Once upon a time, when I won the Historical Novel Society of Australasia's First Pages competition, out of the blue, I received a message of congratulations and encouragement from Lauren Chater. She told me that she had been the previous winner and was nowa published author! We struck up a friendship. It's a few years on, she's just had her second wonderful novel 'Gulliver's Wife' released to the world, I've fumbled with picking up the baton of becoming a published author, but I do feel I'm getting closer and one of the reasons is the unfailing support of authors such as Lauren. I was delighted when she agreed to this interview, and I'm so thrilled to be able to share her insights into writing historical fiction.
What was it about the historical period of 18th century London which particularly captured your imagination?
What really interests me about history is that it can illuminate so much about the present. I’m interested in how societies operate – the communities built through common connection, the small traumas people carried with them which affected how they went about their lives, the class systems they were born into which determined everything from how they worked to what they ate and how they viewed themselves. These things aren’t always obvious until years later but put together, they form a kind of tapestry that we, as modern readers, can hopefully analyse and understand. The past has so much to teach us about the intersection between science and superstition, human endeavour and human rights and how women navigated their new roles in private/public spaces. Before the 17th century, privacy as a concept didn’t really exist - and yet it’s something we now take utterly for granted now. One of the most interesting things to come out of the pandemic crisis has been observing the parallels between our lives and those of our ancestors who endured yearly bouts of plague and were confined for their own good to their houses. How did they manage? What concessions were necessary? Did they break curfew or were they more socially conscious than we give them credit for? I find these kinds of questions fascinating and they’re part of the reason I was drawn to writing historical fiction.
How do you go about creating the characters who inhabit your historical novels?
For Gulliver’s Wife, I was using Swift’s story as a blueprint for my work so I always knew my main character would be Mary Burton, Lemuel Gulliver’s long-suffering spouse. However, there are only a handful of lines about Mary in the original text which allowed me significant scope for developing her backstory and playing around with her relationship to her husband. For Bess – the other voice in the story – I created a hybrid character of Lem and Mary’s best and worst habits. In developing Bess’s eccentricities, I drew on my experience of growing up and my relationship with my family. I had to cast my mind back quite a fair way to remember what it was like to be fifteen but I think I got there in the end! I suppose the most important caveat for me when creating historical characters is that they need to behave in ways which fit the time period. There’s nothing worse than being yanked out of the story you’re reading because a character behaves in a way which feels too modern. Anachronisms aside, I wanted Mary and Bess to be characters the reader could empathise with, even if they didn’t agree necessarily with the actions they took.
How do you navigate the balancing act of writing historical fiction and interweaving historical facts?
I’m always conscious of not loading the story up with too many descriptions and details. It’s something I learned to avoid after writing my first novel which was perhaps a little too heavy on the scene-setting elements. Now I try to focus on character and let the details filter in through more interesting ways. For example, if a character is interacting with something within the scene – a cup, a knife, a dishcloth – there are ways of incorporating historical details without them seeming irrelevant or unanchored to the overarching narrative. It’s something which is really hard to do well and it takes many, many drafts as I have learned, much to my dismay! There are no shortcuts, unfortunately – you just have to do the work.
Did you find it more challenging to write your debut or your second historical novel?
Is it slightly dramatic to confess that this second book nearly killed me?? Oh well, I’ve said it now so I’ll just have to own it! This book was so hard to write. It took everything I had. There were so many moments of doubt where I was sure I would never hold the actual printed version in my hands. I guess part of the reason for this was the pressure I put on myself to do a better job than I had with my first book. I’m very lucky that I had a great publisher to work with me on GW – she pushed me to go beyond what I thought I was capable of. The first draft was really rough so the bulk of the work was done during the structural edits. I was lucky to have some great editors to guide me but I knew I had to do the work myself and be responsible for what I put out there so I made sure that I was editing and rewriting even when I was waiting for feedback. I printed out each version and made changes on the page to try to identify the weak points in the story.
Which Australian historical authors do you most admire and why?
Australia boasts some of the best historical fiction writer. Some of my favourite historical authors include Kate Forsyth, Natasha Lester and Geraldine Brooks who all write consistently fascinating stories about untold corners of history. I adored Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours which won the ACT Book of the Year in 2019. Jock Sorong writes really interesting, gritty stories about the dark side of colonial ambition and Eleanor Limprecht has published two historical novels which are masterclasses in how to weave fact and fiction into compelling narratives.
Which historical novels that you’ve read in the past couple of years have stood out for you and why?
There are so many! Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress, with its themes of self-isolation and moral ambiguity, has been on my mind a lot lately, considering the current climate. I really enjoyed Meg Keneally’s Fled and Mirandi Riwoe’s recent Stone Sky, Gold Mountain, about the Chinese diaspora set in early 19thcentury Victoria. Obviously, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is an excellent example of well-drawn historical fiction – I find myself returning often to try and puzzle out why it works so well. A few years I read Jim Crace’s Harvest, an extraordinary work of fiction which manages to capture the prevailing mood of encroachment. The setting and time period are subtly telegraphed and yet the story feels so modern, the loss of land and livelihood a constant problem which resists easy solutions. Finally, I’ve been reading Thea Astley, the much-lauded Australian novelist. Although she was publishing in the 1940’s and 50’s, her exploration of Aboriginal dispossession feels weirdly contemporary which says a lot, I think, about how far we still have to go reconciling past injustices.
What advice would you give to an aspiring historical author with regards research and the writing process?
It’s always the same advice I give myself – do the work, take research notes as you go, write and then rewrite a million times until you feel like the story you’re telling inside your head matches the one on the page. I don’t profess to be an expert on writing historical fiction – I’ve written two books and am now struggling my way through the third. There are plenty of writers out there who have much more experience in that arena and, also, many amazing, highly-skilled editors who are a bit like the unsung heroes of the writing world. What I have learned about the creative process is that it’s important to shut out the noise – the criticisms, the praise, the sales figures. All that stuff is irrelevant when it comes to writing and none of it makes your words sound better on the page. The only person who can do that is you.
2020 has been a challenging and confronting year for so many of us. Given our preoccupation with current circumstances, why should a reader read historical fiction?
When the pandemic first hit, I found it pretty hard to read. The only reading I seemed capable of doing was scrolling frantically through newsfeeds, pouncing on fresh updates. Now that things have settled a bit, I’ve found myself going back to reading and, in particular, historical fiction for the simple reason that the past now feels more stable than the present. We’re living in such strange times that escaping into the past feels almost comforting, like transporting yourself in a vaguely familiar landscape. Who knows what the next few years will bring? We should all be keeping journals, like Samuel Pepys so that future generations will know how it felt to live through these strange times.
I know 2020 has been far from typical, but could you give us a brief description of your writing year?
The start of the year felt challenging enough without the inclusion of a pandemic to shake things up! Obviously, the bushfire season was pretty concerning – we have friends who lost homes or parts of their properties on the South Coast and I felt terrible about it. I was already struggling at that stage to keep pushing on with my manuscript as the news was pretty depressing. Then my lovely friend Sally Piper steered me towards Charlotte Wood’s writing podcast about making art and I found my enthusiasm returning (also I had a publishing deadline!) Then of course, the pandemic hit and that pretty much stopped my writing dead in its tracks for a bit. Having both little kids home, it was simply impossible to write, teach and care for them. My son has special needs, too, so we lost all his therapies and support as everyone went into isolation. It was a very challenging time. Since I couldn’t write much, I tried to keep my enthusiasm alive by reading research books and doing short online writing courses. The kids have only just this week returned to school full-time so – huzzah! – I can finally get back to my manuscript.
How has the current isolation restricted or impinged on you as a writer? Have there been any positives?
I think I took a lot of things for granted! I think we all did. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a desk and a quiet space as much as I do now. When restrictions eased, my friend lent me her granny flat on Thursdays so I started going there to write. It was absolute heaven, having that quiet space to think and reflect on my work, to read things aloud and take research notes without being interrupted for a zoom meeting with my child’s teacher. In terms of writing content, I’m not sure whether there’ll be any significant impact on the story. If it fits with what I’m working on, I might include some passages about the plague (as part of the story is set in 17th century Europe). But it certainly won’t be the focus of the novel. I do think readers will identify more strongly with narratives about illness after the pandemic is over. And we’ll have a better appreciation of what it’s like to be alone.
What are you currently working on? What next?
I’m currently working on my next novel The Winter Dress, inspired by an extraordinary 17th century silk dress brought up by amateur divers a few years ago off the Dutch coast. My main character Jo is a textiles historian who grew up in Holland on the island where the dress was found and moved to Australia as a teenager after a tragic accident. She’s pulled back to Texel by the remarkable discovery of the dress and tasked with uncovering the dress’s owner. Meanwhile, in 17th century Amsterdam, celebrated artist Anna Shuman loses her patronage and protection when her father dies unexpectedly, leaving her destitute. She finds work as a laundress in The Hague where she is drawn into the glittering court of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen of Bohemia. But the court is full of English spies intent on stamping out the Stuart monarchy and Anna’s loyalty to the queen tested as the civil war in England threatens to spill its borders, destroying the life she has worked so hard to build. Although I haven’t finished writing it yet, I suspect the themes will centre around impermanence and cultural ownership, exile and grief. I’m looking forward to seeing how it shapes up.
Lauren Chater is the author of the bestselling historical novels The Lace Weaver and Gulliver's Wife, as well as the baking compendium Well Read Cookies. In 2018 she was awarded a grant by the Neilma Sidney Literary Fund to travel to the Netherlands to research her third novel The Winter Dress, inspired by a real 17th century gown found off the Dutch coast in 2014. She has made appearances at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Storyfest, the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival and the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival, as well as many others. She is currently completing her Masters of Cultural Heritage through Deakin University.
You can find out more about Lauren from her website: https://laurenchater.com
Here is a link to more information about Gulliver's Wife: https://laurenchater.com/book/gullivers-wife/