I am delighted to welcome Carol Jones to Behind the Pen today, here to talk about her latest release, The Boy with Blue Trousers.
What is your favourite character from one of your novels and why?
Little Cat from The Boy with Blue Trousers is my new favourite. She’s so feisty! Not all women in 19th-century China had bound feet and little freedom. In some parts of southern China, girls lived together in girls’ houses during their teens and some chose not to marry at all. Legend also has it that two well-known forms of kung fu originated with women.
What is your favourite scene from one of your novels and why?
I’m really happy with the scene in my new book where English governess Violet Hartley first realises that the boy in blue trousers is actually a girl. I won’t spoil it by telling you exactly what happens, but Violet’s response is a bit cheeky.
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?
Oh, my published writing career began decades ago with a series of high school English textbooks that I wrote with a friend. But I had already written a novel that never saw the light of day (thank goodness!). From textbooks, I began writing magazine articles for children’s magazines, then later young adult and children’s novels. I also wrote many books for the educational sector, both non-fiction and fiction. So it has been a long and winding journey to my current career as a writer of historical novels. I have loved every minute of it, although I had no expectations when I began. I went where the moment took me.
What inspired your most recent novel?
As a lover of Australian history I have always been fascinated by the story of the Chinese trek to gold. In 1856 and 1857, 16 500 hopeful immigrants from China landed in Robe, and had to walk 200 miles to the goldfields. Only one was a woman. I thought there had to be another woman hiding somewhere amongst all those men. During some of the most tumultuous times in history, women have disguised themselves as men to join armies and go to sea.
But a story is sown from many seeds. I had read about the ‘self-combed’ (so-called because they put their hair up in buns themselves rather than waiting until marriage) women of the Pearl River Delta of China while researching The Concubine’s Child and wanted to explore this idea in the character of Little Cat. Then too, I love characters like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair. I love their unapologetic selfishness, combined with an off-hand kindness, and wanted to create my own loveable rogue of a woman. And of course, my grandfather was briefly a bullock driver in Queensland in the 1920s and I thought it would be fun to make one of my main characters a bullocky.
How much research do you do? How do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
That’s a good question. I do so much research, reading dozens of books, trawling the internet for old photographs and primary documents, talking to people about local history, and where possible, visiting the places where my books are set. I like to think that anything factual in the story is as correct as I can get it. Having said that, I do my best not to let research get in the way of telling a good story. The challenge is to create a compelling atmosphere, not give a history lesson. Sometimes this can be quite difficult, especially when you are writing for a variety of audiences. With The Concubine’s Child I was writing for English speaking readers in many countries, including Malaysia where the story was set. So I had to balance giving enough background information for non-Malaysian readers to engage with the story while not boring Malaysian readers with stuff they knew. It was quite challenging.
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 do read my reviews if I see them. I don’t have thousands yet so it’s not difficult! And you do learn from them. Negative criticism that’s coming from a genuine place doesn’t worry me. I like to discover how readers respond to my characters and my story. However, occasionally you will get a review where you think clearly the reader was never going to like the book. They can be quite harsh, not because of the quality of the writing, but because something about the story offends them. In my case they might have strong views about writers only writing in their Own Voice, or they hate dual timeline stories etc. In cases like that I do wonder why they would bother reading it at all. Factors like this are obvious from the cover and blurb.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I usually write at the desk in my study where I have a view of the water. It’s very calming (also very distracting). But when I’m revising I print my work out, then I like to veg out on the sofa. Preferably with a cup of tea.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love love love to travel, and now that my partner is retired and our children are adults we can travel any time. Travel is so inspiring too. Plus, I drag him along on research trips so he can drive while I take notes and photographs.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
I think you can guess that I love historical fiction. Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, Lisa See, Elizabeth Chadwick and Kate Morton are some of my favourites. But I’m quite an eclectic reader and will delve into sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries and contemporary fiction as well.
How has being Australian impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
I’m interested in the place where worlds meet: cultures, histories, environments, languages etc. And I think that’s probably because I’m Australian. In Australia we straddle two regions, Asia and the Pacific, plus we have a European sensibility from our colonial past. We still struggle to reconcile our First Nations with our immigrant history. We are a melting pot of so many cultures, and because we are such a large country our climate and environment have vast range. My personal heritage in Australia goes back to the 1840s with various European ancestors, yet my husband’s ancestors originated in China, via Malaysia. So our children, like Australia itself, straddle many worlds. In my writing, I would like to explore as many of these worlds as I can. I write to find out rather than to tell.
The Boy with Blue Trousers
In the mulberry groves of the Pearl River Delta, eighteen-year-old Little Cat carries a terrible secret. And so, in disguise as a boy in blue trousers, she makes the long and difficult passage to Australia, a faraway land of untold riches where it is said the rivers run with gold.
Violet Hartley has arrived off the boat from England, fleeing scandal back home. Like the Chinese immigrants seeking their fortunes on the goldfields, Violet is seduced by the promise of a new frontier. Then she meets Little Cat, a woman who, like her, is trying to escape her past.
As their fates inextricably, devastatingly entwine, their story becomes one of freedom, violence, love and vengeance, echoing across the landscapes of two great continents.
Largely set in Malaysia, The Concubine’s Child was my debut novel for adults. Decades of annual visits to stay with my husband’s family, have given me an extended view of life in this culturally diverse nation, especially in the Chinese community. My second novel, The Boy With Blue Trousers, continues my interest in the Chinese diaspora but this time in 19th-century Australia, when many thousands of people from southern China made the long journey to Australia in search of gold.
I was born far away from Malaysia, in Brisbane, Australia, but have lived most of my life in Melbourne. I taught English and Drama in secondary schools before working as an editor of children’s magazines. I have been a full-time author since 1999 and am the author of several young adult novels as well as children’s fiction and non-fiction. Married with two twenty-something children, I live in a city apartment overlooking the water in Melbourne.
The Boy with Blue Trousers
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia – Head of Zeus GB
Released on 17th June 2019