One of the best things about being the historical fiction editor for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is getting to know some of Australia’s marvellous historical fiction authors. The very lovely Wendy Dunn is joining me for Behind the Pen today and I’m so pleased to have this opportunity to showcase her novels.
How many novels have you written and published?
I have three published novels, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, The Light in the Labyrinth, Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters, plus a number of started, but, at the moment, very stalled manuscripts filed away for a later time. I am hoping to live a long, long time because I have so many novels I want to write.
How long on average does it take you to write a novel?
I really want to say two years – and I did complete my first and second published novels in that time, but Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters, my third published novel, was actually a work I started after the 2002 publication of Dear Heart, How Like You This? The original version of Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters had no success in finding a publisher, but I received a lot of encouragement for the work in its twelve or so rejections. The overall feedback from publishers made me realise I needed to change my POV character for the sake of the story I was telling. Rather than face doing that, I distracted myself by completing a PhD in writing; The Light in the Labyrinth was my creative artefact for that. I finally overhauled Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters in 2015, and it was published by MadeGlobal in 2016. LOL –so the time it took to write Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters, the first novel of my Katherine of Aragon story, has tossed a spanner into any hope of me having an average time to write a novel. But, I believe a novel will be finished when it is finished.
Can you tell us about your backlist? I believe some of your earlier novels have new editions being released. How has this come about?
Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002) and The Light in the Labyrinth (2014) were both published by Metropolis Ink – a small, but excellent USA publisher who always nurtured and believed in me as a writer. Metropolis Ink (MI) was operated by two partners – one in America and the other in Australia. The American partner celebrated his 75th birthday last year and decided it was time for MI to close its doors. However, his Australian partner wanted to continue in publishing, and started his own imprint: A Distant Mirror. I was delighted that he still wanted to publish my first two novels. The new edition of Dear Heart, How Like You This? has just been released, and I expect the new edition of The Light in the Labyrinth will be out very soon.
It has been somewhat surreal re-visiting my first novel, but I love the new look of its cover:
How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?
I had no expectations when I decided to be serious about pursuing a writing career, only a lot of hopes. I had wanted to be an author of books since I was a child, but it took me a long, long time to find the courage to brave walking the road to achieve this goal.
Life also kept me extremely busy. I married at eighteen, had my first child at nineteen, completed a Bachelor of Arts, Diploma of Education and Graduate Diploma in the Arts with three young children in tow. The Graduate Diploma not only immersed me in creativity in all its forms, but also had another writer doing the course. I told him I had started writing a novel, and he asked to read it. When he handed the first chapters back to me, he told me he loved it; more importantly, he told me I was a writer. Hearing those words, at the right time in my life, was what I needed to hear; the floodgates opened to the novel I had wanted to write since my twenties. Words poured out of me and by the end of the course I had finished the first draft of Dear Heart, How Like You This?
Following after my lifelong dream of becoming an author has turned my life into a true adventure. I never expected to gain my PhD – or to work at a university as a tutor of writing. Or have three novels published.
Reading and writing has transformed and empowered my life – and continues to do so.
How much research do you do? How do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
I build my characters – real and imagined – through thorough research. I love researching history and deepening my knowledge about people of the past, which means every novel I write increases my own personal reference library. But research is only just the start of the process. One of my most favourite quotes about writing historical fiction comes from the pen of William Styron. He writes, “While it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations”. Short rations, in my mind, means gaps in historical records; those gaps are what open the doors for my imagination to step inside.
So, research inspires my imagination, which goes on to generate writing. I love those moments when I lose sense of self and I become a scribe to this waking dream happening in my mind. Sometimes, I wake from this dream agonized as to where my dream has taken me. But historical fiction often means taking a stand, and to trust your research and your instincts about human psychology. My writing philosophy is alike to Margaret Atwood’s. She writes, ‘when there was a solid fact, I could not alter it … but in the parts left unexplained – the gaps left unfilled – I was free to invent’ (Atwood 1998, p.1515).
The paradox of fiction is all fiction is make believe, a lie. No matter how much I research the period and its people, I can only hope to interpret, recreate the past and construct my make-believe through the prism of a writer who belongs to and is constructed by the present. As a writer of historical fiction, my goal is to find the beating heart of a good story that is also informed by history.
How much planning do you do? Do you plan/plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progresses? In terms of characters, are they already a firm picture in your mind before you start writing or do they develop a personality of their own as the story progresses?
I get nudged by historical people while reading history books, when I read something that makes them step forward as living, breathing human beings. So, yes, I usually have a firm idea in my character before I start a novel. Since I write historical fiction, their story is woven into the fabric of history and informed by what my research reveals about them as well as my knowledge of their time.
Writing my first draft is a far more organic process than my later drafts because my first draft is my means to discover the beating heart of my story; once I have that, then everything begins to weave into what becomes a whole fabric of storytelling.
Which historical era are you most passionate about and why?
I am passionate about the Tudor period and have been since my childhood; sometimes, I think that passion means my imagination will forever stay fixed on telling stories about the Tudors. Why? Because, for me, this period provides a rich gold mine of stories to delve into and tell, and connect us to archetypes and the hero’s journey. And what a lot archetypes and heroes there are in the Tudor period – we have the rejected, mother-less daughter who turns her life into victory; the older, long suffering wife tossed aside by her husband for the younger woman; the old, rich man who marries a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, only to discover there nothing sadder than an old fool – except he has the power to kill her. Adultery, murder, lust, love, passion, betrayal, tragedy and triumph, family secrets, ambition and pride – it’s all there. The Tudors provide readers and writers with multilayered stories speaking to our shared humanity.
What other genre would you like to try your hand at writing and why?
LOL – I think I have tried my hand at most genres of writing in my writing life. I believe being a writer means being committed to the craft of writing. I believe writing in more than one genre expands and deepens writing skills. In recent years, I have tried my hand at playwriting, and I have had a few of my poems published in publications other than in my own novels too.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
Writers I love the most include Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Elizabeth Goudge, Robert Graves, Winston Graham, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood – really, the list could go and go. But what I look for in a novel is one that has unforgettable characters, as well being a work speaking to my mind and heart.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
I think I would have to say the Narnia Series – I read those novels over and over in childhood. And of course reading as child started me on the road to becoming a writer myself. I remember deciding to become a writer at eight. I find it very interesting how many writers I know have made that lifelong commitment to writing at only eight….
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
Interesting question, Theresa. LOL – I’m tempted to ask if a sane writer could be described as an oxymoron? I mean, I’m utterly happy to hang out for hours and hours with my imaginary friends and go on adventures with them.
Seriously, what keeps me sane as a writer is the actual practice of writing – that means it necessary and important for me to have utterly focused writing time. For over a decade now, I have gone away on regular writing retreats. Most of these retreats have been at Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains. I’ve just returned from my second two week retreat for this year, and it is has brought me home more determined and motivated than ever to complete my new novel by next year.
Varuna sunset, February 2017:
Can you share with us a vivid childhood memory?
I sit with my older sister in an open window, watching the magic show of a summer storm. Behind me, our father’s loud voice competes with the boom of thunder. Dad is telling us about the Viking god, Thor. Another lightning bolt cracks open the grey clouds and thunder drums, rattling the slash window above my head. “Listen, girls. That’s mighty Thor, banging away at his anvil in his blacksmith shop.”
I gaze at the sky, imagining a bearded giant – twin to my own huge father – as hot raindrops patter on my swinging legs.
Can you tell us something about yourself that you’d like your readers to know?
Smile – what I want people to know about me is in my novels.
If you could go back in time for a year, which historical era would you choose to live in and why?
Easy to answer – since I write about the Tudors, my choice would have to be Tudor England. Hard to know what year I would pick though…perhaps, 1558, the first year of Elizabeth I’s reign. Of course, I would have to hope to not to catch the terrible flu that was sweeping England at this time, but I would be willing to risk this for the experience of research. I haven’t yet written a novel set in Elizabeth’s time as queen, but I hope to do this one day….
Atwood, M 1998, ‘In search of Alias Grace: on writing Canadian historical fiction’, American Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 5, viewed 28 March 2014, EBSCOhost.