Today I welcome historical novelist G.S. Johnston to Behind the Pen, celebrating the release of his latest novel, Sweet Bitter Cane.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
I’ve always lived in my imagination. I was a sickly a child and spent a lot of time at home. So I would make things, create stories, puppets, miniature sideshow-alley rides, all manner of things to entertain myself. But when puberty hit, it wasn’t really allowed for a boy to be creative, have a flair for pizzaz, so it all rather got buried for a number of pimply years. Towards the end of completing an Arts degree, I did some interviews for magazines and had a few short stories published. I also had an idea for a novel which, oddly, had nothing at all to do with me or my life. So, it felt kind of natural to start writing a novel. It made me happy and I enjoyed it.
What is your favourite character from one of your novels and why?
I’m very proud of Amelia, in Sweet Bitter Cane. When I first heard the stories of these migrant women, I was surprised at what they’d endured and done. They were steel magnolias. And whilst they weren’t often the one directly earning an income, they provided the engine of the whole thing, running the domestic life and rearing children, but they often also ran their husbands’ businesses, doing the accounts, and often, as they had higher levels of education and mastered English to a higher level, they were the interface of these businesses with the English speaking communities. I found them inspiring. I hope to have captured this in Amelia, perhaps a character with faults, but a woman unafraid to walk into the fire, a true pioneer.
What is your favourite scene from one of your novels and why?
Whilst it’s not a scene, per se, I still really like the last chapter of Sweet Bitter Cane. Initially, it was cut, as it involved a very late introduction of a “new” character, a change of Point of View, and a shift into first person. The editor felt it was too much for a reader to cope with. But there was something else in it for me, apart from tying up the loose ends, that pushed the novel into the present, and the current debate around immigration. Without this, the novel didn’t seem to quite have the punch I’d wanted. So I did many, many redrafts to find the way to salve it into the rest of the novel. It still asks the reader to stay with me, trust me the author, there’s order here, but I hope it’s piquant and coaxes the reader’s imagination to continue to think well past the end of the story.
What did you do when you finished this novel?
The odd thing is that for a long while, a number of years, it wasn’t really over. Writing’s like a series of stages, stations in a relay perhaps. I write the first draft in quarters so I can feel like I’ve achieved something, small steps, fighting the tyranny of a blank page. Once a full, first draft is done it’s then years of reworking, moving through to see if every story arc is complete, every possible tension is tightened. A lot of this is just repetition, reading over it again and again until the language is honed, naturally falls into place. And then it moves on to engaging an editor and working through at least two structural edits, and then a line edit. Substantial things can change in this time, lots of re-writing, more research. So, for a long while, it doesn’t actually feel like it’s over, just a rest until the next step. But the printed copy of Sweet Bitter Cane was delivered at 7.30 on a Sunday morning a week before Christmas. I did open it up and sit and look at it through bleary eyes for a while, but then I felt overwhelmed and put it on the bookshelf for a few days. I didn’t show it to anyone for some time.
How would you best describe this novel to a new reader?
It starts as the story of a young woman in 1920s Italy and her quest to find adventure, escape and a better life. She wants to escape the cycle of poverty and injustice she lives under in Northern Italy after WWI. So she marries someone she doesn’t even know, and moves away from the family she loves to the other side of the world. She has many adventures and misadventures as she adjusts to her new life. But when she’s older, she realises a cruel joke has been played on her. And even when she’s clearly the victim of old grudges, she has the strength and insight to recognise the good in what she has and not to covet more. So, in many ways, it’s a novel about acceptance of what is.
How much research do you do? How do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
I do a lot of research but it’s done in different stages. Once I have an idea, a small plot, I have to get a grip on the forces, political, economic, etc of the times. So this requires fairly broad reading. Then I try to find memoirs of people with similar stories or in the same setting and time, the more unedited the better. These are gold for daily-life detail. But as the writing unfolds, a specific bit of information may take a long while to find. In this novel, for example, in 1920, it was unlikely there would have been many Italian foodstuffs imported to Far North Queensland. I employed a variety of methods to try to ascertain what would have been around, including reading the advertisements for markets in The Cairns Post. But at some point, your question is right; the novel has to become a good story. These stories are historical fiction, not non-fiction. The writer can never know what went on in someone’s head in a by-gone era, and yet, thanks to Jane Austen et al, the form of the novel demands this. And a novel demands ever-escalating tension, especially now that the novel is competing with so many other forms of entertainment. Life rarely is so compliant, especially in an ordered, structured manner, which the novel also demands. So after a few drafts, I always sit back and think, what can I tweak a little here, a little there, to make this a better novel. There are clearly limits – I don’t think you can shift a battle in a war in time and space, but often there is no evidence of what an historical character did on the 20th of August in 1920 in Babinda, Queensland, so why can’t she have looked with great admiration at a young Irish man’s legs, felt something, and yet not fully understood what? And then acted.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
I don’t have a book but a Kindle. My eyesight is older than me and I appreciate being able to make the font bigger, and the sidelight lets me read in the dark. I also appreciate that a novel in an e-book form is a lot less carbonated than a printed book. I think in this frying pan epoch we’ve moved passed the luxury/romance of printed books. But, the book that opens when I open my Kindle is Patrick White’s Voss. I have read other White, The Twyborn Affair (a very queer outing) and The Eye of the Storm (not a wise pick when my mother was dying …) and found them difficult. So I’d put off reading Voss, the size of it alone, and its reputation. But it’s delightful, full of surprises. And White is actually very funny in his droll observations of people. But also such a visionary, two or three words bringing so much to life. I’m at 72% at the moment, 4 hours 40 minutes more reading to the end, and really enjoying it.
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?
Writing demands you stay sane inside insanity … I have gone through very long periods of feeling quite hopeless about writing, inspired mainly by industrial indifference. So I’ve gone through periods of not writing and thinking I should just spare the forests of the world and not do it. But then I have so little to do. So much of the day has been focused around clearing time and energy to write. It’s habitual now – I rush everything else. And then after a time, I’ll write something and I feel that old familiar joy. It might just be a line, a few words that fall well together. So I guess the thing that keeps me sane as a writer is writing. How can you tell the dancer from the dance?
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
I watch a lot of movies and read a lot, and try to read widely, although I rarely venture into things like Science Fiction or Speculative. This is one of the goods things of being in a writers’ group with people who don’t write similar projects. But when I read other novels, I try to look for words, uses, and technical mechanisms I’ve not thought of. Last year I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Apart from the most heart-wrenching story, for me, the novel is an exercise in Point of View. The opening chapter moves as seamlessly as George Eliot between the three main characters. But then as the novel progresses, Mistry takes this movement in Point of View further, into situations that couldn’t have unfolded as succinctly, even at all, without the establishment of free-flowing shifts in Point of View. I’ve never allowed myself that freedom, fearing I don’t have the skill to pull it off – fools rush in where angels fear to tread. But I’ve just finished the first draft of a new novel and realised that I can do a twist at the end through Point of View. I wouldn’t have thought of this solution unless I’d read A Fine Balance. My idea will probably hit the cutting room floor but I felt like it was new stuff for me which keeps me engaged and excited.
How has being Australian impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
A writer always has to be at a distance from the subject of the work. Most of my previous novels have been set outside Australia: Hungary, France, and Hong Kong. Whilst this made some of the research hard going – Hungarian is impossible – I felt the distance meant I was looking at something with a fresh pair of eyes and perspective. In some ways being Australian helped with the research. I remember meeting a curator at the Police Museum in Paris and she was shocked I knew so much about the Troppmann case and really did help me a lot. Sweet Bitter Cane is the first novel I’ve published that’s written about Australia. The research was so much easier to coordinate. And Trove is a gift that we should never give up and never allow to be charged to use.
More about G.S. Johnston:
G.S. Johnston is the author of three historical novels, Sweet Bitter Cane (2019), The Cast of a Hand (2015), The Skin of Water (2012), and a fourth novel set in contemporary Hong Kong, Consumption (2011). The novels are noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings.
In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels.
Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Canberra, Australia. He is treasurer of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.
Connect with G.S. Johnston:
Sweet Bitter Cane
Sweet Bitter Cane: An Italian-Australian World War II saga
One woman. Two men. A war.
Twenty-year-old Amelia marries Italo, a man she’s never met. To escape an Italy reeling from the Great War, she sails to him in Far North Queensland to farm sugarcane. But before she meets her husband, she’s thrown into the path of Fergus, a man who’ll mark the rest of her life.
Faced with a lack of English and hostility from established cane growers, caught between warring unions and fascists, Amelia’s steady hand grows Italo’s business to great success, only for old grudges to break into new revenge. She is tested by forces she couldn’t foresee and must face her greatest challenge: learning to live again.
Sweeping in its outlook, Sweet Bitter Cane is a family saga but also an untold story of migrant women – intelligent, courageous and enduring women who were the backbone of the sugarcane industry and who deserve to be remembered.
Released 20th February 2019