Tag Archives: The Mind’s Own Place

Ask an author – FAQ #2: Why imagine stories about the past?

IMG_5227Inevitably, writers of serious historical novels give this question plenty of thought. For me the answer is fairly simple: imaginary time travel can bring a distinctive kind of satisfaction to both author and reader, providing insights that are not cramped within the here-and-now.

Too often, literature that focuses on contemporary experience tends to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. The best historical fiction is still relevant to the world we live in, but in a potentially more illuminating way. Far from being an escapist retreat from the present into earlier periods, it can show aspects of our own everyday world in a new perspective. That, anyhow, is what I’m trying to do when I invent characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past.

For instance most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. My novel That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation grappling with the tyranny of distance. Perhaps this may illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wifi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.

Here’s another example. Almost daily the plight of refugees pervades the mass media, and so insistent is the pressure of images and stories about the current transnational deracination crisis that it’s hard for us to situate it within a longer timespan, and to think about perennial patterns of large-scale mobility. How, over the centuries, have traumatic movements of myriads of people been intertwined with social, economic and political changes? What enables some migrants to surmount hardship while others are crushed by what they suffer? Historical perspectives help us to understand these fundamental processes, and if shaped into the form of literary fiction (as in my novel The Mind’s Own Place, which follows several 19th-century migrants to the Swan River Colony) they allow us to imagine the corresponding tensions within and between people, as individual motives are linked to family dynamics and the cultural contours of a period that differs from ours but has contributed to the way we live now.

Having also written ‘pure’ history myself, I’m duly respectful of a disciplined fidelity to fact. On the other hand its constraints can sometimes leave a reader (and author) dissatisfied. Although historical fiction won’t be successful unless, on the basis of meticulous research, it explores themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated, ultimately it needs more than that. It should offer gripping stories with strong momentum and complex characters, related in memorable language.

In the parallel universe imagined by a writer of historical fiction, characters are revealed more intimately than is possible in a purely factual study. A novel can give us magical access to the inward experience of the figures who move through its pages, and episodes can be freely constructed to give meaningful shape to what happens. In contrast, the historian remains limited to verifiable evidence, which is often inconsequential and inconclusive. Fiction has more scope for resuscitating people from times past, bringing their minds and hearts back to life.

Above all, historical fiction depends for its impact on the quality of its language. For the author of a historical novel, reviving an earlier period and those who belonged to it means much more than marshalling facts and interpretations. It also means painstakingly yet creatively constructing an idiom, a texture of language, that will achieve two things: it will convey with a compelling illusion of authenticity the way people in that particular time and place used to feel and think and speak, and at the same time it will communicate powerfully to the modern reader. No easy task!

What would those convicts have thought?


town-hall-1I wonder what would they have thought, those convicts who built Perth’s Town Hall, if they had known that this feat of construction, along with their other work during the city’s early years, would be appreciatively discussed in a heritage forum held in that same venue a century and a half later?

I think they’d have felt some pride in their efforts, tinged perhaps with a sense of irony at the fact that the struggling Swan River Colony as they knew it back then did eventually turn into a prosperous economy – thanks in large measure to the labour they supplied.

This coming Sunday, 16 October at 12.30, as part of the weekend’s ‘Perth Heritage Days’ celebration, I’ll be on stage in the Perth Town Hall for a conversation about ‘Victorian Perth in Fact and Fiction,’ with particular reference to the colonial world represented in my novel The Mind’s Own Place. My interviewer/interlocutor will be the energetic Richard Offen, Executive Director of Heritage Perth.

If you’re in Perth this weekend, I’d be glad to see you at the event! Attendance is free but registration is requested for catering purposes. Copies of my novels will be available there for signing and sale at special cash discount prices.

The theme of this year’s Perth Heritage Days, ‘The Way We Worked’, is perfectly apt as a context for discussing The Mind’s Own Place. My novel traces the interlinked tales of a group of people, based on actual historical figures, who came separately to the coastal rim of Western Australia in the mid-19th century and contributed in different ways to the growth of settlement. Two are what we would now call ‘white-collar convicts’, bringing considerable skills to this corner of the world. One was trained as an architect and engineer; the other had a merchant background. Their experiences in and around Perth after their ticket-of-leave release into the workforce provide an illuminating insight into the world of colonial employment and commercial development.



That's not a launch...

That’s not a launch…

Last night my new novel The Mind’s Own Place was the occasion for a very pleasant celebration in the Lawrence Wilson Gallery under the auspices of Perth’s WinterArts Festival.

I’m grateful to a goodly contingent of friends for attending, to my publisher UWAP (especially to Terri-ann White and Charlotte Guest) for hosting the cheerful evening, and to fellow-novelist Brenda Walker for her generous words of praise in launching the book (you can read her speech here).

About 18 months ago I posted some thoughts about book launches, noting that even authors themselves aren’t unanimous about the value of these events. I quoted the sceptical David Malouf (so successful that he can afford to be dismissive), who shrugs them off as as “exercises in vanity,” and Miriam Cosic who says they’re an endangered species – “one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.”  

It’s understandable that some will see such events as expensively indulgent, seldom covering the cost of catering etc. Naturally I incline towards the more optimistic opinion that, though book sales on the night may be modest, old-style celebratory launches can still create ripples of publicity from which the book will benefit.

Anyway, I enjoyed myself immensely and the assembled company seemed to do so as well. And yes, a decent number of books were sold and signed. Heartfelt thanks to all who contributed to the evening’s success.

TMOP crowd

T H I S is a launch !!

Releasing a new novel


When we say a book is released we mean of course that it has become publicly available – but release also carries a sense of being set free after a (sometimes long) period of confinement. Prisoners who’ve served their sentence get released. Pent-up emotions can be released. A “lock-up”, a closed briefing session, precedes the release of a government’s budget.

Yesterday my new novel The Mind’s Own Place  officially emerged at last into the marketplace, and so I feel elation, yes – but also some empathy with two of its main characters, who get transported to the Swan River Colony as convicts and eventually gain their “ticket of leave” (the first step towards conditional freedom).


After their periods of incarceration – first in England, awaiting transportation; then on the voyage out; and finally behind the grim walls of the “Convict Establishment” (Fremantle Prison) – to be set at liberty again must have felt exhilarating.

My book, too, has been cooped up for what seems a very long while since its completion, awaiting this scheduled release. Now, like those discharged inmates, it must make its way in the world, hoping for a good reception but knowing that a ticket of leave can’t guarantee this.

There will be a celebratory launch, with the usual book signings etc., on 15 July. For details of that event and others coming up, click here. For information about the book on my publisher’s website, click here. For an interview-based article on it in The West Australian, click here.

Beyond Narcissism – a better class of blogger?

Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

There’s no denying it: we bloggers generally tend to be self-absorbed and self-promoting. I can hardly claim that the thought-bubbles I blow on this website are much of an exception. Although what I post here isn’t always about me and my writings, the topics and opinions reflect shamelessly (or should that be shamefully?) who I am. And there’s something brazen about the notion that anyone out there might have the slightest interest in what another person thinks on the subject of writing or anything else.

Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

Yet despite the presumptuous and tendentious nature of all such on-line activity, some of its exponents – a better class of blogger? – manage to be less narrowly narcissistic than others. One literary blog that I admire for its generous hospitality to other writers is Amanda Curtin’s Looking Up, Looking Down. Of course her site is informative about her own work and interests, among other things, but she also makes a point of regularly inviting guests aboard – providing an introductory comment on some author she knows and a simple structure of questions (“2, 2 and 2”) to which the guest responds. So it functions like a set of prompts for a mini-interview, usually focusing on a newly published book.

I’m delighted that her latest post gives me a publicity platform for a few remarks about my novel The Mind’s Own Place. Thank you, Amanda!

Can you judge a book by its cover?

When moralists tell us “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, we know it’s a proverbial injunction to look beneath superficial appearances, particularly in our dealings with people. A suave demeanour may belie inner unworthiness, while an exterior that’s not prepossessing may mask  valuable qualities. Yes grandma.

However, the publishing industry takes a more literal view. It usually invests great care in cover designs on the assumption that prospective customers can be decisively influenced by what they see on the outside of a book. Consciously or not, one’s choice to buy this book rather than that may often turn on the visual and textual information displayed on front and back. We tend to draw inferences about genre, subject matter and style not only from the descriptive blurb but also from the designer’s selection of images, colours, even the typeface used for the title or author’s name.

In choosing what to read, don’t you tend to judge a book by its cover? Take the following example, from a forthcoming book (release date: July 1st) in which I have a keen interest.

TMOP front cover copy

This front cover gives you (doesn’t it?) an immediate impression of the kind of book this is. Leaving aside for a moment the title, and the possibility that the author’s name will be associated with things previously read or heard, the scene depicted here suggests a story that’s set in the past, apparently in a frontier society and a colonial period. Though fictional (the subtitle says “a novel”), it seems likely to be grounded realistically in a specific time and place.

Having seen an advance copy of this book, a friend comments in an email message to me: “I very much like the choice of cover image – figures occupying distinct frames but situated within the same space – such lovely resonance with your novel’s themes.”

Prospective readers who happen to know something about 19th-century artists in Western Australia may recognise the image of Bunbury’s Rose Hotel. It reproduces part of a picture painted in 1863 by a white-collar convict called Thomas Browne, not long after his transportation. The original, in watercolour and pencil, is in the National Gallery of Australia. A trained draughtsman, architect and engineer, Browne produced other artworks that are held in various public collections. And a fictional version of him is one of the main characters in this novel.

If what’s on the front of a book arouses interest, a potential buyer will then usually glance at the back cover for more information. A particular publisher’s logo can serve as a token of quality. There may be an endorsement in the form of a brief quote from a reviewer. The blurb should indicate whether this is the kind of book that the person now holding it would probably enjoy reading. And the visual appeal of the back cover can be influential, too: often it extends the image on the front cover, as in this case.

The mind's own place_cover[1] copy_3

I’m fortunate that my publisher UWAP has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in book design, and pleased that my idea of reproducing Browne’s painting on the cover (with permission from the National Gallery) was readily accepted.

We did discuss the possibility of using another image, also connected historically to Thomas Browne; here it is.

Old Mill

The eventual decision to put this strange and sombre image inside the book, facing the first page of text, was a clever solution. It’s a photograph from about 1890, showing the Old Mill in South Perth after Browne modified it. The source of the image is the Battye Library.

Being much bleaker than the sunlit 1863 watercolour picture used for the cover, it foreshadows one of the narrative trajectories in this novel.

Oh yes – the novel’s title: The Mind’s Own Place is an odd phrase, and someone looking at the cover may be a bit puzzled by it. I hope it stimulates curiosity. Perhaps it may ring a bell for a person who is well versed in one of the great classics of English poetry. Here’s a clue: the real-lifeThomas Browne was known by the nickname of Satan.