On today’s Behind the Pen, I have great pleasure in introducing you all to Elizabeth Jane Corbett, who has just released her debut novel, The Tides Between.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
My family emigrated to Australia when I was five years old. I was raised on stories of Dad’s childhood during the Blitz and Mum’s life growing up in industrial South Wales. Her father worked as a stevedore on the docks. But her uncle had a seat in the House of Lords. One of her cousins, John James, had also been a novelist. Now, being raised in Australia I wasn’t that impressed by the notion of having a lord in the family (even if he did earn the title) but I thought that maybe, one day, I’d like to write a novel. But one day never came. I married young, fell pregnant within a heartbeat of the ceremony, produced four children, lived in Fiji as an expatriate, and eventually studied librarianship (in hopes of being one of those librarians who got thanked by the author in the historical novels I loved to read). But the writing never happened. Then my fortieth birthday loomed. We planned a party, which required a speech. I wrote a list of all that I’d achieved. Then another list with all that I’d like to have achieved by that stage in my life. Writing a novel topped the list. I realised, I didn’t want to be merely thanked in the author’s note. I wanted to write the damned book!
Do you have any particular qualifications that relate to the subject matter covered in this novel? How much research do you do?
My undergraduate degree was in history. My Grad Dip in librarianship. However, immigration was the defining event of my childhood. I knew, from the outset, I wanted to write an immigration novel. Though not my own story. It would be an historical novel (because that’s what I like to read), set in Melbourne, so that I could access information easily. I started my research with a biography of Caroline Chisholm and then broadened it out to assisted immigration in general. By which stage, to my immense surprise, characters were forming in my head. One of them, was a young girl, who’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. I called her Bridie. She was travelling to Port Phillip with her mother and stepfather. She would befriend a creative young couple en-route and they would help to reconcile her grief. At first, I toyed with making the creative couple Irish. But that was a little cliché. Besides, I had a research trip planned and I’d be relying on long lost family accommodation. I didn’t have any relatives in Ireland but my mum was Welsh. So, why not make my creative young couple Welsh?
I knew very little about Wales at that stage, apart from rugby and male voice choirs. But rugby didn’t exist in 1841 and, even if I could have invented a situation in which a choir emigrated en-mass, I didn’t think a fifteen-year-old girl would find it interesting. Some quick research told me that Wales had a strong bardic culture. Hmm…I thought maybe my Welsh characters could be storytellers? So, now, as well as reading books, voyage logs, and nineteenth century immigration documents, I was also reading Welsh fairy tales, which were absolutely fascinating. Like wow! These stories were my heritage and I’d never even known they existed.
I’d read Richard Llywellyn’s How Green Was my Valley and knew Welsh people spoke English differently. I could never hope to emulate Llywellyn’s melodic narrative voice but I thought ‘a bit of research’ on the Welsh language would help me understand their speech sentence patterns. To my surprise, I found out that there were Welsh classes in Melbourne. I enrolled for a term, thinking that would be enough. But the Welsh language is so beautiful and, as I followed the twin trail of lore and language I found myself falling in love with the Wales and its history.
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 doubt as to my research skills when setting out. But I’d not attempted to write fiction since a truly deplorable short story in year eleven. I’m a nervous, self-doubting kind of person. I figured if I read too many how-to-write-a-novel books I’d be too scared to start. So, I simply gave myself permission to write. I intended to write an Aussie immigration saga spanning several years. But as my characters boarded the ship, I began to realise my Welsh storyteller and his wife had secrets – and these were somehow mixed up with the fairy tales they were telling Bridie. Somewhere around the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision: Do I stop and write the tale I’d initially envisaged? Or follow the story where it was leading? I chose the latter. It took about a year to complete a full first draft. During that time, I joined a writing group and got shortlisted for a manuscript development award (so, maybe I could write?). I also did some classes at The Victorian Writers’ Centre (as it was called in those days) and paid for a full manuscript assessment. I’d learned a lot about my characters over the course of writing that first draft but the assessor said the story had no real story arc, beyond the characters leaving London, travelling, and arriving in Port Phillip. She was right. It was time to learn my craft. I enrolled in some TAFE novel subjects in order to learn about story structure.
Then disaster struck, our youngest daughter worked her way through a list of every parent’s worst fears. In between school meetings and missing person reports, I tried to keep writing. But it was hard to focus. I wrote a short story that won a prize. I got approached by a publisher. But my novel, like my life, was all pulled apart. I cobbled it together and made a submission but it wasn’t successful. The publisher felt the story had too many viewpoints. She was right (I’d been stubbornly resisting the notion). I also knew that reducing the viewpoints meant a total re-write. I wasn’t sure I had the heart for the task. It was my first novel and unlikely to ever get published. I wondered if it was time to move on. But I couldn’t. I knew I had to finish the story even if it ended up in the drawer. I’m a little obsessive like that. I feared that if I gave up, I’d keep giving up, once things got tough, and never manage to finish a novel. In the end, I re-wrote the story four times. By which time, my Aussie immigration novel spanning a few decades had become an historical coming-of-age novel set entirely in the steerage compartment of an emigrant vessel. Which is definitely not what I’d had in mind at the outset.
What did you do when you finished this novel?
I am a librarian. I put books in categories. At some point, as I was nearing the end of my fourth draft, I realised I’d written a novel that didn’t fit neatly into a publishing market. The main viewpoint character was a teenager (which should have made it a young adult novel). But I’d also written from the point-of-view of the girl’s stepfather and the story teller (and I can tell you there weren’t many books with that blend in the teenage section of the library). Not only did it sit between adult and young adult markets. It also had embedded Welsh fairy tales and fantasy elements. I had plotted and researched a second book based on the lives of the characters (continuing the saga in trilogy form). But I thought it would be depressing to write a second book while receiving rejection letters for the first. So, I started researching a completely new project. Meanwhile, I prepared to start pitching The Tides Between. I booked Literary Speed Dating at Writers Victoria which was forced me to get my synopsis and cover letter in order. The pitch was well received but only one publisher asked for a full manuscript. A friend suggested I try some small presses. I trawled the Small Press Network’s website, made a list of possible publishers and began submitting. To my surprise, I got quite a number of requests for a full manuscript. I eventually signed with Odyssey Books, a feisty young Canberra based press who were enthusiastic about my story from the outset.
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?
On the basis of my first novel, I’d say organic. But I’m not working that way with my new project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife, Mared. Glyn Dŵr was a fourteenth century nobleman who rose in rebellion against the English crown. He became the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. He is still an iconic figure in modern Wales. But little is known about his wife, who ended up in the Tower of London as a consequence of her husband’s revolt. I am still officially in the research phase, but I have written the first 10,000 words, and I’m honing and refining my ideas by using a number of story structure analysis tools. As a consequence, I know where the story is going – the protagonist’s needs, wants and flaws. Her primary motivations and conflicts. The revolt will form the spine of the novel as the voyage formed the spine of my first novel. But I now know that the protagonist’s personal story must drive the novel. So, I guess, I am plotting. However, when I sit down to write, although I have an idea of what I want to achieve, there will still be surprises. At which point, I’ll need to make a decision based on where I know the story is heading.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
Facing a blank page takes and enormous amount of courage. I don’t write fiction unless I have time and space for that inner battle. Fortunately, I work part time. So, I have designated writing days. I usually start those days by journaling out at the kitchen table. Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird, is my all-time favourite writing book. She talks about shitty first drafts, short assignments, and the negative self-talk writers face. In my journaling, I face those voices and establish my goals for the day. They are small goals. I remind myself the work won’t be perfect. I then move to my writing desk. Some days, I won’t get far beyond the tiny assignment. I will seem to write myself in circles. However, I know that is part of the process – the grappling, the deleting, the re-writing the what-the-hell-am-I-trying-to-achieve? moments are all part of the creative process – and if I just keep turning up, I will eventually move forward. I also know and that, some days, there will be glorious, yes! moments.
Do you read your book reviews? Do you appreciate reader feedback and take it on board, even if it is negative? How do you deal with negative feedback after spending so much time writing your book?
I’m not sure about this yet. As having a novel published is still new to me. I battle a great deal with self-doubt – in my writing and everyday life. Therefore, positive feedback is an immense gift and one I love receiving. I am part of a writing group, however, so I do workshop my work regularly. I always come away from our monthly meetings enthused (and a little overwhelmed). The weaknesses in my work have invariably been pinpointed. I’m relieved to see the situation more clearly. I also feel nervous that I won’t be able to improve the piece (did I mention the battle with self-doubt. On this basis, I probably shouldn’t read reviews. Some of them are bound to be critical. I will be crushed. But I suspect I will read them anyway and, over time, will work out a way to manage the criticism. While writing The Tides Between, I kept an encouragement folder. In it, I kept positive comments about my work. I may do the same with good reviews – and burn the bad ones. I’ll let you know who it goes.
How has being Australian AND a woman impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
This is something I’ve thought about often, as immigration has been such a big part of my journey. For years, I wasn’t sure my parents had made the right choice. I adore the UK and particularly Wales. But writing The Tides Between has helped me come to terms with their decision. Through it, I have found my heritage. Yet, I’d not have found it in the same way if I’d not found it from a great distance. That distance, that discovery of something beautiful and previously unknown, has made the experience more powerful.
As for being a woman, The Tides Between is a deeply feminist story. At its heart, is a young girl’s physical and emotional journey into womanhood. In coming to terms with her father’s tragic death, Bridie must also consider her mother’s reactions to his death – the anger, the bitterness, her subsequent marriage choices. These from the basis of her thoughts on relationships. It is a story for those who’ve lost someone – through death or a broken relationship – the story of a blended family. So, although the novel is set in the past and steeped in legends, it is about women’s relationships.
So, let’s put that all together and answer the AND in the question. In writing a novel about women coming to Australia as migrants in the nineteenth century I have tackled the issues modern women face on a daily basis. I have used powerfully re-discovered fairy tales to grapple with those issues – tales I may not have found so powerful, if they’d been familiar. Tales that no one but an Australian migrant would have put on a nineteenth century emigrant vessel, let alone interpret in a way that tells such a deeply feminist story. I hope that answers the question?
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
I have always wanted to go back in time to see Britain before the Romans, or Wales as an independent nation – to perhaps meet Arthur or Cadawaladwr, or Hywel Dda, or Llywelyn Fawr. I have no doubt that meeting Mared Glyn Dŵr would make writing my next novel a lot easier. But then it wouldn’t be a novel, would it? It would be history. So, I’m going to make a writer’s decision. I’d like to go back and meet Taliesin, Chief Bard of Britain. Maybe he can teach me a few things?
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to read, though these days, I find myself analysing good books and getting impatient through those that are not so fully realized. I walk my dog and ride my bike and go to the gym. I like going out for coffee or a movie with my husband. I also enjoy watching TV series and attending Welsh classes. But probably my favourite activity of all is speaking Welsh, in Wales. Apart from good writing days, that is when I feel most fully alive.
About Elizabeth Jane:
When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Welsh Church, writes articles for the Historical Novel Review and blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com. In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. Her historical coming-of-age novel, The Tides Between, was published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Elizabeth lives with her husband, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne’s inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away.
About The Tides Between:
She fancied herself part of a timeless chain, without beginning or end, linked only by the silver strong words of its tellers.
In the year 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bridie Stewart’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her precious childhood memories, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairy-tales to the far side of the world.
When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark, double meaning.
As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairy tales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.