Semaphore beach, minding my own business, when in my imagination I saw a girl running over the dunes towards the ocean, her hair trailing behind her. She seemed to fly into the ocean. It was one of those between-two-worlds moments that writers sometimes talk about but I secretly didn’t believe in, until it happened to me. I knew this girl was Fan and that she was here to shake things up.
The second was in Edinburgh in a small church graveyard on a quiet, sunny afternoon. I laid some flowers on the unmarked grave of a woman to whom I had no connection except the privilege of having time and resources to pursue my interest in her life. I told her that I had no idea why this story had chosen me, but no matter what, I would try to do justice to her. The novel did not really come together for me until that afternoon.
AC: As someone powerfully influenced by physical objects, I’m wondering whether you also acquired anything of this kind during your research, something that helped you to make emotional connections with your material. Was there a talisman sitting on your desk while you wrote?
SB: I also find physical objects inspiring. They ground me to the truth of my characters, and to place, through the fog of the writing process.
My desk was crowded with lucky charms while I wrote The Silence of Water. I collected shells and rocks from Semaphore beach. I pinned all my train tickets from the UK research trip on a cork board. When I visited York, Western Australia, via the old convict route from Greenmount, I dug up a stone from part of the original convict-laid road.
I cut my hands and broke fingernails liberating that rock from the ground. I could only imagine the effort it had taken to put it there more than 150 years ago. It inspired a scene in the novel where Edwin and his fellow convicts work on a road gang.
AC: Could you talk about the symbolism of water in the novel?
SB: The ocean is a place of duality. It both separates and connects places. I read somewhere that the ocean symbolises ‘the terrifying sublime’: it’s spiritually uplifting but it can also kill you. In the novel, some characters find great solace in watery places and others meet their end there.
The ocean is essential to my spiritual wellbeing and so it was perhaps unsurprising that it found its way into my fiction. I can’t say I intended to write about water but that’s what happened! I’ve given my love of the ocean to Fan, although she is much braver than I am. For Fan it is a place of calm, compared to the soup of unspoken tension in her Fremantle house.
For Agnes, too, the water is important: she associates the sounds and smells of the river with her mother and the precious times they spent together. Agnes’s relationship to water symbolises her grief and how she deals with significant losses.
I found it interesting that Edwin, Agnes and Fan all made long journeys across water to start new lives. I wanted to explore how people respond to unfamiliar places by asking the question: is it ever possible to truly escape the past?
Silences and the forgotten
AC: Are you naturally drawn to the past, and to historical fiction? Do you see yourself continuing to work in this genre? Which I suppose is another way of asking if you are currently at work on something new!
SB: I’m particularly drawn to stories about how actions of the past, particularly in families, influence the present. While The Silence of Water is historical fiction, I see it primarily as a family story that just happens to be set in the past.
At a broader level I’m also fascinated by the role that secrets and silences play in narratives of Western Australia’s identity. Reading the archives is eye-opening, but so is the daily news.
I’m working on a non-fiction project inspired by some now-forgotten Western Australian women writers, as well as a novel that is set in the more recent past. It’s wonderful to be writing something new, now that the characters from The Silence of Water are making their own way in the world.
Photo credits: author photo by Jess Gately; photo of artefacts by author