Monday, January 30, 2017

Interview With Dorothy Simmons

We are pleased to welcome Dorothy Simmons to the HNSA blog today. Born in Northern Ireland, Dorothy moved to Australia after graduating with an M.A (Hons) from Edinburgh University and a Diploma of Education from Queens University, Belfast. As an English teacher and published author of both young adult novels and short fiction, her life has always revolved around words and the worlds they open up. In 2014, she completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Melbourne University and now combines writing with sessional tutoring at La Trobe University. Her latest novel, Living like a Kelly, was published in September 2015.  

You can connect with Dorothy via Facebook and her website.

What is the inspiration for your current book? 
The immediate inspiration for Living Like A Kelly was, quite simply, an old woman’s face. In the historic courthouse building in Beechworth, there is a photograph of Ellen Kelly with two of her grandchildren. Looking into those deep set eyes in their nest of wrinkles and imagining how much they had seen… that was the moment I knew I’d write her story. I have been fascinated by myths and mythmaking all my life and there would be no Ned Kelly myth without his mother. 

Is there a particular theme you are exploring in this book? 
The novel formed the creative component of a PHD in Creative Writing, illustrating its critical thesis, Myth and Meaning. My enquiry was into the subjective nature of mythmaking and how stories made through individual memory and imagination might become the myths of a whole society.  I was also interested in adding a woman’s voice to a predominantly male narrative. 

As a migrant to Australia, I am particularly interested in the colonial experience: how you cope when everything you’ve taken for granted all your life no longer applies, how you adapt or don’t adapt, how you create a new tradition.    

What resources do you use to research your book? 
My primary resources were books: historical documents such as those available in the State library, secondary sources such as the books arguing for or against Kelly as well as histories of the period: the outstanding one being Ian Jones’ Ned Kelly: A Short Life.  I was also lucky enough to have Ian Jones’s personal advice and support; with him, I have explored the various Kelly sites in and around Beechworth.  

What is more important to you: historical authenticity or accuracy? 
This is a difficult distinction.  The definition of historical authenticity contrasts historical actuality with historical myth or fiction. Yet does not the myth become real as people believe in it and act accordingly? Whose fact is accepted as the fact of the matter, and how do we go back to check? Suffice it to say that I think the historical novelist has a responsibility to stay true to the facts in so far as they are known… and where they are not known, to imagine within the bounds of historical credibility. 

Which character in your current book is your favourite? Why? 
My favourite character in Living Like A Kelly would have to be Ellen herself.  After that photographic encounter, I discovered a headstrong, horse mad little girl from the North of Ireland…very much like myself.  On the other side of the world, she grew into a woman of courage and resourcefulness, who may have loved not wisely but too well... but who didn’t give in.  

Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? How long does it generally take you to write a book? 
As an historical novelist, to some extent your plot is already there; it is difficult to imagine a Ned Kelly novel without his trial and execution. Interest, therefore, is as much in the weaving of the web as its length and breadth. For that same reason, you can’t fly by the seat of your pants either; there is the matter of historical conscience.  

How long did this book take you to write?
How long a book takes to write depends very much on circumstances; writing the novel as part of a degree, for instance, ties you to an academic program. Other factors include availability of resources, expenses, work commitments... and how long the story has been percolating away in your head.  Simplest of all, your life may get in the way.  Without undue interruptions or delays, however… a year sounds like a reasonable space.   

Which authors have influenced you? 
Authors of influence include Hilary Mantel (inside Cromwell’s skin), Tim Winton’s The Riders (going back to go forward), Kate Grenville (how circumstances shape us) and David Malouf's An Imaginary Life and Ransom (concerning mythmaking). 

What advice would you give an aspiring author? 
Believe you have a story worth telling. Give it time. Draft and redraft; if it’s worth telling, it’s worth telling as well as you possibly can. 

Tell us about your next book or work in progress. 
My next book, Of Breath and Blood, is out there at the moment. Set in Parramatta Female Factory, it centres around the 1827 riot.  

Thanks for joining us Dorothy to tell us about the inspiration behind Living Like A Kelly. Best of luck with your next novel.

Living Like A Kelly
Greta, Victoria, 1911 

A thunder storm forces journalist Brian Cookson to seek shelter at a roadside cottage; he is taken in by three little girls and the old woman they call Gran. Cookson starts to explain that he has to write a story about Dan Kelly and Steve Hart of the Kelly Gang being alive and well in South Africa. The old woman spins round and glares. 
“Lies, lies, lies!” 
Cookson is dumbfounded. 
“But how can you know?” 
“I am his mother.” 
Here is the journalist’s story, not in South Africa – here, standing right in front of him.  But will she tell it? Will she ever trust a newspaper man with the truth about living like a Kelly? 

Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Dorothy. Dorothy will be discussing Australian historical fiction with Ella Carey Dorothy Simmons and Gabrielle Ryan (Chair) at our first HNSA Meet the Author satellite event in Melbourne on 19 February 2017. More details can be found on our satellite events calendar.

 Visit our website to purchase your tickets to HNSA 2017 in Melbourne now!

Let's make a noise about historical fiction!

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