Both my books, The Woolgrower’s Companion (a debut best-seller) and The Burnt Country (just out from Penguin) are set in the late 1940s in the fictitious district of Longhope. This is Merino country, full of granite outcrops and rolling hills, droughts in bad seasons, fires after good seasons. In The Burnt Country, Kate faces many problems, not least because she suffers the disapproval of an older and influential neighbour. He disagrees on principle with the notion of a woman running a place. After a catastrophic bushfire, he blames Kate and she must fight to clear her name to avoid prison. Oh, and Kate finds love along the way!
So how did I create Kate’s world? Part of the answer is easy. I was close to my grandmother, who was a great storyteller, hilarious in her own dry way. A fifth generation grazier, she spent most of her 103 years (yes, 103) on her family’s sheep place on the New England tableland.
On paper, it should not have been my day job that prepared me to write Kate. Until I became a writer full time, I was a lawyer in the legal and compliance department of a big bank. I was always writing on the side, stories loosely based on family stories from my grandmother. And weirdly, I began to see certain parallels between what my fictional character Kate might face in New South Wales in 1948, and what I saw at work.
At first, the notion seems ridiculous. Times have changed for goodness sake, I told myself. But there were some things which the fictional Kate and the very much real Joy, each experienced.
Being talked over by a male colleague? Check.
Having an idea disregarded until suggested by a male colleague? Yup.
Having a subject explained, the subject being one which Kate (or Joy) knows much more than the speaker? Uh-huh.
Having valid concerns disregarded? Roger that.
Once I saw these parallels, it was fun to build into Kate’s story some of my own, very contemporary experiences.
Having said that, there are so many more positives in The Burnt Country that are as relevant today as they were in 1948: kindness shown through a helping hand; a person coming to the aid of another or against a bully; generosity to those in need; forgiveness and tolerance. All of these experiences appear in The Burnt Country.
I’m thrilled to hear that readers relate to Kate. Women are so much more than we’re sometimes portrayed. We’ve other real and significant responsibilities as well as our critical duties as wives and mothers. I write to show that complexity and as a testament of sorts to all our dear grandmothers who did all this, like American dancer Ginger Rogers, “backwards and in high heels”.
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