I’m thrilled to welcome author Christine Bell to the attic.
Chris signed up to write this piece way back in April, when we didn’t know each other. However, for the past couple of weeks we’ve been writing together almost daily, albeit via a screen, at the virtual writing sessions hosted by Varuna Writers House*. When Chris sent me this piece, she said she’d written it during those sessions, and I was quite chuffed to realise I’d witnessed this piece being created!
Chris’s piece is about some of the doubts that plague authors while writing a novel. It’s wise and beautiful, so please read on.
*If you’re a Varuna alumnus and would like to join about 20-25 writers each weekday from 11am/9am (EST/WST) for a 1.5-hour writing session, please come on over! Click this link to the Varuna website for more details.
Christine Bell is a Melbourne fiction writer. Her debut historical novel No Small Shame was published by Ventura Press (Impact Press) April 2020. In October 2019, Christine was awarded the inaugural Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Writer. She is a Varuna fellow and holds a Master of Creative Writing (RMIT). She has taught Creative Writing to adult students and served as the Assistant Co-ordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Victoria (SCBWI) 2014-2018. Christine has had 30 short fiction works published for children. No Small Shame is her first adult novel.
Who Am I to Write this Book?
When I began writing No Small Shame, I envisaged a linear story of a young immigrant coming to Australia with expectations of a better life but finding all the same restrictive boundaries and expectations in the new country.
It was to be a fictional narrative, but I planned to loosely base the migration journey on that of my own great-grandparents. My early fear was that the story of an ordinary family could prove too simple, the characters too ordinary, much like my working-class ancestors. I wanted to follow a similar timeline, which would entail weaving in relevant events of World War One and life on the home-front in Australia.
My main character, Mary O’Donnell is a child when the story begins and the decade that follows is one of immense physical, emotional and practical change. Mary is forced to grow up fast after she becomes pregnant and her reluctant husband abandons her for the trenches. Oppressed by a harsh and interfering mother, she flees to Melbourne to make a new life for herself and her son. This shift in location introduced an entirely new setting, a very different way of life and a conflict of religious beliefs and values.
As the storyline developed, I realised I would also need to include the post-war effect on wives and families after the men returned, the religious friction over the issue of conscription, not to mention my very Catholic main character’s relationship with a Protestant man.
How did the war impact the lives of ordinary people in Australia? How much would it affect the choices of my characters? It was clear, I would need to include a myriad of events, issues and aspects that I’d never originally considered. The developing story would be anything but simple, even if about ordinary people.
Who was I to write such a story?
How could I possibly do it justice?
By now the work had grown into something far more complex than I’d originally envisaged, but at last my narrative drive was clear. I wanted to explore how an ordinary, young woman, of the poorest class, ruled by religion, family and societal expectations could gain agency in her life when she had no grand talent, mentor, financial backing or altruistic motivation that might propel her into the spotlight.
Would readers want to read a book with no flashy settings or feisty heroine charging through and changing the world for women following behind her? Set during a time when there was no perceived right to happiness, women were expected to honour their patriotic duty to the men who’d fought for those at home – even if those same men made their lives hell. The lack of options and attitudes made it clear why choices and opportunities for women had taken so long to come about. It showed me exactly why women hadn’t burnt their corsets long before they burnt their bras. I wanted to discover how an ordinary, poor, uneducated woman could find the courage and strength to change her situation. To go against established expectations and step outside of what was expected and what she’d been taught. How could I weave all these disparate story strands into the narrative and keep my character’s internal arc to the forefront?
Who was I to think that I could write such a deep and nuanced story?
How could I possibly do it justice?
By the third draft, Mary’s actions and small defiances began to make important inroads towards her gaining agency. Still I worried that younger readers would be alienated by Mary’s seeming acceptance of her lot, unaware that in the early 1900s, the lack of support or choice prevented many women from leaving their marriages. Particularly mothers.
I’m thrilled that since publication the quiet strength of Mary’s character has been admired by readers of all ages for showing exactly how ordinary women of the last century changed their lives in subtle but effective ways and paved the way for women coming after them.
It turns out, I was exactly the right person to write No Small Shame.
Christine has donated a copy of her book, No Small Shame, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on the blog or any of my social media posts about Christine’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 27th August, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.