I am thrilled to welcome Julian Leatherdale, author of The Opal Dragonfly and Palace of Tears, as my guest for Behind the Pen today.
What inspired your most recent novel?
A few things came together as inspiration for The Opal Dragonfly. Thinking about an ‘unlucky’ family heirloom as a possible centerpiece for a story, my research turned up a superstition popular in the early 19thC about opals as cursed. I then dreamed up the image of an opal dragonfly brooch which my main character Isobel inherits from her mother.
I was also inspired by the story of Elizabeth Bay House, ‘the finest house in the colony’ in 1830s Sydney. It was one of several grand villas built on Woolloomooloo Hill (today’s Darlinghurst, Kings Cross, Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay) as part of Governor Darling’s vision of an exclusive enclave for the colonial elite and, in his own words, ‘an example and chastisement to the debased populace of Sydney Town’. Governor Darling’s Colonial Secretary, Alexander Macleay, was granted 54-acres and bankrupted himself building Elizabeth Bay House and its harbourside estate. What an irresistible story of hubris and folly and what an amazing building!
One of the main characters in my novel, Sir Angus Macleod, is inspired by the brilliant but hot-tempered explorer and Surveyor-General, Sir Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell’s most notorious claim to fame was fighting Sydney’s last pistol duel in 1851 at age 60. This scene, told from the point of view of a daughter convinced her father will be killed, became the starting point for my story.
How much research do you do? How do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
For both Palace of Tears (A&U, 2015) and The Opal Dragonfly (A&U, 2018), I did about 12 months’ background research before I started writing and then more detailed research as I wrote. Readers have remarked how ‘well-researched’ both books are: I even had a family historian recently contact me to double check her own facts against my portrayal of her ancestor. I reassured her that her research was spot on and as a novelist I had taken liberties!
For me, story comes first, historical facts a close second. Being truthful to ‘the spirit of the times’ (ideas, attitudes and beliefs) is more critical than getting every little detail right. But I do like my story-telling to be vivid and immersive, to feel ‘real’ so I use whatever historical texture helps me with that. Even so, I try not to let anxiety about accuracy paralyse my writing fluency.
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?
I let the story evolve naturally with the writing although I set out with a few potential milestone scenes in mind to guide me including a possible ending. Though it can be nerve-wracking, I want to be free to be surprised by what I discover on the way. The central romance of The Opal Dragonfly was not in my mind when I began writing the novel and, to my delight, has proved one of the most appealing aspects of the novel to readers. As I embark on writing my third novel, The City of Shadows (working title), a crime thriller set in 1930s Kings Cross to be published by A&U in 2020, the intricacies of the plot are demanding that I plan this story in more detail in advance. Even so, I am trying to leave room for the unexpected in my first draft – which means I will be adding more books to my research pile!
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 recently taught a class about creating character and it made me reflect on my own approach. With main characters I start out with a sense of their world-view usually framed in terms of what is at stake for them and how they are going to handle the central dilemma of their life. I like my characters to be morally complex which means I have to let them make choices that I personally may not always agree with.
As a result, my characters do surprise me when it comes to story-telling. I never expected Adelina, the snobbish, sickly wife of hotelier Adam Fox in Palace of Tears to become such a sympathetic person. I was also forced by the logistics of the story to write from the point of view of Adam Fox himself and find empathy with how this arrogant, high-handed man viewed the world. In The Opal Dragonfly, my protagonist Isobel Macleod is no saint. She may be courageous and loyal but she also makes poor judgements and is deceived and deceitful. These qualities emerged in the writing and in response to the storyline.
What other genre would you like to try your hand at writing and why?
Well, to be honest, I still have an ambition to write for children and young adults with several novels and short stories in the bottom drawer. Why? Because I love the fact that this offers the scope for a writer to let their imagination ‘off the leash’ as well as indulge in silliness and humour in a way that is much rarer in adult fiction. I seem to be drifting into crime as well; my next adult historical fiction novel will have a crime element. I do love a well-executed plot twist or two as long as they can be justified by the story.
I am thrilled that in May this year Sophie Masson, publishing director of Christmas Press and Eagle Books, offered me a contract for my children’s adventure fantasy novel The Phantasmic Detective Agency to be published in March 2020. Set in 1911 London and Paris, the book features a Sherlock Holmes style detective who solves crimes involving supernatural and mythical creatures with the help of his niece and nephew. Rescued from my bottom drawer, this casebook manages to combine historical fiction, crime and spy thriller all rolled into one!
What book is currently on your bedside table?
I am taking a break from research for book number three and am thoroughly enjoying Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. Set in 1972 England it is the story of an MI5 agent who falls in love with a writer she is secretly funding as part of the ‘soft’ Cold War. It is clever, witty, political (but not partisan), well-paced, intriguing and so pleasurable to read. I am a big McEwan fan!
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?
Well, I never thought I would write historical fiction and certainly not Australian historical fiction. And yet my writing career started with my first job in publishing on an Australian military history series. At the same time, I was writing (and performing) cabaret for fringe festivals in Sydney and Adelaide and co-wrote a two-act children’s musical workshopped at Griffin Theatre. I went on to collaborate with Melbourne-based musician Danny Katz (now best known for Modern Guru in the Good Weekend) on two original musical theatre works.
In the mid-1990s I researched and co-wrote two history documentaries for the ABC and Film Australia. For some years I also worked with animators in Australia and the UK on scripts for kids’ TV animation series. I also wrote three kids’ novels.
It was only in 2015 I found my calling as an historical fiction writer. Funnily enough I have started writing for theatre again in 2017 and will have my first kids’ book published in 2020. I always imagined I would end up writing across different forms and genres so – despite all the twists and turns – I have ended up doing most of what I hoped for.
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?
This begs the question that I have remained ‘sane’ as a writer! Attributes? Thick-skinned while remaining sensitive, self-confident while remaining humble, ambitious while remaining realistic (whatever that means!?) – just to name a few.
How to maintain my headspace? I am fortunate that my wife Claire Corbett is also a novelist (When We Have Wings, A&U, 2011 and Watch Over Me, A&U, 2017). We regularly talk about the challenges of writing and the ups and downs of the profession and the industry. We both teach writing and are always discovering and discussing new aspects of the craft. We also both read widely and discuss what we read – this is so important to keep one’s perspective on writing fresh. We are also each other’s first readers and trust each other’s judgement – but only when we have a very good draft ready!
For myself, I try to do a walk every day – even if only around my neighbourhood – to give me some meditation time about the day’s writing. Like most writers, I find other artforms nourish the spirit and stimulate the mind: music, theatre, film, dance and visual arts. I particularly love paintings and music as a way of resetting my headspace.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
They would no doubt read as shamelessly imperialist now, but I loved Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books when I was a kid and was sick with excitement when my parents took me to see the 1967 musical film. Many other magical books would come along later but this was one of the first to win me over completely. The conceit of an eccentric but highly principled adult who preferred animals as companions and could speak to them appealed to my sense of a just world and made anything seem possible. In the character of Doctor Dolittle the sensible grown-up world and the world of childish imagination truly intersected. There was a two-headed beast called a Pushme-Pullyu, I mean how clever and wonderful is that?
Reading as a child had everything to do with my decision to become a writer – or at least hope to become a writer. I began writing poems and short stories as young as nine, attempted to write a Dickens pastiche at twelve and had a poem read on the ABC radio in high school. I have never stopped writing since. And for much of that time one of my goals remained to write as enchantingly as my childhood heroes wrote for me!
What crime would you like to get away with and how would you go about it?
Kidnap members of the global 1% who own half the world’s wealth to send them all a message that they cannot destroy the planet with impunity. How? Not telling. They would be stripped of all their ID and contacts, given new faces and fingerprints and released to wander helpless in the poorest, most polluted places on earth. Or put on trial for their crimes against humanity.
THE OPAL DRAGONFLY
“Miss Isobel Clara Macleod, youngest of the seven children of Major Sir Angus Hutton Macleod, Surveyor-General of the colony of New South Wales, had the singular misfortune to know that at seven o’clock that morning her father was going to die.”
September, 1851. Sydney, city of secrets and gossip. Seventeen-year-old Isobel is determined to save her father from death and disgrace because she loves him. But when she dares to trespass in a forbidden male world, she will be plunged into social disgrace. A wave of ill fortune threatens to swallow up the her family and their stately home, Rosemount Hall, ‘the finest house in the colony’ on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour.
Is Isobel to blame for her family’s fate or does the cause lie further in the past? When Isobel was four, Major Macleod returned from an expedition with two ‘souvenirs’: an Aboriginal girl who became her friend and two opals fashioned into a dragonfly brooch for her mother.
When Isobel inherits this ‘unlucky’ heirloom, she wonders if the terrible dreams it summons are a curse or a gift. Now Isobel’s hopes for her future depend on a charming bohemian who encourages her hidden passion to become an artist. Will she now be permanently exiled from her family home? Or will she be transformed into a new self, like a magnificent dragonfly emerging into the sunlight?
Inspired by Elizabeth Bay House and the other grand villas of Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Hill The Opal Dragonfly tells the bittersweet story of an ambitious family’s fall from grace and a brave young woman’s struggle to find her true self.
The book is available from most bookstores including: