I’m thrilled to share this essay of Katherine Scholes in the attic today. It’s about writing her latest novel, The Beautiful Mother, the story of a woman who has devoted herself to the study of humans while denying the call of motherhood, who finds her heart torn open by the love of a real-life baby. She touches on setting her story in Tanzania, the ‘Cradle of Humankind’, what that country means to her, and the wonderful alchemy that happens when writing a novel.
Katherine Scholes is the author of several international bestsellers. She is particularly popular in France and Germany where she has sold over two million books.
Her novel The Blue Chameleon won a New South Wales State Literary Award and The Stone Angel was longlisted in the International Dublin Literary Awards. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages and include children’s titles as well as novels for adults. She has also worked as a documentary filmmaker.
She now lives in Tasmania but makes regular trips back to her first homeland, where many of her novels are set.
Hunting the Muse
Just over three months ago, The Beautiful Mother hit the shelves, the same week the pandemic closed everything down. My launch, events and publicity tour were all cancelled. I haven’t been in the same physical space as my readers. Yet there’s been more online communication than ever before. I feel like I’ve been bouncing between intense connection and the silence of isolation.
Right now, I’m trying to put all that behind me and just do what I’d normally do next. The concentrated publicity for The Beautiful Mother is over and it’s time to turn to something new.
I always find this moment daunting. The characters I’ve been co-habiting with for the last couple of years are almost a part of me – but now they’re a distraction and it’s time to say a firm goodbye. No wonder I feel lonely.
I’m not one of those authors always bursting with ideas; I only work on one thing at a time. I take a year to research and develop a story, then write the novel virtually as it will end up. I try to get a solid grasp of what I’m dealing with before I begin Chapter One.
So here I am, sitting in front of my blank whiteboard, pen in hand. Very soon I’ll be staring rather desperately at my past titles on the bookshelf, reminding myself where each idea began, how it grew. The most recent one is still fresh in my mind. The most common question asked of an author is, ‘Where did the idea come from?’, and I always prepare my answer in advance.
With The Beautiful Mother there was the experience of giving birth to my own babies decades ago, and feeling a connection with my ‘animal’ body. There was the visit to a short-term orphanage in Tanzania, and the one to remote Olduvai Gorge, where four generations of the Leakey family have been searching for hominid remains. There was also my involvement with a TV series called The Human Journey. And much more.
What I always find interesting is that the order in which all the pieces of the story come together is not what I first recall, and certainly not what a reader would imagine.
In the novel, I tell the story of a young woman, Essie, who reluctantly agrees to care for a motherless baby for the duration of the dry season – then hand her back. The setting is an archaeologist’s camp in an area of East Africa known as the Cradle of Humankind. Looking back, it seems obvious that the story and the setting belonged together. They offered the chance for an intimate personal journey of just a few months duration, to be set against the vast backdrop of millions of years of our species history. A woman who has devoted herself to the academic study of humans – denying the call of motherhood – would find her heart torn open by the love of a real-life baby. The location brought with it vast flocks of breeding flamingos, offering their own family stories, and the active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai, a place sacred to the Maasai.
It all goes perfectly together, but the truth is that when I was formulating the idea, there were several very different settings on offer and lots of potential plot points and characters. When I began to make choices, I didn’t know how the elements would play off one another.
I had no idea that through The Beautiful Mother I would finally find the way to deal directly with themes that have always been at the heart of my writing. As a white-skinned child born in Africa, I have a complex heritage. I love a homeland that can never belong to me, and yet which does. I’ve written half a dozen novels that explore different aspects of Tanzania during the Independence era of the 60s and 70s. Each one looks at the contrast between cultures, including shifting balances of power. They also explore the beauty of connection and the sharing of different wisdoms. Now, through the story of Essie, baby Mara and the other characters at Magadi Research Camp I’ve gone to the very origins of our species, answering questions about why and how we are different, and yet so very much the same. What are the implications of the discovery – now proven by DNA evidence – that Africa was the first home of all humans? What does this mean for my reader, and also for me?
So did some part of me know where the The Beautiful Mother would take me, and lay a path of crumbs for me to follow? There’s no doubt that some strange alchemy occurs in the making of a novel. It fascinates me every time I begin a new story. Once I’ve got a few ideas on the table, the world suddenly seems full of signs, portents, chance encounters – all leading me along my narrative journey. I catch half a minute of a radio show and it links two strands of research together. A book literally falls off a trolley in the library …
When I ask other authors how they experience this process, ‘serendipity’ is usually mentioned. But is it just chance coincidence? It often feels like something more.
I’m intrigued by Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on this, laid out in her book Big Magic. She sees the core idea of a novel as having an existence separate to the writer’s imagination. The idea literally lands on your shoulder and asks to be brought into being. If you don’t pay enough attention it will fly away to find a better host. I love how Gilbert describes this and even though I don’t see the process quite as literally as she does, I know what she’s talking about. In my own experience the strange coalescences feel like a brush with the deep, unknowable forces of life. There’s an almost religious sensibility to it. It is magic.
But for a control freak like me, it’s frightening. What if the alchemy doesn’t happen this time? There’s a lot of straining into the dark to hear voices that will only whisper. I feel deeply uneasy, and I know I’m not great company! But eventually, the kaleidoscope begins to turn, and a pattern appears. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a dance that goes on through the length of the story. When the magic is working, there is a sense of pure wonder. It’s mesmerising and addictive.
No wonder we keep coming back.
Katherine has kindly donated a copy of her book, The Beautiful Mother, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on any of the blog or social media posts.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 6th August, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.