Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: cross-cultural

The things I never meant to achieve

This week my first novel will be published. My eldest son, an academic, bemused by my mounting excitement, said: It’s only a book mum (he’s written a few). But to me it is more than simply a book. It is a dream come true. I feel immensely proud of the achievement. Yet against that pride is a growing list of occurrences I didn’t envisage from the outset. You could call them accidents, or failures. But those are not quite the right words. The truth is simply a list of all the things I never meant to achieve.

I didn’t intend to write a book set entirely on an emigrant vessel

I set out initially to write a saga, spanning several decades, that followed the fortunes of a group of immigrants in the early days of the Port Phillip district. I did some generalised research and then, because the topic was so large, I broke up the task and began researching the voyage to Australia. I’d never written a novel before. So when characters turned up – characters with hurts, fears and secrets, I listened. Turns out they had a lot to say. By the time we reached the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision. Did I pull back and try to write the saga I’d initially envisaged? Or follow the story where it was leading? I chose the latter. I still haven’t written the saga.

I didn’t intend to have Welsh characters

The first character who presented herself to me was a young girl who’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. Her father had been a musician. She needed someone to help her reconcile her grief. A young creative  couple seemed the perfect fit (the book is not a romance). But initially they were Irish. However, I had a research trip planned and would be relying on long-lost-family accomodation (as we Aussies do). I didn’t have any Irish relatives. But mum was Welsh. Hmm… maybe my creative young couple could be Welsh? I knew very little about Wales apart from rugby and male voice choirs. Rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and, even if I could have created a scenario in which a whole choir emigrated en-mass, I wasn’t sure a fifteen-year-old girl would find it inspiring. I’d read How Green Was my Valley and knew that Wales had an industrial heritage. Some quick research told me that Wales also had a strong bardic culture. At which point, my Welsh characters became storytellers and, basically, hijacked the novel.

I didn’t intend to write a crossover novel

I didn’t think about my book’s market when I started writing. I wasn’t sure whether I could write fiction, only knew I wanted to give it a try. It wasn’t until much later, when it was far too late to turn back, that I realised I’d written a coming-of-age story with a strong female protagonist, which also included her stepfather’s viewpoint. Close on the heel of this realisation, came the knowledge there weren’t many books with that mix in the teenage section of the library, let alone ones with embedded Welsh fairy tales and fantasy elements. My book belonged everywhere and nowhere and in today’s cautious publishing market, let’s just say, that was risky.

I didn’t expect the book to take so long to write

We are not going to be explicit about how long The Tides Between took to write. At least, not without dropping our heads and muttering the numbers one and two without any spaces. I knew nothing about writing fiction when I commenced this project – nothing about voice, or character development, or viewpoint, or plotting or story arcs. The Tides Between has been my university. Added to which, when I started researching, we had four (sometimes five) teenagers still living under our roof. Since then, we’ve suffered young adult crises, mental and physical illnesses, watched children partner and marry, sold the family home, moved to the other side of town and welcomed two grandchildren into the world. We’ve also worked, travelled and, I hope, been productive members of our community.

I never set out to fall in love with Wales, learn her language, or make best friends on the far side of the world

It dawned on me recently that some people thought I’d written a novel with Welsh characters because I had a strong connection with Wales and spoke the language. In fact (as you’ve probably realised), it happened the other way round. When I finished the final draft of The Tides Between (while living in Wales) and wrote The End at the bottom of the page, I wasn’t sure that anyone would want my whimsical little novel and, I can tell to you, on that day, in that moment, with the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia around me, it didn’t matter. My Aussie immigration saga had turned into a shipboard novel and been hijacked by Welsh characters. Meanwhile, I’d been falling deeper and deeper in love with a language. I’d failed, on so many levels, yet achieved more than I ever hoped for. I’d found my voice while writing the manuscript, connected with my heritage, and made friends on the far side of the world and somehow in the process of all the reading and writing and realising, I’d found my way home.

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The Tides Between will be published by Odyssey Books on 20 October 2017. You can pre-order your copy from Novella Distribution, the Odyssey Books website, Amazon, iBooks or through your local bookstore. Here are the bibliographical details you will need to order from your bookstore.

Hanging out – a week in so many words

You've had a momentous January. First, ten days of bronchitis during an extreme heatwave. Second, a week at the beach with a rowdy family group. Whilst there you relax. Clock up thirty years of marriage. You return home and the reality starts to sink in. You haven't been to the gym for two and half weeks. You haven't touched your novel either. Or kept up with the whole social media thing. Added to which, you've eaten way too many Celebration Meals.

You attend a church meeting Monday night. Welsh class starts back on Tuesday evening. You also have your brother staying with you. You know that for missionaries coming home is always confronting. You also know that Sydney Road is nothing like Main Road, Blackwood. So much ink, he tells you with a shake of his head. When did that happen? You try to listen and be sympathetic. You talk about his work. His plans for the future. You have your own ideas but you try to be tactful. You fail. You can't sleep because of this. You go to work exhausted. You are pleased to meet your new job-share partner. But it's hard getting your head together. You deliver books to a local aged-care facility and leave without returning the keys. Drive back. Read the roster wrong. Forget about the afternoon staff meeting. Your new job-share partner asks about your life. She says I get the impression your are a creative person. You think, that's a very generous assessment of the situation.

Despite your inefficiencies, the two of you cover heaps of ground. You feel wasted but you manage to converse in Welsh at the SSIW Google Hangout that evening. Your brother makes a positive comment about your language acquisition. You make excuses about how rusty you are. But deep down you're ginning like a gate at the compliment. You're on the bike by seven o' clock the following morning. You make loads of decisions regarding work processes. You manage to read the roster correctly. And turn up for your desk shift. After work, you catch the train to Flinders Street. Do some shopping. Cycle home in the cool of the evening.

At home, two excited dogs run to greet you. That's right, your daughter's dog is staying for the weekend. You make the mistake of letting the dogs sleep in the house. You wake up around one o' clock to a volley of barking. You fumble for a light, the keys. You put the dogs in the garage. You wake up early, worried about them in the heat. You have washing to do. The dishwasher to unstack. You sigh, remembering all those Celebration Meals. You decide to do an extra BodyStep class. You're hopeless. Someone has to help you adjust your step. You mutter something about having had a break. You shop. Cycle home. Unpack the groceries. Hang the first load of washing. Chop some rhubarb. Unstack the dishwasher. And then you do what you always do. You write something. And once you start writing you realise you're tired. It's been a big week. You drink some coffee. Hang a second load of washing. Unstack the dishwasher. Bring the bins in from the street. You survey the summer parched garden. And promise yourself a lazy evening.

 

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