Following on from my review yesterday of We That Are Left, today it gives me great pleasure to bring to you an interview with the author, Lisa Bigelow. We That Are Left is Lisa’s first novel and I am always thrilled to have an opportunity to showcase a debut Australian Woman Writer.
What was the inspiration behind We That Are Left? What convinced you that this was a story that needed to be told?
LB Mae and Harry Parker’s story is inspired by my grandparents story. Like the majority of her generation, my Nana rarely talked about the war, nor about the loss of my grandfather, who was one of the 645 crew lost on the Sydney in 1941. Although I grew up with the Sydney story as part of my family history, I was prompted to try writing this novel when Australia prepared to commit troops into war in 2003. At the time it felt that there was too little discussion about the cost of war on our servicemen and women and the families and friends they left behind. It got me thinking about how hard it must be to maintain happy, positive relationships with partners being sent to serve overseas, and what would happen if their last leave visit had not been entirely happy. What if something happened to your partner after you’d argued and you never had the chance to put it right?
How much research did you do? How did you go about sourcing your information? As an author of historical fiction inspired by real life events, how much importance did you place on getting the facts right versus telling a good story?
When I began writing this story, there were several books available that examined all of the historical facts as they were known at the time. There had also been a Government inquiry into the loss of the Sydney in 1997. That was the first enquiry, despite the disappearance occurring more than fifty years prior. The Australian War Memorial had shelves and shelves of files, but almost nothing was digitised at the time; you had to physically visit the War Memorial and submit an application for the files you wanted to read, or pay hundreds of dollars for them to copy files and send them to you. By the end of this project, so much was available online from interest groups, libraries and the second Government enquiry. I personally felt the weight of responsibility to accurately portray events in the story of the Sydney’s loss with only a few things blurred for story such as timing of final shore leave and sighting of the decoy target off WA but that was my choice. And rather than the old journalism maxim, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, I felt the truth enhanced this story.
Who came to you first, Grace or Mae? Were either of them a firm picture in your mind before you started writing or did they each develop their own personalities as the story progressed?
The early drafts of this book were entirely Mae’s story. But there were other parts to this story begging to be told but difficult to weave into the existing narrative of Mae and her family and friends. I was lucky to have great interest in this story from several publishers and one who made the great suggestion that perhaps I should add a female journalist to the story. That suggestion immediately sparked possibilities. In fact, I went to a spin class that night at the gym and as I was working out, Grace Fowler appeared in my imagination pretty well-formed. She began telling parts of the story that I’d so far had to leave behind and although she was late to the story, I knew she needed equal weight. While each had different personalities and motivations, their stories had parallels that worked well to illustrate different aspects of the over-arching theme; the people left behind by war.
We That Are Left concludes in April of 1947 with the fate of HMAS Sydney still very much a mystery. What actually happened to the ship? Was there ever any evidence uncovered or any conclusions officially made?
The second reason for writing this book – other than the physical cost of war on troops and their families and communities – was to prompt the search for the Sydney that had been recommended by the Government enquiry in 1997. Despite the recommendation to fund a search, by 2003, nothing had happened. In 2007, some shipwreck hunters announced that they had found the wreck near the coast of WA. It turned out to not be true but the spotlight was again on searching for the Sydney. When David Mearns was announced as leading an expedition with WA Maritime museum and historians, I spent three weeks following the news. When they found the wreck, my feelings were mixed; elation that the mystery had been solved, that the wreck was exactly where the Germans had said all along and there was no evidence of Japanese involvement, but disappointment that my grandmother hadn’t lived long enough to see the mystery resolved. The video footage taken of the ship — which is now a war grave and cannot be disturbed — is incredibly poignant; especially the image of two leather boots lying on the sand just outside the hull.
Given your personal connection to HMAS Sydney via your grandmother’s loss, how present in your life was this tragedy while growing up (if at all)?
When the Sydney disappeared, Australia was a young nation with a much smaller population. That meant that a huge proportion of the population knew someone directly affected by the tragedy. I believe that the following two generations – myself included – were deeply affected by the loss of male role models, leaders and workers. I never knew my grandfather and I was just one of thousands who missed out on knowing their fathers, uncles and grandfathers and who were raised by women grieving the loss of their partners, sons and brothers.
How has being Australian AND a woman impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
I am thankful every day for the luck and privilege of being born in Australia. It means I have the freedom to make all of my own choices about the way I live my life and the way I express my thoughts. I am able to study when I need to learn something new and I have the luxury of spare time which I can use to tell stories. I think many women are drawn to reading and storytelling because we sometimes don’t feel that our voices are heard and respected, but I hope that is changing with each new female voice that emerges.
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
Having worked in newspapers, I’ve been lucky enough to sit down and chat to a few amazing people, Sir David Attenborough is at the top of that list. But if I could choose someone from history, it would have to be women writers such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters who managed to figure out how to write timeless characters
exploring universal themes, within the constraints of incredibly small social circles and without the benefit of writing courses.
We That Are Left will be available from September 1st but you can pre-order your copy now from your favourite book seller. Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of We That Are Left for review and for also putting me in touch with Lisa for this interview.
Thank you so much Lisa, for answering my many questions! It was a pleasure being able to showcase you here at Theresa Smith Writes. To find out more about Lisa and We That Are Left, visit her at Lisa Bigelow Author.