Monday, May 8, 2017

Interview with Julian Leatherdale


Today we welcome Julian Leatherdale to the blog. Julian Leatherdale was a researcher/photo editor for the Time-Life 'Australians At War' series and later co-writer/researcher on ABC-Film Australia TV history documentaries 'The Forgotten Force' and 'Return To Sandakan'. His novel Palace of Tears (Allen & Unwin, 2015) was published by HarperCollins Germany in May 2016 and as an audiobook (Bolinda, 2016). His next novel The Opal Dragonfly will be published by A&U in March 2018.

You can find out more about Julian on his website or contact him through Facebook.

What is the inspiration for your current book?

As a Blue Mountains local for over 25 years, I have long been fascinated by the magnificent (if eccentric) Hydro Majestic hotel at Medlow Bath which always struck me as a grand folly in the Australian bush. I was convinced by research into founder Mark Foy and his ambitious hotel that I had an ideal setting for an atmospheric Gothic tale. By chance, German aspects of the Hydro’s history (such as spa water shipped from Baden Baden, and a legendary visit by armaments heiress Baroness von Krupp) prompted me to explore a neglected chapter of Australian history that has troubled me for years: the internment of German-Australians during World War I. Palace of Tears weaves this shameful chapter into a suspenseful family saga.

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

Yes, a theme of 'Australian identity’ is explored in a number of ways. Hotelier Adam Fox (modelled on Mark Foy) is a well-travelled cosmopolitan whose international tastes are reflected in his luxury spa hotel. Foy’s vision in 1904 was praised as a brash patriotic claim by a young nation to be as cultured as the Old World. But how do we adapt a British-European perspective to a new landscape and society without risking cultural cringe? Several characters grapple with this problem: a children’s writer with her ‘bush’ fairy tale, a Romantic landscape painter (inspired by Eugene von Gerard) and his artist daughter, and a nature photographer. The story of German-Australian internment in Palace of Tears goes to the heart of what defines an Australian citizen. To stiffen public resolve for the war and prove its loyalty to the British ‘race’ and Empire, the wartime government targeted Australian citizens of German descent (then the largest non-Anglo migrant community) as ‘enemy aliens’, interning nearly 7,000 and deporting over 6,000 after the war ended. 

Which period of history particularly interests you? Why?

Early in my career I worked as a researcher-writer and photo-editor on a military history series 'Australians at War' published by Time-Life and later as a researcher-scriptwriter on two TV documentaries about the post-war occupation of Japan and POWs respectively. For a long time, my interest was in WW II and its aftermath because of the profound cultural and political changes to Australian society. But having finished novel two and starting novel three, I have become intrigued with the mid-19thC colonial period and the late 1920s. So much to explore and discover!


What resources do you use to research your book?

As a picture-editor and researcher in a past life, I love archival images (photos and artworks) as ignition points for the imagination. I research academic books and journals as well as biographies and memoirs and could not survive without TROVE. For Palace of Tears I listened to oral history interviews with Foy’s grand-daughter, and the cast of a (now lost) film shot by Raymond Longford at the Hydro in 1924. I inspected the Hydro site (then under refurbishment). For my next book The Opal Dragonfly (set in 1850s Sydney) I read diaries, letters and speeches of the period and visited Juniper Hall, Elizabeth Bay House and Susannah Place in The Rocks. For writing style and themes, I read A House is Built by Barnard-Eldershaw (published in 1928 and set in 1840s-50s Sydney).

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

I would probably favour authenticity over accuracy depending on definitions. Glaring factual errors cannot be tolerated because they sabotage narrative credibility. But I am wary of the danger of over-researching which can paralyse creativity and overwhelm story-telling with too much detail. I strive for accuracy but my overall aim is for authenticity in the characters’ outlook and engagement with the major preoccupations of the time. The demands of character and story always come first. With my next book, I hope to address reader concerns about where the history ends and the fiction begins with detailed end notes.



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

To be honest, I don’t have favourites. I love all the female characters in Palace of Tears for their different qualities: the fiery artist Freya, the vulnerable and courageous Angie, the haughty but sad Adelina Fox, the prickly and self-absorbed writer Monika and her lonely daughter Lisa. The biggest surprise for me was the character of Adam Fox, the charismatic but ruthless hotelier. My original intention was to present him only from the point of view of other characters but when that proved impossible I had to then occupy his thoughts and make sense of his self-justification. That was a confronting challenge and made for a complex and interesting character.


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

I am a bit of both in that I ‘pants’ my way through a first draft with certain plot-points in mind but don’t over prepare because I want to be open to discovery and to surprise myself. About half way through I may start to ‘plot’ more thoroughly with chapter summaries and diagrams to keep track of chronology, sub-plots and character arcs. I have only written two books so it is hard to generalise about how long it takes: Palace of Tears took two years including research and The Opal Dragonfly has taken about the same.

Which authors have influenced you?

I loved Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant and regard it as a benchmark for Australian historical fiction writing. I am also a big fan of Thomas Keneally’s work; I recently reread The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and admired the boldness and beauty of the writing. In the last year, I have discovered Sarah Waters and Kate Atkinson and enjoyed their individual approaches to historical fiction. Other writers I admire and look to for inspiration include Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, and A.S. Byatt.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Don’t give up your day job! Read widely and sometimes outside your comfort zone. Support your fellow Australian authors as you will appreciate this support when you are published one day. Be humble when it comes to criticism as the writing journey is one of never-ending learning.

Tell us about your next book or work in progress.

I have just finished a major redraft of my second novel, The Opal Dragonfly, due for publication by A&U in March 2018. It is set in 1850s Sydney and centres around a fictionalised version of Elizabeth Bay House, ‘the finest house in the colony’ in the wealthy enclave of Woolloomooloo Hill (now Kings Cross). It is told from the point of view of Isobel, the youngest daughter of the Surveyor-General of NSW, Sir Angus Macleod (based on Thomas Livingstone Mitchell) and opens with her witnessing a pistol duel between her father and his public enemy. We follow Isobel’s childhood friendship with an Aboriginal girl and troubled romance with a famous artist against the backdrop of her family’s misfortunes.

Thanks for joining us, Julian and sharing your journey.

You can purchase Palace of Tears here.



Angie loved Mr Fox’s magnificent, absurd hotel. In fact, it was her one true great love. But…today Angie was so cross, so fed up with everybody and everything, she would probably cheer if a wave of fire swept over the cliff and engulfed the Palace and all its guests.

A sweltering summer’s day, January 1914. The charismatic and ruthless Adam Fox throws a lavish birthday party for his son and heir at his elegant clifftop hotel in the Blue Mountains. Everyone is invited except Angie, the girl from the cottage next door. The day will end in tragedy, a punishment for a family’s secrets and lies. 

In 2013, Fox's grand-daughter Lisa seeks the truth about the past. Who is this Angie her mother speaks of: 'the girl who broke all our hearts'? Why do locals call Fox’s hotel the ‘palace of tears’? Behind the grandeur and glamour of its famous guests and glittering parties, Lisa discovers a hidden history of passion and revenge, loyalty and love.

A grand piano burns in the night, a séance promises death or forgiveness, a fire rages in a snowstorm, a painter’s final masterpiece inspires betrayal, a child is given away. With twist upon twist, this lush, strange mystery withholds its shocking truth to the very end.

HNSA 2017 Conference

The HNSA 2017 Conference in Melbourne is being held on 8-10 September 2017 at Swinburne University, Hawthorn. 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 hisorical 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.

Julian Leatherdale will be appearing at the following panel in Session 4 on Saturday 9 September at 12.15 - 1.15pm with Elise McCune, Justin Sheedy and Paddy Richardson.

Worlds at War: The Appeal of 20th Century Historical Fiction

The history of the early to mid-20th century now falls within the definition of ‘historical fiction’. Why do novels depicting the great conflicts of modern times hold such fascination? And has war fiction replaced Tudor fiction as ‘the favourite flavour’ for readers and publishers? Julian Novitz discusses these questions with Paddy Richardson, Elise McCune, Justin Sheedy and Julian Leatherdale.


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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