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Q&A with Gabrielle Gouch on her memoir

Once, Only the Swallows Were Free - A firsthand account of communist Romania

Romania is a land of change and contrasts. How do you feel about your home-country today?

I miss the mountains and the snow. I miss the sound of my mother tongue and the warmth of people. But I could never live there again.

Romania seems to me a country of missed opportunities. The government had been slow implementing the painful reforms needed for a Western style economy. Many Romanians leave their families to work in the west and send money home. Grandmothers trying to cope with teenage grandchildren was the topic of one of the reality TV programs in Romania.

Your memoir is a journey that many people from your region and period could relate to. Do you ever wish that you had a different history?

I do at times. But I do not feel sorry for myself, some people had far greater upheavals in life than me.

Other times I think that all those experiences have given me insights which I might not have if my life would have been less eventful. And for a writer every experience is a gift. Retrospectively.

The style of this memoir is written like it’s in the voice of a fictional character, why did you do that?

The memoir is told in a first person’s voice, apart from the parts when my brother Tom is recounting his story. But I did not just want to tell a story. I wanted to write literature, I wanted to convey the atmosphere of the times, the beautiful scenery, but also to breathe life into some of the colourful characters who at different times had shared our lives. So maybe it does read like fiction sometimes.

How did you feel about your brother’s choice (Tom) not to leave Romania with you?

At the time Tom was estranged from the rest of the family. Estranged or not, my feelings towards him did not change. But having waited for years to get out of the country, I could only think of the future. Besides, I was convinced that he would follow us eventually. Only years later I understood the full implications of his decision.

Did you write this book mainly to tell your brother’s story, or about your whole family?

My original intention was to tell my brother’s story. I soon realised that his was part of a much bigger story, that of the family, and of the ripples of history which affected our lives. I also wanted to tell the story of our emigration to Israel. What happened when after years of waiting for permission to emigrate, the country of our dreams met the reality of the Promised Land.

You wrote this book only a few years ago, and it’s well written. Why did it take you so long to write it, and have you always known you were a writer?

I always wanted to write. As a child I used to listen to Tom trying to memorise poems. I loved the sound of the words, the rhythms and as I got older and understood more, I loved the feelings expressed in those poems. So I wanted to be a poet one day.   But life had other plans for me. We emigrated twice, I had to learn new languages. To write in a language you have to be able not only to speak and think in it, but feel in it, be affected by the meaning of the words. And that takes years.

Did getting this book down on paper release something you always wanted to say?

No, it did not. I just wanted to write, and to tell the story of a somewhat unusual family. But I am glad that some themes about which I feel strongly, and more so since I wrote the book, have found their way into it: belonging, identity and how history, or if you want to take the short view, politics, affect our lives.

Can you tell us about the work in scientific research you did?

This is a long story. My work evolved from Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy to researching the mechanism of deterioration of metals and finally to more applied projects in one of the biggest Australian companies. From improving or inventing new products and processes in the laboratory, to taking them into production.

I had to leave science because of health problems I developed from over-exposure to chemicals.

Many people think that art and science are opposites, but scientific research involves lateral thinking and a great deal of imagination, the sort of thinking a writer depends on. Working in scientific research taught me a great deal about writing. 

Do you feel that Australia is your homeland today?

Australia is definitely my homeland now. This is where my family and friends are and where thanks to our institutions I can negotiate life easily. I like the multicultural look of our streets and I hope that one day it will translate to the look of our leaders.

You have another book, a book of fiction sitting in your drawer; can you tell us about it?

It was my first attempt to write a novel. Having spent six months full time writing I became discouraged and started to apply for jobs. The book was finished that year, but its rightful place is in the drawer.  I did not know at the time but I needed to learn a great deal more about the craft.

I am currently writing another fiction book. And this is a secret.


Q&A with Peter Corris


With the number of books you’ve written you may be Australia’s most prolific writer ever. What drives you to continually create?

Alan Yates, who wrote as Carter Brown, published hundreds of books. Although he lived most of his life here, he was born in England, so I might have a claim to ‘most prolific Australian born’ but I’ve no idea. I write to earn a living and because I have a need and compulsion to do so. Unable to sing, dance, play a musical instrument or excel at sport, writing allows me to express myself and enjoy an inner or alternative life in the imagination which I find necessary for my happiness and fulfilment.

The city of Sydney makes a great character. Is it the perfect partner for PI Cliff Hardy?

Like a lot of writers - Hammett, Chandler, Simenon, Ross Macdonald, - I write about a place I came to rather than where I grew up. Melbourne in the 40s and 50s was a dull place for a working class boy with aspirations. I fell in love with Sydney when I first got here in the early 60s and that hasn’t changed. It provides all the physical variety and social texture I need as a backdrop to the stories.

With your love of writing about sports, can you tell us in which game would you want to become a professional?

When I was very young I fantasised about being a boxer but I had neither the courage nor the skill. I learned early that other sports I achieved a bare competence at, like tennis and golf, required far greater ability than I had so I never aspired to professional status at those sports and simply enjoyed my good moments.

You have so many interests as a writer, how do you choose what to focus on next?

In earlier days, my interest in history provoked about 9 or 10 books with historical themes and something of this still infuses my writing I think. With Hardy, the starting point can come from an overheard conversation, a news item, observing someone in the street, a personal experience such as a relationship breakup, a traffic accident, having a heart bypass etc. These ‘triggers’.

Who is your favourite crime fiction author?

At his best, which doesn’t include his most recent books, James Ellroy.

Which form of writing do you find the most pleasing?

Both in reading and writing, historical fiction.

With the biographies you’ve written, did you choose the subjects? If so, why?

It varies. In some cases I was approached by a publisher or by my agent. I’ve refused many subjects. I am only interested in people I admire and who have lived an active physical life, not a merely cerebral one. I keenly sought my most recent  collaboration with Dr Philip Nitschke, because I support his work and he easily met this criterion.

What question about writing or reading have you always wanted to be asked?

I can’t think of one. I know the one I most dislike being asked, which is, “Where do your ideas come from?”

You’ve written 39 Cliff Hardy books.  Over the years, how do you think Cliff has changed?  And do you think it’s for the better?

Hardy has changed with the times – became more sensitive to gender issues, more fitness conscious, acquired rudimentary IT skills and became a father and grandfather. He is wiser and still holding up well physically.

Of course you are not going to tell us, but will Cliff Hardy get wiped out one day?

I have no intention of killing him off.


Q&A with Melinda Houston on her novel Kat Jumps the Shark


Fairfax journalist Melinda Houston gives us an insight into her writing world.

1. Do you prefer journalism to writing fiction?

I enjoy both very much but I have to say no – I enjoy writing fiction most, it’s just so wonderfully free.

2. What has been the most memorable experience of your journalism career?

It wasn’t necessarily the most memorable but the thing I’m most proud of – and that also really tickled me – is having one of my TV columns in the Sunday Age read out in Federal Parliament. I was having a go at the government of the day for not providing a couple of hundred grand so our community TV stations could convert to a digital signal (they were providing tens of millions to the commercial networks to do so). They did eventually fork out the dosh, so it feels good to have done my bit. It also struck me as kind of hilarious that this breezy pop-culture column should end up in Hansard.

3. Many journalists become authors; don’t you people ever get enough of words?

No! It’s a kind of sickness, I think! Or an obsession. Writing is such a pleasure. I think it does become addictive. There’s such a lot of pleasure in the process itself then in shaping a well-crafted finished product, with the bonus of the chance to communicate things that are important to you.

4. Is the lead character in Kat Jumps the Shark based on a real person?

No, not at all – although the things she thinks, feels and experiences are certainly an amalgam of things from my own life (and head) and those of my friends. I very much wanted to write a story about life as I and my peers experience it – just in a rather exaggerated and more entertaining form.

5. I found it a fast- paced novel. Do you think your journalism affects your fiction?

Journalism certainly brings a wonderful discipline to your writing, I think. You do learn not to bang on! But I was also aware that as a reader I really enjoy a page-turner, and wanted to create one – something that was fast and fun.

6. How long did it take you to write Kat Jumps the Shark?

It was a couple of years in the thinking and planning, and then another couple in the writing. It would have been quicker to write if I’d had more time – I find once I get started the words come quickly – but work pressures meant I often only had a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon for the book, so it took a while. I do find with everything I write that most of the work, and the time, is in the thinking. Once I know what I’m doing it happens pretty fast.

7. Do you have family members involved in journalism or literature?

Not really. My mother is very musical and both my parents have always been interested in art and culture generally. I was encouraged to read often and broadly all my life. Instead of buying me lollies as a treat at the supermarket Mum would buy me a Little Golden Book if I was good! But otherwise, no, I’m the first writer in the family.

8. What gives you more joy – journalism, fiction or something else?

Fiction gives me a great deal of joy, no doubt about that. It’s a unique experience, totally immersive, and seems to fire up my whole brain, which is quite an exhilarating feeling. I do really enjoy being a TV critic – it’s the most wonderful job, and television is constantly changing and evolving, there’s always something interesting to write about. So that certainly gives me pleasure, and I feel incredibly lucky to be paid to do it. The other thing that gives me a very pure kind of joy is my beautiful dog, Spencer. I hope to have all three in my life for a long time!

9. Do you have any plans for another book in the near future?

Definitely. I would love to write a sequel to Kat. I’m putting some notes together toward that, just general ideas and scenes. If it looks like there’s a market for it I certainly will. And even if there isn’t I suspect I might just write the damn thing anyway.

10. What do you hope people will get out of Kat Jumps the Shark? 

Primarily, pleasure. Reading serves a number of purposes but I firmly believe that above all it should be fun. But if readers also connect with some of the ideas and feelings and can relate to Kat’s experiences in some way, that would be great. 


Q&A with Jim Eames


After a lifetime in the aviation industry, Jim Eames helps us understand his passion for flying and his new book Taking to the Skies.

1. How deeply embedded is aviation in your world?

Very deep, I guess, dating back to my days as an aviation writer on the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial in the 1960s, through some years with the Australian Department of Civil Aviation, as a Press Secretary to a Federal Civil Aviation Minister and finally some years as a Director of Public Affairs at Qantas.

2. What has been the most memorable experience of your aviation career?

Flying to the South Pole as a journalist in the 60s.

3. Why do you think flying is such an intense human experience?

Because it’s not our natural environment and it forces you to acknowledge the amount of knowledge and expertise which has gone into achieving it.

4. It’s such a wide-ranging book; how long did it take you to put it together and what resources did you use for research?

The main task in terms of major research and writing for Taking to the Skies took less than 12 months, but that takes no account of personal memories, clippings and other files gathered over many years, along with the fact that I had known many of the people mentioned in the book throughout my own career.

5. Were there stories you wanted to tell but couldn’t because sensitive or embarrassing information might have been revealed?

No, not really in this case, although I’ve certainly put aside some of the more sensitive or embarrassing information I’ve gleaned for future reference!

6. Do you think Qantas will last? 

Yes, I certainly do. It’s going through a difficult period at present, but then I can’t recall any period in civil aviation where serious challenges haven’t had to be faced largely due to the highly technical and competitive nature of the industry, along with its high cost structures. Suddenly you can find that decisions made years before can have a serious bearing in the present day.

7. What was the scariest experience you had on a plane journey?

‘Scary’ probably isn’t a term I’d use although I can certainly recall some nervous moments while flying a light aircraft into tiny airstrips while living in Papua New Guinea in the 60s, dodging around mountain peaks covered in cloud.

8. Can you recommend a favourite book on aviation?

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, mainly because it told the story of an exceptional airman, Chuck Yeager, who was at the leading edge of the most exciting time in aviation. He was a fighter pilot in World War II, broke the sound barrier as a test pilot in the early days of the jet age and pioneered flight on the very fringe of space. The astronauts may have received much of the subsequent glory, but men like Yeager showed them the way.

9. Do you have any plans for another book in the near future?

Yes, I have a thought or two. Perhaps another aviation book.

10. What do you hope people will get out of Taking to the Skies? 

Primarily the ability to look back at what has been the most exciting time in world aviation and the vital role Australians have played in it, along with some of the long-forgotten or largely overlooked highs and lows of our industry since World War II.



Q&A with Jason Hewitt

 What inspired you to write The Dynamite Room?

The Dynamite Room really was the result of many interests simultaneously coming together. For example, I have a History and English degree and I knew I wanted to write a World War II novel, but it is a well-trampled period for novelists and so I wanted to find a new and interesting angle. I toyed with the idea of an alternative history – what if the Germans had successfully invaded Britain in 1940? Then, in the library at Wimbledon, where I live, I stumbled across a book called Where the Eagle Landed by Peter Haining. It is a book of World War II myths that includes a story about Nazi bodies in the summer of 1940 being washed up on Shingle Street beach in Suffolk and the fear the locals had that some were still alive and loose in the Suffolk countryside. That was it. I had it. This was the start of the story. I wanted to keep the characters enclosed in one space so that I could build a claustrophobic tension. The house, Greyfriars, came from my love of gothic horror. It is a house that is haunted but not in a traditional sense. I then needed to put someone else in the house with my Nazi officer – the most unlikely person for him to be ‘trapped’ with. From that Lydia was born.

This period inspires a lot of fiction. What sets The Dynamite Room apart from other WWII novels?

Two things. Firstly, it takes the huge, all-consuming expanse of a global war and reduces it to the smallest setting possible – a single house. It is a war story with very few bangs and blasts. Instead, the setting is domestic and claustrophobic, with the tension in the main plot building from the two characters rather than outside circumstances. It is not the war that is the threat but the way war changes people. Secondly, I deliberately chose backstories and secondary plotlines that involved elements of the war that, previously, I had known nothing about. My view was that if they were new and interesting to me, they might be new and interesting to readers too, and also areas that were less well travelled by other writers. The Norwegian Campaign and Eva’s plotline in Berlin are examples of this.

What did you read by way of research?

Naturally I started by reading a lot of general books about the war and watching countless films. Then, once the plotlines were forming, I focused my reading on those areas. Hitler’s Preemptive War: The Battle for Norway by Henrik Lunde is a fascinating investigation in the struggle between the German and British Navy to control what was a neutral country, whilst books on being a nurse in Nazi Germany, the origins of Nazi genocide and Pioneer Group 909 all provided information for the other plot strands. The Third Reich in Power by Richard Evans, and Germany: Jekyll and Hyde by Sebastian Haffner, both gave an invaluable insight into everyday life in Germany.

I also find other novels, set in the same period, are good inspiration. Resistance by Owen Sheers is the book I might have written if he hadn’t already done it so brilliantly. Alone in Berlin by German writer Hans Fallada is a great story set in Berlin in the early days of the war. I spent hours in the British Library as well as the Imperial War Museum, not only reading books but rummaging through naval documents, letters, and anything else I could find. For me though, the most important research is visiting the locations. No amount of reading beats walking around the streets, paths and countryside that your characters travel through. Sometimes you stumble across things that set your novel off in all sorts of exciting new directions. When I was visiting Narvik in Norway I took a train up into the fjords and spent hours walking through the mountains. I got ridiculously lost. (My sense of direction is appalling!) Just as I was really beginning to panic, thinking I might have to spend the night sleeping under the trees, I found a concrete store, just there. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was my dynamite room, there in the trees. I would never have found it in the pages of a book.

In Lydia you have conjured an extremely authentic young girl. How did you get her voice just right?

For me, the important thing about Lydia is that she is at a turning point in her life, as neither a child nor an adolescent. I made a conscious effort that, given her circumstances, she would try to act like an adult and do the things that her mother might have done had she been around; yet she is still a child at heart and so any attempts to act like an adult would be done with a child’s awkwardness. In spite of her best efforts she would slip back now and again into her childish ways. I tried to bear this in mind in everything she said and did. I also looked at other strong, young female characters in fiction, Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement being an obvious one. On top of this, I’m a trained actor too, so there are many acting techniques that I used to create the characters, not just Lydia. These include finding their physicality or acting scenes out as the character might do. I dread to think what my neighbours must have thought every time they walked past my sitting room window to see me crawling around on the floor pretending to be a scared eleven-year old girl or hiding under the window clutching a dinner knife as if I’m a Nazi officer on the run.

Novelist or playwright?

Novelist first, definitely. I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember. It’s just that none of them have been published until now. The playwriting is a fairly new venture for me. I see it as the meeting of two worlds: my novel-writing experience and my actor training. I’ve had my work performed at a number of fringe theatres in London, and most recently had a pilot for my play, Claustrophobia, at the Bush Theatre in Shepherds’ Bush, which was supported by the Old Vic. I’m currently reworking the script so hopefully we’ll be putting it on soon! The great thing about acting, playwriting and novel writing is that they feed into each other. Being a novelist helps me structure the narrative arc of a play, whilst being a playwright helps me develop realistic dialogue and keep the writing crisp and uncluttered. That’s the theory anyway. I’ll let you be the judge of how successful (or not) I’ve been.

How do you feel on the brink of publication?

Like I’m suddenly living someone else’s life.  It’s been a very long journey and one plagued with countless delays and disappointments, so finally to reach this point is, of course, a complete thrill, but I still can’t quite believe it. It’s very surreal. I fluctuate between childish excitement and total panic that my writing is about to be released for everyone to either enjoy or pull to pieces. A few days before writing this I received the typeset pages of the novel. I was so excited I didn’t know whether to do a little dance or cry. I had a go at both.

Which authors do you most admire?

There are so many. I was very fortunate in that I used to be a bookseller for many years in Oxford and then Bath, so had ready access to all sorts of amazing writers that I might not have discovered if I’d had any other job. In terms of novelists, the usual suspects are on my list: Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Michael Ondaatje, and Kazuo Ishiguro. When I was doing my A levels, my teacher forced me to read Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. I have been in awe ever since. The same teacher also introduced me to early Susan Hill. Her debut, I’m the King of the Castle, in its portrayal of the cruelty of children, is another book I wish I had written myself. In my grumpy teenage years I devoured Thomas Hardy, and at university I wrote a dissertation on gothic fiction so all the old-style gothic writers are firm favourites, as well as the shamefully undervalued Lesley Glaister, whose novels put a surreal gothic spin on domestic life. Anthony Doerr’s About Grace, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, and Mark Slouka’s The Visible World are some of the most beautiful books I have recently read; and William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault is the one book that made me cry. In hindsight, its set-up (girl left alone in house) might have inspired The Dynamite Room. Finally, I must mention that I have never quite grown out of folklore and fairytales, so Angela Carter deserves a special mention for both scaring me silly and still keeping the child in me alive.

What’s next?

I’m currently working on a new novel set during the closing days of the war. It’s about a man who wakes up in a field in the middle of Europe and doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. He tries to find his way home through the war-ravaged wastelands of Europe and – aided by an unlikely group of comrades – pieces together his past as he goes. I’m thinking of it as the surreal love child of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. Oh, and set during World War II.

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