Fascinating women of history

Edith_CowanI spend a lot of time reading about interesting historical women, so I thought I’d share some of their stories on the blog (because I can’t write novels about ALL of them).

First up is Australia’s first female Parliamentarian Edith Cowan, who served during the 1920s (incidentally, the same period during which Evergreen Falls is set). She is the only woman who has had an Australian university named after her, and she appears on the Australian fifty dollar note.

Cowan, the second of six children, had a childhood straight out of the pages of a novel. When she was seven, her mother Mary died giving birth to the couple’s fourth child. Her father, pastoralist and explorer Kenneth Brown, subsequently remarried, but the marriage was not a happy one and he started drinking heavily. By 1871, he had run up a number of debts, and was forced to mortgage his property. He shot and killed his second wife on 3 January 1876 and was hanged for the crime on 10 June 1876. Young Edith Brown did not witness any of this, as she was sent to boarding school in Perth after her mother’s death. The school was run by the sisters of the man she later married, James Cowan. After father’s death, however, she left the school to live with other relatives.

She busied herself with philanthropic work, and campaigned for women’s suffrage. Because her husband was a Master of the Supreme Court, she became aware of the many injustices meted out to women and children in the system, and after women gained suffrage in 1899, she went on to campaign for welfare for the disadvantaged, as well as founding, and heading, various charitable and political groups, such as Western Australia’s National Council for Women. She raised funds for the building of the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth (which opened in 1916), founded the Children’s Protection Society, and as a result was appointed to the bench of the new children’s court in 1915. She became Australia’s first female Justice of the Peace in 1920, as well as being awarded the Order of the British Empire in the same year.

After entering Parliament, Cowan pushed for legislation that gave women the same legal and inheritance rights as men, as well as inheritance rights to mothers of children who died intestate. She also promoted the teaching of sex education in schools.

And all of this with four children!

(compiled with the assistance of my fabulous research assistant Heather Gammage)

On Second Breakfast

second breakfastOver at my publisher’s Facebook page there is a competition running where you can win an advance preview copy of Evergreen Falls by leaving a comment about what you think luxury is. The competition is only open to Australian readers and closes on 23 July, so do hurry.

Reading all the answers has made me consider how I would define luxury. I’m a simple girl at heart, and expensive or fancy objects tend to make me uncomfortable. But my one indulgence, the luxury that I allow myself once a week, is what I like to call second breakfast (which is a term I got from the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings). I have the same breakfast every morning: peanut butter on wholemeal toast with a hot cup of tea, served to me in bed by my lovely partner. I’m usually very busy, so up and about straight after breakfast getting kids ready for school and thinking about all my jobs for the day.

But on Sunday mornings, I go downstairs after breakfast, find an interesting book on my shelf, make myself a pot of tea and a buttery crumpet. I take them back to bed with me and read all morning. I’m something of tea snob, so it has to be tea-leaves properly brewed in a pot. My favourite at the moment is Irish breakfast tea, which is strong and sweet and malty. Diamonds and furs are for other girls; second breakfast is luxury to me.

On being what we are

++ This blog post originally appeared at Kim Wilkins

I grew up in Redcliffe in the 70s and 80s, when it was pretty rough and socially cover Ember Islanddisadvantaged. In fact, I was pretty rough and socially disadvantaged too. We were welfare class. My dad had an accident at work and was on sickness benefits, which he spent almost wholly on beer. My mum worked hard to support us all. I was bullied at school, never really fit in, and went to work in rubbish jobs in fast food.

Then I finally got my act together, went back to high school, then got out of town.

For a long time, during my university studies and with my new inner-city friends, I was faintly (if not entirely sometimes) embarrassed about having been a Redcliffe chick, one who used to hang out with boys in cars or wag school to sit on the jetty and smoke. I didn’t speak of it. I made myself anew; I tried to stop saying “Me and my friends” went somewhere or did something, or “brought” when I meant “bought”. I got a PhD. I published books and spoke elegantly and eloquently in public places.

Then one day I was coming home in a plane from Sydney, and we flew over Moreton Bay, that body of grey-blue water that I grew up looking at. And it struck me how magnificent the bay is, how it gives me the feeling of being home, of being somewhere that everything is all right. I looked down at the islands, and a story idea came to me. The story became Ember Island, the book I worked on over the summer. Imagine my surprise and delight when they sent me the cover and the jetty on the front is actually Redcliffe jetty. “We managed to get an actual picture of Moreton Bay,” the publisher told me excitedly. But she couldn’t know just how familiar that part of Moreton Bay is to me. Redcliffe jetty, on my book cover. Fifteen years ago I would have been appalled. But now, this just fills me with strange pride.

I am a Redcliffe girl. I did work at every fast food chain you can think of. And then I did something different; and I am not a better or worse person for growing up rough around the edges. I am so proud of this book and the fact that it is set somewhere unexotic, maybe even parochial. I am what I am, and I am proud to own it.

On Writing Companions

IMG_3661All writers I know have companion animals.  And if you were to ask writers why this is so important to them, the responses will range from being inspired by the beautiful muse that rocks up when you look your cat or dog in the eyes, or the comfort, and the quiet unconditional love they give as they sleep by your side.

While life as a writer is filled with magic, frustration, and all kinds of wonderful, it can also be a very lonely place.  Often sitting at the keyboard for hours at a time, alone, lost in our worlds of story telling.

Our pets may sit at our feet, or near our side and some even dance across the keyboard just to remind us to have a break, a cuddle or both.  Felines are particularly good at this, and really, they only want to help.  They somehow know when we are getting close to the end of the chapter: truly they aren’t annoying us as much as we think, they are simply showing us, if we stop and pause, even if only to remove said cat from keyboard, the words we might be struggling for in the final sentence suddenly begin to flow.

But besides all our animal companion shenanigans, there is the quiet comfort when we are entrenched in our stories, when we forget to eat, forget to sleep, forget to shower or even get dressed, oh how I love the fetid nightie.  The quiet comfort when we hold our head in our hands and grumble and swear and beat ourselves up for being useless for not finding the words, for not finding the sentence that sings, but despite all that our pets love us just the way we are.

Our animal companions wait patiently, lovingly, and unconditionally.  They forgive our outbursts of rage and frustration even when we ignore them for hours and forget to feed them too!  It’s about now though you can guarantee they will watch your every move with a keen eye, and as soon as we move, their quiet pitter-patter besides us reminds us as writers that we are never, ever really alone.

On the romance of work

Image: gumtree.com.au

++this blog post originally appeared at: Kim Wilkins

When I was a little girl, I read a book that would affect me profoundly. It was Gladys Malvern’s The Dancing Star, first published in 1944, an account of the life of Anna Pavlova, written for children. Like many little girls, I dreamed of being a ballet dancer but unfortunately I was very very bad at dancing and didn’t progress beyond the one disastrous Christmas concert (let me just say: if you’re a blue fairy and you’re with the pink fairies when you’re not supposed to be, you stand out). But it wasn’t the stuff about ballet that affected me so deeply, it was the stuff about work.

According to the book, Anna Pavlova was obsessed with dancing. She practised all the time. She did it until her toes bled and she just. kept. going. This notion, that one could work so hard and push through barriers of extreme discomfort, really took hold of my imagination. From that moment on, I understood the incredible romance of work: diligent hours spent on something that mattered to make an outcome appear in the world.

This is why I don’t hold much with the myth of inspiration: the idea that somehow you must have about yourself the perfect set of preconditions for creativity to be bestowed upon you by a muse. Coleridge stopped writing “Kubla Khan” when a “gentleman from Porlock” stopped by on some business or another, and interrupted his flow of inspiration (Coleridge clearly never had responsibility for small children, who are magnificent porlockers). The myth of inspiration is pleasantly mystical, I suppose, but it isn’t nearly so effective as work.

Work in the early morning hours when the family is asleep. Work until late when the words are flowing. Work on a freshly printed manuscript with a brand new pen while it rains outside. Work when it all seems too hard and your metaphorical toes are bleeding and you have to push through the pain. Work on something you care about so passionately that, like a new lover, you can’t leave it alone. Art, when viewed in this light, is not a divine bolt from above, but the sweet, constant labour of real human beings manifesting things with their feet in the soil. And there is no idea about art more pleasing to me than that.

On having a research assistant

Over the summer (in Australia, summer is just finishing) I wrote a book. It took me only three months to write, and a little bit of time to edit. It was the easiest book I ever wrote, and it’s called Ember Island. I’ll post more information as I have it. But this post is a shout-out to the person who made it all possible: my research assistant, Heather. Tirelessly, day or night, she responded to my endless texts and emails asking for tiny details that she had to chase down from all over the place. She had to cold-call experts, spend hours in dusty libraries, sort out details of all kinds of random aspects across time and location. Just today, as I was finishing off the structural edit to go to the publisher, I sent her my last query. Would it be possible that a 10 year old girl in the late nineteenth century would have heard of the early medieval Irish poem “Pangur Ban”? Within 15 minutes, I had my answer. And therein lies Heather’s true worth: she told me the truth (it wasn’t possible) and when I told her I was going to ignore her and put it in anyway (for we never let the truth get in the way of the story), she just sent me a smiley face.

ImageWriters don’t write in a vacuum. There is a large machinery of support all around them. From family and friends, to agents and publishers, to helpful people at stationery stores and the reader who sends you fan mail at precisely the moment you feel you should give up this writing caper and retrain as a podiatrist. I am grateful for all of those who support me to write my books, but especially to the lovely Heather, whose wisdom and intelligence and vast store of historical knowledge made my summer so easy.