Today I welcome to the blog, Author Louise Allan. Louise’s highly anticipated debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, was released earlier this month, to outstanding reviews (including my own!)
I have been following Louise’s journey to publication for a while now, and she also graciously joined me here on the blog last year as part of my ‘A Day in the Life of a Writer’ series. Louise is so generous and honest with the highs and lows of being a writer, documenting them on her blog, and it has been wonderful to see her book released into the wild.
The Q&A is quite lengthy, but well worth the read. So, grab a cuppa and enjoy the wonderful insights from Louise Allan.
Louise Allan’s first novel, ‘The Sisters’ Song’, is out now with Allen and Unwin. The manuscript has previously been shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship.
Louise grew up in Tasmania, Australia, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing. She has had several short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.
Apart from writing, Louise also enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.
The Sisters’ Song
Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.
As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.
The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.
Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.
Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. ‘The Sisters’ Song’ speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.
The Sisters’ Song is an historical fiction novel set in Tasmania and spans over seventy years telling the story of two sisters, Ida and Nora. Two sisters who couldn’t be more different, yet who are bound together by the invisible thread of family. It touches on many issues including gender stereotyping, motherhood, unfulfilled dreams, grief, longing, mental health, and of course, family relationships.
The story seems like such a personal one. Where did the idea for Ida and Nora’s story stem from?
Ida and Nora are two sisters who have equal but opposite dreams—one yearns for a family of her own, and the other wants to sing on the opera stage. Their characters were inspired by my grandmothers—one who loved children but had three stillbirths (before giving birth to my uncle and father by caesarian), and the other who had eight children but cursed each pregnancy.
I suspect that pitting them against each other in the story was my subconscious talking. Ever since I was a young girl, I longed to be a mother, yet at the same time I wanted to be a doctor, too. Before having children, it never occurred to me that I might have difficulty doing both! I thought I’d pop out a couple of kids, hire a nanny and go back to work. But as soon as I had my own children, I felt pulled in two directions. I wanted to be with my babies as much as I wanted to work.
The truth is, motherhood and personal dreams are often in conflict with each other, and for many of the 22 years I’ve been a mother, I’ve found it hard to balance the needs of my family with my own.
You seem to know your characters in intimate detail. Were they based on people you know, and how did you manage to envisage them so clearly and allow the reader to do the same? Was it a conscious effort, or something that just happened organically?
My characters were based on my grandmothers. At first, I felt like that was cheating because I was using characters from my family history and not from my imagination. But, as everyone says, your first book is autobiographical, although mine is more ‘familiographical’, drawn from my family history than from my life.
I think it’s important to examine your life and your history in your writing, whether it be through fiction or memoir, because if you understand yourself better, you become a better writer.
Even though I based my characters on real people, there’s still a lot of fiction. You can download character questionnaires to help you get to know your characters. I tried to fill these out, but it felt too contrived—like I was deciding who my characters were, rather than letting them become who they wanted to be.
My characters revealed themselves through the writing of the story—through putting them in situations and seeing how they reacted. It was hard at first, because I was writing about a character I didn’t know well, and sometimes they did things that weren’t in keeping with their personality. That’s part of the reason why I have so many off-cuts—it was me getting to know my characters! After a few drafts, though, I knew them intimately.
You’ve mentioned before that the story was a long process from start to publication. How difficult was it getting the initial story down, and then working through the drafting process, until you felt it ready for submission? And then, how was the editing process?
The book took six years from start to publication. Getting the initial story down was the easiest of all—I threw in everything I wanted to, including the kitchen sink, because I was trying to discover the story. The drafts that followed were harder because I wanted to make the story better but as a fledgling writer I didn’t know how.
Each time I’d finish a draft, I’d know there were still flaws in the story, but because of my lack of knowledge and experience, I couldn’t pinpoint them, let alone fix them. That’s where seeking good feedback came in—people more experienced than me spotted things that weren’t working, so I could sort them out. Sometimes, that meant a complete rewrite!
The best feedback came from people in the industry—my agent and publisher—who know what they’re talking about because they’ve done it once or twice before. When my book was accepted by Allen and Unwin, I thought it was almost ready to go. I was wrong! I made dramatic structural changes, even at the copy editing stage. But, I’ve learnt so much from the experience of being edited, that I feel as if I have many more tools in my kit for writing Novel #2.
The novel spans a period of 70 years, with much of it taking place pre and post WWII. How much of this was drawn from your own family anecdotes, and how much was research you had to do about the time periods?
I started writing using my imagination and family anecdotes, but the scenes were pretty thin and lacking in detail. I needed research in order to flesh them out and make my story feel more authentic.
I returned to Tasmania a couple of times to remind myself of what it was like to live there, and I read books on gardening, millinery and the history of Tasmania. These days, you can do a lot of research from your desk via the internet. I spent hours scrolling, scavenging titbits from here and there for my novel. For example, I found this blog, a memoir of life in northern Tasmania in the first half of the 20th century, and this article on ‘Life in Clarence (a suburb of Hobart) in the 1920s and 1930s’. I also watched videos on sawmilling, life in Tasmania in the 1950s, and midwifery practices.
My favourite site, though, was Trove. Newspapers are so informative, and I drew from write-ups of eisteddfods, the building of the maternity hospital in Launceston and even the advertisements. They told me what people liked, smoked, wore, and gave me a clue as to how they thought. The old-fashioned, formal journalistic style also showed me how people spoke, and I tried to let that flavour the way I wrote.
Researching like this gave me a feel for the era, and helped me build up the scenes in my story. It helped me imagine myself in the story, so I could slip the details I’d learnt through research as I described the action.
The story touches on so many issues, but particularly the issue of motherhood, that some women were born to be mothers, and others, perhaps, not. How did this idea form the core of your story?
You’re right, this is the core of my story, but it wasn’t always! Originally, I wanted to write about how beautiful children can be crushed by child abuse. This was the core of the first few drafts, but they were very grim, bleak tales indeed!
So, I tried to turn the book into something more hopeful, and looked beyond the child abuse, searching for what might have caused it. That’s when I found women with unfulfilled dreams. Girls born with hopes and desires, but whose ambitions were thwarted, either through biology or society or both.
In The Sisters’ Song, Nora dreams of being a singer like Dame Nellie Melba. When I researched Melba’s life, I discovered she’d divorced her husband and lost contact with her son for ten years while she was singing in opera houses throughout Europe. Melba’s personal story seemed to reinforce the theme of my book.
While my character dreams of singing, really, her ambition could be anything—a doctor, a businesswoman, an artist. It’s always been difficult for women to achieve their personal ambitions, and, although we’ve come a little way, women who choose not to have children in order to pursue their dreams are still considered quite odd.
How different is the story from early drafts to the published version? And, how did you grapple with the changes.
You can probably tell from my earlier answers that the story has changed a lot since the early drafts! Apart from the usual edits, I rewrote it three times during the six years of its evolution. That sounds like a lot of effort, and it was, but it was worth it.
Each time I’d receive a report from an editor, my heart would sink, and the same thoughts would cross my mind: It’s too much. I don’t know how to do it. I can’t do it. I’m going to quit.
At first glance, edits always seem impossible, but there is only one way to tackle them: start at the beginning and work your way through. I had to use Anne Lamott’s mantra, ‘bird by bird’, and Dory’s, ‘Just keep going’, repeatedly as I went. Sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter, just keep going, addressing all the concerns, until you reach the end.
I can categorically state that after each rewrite, I was glad I’d made the changes. Without exception, they all made my book much better.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are perhaps struggling with (a) calling themselves a writer and putting it ‘out there’, and (b) facing the challenge of getting the story inside their head down on paper?
(a) If you write, you are a writer. Full stop. Telling people you’re a writer is hard, but say it even if you don’t believe it yourself, because once you’ve said it enough times, it will trip off the tongue more easily!
I remember when I first graduated medicine, I found it hard to call myself a doctor. It’s hard to call yourself anything when it’s new, but after a while it fits. There’s also self-fulfilling prophecy—so just call yourself a writer and you’ll feel like one!
(b) Just start writing. It doesn’t matter where you start—beginning, middle, end—just start. Get rid of the critic who sits on your shoulder telling you you’re no good, and don’t worry about how bad your writing might be or if the story seems ridiculous to you. Just get the words down and then you have something to work with.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started a second novel, but it’s stalled while I’m publicising this one. I have ideas for it all the time, and I can’t wait to return to it!
The Sisters’ Song is out now and available from all good book stores or you can purchase online here.
You can follow Louise online at the following places.