Friday, April 7, 2017

Interview with Elizabeth Jane Corbett

We welcome Elizabeth Jane Corbett as our guest today. When Elizabeth Jane isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Celtic Club, writes reviews and articles for the Historical Novels Society and blogs at In 2009, her short-story, ‘Beyond the Blackout Curtain’, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, ‘Silent Night’, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. An early draft of her first novel, The Tides Between, was shortlisted for a HarperCollins Varuna manuscript development award. Elizabeth lives with her husband, Andrew, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne's inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away. You can connect with Elizabeth via Facebook and Twitter @lizziejane.

What is the inspiration for your current book?

While reading about Caroline Chisholm, the nineteenth century woman who became alarmed at the vulnerability of immigrants traveling to Australia, I learned that assisted migrants were accommodated in long, dark non-partitioned steerage decks, much as the convicts had been. They were divided into messes – a group they would cook clean and be rationed with throughout the voyage. The voyage came with health risks and could take as long as five months.

As I read about the highly-regulated government people moving program, a young girl entered my mind, I called her Bridie. She was travelling to Australia with her mother and stepfather. A creative young married couple were also in Bridie’s mess. At that point, I did not know anything else about my characters. But I intended my novel to be a sweeping saga spanning several years. However, to break down the task, I focussed initially on the voyage. I decided my immigrants would come to Victoria – prior to the gold rush, as Melbourne was small and interesting at that time. I saw that there was a hiatus in assisted immigration between 1842 and 1845 due to a colonial recession. I thought what would it be like to set out with hopes of a better life in the colony only to arrive and find yourself worse off? 

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

During the early draft of my novel, the story veered way off course. I realized my young protagonist Bridie had lost her father in tragic circumstances. My creative young couple were Welsh storytellers, fleeing dark secrets and difficult childhoods. Both Bridie and the young Welsh man Rhys had fears they needed to face. Alison Goodman, the author who did my first manuscript assessment, identified me as a psychological writer. This made sense as my characters’ inner dilemmas were taking over my narrative. I realized to thrive in the new land, both Rhys and Bride needed to face difficult truths – truths that were echoed in and challenged by the stories Rhys was telling on board the ship. My novel, The Tides Between, therefore ended up being an historical coming-of-age tale about fairy tales and facing the truth, that is set entirely on board the ship.

Which period of history particularly interests you? Why?

I started researching an Australian history novel because I had four children living at home and no research budget. Besides, it was a practice novel, right? It wouldn’t get published. Setting out, I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t written fiction since a truly deplorable short story in year eleven. But my mum was Welsh and, through researching and writing the novel, I have become seriously connected with my heritage – to the point that I’ve learned to speak the language. Now my children have grown up and left home, I return to Wales often. So, it is not so much an era for me, my stories need to have something to do with Wales.

What resources do you use to research your book?

The library, firstly. I’m a librarian and have a fairly good idea of public library collections. I worked out early on that I need to underline and write notes all over my resources. This doesn’t go down well at the library desk. So, once I come across a resource, I need to read in depth, Amazon second hand books becomes my best friend. I have also accessed nineteenth century documents such as: Instructions for surgeon’s superintendent on emigrant vessels through the TROVE. The State library heritage collections are amazing. I spent hours poring over old maps of Covent Garden and Deptford during the re-drafts of my novel, trying to picture where the characters were from and how they boarded the ship. I love to visit museums and get visual impressions and have spent hours in Covent Gardens. To this end, I also went on a Drury Lane theatre tour, took a Thames River tour and spent a night on board a sailing ship. I’m lately finding the courage to approach academics and experts in various fields.

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

Both. It is not enough for me to describe clothing and settings correctly. I also aim to create a character who thinks like someone from their era. Or at the very least, I aim to convince the reader that they are thinking authentically (there is a difference).

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

Rhys. What can I say? He is young, sensitive, haunted, handsome and Welsh. However, Bridie was fun to write. She can be quite witty at times. Most readers empathise with her poor beleaguered stepfather Alf.

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

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question. My first book, The Tides Between, took me forever to write. I had no idea what I was doing and decided if I took into account everything needed to know in order to write a successful novel I’d be too terrified to start. So, I gave myself permission to simply write. It was a mess and needed an inordinate amount of editing and re-thinking. However, with my current project, I am aware of the major elements of a well-structured story and find myself writing with those in mind. In between the main plot points however I take it scene by scene and discover new characters as they walk onto the page.

Which authors have influenced you?

Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters introduced me to hauntingly told Welsh history. Sharon K Penman built on that foundation. How Green Was My Valley, had a uniquely Welsh narrative voice. An interview with Diana Gabaldon, taught me I didn’t need to know everything about a story in order to start writing. The works of Dorothy Dunnett provided an online literary community before social media existed.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Know yourself and what you want to get out of the writing journey and be true to those aims while simultaneously taking the time to grow and learn from other writers. Enjoy the process of creating. It is valuable and important in its own right, regardless of the outcome and, above all, don’t give up. It’s worth the struggle.

Tell us about your next book or work in progress

In 2015-16 I spent seven months working at Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers in North Wales. It was a wonderful experience, on a number of levels – living in Wales, extending my Welsh language ability, and rubbing shoulders with other creative artists. While there, I drove past numerous statues of Owain Glyn Dŵr, a fourteenth century nobleman who came into conflict with Henry IV and, as a consequence, became the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. He had a wife, Marred, who died in the Tower of London, as a direct result of his revolt. I thought, she might have a story to tell. I have written the beginning of that story, because Marred started talking in my head. But I still have oodles of research to do. In April, I will return to Wales for that purpose.

The Tides Between

In 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bride Stewart’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her childhood memories, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father's fairytales to the far side of the world. 

When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark, double meaning. 

As they inch towards their new life in Australia, Rhys's past returns to haunt him and Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairytales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.

Many thanks, Elizabeth Jane, for sharing your journey with us. Congratulations on the upcoming publication of The Tides Between!
Elizabeth Jane is appearing in our next HNSA Meet the Author satellite event on 9 April 2017 where she will be discussing Children and Young Adult historical fiction with Goldie Alexander, Pamela Rushby and Robyn Bavati. The panel will be held at 2.30-4.30 pm at the Mail Exchange Hotel at 688 Bourke St, Melbourne. You can book your tickets hereMore details can be found on the HNSA website.

2017 HNSA Melbourne Conference

Early bird registration is open for the HNSA 2017 Conference. You will receive 15% off the full price for our weekend programme.  Hurry! The ticket allocation is nearly exhausted! 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!

Let's Make a Noise about Historical Fiction!

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