Tuesday, 18 February 2014

An interview with the author of 'Unforgivable'

Last week I enthused about Sharon Robard's novel, Unforgivable. It's so good, I thought I'd give space to Sharon this week to tell me a little about the background to the book and how she wrote it.

You have written a novel (A Woman Transported) set in the 19th century, which is much more what people think of as a historical novel. Unforgivable is also classified as a historical novel, but it's set in 1966, within the lifetime of many of your readers. How do you think writing a novel set in the 20th century differs from writing a novel set in the 19th?

I found Unforgivable possibly a fraction harder to write. Capturing the essence of the period, in particular that year and within the nine months or so that the story covers, was really hard. Most people who were teenagers or adults in the sixties recall certain aspects of the period as a whole. For example, some people I asked if they knew what day Jean Shrimpton arrived at the races in that mini skirt , which brought great changes to our hemlines shortly after. Most responded with Melbourne Cup day when it was actually Derby Day, which is held a few days before the Cup. I was more fearful of people who were young adults at the time saying things never happened a certain way or a certain clothing article or car wasn’t around then.

Unforgivable tells a very moving story of one young woman's experience against a tightly observed historical background. To what extent did you feel that you were writing Sylvia's story and to what extent was the historical background your main interest with the story just being the vehicle for discussing the issues?

My aim was to tell the story of more than a hundred thousand women, using Sylvia to represent them, but without the historical background the story couldn’t be told. It is that background, a time when sexual liberation was in conflict with religious and social beliefs of the time. Especially in relation to Catholics.

I felt Sylvia was an utterly believable character, and I was very moved by her emotions and what happened to her. I felt I was reading about a real person. What, if anything, did you draw on from your own life to be able to communicate these emotions so well?

I’ll have to think about this…how do we convey emotions? How do we get them from the mind and put them onto paper as if from the heart? MMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmm One of the last scenes in the book I wrote first. It is a scene where Sylvia sees her baby for the first time, and I kept thinking of when my daughter was born…those first few hours with her snuggled against my breasts, and how her little fingers wrapped around my finger, that wonderful smell of newborns and how I might have felt if she were about to be taken from me when she was so small and vulnerable.

There's lots of suggestions in the book that only a mother can really understand what it is like to lose a child in the way that these unmarried mothers did. Do you think that your book speaks differently to mothers, other women and men?

What an interesting question. There was a reader who left me a very insightful review on Goodreads. She was adopted and never had children. I’ll quote part of what she said, “My experience of this issue is from the other side of the fence - as an adopted child (more than 10 years after this time, so I'd like to think things had changed by then), and I haven't sought my biological mother/father, nor have I had children myself. As such, I suspect that there's still a lot to this issue that I don't really get and that can be explained by the proverb quoted several times in the book - To understand a mother’s love, bear your own children.

While writing the book I was trying to understand how the nuns might have felt and what readers would think when they read the book. I wondered if I had conveyed the emotion I wanted. When I found that Chinese proverb, I hoped by placing it in the book that it might provide a link to that understanding that would be needed for some readers, both men, women, and young adults, who had never experience motherhood.

I've met Australians who complain that they feel cut off from the mainstream of Western cultural life. To what extent do you feel that being an Australian author makes it difficult for you to be taken seriously outside of the Antipodes?

We have quiet a few very successful Australian writers and a very large book market, but a look on the Australian Readers forum on Goodreads will show that until recently a lot of Australian readers were not reading books by Australian authors. A Woman Transported was and is overwhelmingly brought by Australians, and I suspect that is because potential readers from overseas assume that the book is largely set in Australia, not so much because I’m an Australian author.

Although your book is very clearly set in Australia, I felt that the situation and the issues translated easily into UK experience (although I suspect that the situation in the UK was slightly more liberal by 1966). To what extent do you feel that you were writing an "Australian novel" rather than just "a novel"?

I very much thought of Unforgivable as an Australian story and rather unique in relation to what was happening around the world in the same context due to the figure per capita for adoptions in Australia being higher than any other country for the same period.

I was completely unaware of the importance of the Catholic Church in Australia. How significant is it?

Oh gosh, I really don’t know how significant it is today. I’m a non-practising Catholic, due to breaking a few of the Ten Commandments.

There is a whole school of writing of what are often referred to as "Catholic novels". The best example, I guess, is Graham Greene. Do you feel that you are writing a "Catholic novel"?

I don’t feel this falls into any religious genre although the Australian National Library catalogued it under religion as well as historical and few other things.

I remember reading excerpts from this when you were working on it what seems a very long time ago. How long did it take you to write?

I was astounded that I wrote the first 30,000 words in a week. From there I struggled for the next seven months to finish the first draft, which came in under 80,000 words. I then spent another year or so on rewrites of Unforgivable. The first draft of A Woman Transported took two years. Then another two years of rewrites.

I have the utmost respect for people who manage to write around their other work. How do you fit in writing round the rest of your life?

I never wrote for about eight years when my daughter was young, and I had a demanding job, but these days I sometimes think writing is my life. At times I think I spend too much time doing it, but I can’t help it. As you know, it’s addictive.

Did you try to get this published by a mainstream publisher and, if so, what was their response?

There are only around eight agents in Australia. I contacted two and one requested a partial and the other a full. Both kindly rejected it. I then went back to A Woman Transported and spent two years or so on rewrites, before deciding to pick up Unforgivable again. By this stage A Woman Transported was selling well, and I decided I wasn’t going to pursue the traditional route again.

Sharon Robards is the author of 'Unforgivable' and 'A Woman Transported'.

Isabel is faced with only one choice — fight her way out of the rookery of St Giles with her wit and beauty and somehow follow the ship that sent her mother to the sunburned convict land of Australia, or else die too young after a short life of wretchedness.

At the height of the convict transportation to Australia, an unseen boundary separates the poor from the rich. Isabel’s stunning beauty and strong will attract the attention of a wealthy man, but the upper classes have their own secrets, secrets entwined with hers. Daily, she has learned hard lessons on the mean streets of London, but they can’t teach her fast enough about the treachery of the wealthy. She must navigate both the gardens of the upper class and back alleys of the downtrodden in two continents. And she will, or die trying to find her mother.

Unforgivable is the story of a teenage girl and a young nun caught up in the great religious and social upheaval brought on by Vatican II, and a thriving adoption industry driven by society’s fierce disapproval of unmarried mothers.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvia, like many unmarried teenage mothers across Australia in 1966, is forced to wait for the birth of her child in one of the homes and hospitals run by the Catholic Church. St Joseph’s Hospital, managed by the Sisters of St Anthony, has never had a girl walk out the front gate without first leaving behind her baby. But the sisters had never met Sylvia, defiant and headstrong and determined to keep her child.

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