Monday, March 27, 2017

Interview with Kate Mildenhall


Today we’re delighted to welcome Kate Mildenhall to the HNSA blog. Kate is the author of Skylarking, published by Black Inc. in 2016. She is a writer and teacher. She has taught in schools, at RMIT University and State Library Victoria, and has volunteered with Teachers Across Borders delivering professional development to Khmer teachers in Cambodia. Skylarking is her debut novel, and is based on the true story of Kate and Harriet, best friends growing up on a remote Australian cape in the 1880s, and the tragic event that befalls them.


Skylarking was named in Readings bookstore’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2016 and longlisted for Debut Fiction in The Indie Book Awards 2017. Kate lives in Hurstbridge, Victoria, and is currently working on a new novel.

You can learn more about Kate on her website, or connect with her via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


What is the inspiration for your current book?

Skylarking is inspired by a grave I stumbled upon during a camping trip. The grave belonged to Harriet Parker, a young woman growing up at a remote lighthouse on the Australian coast in the 1880s. Skylarking reimagines the lives of Harriet, and her best friend Kate, and the tragedy that befalls them.

Is there a particular theme you are exploring in this book?

When I first learned more of this story, I was struck by the fact that although our lives were over 100 years apart, and incredibly different, the nature of friendship, of growing up, of dealing with desire and envy – these elements of a young woman’s life were timeless. I might have been Kate or Harriet. So I’ve tried to tease that out – the nature of friendship, of women’s lives that have so often been left out of the historical record.


Which period of history particularly interests you? Why?

The story of Skylarking really found me, and as such, I became immersed in the period of late 19th century Australia. I loved the research – I could have gone on forever. While my focus was always on the intimate lives of Kate and Harriet, and their life in the light station, I also felt a responsibility to acknowledge the colonisation and dispossession of Aboriginal lands and people at this time, which is ongoing.


What resources do you use to research your book?

I had my first big breakthrough using the NLA’s magnificent website TROVE, where I discovered the original newspaper reports of the incident that occurred near the Cape St George lighthouse. These articles gave me plot, and character voice, and spine-tinglingly – my title. I read spidery handwriting in diaries of young Victorian women, climbed lighthouses and read manuals and logbooks of light keepers. The staff and fabulous resources of State Library Victoria were enormously helpful. I also read the books that I imagined my protagonist might have read. Also a lot of late night googling of recipes, photographs, school curriculum, how to get on a horse…

What is more important to you: historical authenticity or accuracy?

Well, in the case of Skylarking, it was authenticity. Although, I did angst over this for much of the writing process! Historical accuracy would have involved me telling the history of an extraordinary lighthouse and all the strange occurrences then, and the many additional characters who were around, and I was really so obsessed with Kate and Harriet’s story that I had no room for the epic that it otherwise might have become! At some point, the true story of Kate and Harriet disentangled itself from history, and became a story I was telling, a fiction. I knew, when I finished the book, that this is the way it happened for my Kate and Harriet.

Which character in your current book is your favourite? Why?

Oh, Kate. I was inside her head for so long, and she really became part of me. Of course, we all leave little bits of ourselves in our characters (it didn’t help that I shared a name with my protagonist!), and I share some of Kate’s flaws and dreams. I did have a bit of a crush on the fisherman McPhail for a time, too – is that normal?! I also grieved deeply for what I had to write in the novel, and for how it impacted Kate –  but I can’t say anymore than that without a big spoiler!


Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? How long does it generally take you to write a book?

In my vast experience of having written one book, I can definitely say pantser! There was a real urgency I felt in getting Skylarking down, and it helped that I had a skeleton plot, and characters from the true events. I’m now writing my second novel, a different beast altogether, and I feel like it’s an entirely new process. This time, I’m trying to be a bit more of a plotter – although I’m not sure how it will work!

Which authors have influenced you?

In this particular work; Maragret Attwood, Geraldine Brooks, Hannah Kent, Kelly Gardiner – I pored over these novelist’s books and authors’ notes to see how they had approached the difficult ground of writing historical biofiction. In general – Tim Winton, Joan London, Cate Kennedy.


What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Get the words on the page. Read a lot, and widely. Find a network of other writers – to buoy you up, share writing and advice, and commiserate with.

Tell us about your next book or work in progress.

My new novel tells the story of a mother forced from her home and looking for a safe place for herself and her kids. It’s a contemporary novel and it’s my way of exploring some of the ideas and political issues that have confronted me over the past few years.



Kate and Harriet are best friends, growing up together on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. As daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community. When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. But one moment in McPhail's hut will change the course of their lives together.

Inspired by a trued story, Skylarking is a stunning debut novel about friendship, love and loss, one that questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.


Thanks for sharing your journey with us Kate. All the best for your next book!

You can buy Skylarking here.

HNSA 2017 Conference

The HNSA 2017 Conference in Melbourne is being held on 8-10 September 2017. Kate Mildenhall will be appearing at the following panel Session Two on Sunday 10 September at 10.00-11.00 am.

The Modern Voice in Historical Fiction 
Writing styles have altered over the years. Should an historical novelist cater for the tastes of 21st Century readers by introducing modern expressions and dialogue in their novels? Is it valid to introduce current sensibilities to characters who would otherwise have been constrained by their own societies? Authors Kate Mildenhall, Melissa Ashley, Greg Pyers and Luke Devenish discuss with Eleanor Limprecht  how historical novels have changed over time, and how they approach writing authentic characters true to their period.

Early bird registration is now open for the HNSA 2017 Conference. You will receive 15% off the full price for our weekend programme.  The same discount also applies for tickets to our opening reception

This celebration of the historical fiction genre will showcase over 60 speakers discussing our theme, inspiration, writing craft, research, publishing pathways and personal histories. Among the many acclaimed historical novelists participating are Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Lucy Treloar, Sophie Masson, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott and Arnold Zable. The HNSA’s speakers’ list is available on the HNSA website.

In addition to the two stream weekend programme, there will be ten craft based super sessions and two research masterclasses. You won’t want to miss our interactive sessions on armour and historical costumes either! Manuscript assessments will be conducted by industry experts, Alison Arnold and Irina Dunn. And there are two calls for papers in our free extended academic programme.

Our First Pages Pitch Contest offers an opportunity for submissions to be read aloud to a panel of publishers. And we are delighted to announce the introduction of our inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a $500 prize!

Visit our website to take advantage of our early bird discounts. Hurry before the ticket allocation is exhausted!



Let’s make a noise about historical fiction!


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