I am delighted to have Barbara Hannay in my chair today. Her latest book, The Secret Years is a wonderful story that explores love past and present, and the ties that bind us to our past. The sweeping settings in England, and North Queensland were beautifully written. The characterisation was cleverly executed, and the reader sympathised with and understood the motivations of the characters. One of my favourite reads for 2015!
This month marks seventy years since the end of World War 2. For me, it's appropriate timing for the release of THE SECRET YEARS, as the book has strong links between a veteran of World War 2 and a young Australian female soldier returning from active duty in Afghanistan.
These characters, Harry Kemp and his granddaughter Lucy, were partly inspired by the memory of my late Uncle Ralph, who served in Tobruk and at Kokoda in World War 2, and by my years living in the garrison city of Townsville.
Mind you, THE SECRET YEARS is not really a book about war, although all of its characters over three generations are deeply affected by either their own war service or the impact it has had on the people they love. The story is mostly about romance and about the complexities of family life in a contemporary Australian setting, as well as family secrets linking in earlier generations.
Harry is a retired and aging cattleman with a vast property in the remote Gulf Country who, like many veterans from his era, is strangely silent about his war experiences, even with his closest family members.
Meanwhile, Lucy is a Townsville based career soldier, who has has risen through the ranks and has only recently returned from active duty in Afghanistan. The focus of the story is not on her experiences in a war zone, however, but on the issues she faces in adapting to civilian life and the secrets she starts to uncover about her family history.
I had to do more historical research for THE SECRET YEARS than for most of my previous books, but the research enabled me to develop another important character, George (or more correctly, the Honourable Georgina Lenton) a wealthy debutante, who finds herself firstly, in the middle of the London blitz, and then in an even more terrifying situation where she's struggling for survival in the jungles of New Britain after the bombing of Rabaul.
So yes, war is a feature of this novel, but I look at this mostly from a feminine perspective. I wanted to tell a modern Australian story which also paid tribute to the heroism of that bygone era. But first and last, I am a romance writer and it's romance – three romances in fact – that lie at the heart of this novel. I hope you enjoy it.
The Secret Years is available from Penguin Random House at https://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780143799733/secret-years
I had the privilege of reading Claire Varley's début novel as an advance reader and wow... what a debut!
Claire is a Melbourne native who has drawn extensively on her experiences working in community development in the Solomon Islands, her travels to China and Greece, as well as her own Greek-Cypriot heritage.
The story of Alison and Oliver will resonate with every reader who has ever experienced the doubts that fill you when you fall in love. Insightful, poignant, romantic and incredibly funny, this story explores identity, relationships, family, culture and the art of writing through the lens of two twenty somethings in love.
Throw in the mix of an unfamiliar country, post colonial Solomon Islands, and a range of different characters and you have a tapestry of life woven over snippets-the background and thoughts- of the people they meet as they live in the Solomon Islands for the year that Oliver is writing his second novel.
Claire Varley's premise is that life is about our intersections with billions of different characters as we journey from birth to death.
Her writing is fresh, quirky and wonderful and I look forward to more stories from her. I asked Claire how she researches such wonderful characters...and did she draw from personal experience.
The Bit in Between by Claire Varley, Macmillan Australia, RRP $29.99
Welcome Claire Varley to my chair...
Researching characters is very important to me, particularly as I often write about cultures that are not my own. There is an incredible responsibility that comes with writing others’ cultures, particularly, as is the case in The Bit In Between, when there is an extensive history of oppressive colonialism and ‘speaking for’ that culture or people. I've set the tone of this response very high by bringing post-colonialism into my opening sentences but what’s a bit of critical theory between friends?
My approach to researching characters is a happy balance between ye olde book-based research, lived experience and directly asking people questions. I travel a lot and my day job is in the community sector, which means I get to interact with people from all walks of life every day. It helps to develop a bank of knowledge about the motivations, fears and priorities of others.The more I develop as a writer the more responsibility I feel towards my characters.
I’m so conscious of the diversity of my characters because we still don’t live in a world where our beautiful diversity is reflected in our literature. We’re moving towards this but there’s still so much tokenism and stereotyping. Living in the Solomon Islands for two years had a profound impact on me in this regard – my colleague had a baby and whilst back in Australia visiting family I tried to find picture books to take back to her and struggled to find any stories about little girls who looked like her. I find it hugely upsetting that there are children, teenagers and adults who cannot find literary characters that reflect them and their experiences.
Every character I create is a mix of bits of myself and people I know or have met or have imagined, but not in any real identifiable way. Basically, everyone is a Frankenstein’s monster of personal experience combined with a hefty dose of creative ‘what if?!’ and plastered together with little savoured morsels of overhearing or imagining. It’s not so much a case of any one character being any one person, more like a case of anyone is everyone and no one. Someone once told me that they thought my characters were often hyper-real, but all the examples they gave were things that had actually happened so I suspect we’re all much more caricature than we imagine.
Also available on Bootopia:
Claire Varley grew up on the Bellarine Peninsula and lives in Melbourne. She has sold blueberries, worked in a haunted cinema, won an encouragement award for being terrible at telemarketing, taught English in rural China and co-ordinated community development projects in remote Solomon Islands
Annie loves sharing her writing chair with special guests! If you'd like a turn...please email her! firstname.lastname@example.org