Thursday, April 13, 2017

Interview with Maxine Alterio

Our guest on the blog today is Maxine Alterio. Born in Southern New Zealand, she enjoyed telling stories as a child, blissfully unaware that she would one day pursue a writer's life. After completing a Master of Arts at Otago University, she found herself draw to the creative arts and experienced International success with her short stories. In 2007, her fiction book Ribbons of Grace was published followed in 2012 by Lives We Leave Behind. Dividing her time between academic teaching, mentoring and writing, she continues to take on new writing projects and speaks at book clubs, organisations and institutions about her process. 

You can find out more about Maxine through her website or via Twitter or Facebook.

What or who first inspired you to write?

As a child, I preferred words to toys. I was greedy for books, and joined three libraries so I’d never run out of reading material. Although I wrote fictive fragments as a child and into adulthood, only when I attended a Creative Writing Summer School at the University of Otago in 1996 and met like-minded individuals did I begin to take my writing seriously. Encouraged by the tutor, I completed and sent a story to National Radio. Following its acceptance, I submitted stories to literary journals and magazines, contributed to anthologies, and entered national and international competitions, with some success. I’ve had published a short fiction collection and two novels, with a third underway, and I’ve co-authored an academic book on learning through reflective storytelling. For twenty years, I’ve belonged to the same writing group. We meet fortnightly and critique each other’s work, celebrate successes and nourish the writer in all of us.

What was the inspiration for your first historical novel?

Ribbons of Grace had its genesis when I was eleven and holidaying with my family in the small goldfields settlement of Arrowtown. At a New Year’s Eve celebration, I overheard two men discussing an historical incident. “When they laid out that Chinese miner they discovered he was a she.” The comment intrigued me, although I couldn’t fathom what it meant. Forty years on I was ready to write what I thought might have happened.

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

The themes in Ribbons of Grace include concealment, racism, alienation, love, loss and friendship. I’ve returned to such themes in subsequent novels, which suggests that my fascination with them isn’t yet resolved.

Which period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?

I’m more curious about other cultures and human endeavour than about a particular period. There is a compulsion within me to explore how characters from different cultural or social groups make sense of traumatic experiences, where their resilience comes from and what aids their psychological recovery. For these reasons I tend to set my novels during or in the shadow of war, although I’m also drawn to settings with an explosive mix of inhabitants.

What resources do you use to research your novels?

Before I start writing, I spend up to a year reading fiction and non-fiction related to the time and place that I want to reimagine in my novel. Sometimes I take notes but I prefer to gain an overall sense of the social, political, economic and historical contexts. For Ribbons of Grace I read about the opium wars in China, economic conditions in Orkney and gold mining in New Zealand.

I also travelled to Orkney, crossing the Pentland Firth in a fishing boat. During my stay I talked to locals and took long, solitary walks in the countryside. On my return to southern New Zealand, I wrote part of the novel in a stone cottage in Arrowtown built by two Orcadian brothers. To walk in the shoes of my characters, I frequented the local cemetery and restored Chinese settlement, and climbed the nearby hills, picking out sites for significant scenes.

For my second novel, Lives We Leave Behind, I studied the memoirs of First World War nurses who served in Egypt and France, and read the diaries and letters of soldiers, nurses, orderlies and surgeons. I also dipped into the body of work known as the ‘literature of crisis.’ I always pin a map of the region(s) I’m writing about above my desk, alongside photos and other meaningful memorabilia. If they’re available, I read old newspapers and listen to oral histories. I also ‘dream’ my way into the era and landscape of a new work.  

Which authors have influenced you?

In no particular order, Shirley Hazzard, Anna Marie Ortese, Kazuo Ishiguro, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Hilary Mantel, George Mackay Brown, Elena Ferrante, Diana Athill, Sebastian Barry, Tim Winton, Alice Munro, Helen Dunmore, David Malouf, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maggie O’Farrell, William Boyd, Anthony Doerr, and recently Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Which methods/ strategies do you employ to write?

I need great swathes of solitude to produce a first full story draft, either at home or in a secluded spot where the landscape has a dreamlike quality. Once I have a draft, I can work anywhere, day or night. I write directly onto a laptop. Usually in the evening I print out and read what I produced the previous day, and make notes to ease me back into a chapter the following morning. I don’t aim for a daily word count. As long as I’m making progress, I’m content.

Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?

While working on Ribbons of Grace, I kept beside me a photograph of an unknown, effeminate Chinese man taken in the 1870s. His presence contributed to the creation of my main character Ming Yuet. Whenever I struck a snag during the writing of this book I talked to him and invariably a solution would appear.

With Lives We Leave Behind, I collected stones of different shapes and colours from beaches near the hometowns of the two main fictional nurse-characters. Each of the eight stones came to represent a significant character in the book. I kept them on my desk throughout the writing process. Midway through a harrowing scene I would sometimes pick one up and wait for inspiration. For me, a physical object can act as a conduit to imagination. 

How long does it take you to write a book?

Usually five years because until 2013 I worked full-time as an academic and wrote fiction in the evenings, weekends and holidays. Now that I’ve re-wired my working life to part-time academic mentor and full-time writer, I hope to pick up the pace. 

Tell us about your next book or work-in-progress.

In 2013, I won the Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Writer’s Residency, which came with six weeks in an isolated bay in the Marlborough Sounds. I arrived planning to work on a second short story collection. The peace and beauty of the place derailed me. On the third morning, I woke with an outline for a new novel set post-Second World War in London and Naples, through to the late 1950s and mid 90s, and a cast of characters demanding attention. I left the residency with three draft chapters and notes for others. Back home, I sought out the writings of female authors with close connections to Italy. In May/June this year, I’ll travel to Naples to visit key locations depicted in this forthcoming book, Wait for Me, and to soak up the atmosphere of the place and its people.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Read everything you can get your hands on and read widely and deeply. Listen to podcasts about writers and writing. Attend festivals and conferences. Join a writing group. Learn to take and give constructive feedback. Above all, write, write, write. 

Thanks for joining us, Maxine and for sharing your journey.

Set in Orkney, China and New Zealand, between 1870 and 1895, Ribbons of Grace has three narrators: Ming Yuet, a female Chinese sojourner masquerading as a male gold miner; Conran, an Orcadian stonemason; and Ida, an English settler. The novel traces the relationship between Ming Yuet and Conran, judged by some settlers to transgress sexual and cultural boundaries. An act of violence devastates those directly and indirectly involved. The narrators reflect on their roles leading up to this event and its aftermath, their stories moving between past and present, homeland and adopted country, between the living and the dead.

HNSA 2017 Conference

The HNSA 2017 Conference in Melbourne is being held on 8-10 September 2017. Maxine Alterio will be appearing in the following panel in Session Five on Saturday 9 September at 12.15-1.15 pm.

Immigrant Stories and Diaspora: How Pioneers Adapt and Survive in their New Land

Immigrants have helped build our multicultural nations over many generations. Hanifa Deen explores how Maxine Alterio, Arnold Zable, Vicky Adin and Kim Kelly breathe life into tales of prejudice, hardship, homesickness and adaptation.

Early bird registration is 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!

Let’s make a noise about historical fiction!

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