Tag Archives: The Madwoman’s Coat

Let’s hear it for libraries

This week, not for the first time, I was a beneficiary (with many others) of excellent support from a local public library.

Too often we tend to undervalue these institutions. We all know, of course, that public libraries provide resources to serve the general information needs of their citizens. We assume that any literate society has plenty of them. We may be aware that free lending libraries in Australia date back to the mid-19th century. Since then they have become part of our taken-for-granted social environment.

It’s easy, if we don’t give the matter much thought, to regard them merely as storage facilities for printed publications, electronic data and archival materials. But along with those basic functions and various other valuable services, they also give direct support to writers and readers.

The example foremost in my mind is the generosity of the South Perth Library in regularly organising events that bring together an author and a crowd of potential readers to celebrate a new book.

A couple of evenings ago it was my turn (once again) to have a novel launched in that congenial setting. It was part of the Library’s “Words with Wine” series. A large audience listened to local history librarian Anthony Styan interview me about The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth work of historical fiction. His subtle and stimulating questions ensured that our conversation flowed well. Afterwards a good number of attendees lined up to buy copies of my book.

I’m grateful to Anthony, epitome of the Ideal Reader; to Tamara Lampard, the Events Officer, who did a great job of arranging the whole show; and to the dozens of people who came along to hear about (and purchase) The Madwoman’s Coat. On such occasions, all the hard slog of creating a book seems wonderfully worthwhile.

“Go to another place”: artistry, insanity and more

The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth historical novel, is now officially released! (There will be a launch event later in the month — details at the end of this post.)

For an author, publication brings  elation — but also sheer relief that something so long in the making has at last found its way into print. Creating a novel is a protracted and painstaking process. Sentence by sentence, it’s all hard labour!  I can feelingly echo the words of Graham Swift, author of Waterland: “Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming and once I’ve begun one I know I may have years of work ahead of me.”

While I hope this new book will appeal to any reader who has enjoyed my previous stories, it differs from them in some respects. For one thing, its action is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women. Female characters figure importantly in all of my novels, but until now they haven’t dominated the narrative point of view. How risky is this method for a male writer?

Advocates of identity politics argue that fiction based directly on an author’s personal experience is the only legitimate kind — that if one tries to convey an imagined perspective of someone very different from oneself, the writing may become inauthentic and potentially offensive. I readily acknowledge the sensitivities involved in such matters. Certainly some stories are “not mine to tell.” But where should we draw the line? If we think it’s inappropriate for a writer to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are unlike the writer’s, are we missing the very point of fiction?

To quote Graham Swift again:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

For a writer of historical fiction, many potential challenges may be at least as hazardous as imagining the experiences of people whose gender or race differ from one’s own; e.g. —

  • I wasn’t alive in 1897, when The Madwoman’s Coat opens in Fremantle; so how can I know what it was like to live there at that time?
  • I haven’t lived in Staffordshire or Wiltshire, where other parts of the story are set; so how can I render them authentically?
  • Any artistry I could plausibly claim to possess is not of the kind practised by people at the heart of my story; so how can I depict their work with any confidence?
  • Though I may be a bit crazy at times, I haven’t (yet) been locked up in an institution for people deemed insane, as some characters in this novel are, so how can I hope to convey genuine insights into their plight?

I’m sure readers of The Madwoman’s Coat will be scrutinizing the story with many such questions in mind. But I take comfort from the words of Irish novelist Colum McCann:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

The book will be launched at a “Words with Wine” event at the South Perth Library (corner Sandgate and South streets) on the evening of Wednesday 31st March. All comers welcome but registration is necessary as numbers are constrained by social distancing requirements. To register, click here.

Sneak peek: The Madwoman’s Coat

I’m delighted to reveal here the front cover of my forthcoming (fifth) novel, The Madwoman’s Coat. Due for release in March, the book will be published under the Framework Press imprint.

Now is not the right time to disclose much about the story it contains. But despite the proviso that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’ potential readers may be able to draw a few inferences from this juxtaposition of images.

The human figure in the centre of the design is taken from an 1880 oil painting by Susan Macdowell Eakins, ‘Woman Sewing.’ As its placement here suggests, my novel also revolves around a woman, and needlework is one of the things this central character does — though she is no ordinary seamstress. She works creatively within the context of the Arts and Crafts movement associated with William Morris and others.

The strange pattern surrounding her on the cover may seem to offer a puzzling contrast: whatever it signifies, it evokes a different period and different culture from the late 19th-century world to which this female figure apparently belongs. It reproduces one of the treasures of the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, a 17th-century embroidered artwork known as the Riddarateppid (Coverlet of Knights).

What connection is there between this antique Icelandic bedspread embroidery and a woman such as the person whose image is superimposed on it here? That’s just one of the enigmas explored in The Madwoman’s Coat. Another is how either of those things may be linked to a lunatic asylum in the colony of Western Australia, where parts of the action take place.

More about this book soon, as its release date approaches.