Sunday, November 23, 2014

Johanna Nicholls: A few of my favourite things...

The next author in the ‘Few of my favourite things…’ 2015 HNSA Conference interview series is Johanna Nicholls who is participating in our Tall Tales and True: How Storytellers Imagine History panel on Saturday 21st March 2015.

Johanna Nicholls

Johanna comes from a theatrical family. She was a journalist and magazine feature writer in Sydney, Melbourne and London. In television she worked as a researcher/writer and Head Script Editor of Drama at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Johanna has lived in England, Italy and Greece. Her home is an 1830 convict-built sandstone cottage in Birchgrove, Sydney where she is currently writing her fourth Australian historical novel. Her first saga, Ironbark, was published by Simon and Schuster in Australia and New Zealand in 2009 and 2010. Ghost Gum Valley was published in 2012 and 2013. The Lace Balcony is her third novel to have been translated into German and published in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

You will find a list of all Johanna’s books here.

Johanna, please share with us what is or was your favourite…

Book as a child and as a teenager?
As a child I had problems learning to read. When books were read to me I created vivid pictures in my head (a process that later proved invaluable as a drama Script Editor in TV and also because I always ‘think in pictures’ when writing novels). Little Women was a milestone – the first book I ever read by myself.

As a teenager I read at random everything in Dad’s theatrical library from Shakespeare to circuses. (A biography of 19th century English tragedian Edmund Kean inspired me to dramatise his final stage performance in my second historical novel, Ghost Gum Valley). I also read ‘hot books’ from the local library (no doubt tame by Fifty Shades of Grey standards as seduction scenes were left to the imagination ending with ‘…..’ My dream to write books was spurred by young Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, Ruth Park’s Poor Man’s Orange – and the publication of my first short story at 17.
 Ironbark by Johanna Nicholls

I have too many author friends to risk naming contemporary favourites. Jane Austen’s novels sit on my shelves like old friends waiting to be re-read. I am bemused by the obsession to name The Great Australian Novel. There are so many great Australian novels that rank under the umbrella of that title. The first Australian historical writers to inspire me were Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land) and Henry Handel Richardson. I recently re-read The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney to see if it had the same impact as on first reading – it did!)

Period of history?
The past has always been a magnet for me. I’m passionate about Australian history. In school it seemed dull compared with British and European history – until my Dad convinced me our history is unique. Although our recorded European history is short in time, it’s rich in diversity, legends and untapped narrative veins. For me researching, writing and mentally living in the 19th century is as exciting as fossicking for gold. Our colonial era’s surprising range of nationalities led me to explore diverse cultural backgrounds of those who came willingly – or in chains. Romany gypsy Keziah Stanley is central to Ironbark. Characters in all my novels spring from every corner of the British Isles, Ireland, the German lands, America, India, France, Corsica, Greece – and in The Lace Balcony from Prussia and the Isle of Man.

Character in one of your own books?
My characters are like my children – I can’t play favourites. In the writing of each book I ‘give birth’ to a new set of headstrong people who prove determined to live their own lives, despite my well-laid plans for them. I feel like a parent who knows what’s best for their children – but they go their own sweet way. I can’t make any characters fall in love against their will. For instance in The Lace Balcony, the beautiful young courtesan, Vianna Francis, known as the notorious ‘Sydney Venus’, has been trained to exploit powerful, wealthy men. Love is out of the equation – until Felix L’Estrange and Mungo Quayle, two young rivals from childhood, become obsessed with possessing her.

While researching Vianna’s background I was intrigued by the parallel between the lives of historical courtesans – and modern young women. Respectable women in society often had arranged marriages and by law relinquished fortune, property and custody of children to their husband. In contrast, leading courtesans in the demi-monde, chose their own lovers, controlled their fertility as well as their destiny – but often paid a high price for their ‘modern’ freedom.
 The Lace Balcony by Johanna Nicholls

Scene you enjoyed writing?
To be honest, all of them – or they wouldn’t end up in the final draft of the published book. If I’m not enjoying the writing journey, I can’t expect my readers to be engaged in my characters’ lives. But I particularly enjoy writing scenes from both female and male perspectives; scenes in which fictional characters interact with historical figures. In The Lace Balcony this includes the autocratic NSW Governor Ralph Darling, emancipist entrepreneur Mrs Mary Reibey, Captain John Piper, the ‘Prince of Australia’, and the notorious Commandant of Moreton Bay, Captain Patrick Logan.

I am fascinated by the early emergence of the Australian identity and our peculiar sense of humour. I enjoy writing scenes with veins of humour – dark gallows humour, romantic comedy of errors, or ghostly ‘hallucinations’ – to balance the brutal events of the penal colony era. I don’t want to telegraph plot twists, but there is a chain of events in The Lace Balcony, that culminates in complex choices. I had no idea what was going to happen next until the images and words shot up on my computer screen as rapidly as if I were watching a movie. None of the central protagonists, Vianna, Felix or Mungo, knew the outcome. Neither did I.

Place to write?
I envy writers like my husband, Brian Nicholls, who can write anywhere, on the back of envelopes in coffee shops, in transit on planes, or in the Outback. I’ve been known to pass friends and family in the street, because I’m totally absorbed inside my ‘writer’s bubble’ playing out scenes in my head. My central creative space is the home office in my convict-built sandstone cottage, seated with a view of the garden and no activity to distract me except visits from a magpie who has adopted my garden. For hours each day I am locked in front of my computer screen, book-ended by two walls of research books, and knee-deep in boxes of research I never quite finish filing.  

Step in the process of writing? E.g. researching, drafting, editing etc
I begin when the central idea for a book won’t leave me alone. Initial stages of research are often like playing blind man’s buff, reading fascinating documents, biographies, and newspapers – not sure where they will lead me. I haunt the Mitchell Library, the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Centre, my local Balmain Library and fire off emails to historical sources. The most difficult early decision is to pin down the precise span of years that will pay off the central story to best advantage. It is a temptation to go off on a tangent, excited by some avenue that later needs to be reined in to avoid pulling the central narrative off kilter.

The initial exploration of characters makes me nervous – until the moment they leap off the page and I know they are leading their own lives. First drafts are ‘white heat writing’ – I am burning to get it down. I wear my ‘editor’s hat’ on later drafts. 

Some authors use a team of researchers. I love to do my own. There’s nothing like standing in the place where history was made. Old buildings ‘speak to me’ of the past. I visit precious colonial buildings that have survived being demolished; hamlets and ghost towns off the back roads of Australia, and for The Lace Balcony, Moreton Bay, the Illawarra and the magical Isle of Man.

The editing process is a blessing when given sympathetic, fresh insight from an editor. The trick is to remain true to my characters. By this stage it’s their lives, their story more than mine. The most difficult moment is letting go of the manuscript to the printer. I feel like a surrogate mother who has born a child knowing it must be given up for adoption – and loved by others, but I feel an acute sense of loss …until that glorious moment when I see ‘the babe’ in book stores. It is also a thrill to hold copies of the German editions of my books – in which my characters can speak fluent German – although I can’t.
 Ghost Gum Valley by Johanna Nicholls
Method of writing i.e. longhand or typing?
Longhand I use only to jot down bedside notes that wake me during the night. I bless the inventor of the word processor because I cut and polish endlessly. All three of my sagas were initially longer than the published versions. I understand Charles Dickens wrote many of his books in serial form and was paid by the line. In retrospect I wonder if some of his books wouldn’t be more engaging to today’s readers if he had had a good editor on board.

I am totally awed by the creative energy of previous centuries of authors forced to write in longhand. I understand Goethe rewrote the two parts of the Faust story over a period of some fifty-seven years in which he produced a massive body of literature. How much more would he have written with a computer?!      

TV program /movie?
I love contemporary gritty Australian and British TV series which contain veins of humour, and leave something to the imagination. (I don’t enjoy watching a gory autopsy while I’m eating pizza). But creations of past eras like Downton Abbey, are a prime magnet. Classic movies such as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Caddie, Streetcar Named Desire, Turn of the Screw, Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare in Love, Wake in Fright – and every version of Pride and Prejudice brings fresh insight. Future classics? Gosford Park and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Comfort food?
Any meal shared with good friends, family and laughter. I’m no prize cook. At home I live on salads, fish and vegetables galore. Eating out I vote for Mediterranean. My son and daughter-in-law, actors Nicholas Cassim and Niki Owen, make Greek and Italian dishes to rival any restaurant.  

Johanna has kindly agreed to donate a copy of The Lace Balcony in our Pozible campaign. Please consider making a pledge to assist us to monetarily reward our authors.

 The Lace Balcony by Johanna Nicholls

Vianna Francis, known in the colony as ‘The Sydney Venus’, is a notorious young mistress in keeping to a former gentleman convict, who uses her to entice wealthy men to his gaming tables.

A woman of mystery, Vianna is a magnet for scandal. Was she the mistress of a Royal duke? A lady’s maid who learned the tricks of the world’s oldest profession when in service to a Parisian courtesan? Or the widow of a young man executed on the gallows? Men of high rank are determined to possess this passionate, mercenary beauty.

The L’Estrange half-brothers were born only months apart. One brother is an idealistic dreamer, the other a volatile adventurer. And the rivals have two things in common – a fatal attraction to get-rich schemes that run afoul of the law -- and their obsession with Vianna.

Johanna will be appearing at the 2015 HNSA Conference in the following panel:
 21 March 2015

11 am-12 pm Session Three

Tall Tales and True: How Story Tellers Imagine History
How do historical novelists weave history into fiction? What draws an author to choose a particular era, and what research do they undertake to bring past times to life? Jean Bedford talks with Isolde Martyn, Johanna NichollsJuliet Marillier and Craig Cliff about these choices.

For more information on all our panels, please visit our site for programme details. And you can buy your tickets here.

You can also sign up to the mailing list to be the first to keep up to date with breaking news on the HNSA conference in 2015. 

Please consider visiting us on Twitter and Facebook to help us spread the word! 

Here’s a tweet you might like to use:

Here’s a few favourite things for Johanna Nicholls on #HNSA2015 blog @histnovsoc #histfic

Register now for the #HNSA2015 conference! Let’s make a noise about #historicalfiction

And please take a look at our FREE BOOK OFFERS!

The first 30 ticketholders to purchase a ‘Standard’ Whole Conference Ticket will receive a free copy of either The Lace Balcony by Johanna Nicholls, The King’s Shadow by Barbara Gaskell Denvil or The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans.

All ticket holders will receive a Momentum ebook bundle in celebration of Felicity Pulman’s launch of Unholy Alliance.

The first 50 fully paid ticket holders will receive a copy of Sherryl Clark’s new book Do You Dare – Jimmy’s War in celebration of her launch. 

No comments:

Post a Comment