jjsheahan.com
Welcome to the web site of JJ Sheahan

The questions:

* How much of this is real?

*How accurate are the settings? Why use these places as your settings?

* Why did you write the book the way you did?

*Why 2007? It wasn’t published until 2014.

* Did you find it difficult to write as a female character?

* How much of yourself is in the book?

 

HOW MUCH OF THIS IS REAL?

The Bracelet is fiction, but fiction doesn’t happen out of mid-air. All fiction comes from somewhere. I am sure that is a quotation from someone – it is what one of my writing-friends said to me.

How much is real?

It depends. It depends on what level you mean.

I have a young friend whose father was from Kashmir. She is a strong young woman, but she is not Kate. My daughter is feisty, strong and unconventional, but she is not Kate either. I was a teacher of adolescent girls for decades, bit if anyone sees herself in the mirror of this character, I have to say that the reflection is not of my making. Kate is her own character, her own ‘person’. I initially drew her personality and qualities from a few people, but thereafter she existed as her own self in my mind. She was not fully formed when I began because she was not the original focus of the writing. She developed. Like you get to know a friend. She does something, then I had to work out why she would do that or think that. Sometimes, of course, I simply erased her action because it just did not fit – the plot, or her character – and wrote something different.

There is an heirloom bracelet in our family, won in a horse race somewhere in the bush over a hundred years ago. The horse was ridden by Dick Skuthorpe and he was loosely related to my great-grandmother whose parents were English and squatters. She fell in love with a Catholic Irishman and was disowned by her father because of it. I wondered about the sort of qualities she might have had to not only embrace but to build the fine, loving family she and her husband did. She was a fine, strong, well-loved woman. This inspired the story that is Emeline’s. It is like a skeleton, a frame on which I could build a story. Where, when, the details and the minor characters, the conflicts and passions – all are fiction. I chose not to write an historical fiction because there was much that I simply could not find out when I tried to … and it was easier just to be able to make it up without constantly having one eye on a list of facts. It was liberating.

The most historically accurate section of the book is that set in Wagga Wagga at the Base Hospital during World War II. I had the reminiscences of four lovely ladies to draw upon as well as the vast resources of the local historical folk and museum. I spent hours in the AWM and the NAA reading diaries and letters of airmen and soldiers from New Guinea. That choice itself is indicative of my process.

I needed a way for the farm to come down the female lineage, maintaining the property and the bracelet as anchors for the book as a whole. The bracelet was to be passed down mother to daughter. so the brothers in each generation had to die or leave, and Milly had to have a reason to be back at the farm and not settled somewhere else with her husband. So her husband had to die. I knew Wagga, there were defence bases there. I could choose Army or Airforce: I chose airforce for no particular reason. I could choose Pacific or European Theatres for the war. I figured I had heard a lot about the air war in Europe, so this was a way to learn about what happened closer to home in New Guinea. Other, separate stories rose up out of this research – ‘Milne Bay Museum, 2008’, for instance.

There is another level at which to answer the question: the emotional. On this level, I think I have tried hard to write what is real, not just what is believable. When the book was being set up for printing, I read it through closely to find any last (!) errors, plot inconsistencies, spelling mistakes, punctuation mistakes, and anything that didn’t make sense – and I found some of each and I hope I found them all. It was the first time in a long, long time that I had read the book from beginning to end. I cried, I laughed and I shook my head in disbelief at what some of these people were doing or thinking or saying. I felt the tensions around Kate in my gut, I heard the sickening snap of bone. I got carried away. At the end, wiping tears from my face again/still, I realised that I was sharing Kate’s grieving …. or rather, her grief was mine. I had written myself into this part of the book. What she saw in the grave, I had seen not long before I wrote it, but the fury she felt was all hers.

Bindari really does mean ‘a high place’ in Wiradjuri. But why I decided to use a Wiradjuri word for an area that, I now think, is not Wiradjuri, I do not know.

 

HOW ACCURATE ARE THE SETTINGS? WHY USE THESE PLACES AS YOUR SETTINGS?

The answer, as usual, varies.

Outback NSW and Walgett are based on what I learned doing my family history, a few photos and what I couyld find in a few local hsitpries. But I made most of it up.

Yallowin is based, physically, on a small township up in the mountains from Tumut – Batlow. When I started writing the novel, we were living outside Wagga and I had spent a great deal of time up there with my sick parents-in-law. First John died, then Rowie. Months of great intensity, and I got to know the locations and the feel of the place. I really like Batlow. I look forward to it whenever we visit, and not just its cemetery where John and Rowie are buried.

I grew up in the bush in Queensland, in places smaller than Yallowin. I like these places far more than the big metropolises I have lived in. (Wagga does not count as a big metropolis.) Yallowin could be anywhere; it was just easier to have a place in mind when writing. And I knew about the local footy competition, the scenery, the history of the area, and its proximity to Wagga.

Wagga is as real as I could get it. It is my adopted home town and I have a great affection for the place and its people.

Bindari – well, the idea of Bindari is based upon one of the old family homesteads in Queensland, but no real building allowed me to do what I wanted, so I made most of it up. Which contradicts what I just wrote about using the Batlow district. Go figure.

 

WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK THE WAY YOU DID?

I thought it would be pretty boring to write a start-to-finish, linear plot. I am more interested in what things mean than the detail of them. I love to see what is inside, and underneath, and out of sight, and behind. Through doing my family history, I came into close contact with the lives of my ancestors. I don’t know why, but the stories of women have always fascinated me, and there are some great women in my family tree. My Mum, for instance, felt cheated by God that she was born a woman. She was a wonderful woman, but she’d have been a great man too. I also read stories about and commentary on the lives of women in colonial Australia. Life was tough, unsentimental. Frills tended to come late in life, if at all. I wanted to show something of this – the heirloom gave me a way to do it – I needed a frame, so I came up with Kate – and with the frame came a way to show the strength of those women in the past. Kate soon became more than a means to an end. She had to, otherwise readers wouldn’t care about her or what happened to her. The whole thing about her growing up out of a turbulent past was another way to enable her – and the reader – to see the lives of these women in a different perspective.

 

WHY 2007? IT WASN’T PUBLISHED UNTIL 2014.

Because when I started writing the first scenes of the first draft, it was 2008. I thought I would be finished by the end of the year and have it ready to send to publishers.

The year 2007 was the most recent past for me and I worked the family tree back from there. part of the procrastination, or the fastidiousness with detail, was to make the generations possible.

Now, as I write this, it has the effect of being a long time ago. If 2007 is a long time for me, I am hoping that it will be for the readers as well, and the primitive IT world portrayed will be believable. I am completely out of my depth with the way young people use modern technology.

 

DID YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO WRITE AS A FEMALE CHARACTER?

I thought it would be really difficult to pull off, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I think what I have learned is that there are types of characters with gendered versions of them. So to write as a female, the first thing was to get inside the character type. The next thing was to look for that type in my memory. I have had decades of observing young people, especially, at close quarters and in various stressful situations, so there is quite a ‘cast’ to call upon. It was similar for the older people, but with the complication of a layer of experience which would change or modify the original type. Part of that comes out of the experience of seeing myself as an aging person reflected in the eyes of younger people. I often think ‘If only you knew!’

Some authors, and I am thinking of some screen writers here, sculpt their characters in fine detail before they let them loose in a scenario. Me, I tend to have a general idea, then make it up as I go along, getting to know the character along the way. Then, much later in the process, I have a more developed idea of who this character is and why s/he behaves this way. that means, of course, going back to rewrite sections that were written without the hindsight. Sometimes it makes a lot of difference; often not much. It is, for me, like getting to now a good friend: it takes time and experience for the revelations and insights to unfold. That probably sounds corny, it does sum up how Kate, Granny May, Nanna Goodwin, James May, Nick and Harry developed.

‘Developed’ is an apt word: like a photo appearing in a tray of developing fluid in a darkroom.

It is because of my fear that women would say ‘He’s a bloke – what would he know about women?’ that I chose to publish as J.J. rather than John. It seems silly now. Lots of blokes write women successfully. I will leave it to my readers to decide how ‘successful’ I have been.

 

HOW MUCH OF YOURSELF IS IN THE BOOK?

More than I thought there was going to be, that’s for sure. I was surprised when I started to talk to groups about the book, and re-read it looking for scenes to read out. I had some distance on it by then.

I better understand the writer who, when asked ‘Who are your characters based on?’, replied, ‘They’re all me.’ I see myself in most of them. Yes, even though the protagonists are mostly women. I sometimes think the female version of me isn’t too far from the surface. Ian Fleming created James Bond as the character he wanted to be in real life; others create the characters they fear they are or could be; I’ve got both lots in this book.

The grief is mine, and there’s a lot of grief in this. At the time I was beginning to flesh out the plot and characters, I had been some years in amongst close family members sliding into death via cancer and dementia, and that seems to have soaked through into the writing.

I have drawn on many of my own experiences for the minor aspects which help to flesh out the main stories. The broken wrist, for instance, is based on a football incident when I was about 14, and an AFL incident when I was watching my boys play. The sound of snapping bone is very particular. I love opals, and gemstones generally, but fossils in particular. Kate’s passion for stones is mine. The scenario of a girl leaving home to live with extended family happened to friends who lived around the corner from us in Wagga. My own extended family, and my responses to some of the situations that have arisen over the years, has provided many details.

I think my memory is really important to me in this aspect of writing. By thinking of real people, sometimes combinations of them, I am beyond stereotypes and the flat characters of other people’s fictions. I am able to make an emotional connection with the character in that situation. This is what I centre myself in as I write. I try to write from the inside out, but sometimes I have to write my way inside in the first place.