About Kate Morton

Writer of books.

Thought: Rhapsody and an Autumn Night

One of my favourite poems is Rhapsody on a Windy Night, by T.S. Eliot. I learned it by heart when I was eighteen years old and preparing for my Speech & Drama Licenciate exam with my old friend and teacher, Herbert Davies. It’s a bleak and haunting poem about time and its passage, in which the speaker walks along a moonlit street at midnight, each streetlamp revealing striking images in the present that recall memory fragments from his past.

I’m not sure whether I loved the poem back then because I was already fascinated by themes of past and present, or whether the poem played a role in sparking my interest, but whatever the case, as I walked along the street last night, and the streetlamp hummed with silvery light, I found myself remembering the lines of Rhapsody, and my old friend, Herbert, and his drama studio on Tamborine, and his dog named Jess, and his long thin fingers, and his cigarettes that always fell to ash before he finished smoking them, and the way he laughed, and the stories he told, and what it was like to be eighteen years old and discovering poetry and language; and I fell to thinking about the ever-growing space between now and then and all the things that have happened in between.

And even as I experienced a swell of melancholy, I also felt a spark of awe at the power and comfort of poetry: that twenty-five years after I first encountered Eliot’s words (and more than one hundred years after he wrote them) they could still come to me like an old friend on a cold and windy night in London in October 2019.

*

(I’ve written more about Herbert and the part he played in my reading life here.)

By |2019-10-18T10:29:11+00:00October 5th, 2019|

Update: New UK and US paperback jackets | TCD

The Clockmaker’s Daughter will be released in paperback in both the UK and the US this spring, sporting an all new jacket in each place. In the UK, the paperback edition will hit shelves on the 18th of April, while in the US copies will be available a little over month later on the 21st of May. There are also bonus features aplenty: the UK edition contains a letter to readers and a brand new afterword; while the US edition includes a handy Chronology of Birchwood Manor and a Book Club Reader’s Guide.

Finally, a reminder as to what it’s all about…

 

By |2019-03-27T18:55:13+00:00March 27th, 2019|

Essay: Christmas on The Mountain

I wrote a piece about Christmas late last year that was published in various places around the world and I wanted to share it with you here too. I haven’t written much about my real life and I was surprised when I was asked to do so, but I loved the experience. It was a pleasure to conjure a long-ago evening back to life and to sit again for a while with my Nana Connelly. I think a lot about time (as you might have guessed from my books) and writing this article was a form of time travel for me. It was also a way of pausing and reflecting and being grateful for the many small instances that make up our lives and that often pass by unnoticed at the time. As Ferris says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

***

I have always loved Christmas. In our family, when I was growing up, it was the pinnacle of the year: the fragile wooden decorations were taken with care from their storage box each December, along with the dried-macaroni masterpieces my sisters and I had made in the past, and strung upon the tree – sometimes a live potted pine that would later be planted in our garden, at other times a particularly beautiful branch that had fallen from a nearby gum and been sprayed with gold or silver paint. I adored it all: the seasonal reverence for beloved and beautiful objects, the unusual and particular cooking smells coming from the kitchen, the fairy lights and candles and music.

At school, we sat in stifling hot-box classrooms, ceiling fans stirring the thick air as we sang songs about robin redbreasts and snow-covered fields, and a little baby in a manger in a faraway place with a magical name. At home, we crowded around the big oak table that had once belonged to my father’s grandmother, Nana Martinson, and pushed cloves into oranges, making pomanders to give to our teachers on break-up day.

Home was an old wooden house called ‘Yooroona’, which sat in the middle of a large garden, in a mountaintop village in the rainforest of south-east Queensland. The garden was overgrown when we moved in, with corpses of abandoned cars hidden in a jungle of towering grasses and giant-leafed creepers, and a big tin shed hunkering in the bottom corner. The previous owner had built a boat inside that shed and set sail across the Pacific after selling the house to us. Dad slashed the grass and Mum had the shed clad in chamfer boards and reborn as an antique shop.

Every year, when the Christmas holidays began, we would make the steep drive down the mountain, across ‘smelly-brake-bridge’ and along the Pacific Highway towards Brisbane. There, we would visit our grandparents – Nan and Pop Morton at Everton Hills, and Nana Connelly on the slopes of nearby Stafford – before venturing into The City to stare in wonder at the window displays of David Jones: elaborate mechanical scenes depicting Santa’s workshop, elves and reindeer amidst giant red balls and baubles. ‘But how did they know it was my birthday?’ my little December-born sister asked one year, as she gazed, wide-eyed, at the decorations.

For as long as I can remember, we had our special dinner at night time on Christmas Eve, because it was cooler then, and because the festive candles made more sense in the darkness than they did when the sun was blazing. Mum cooked, and we all helped to decorate, laying Nana Martinson’s table and lining it with flowers and foliage from the garden. Our extended family always made the snaking drive up the narrow mountain road, a tradition that continued as the years passed, until eventually my husband and I were amongst those travelling up the mountain from Brisbane, too.

The year that I am thinking of now, 2002, was particularly hot, and we had Christmas Eve dinner with the doors and windows wide open in the hopes that we might catch a breeze. A storm was expected and the air was dense and sultry. Ivy tendrils were tangled together down the spine of the table, oranges and candles interspersed amongst the glistening leaves, and gardenias floated creamily in shallow cut-glass bowls. The room was heady with the scent of night-blooming jasmine, a fragrance marked so indelibly in my Christmas memories that I experience a strange, disjointed nostalgia if I ever smell it mid-year in the northern hemisphere.

Perhaps it was the heat that night, or the flickering candlelight, or the Duke Ellington Christmas album on the stereo, but Nana Connelly, who was 86 at the time, said yes to a second glass of champagne. And, as conversation shifted, darting and eddying the way it does when large families get together at festive times, her gentle voice joined the flow. ‘Those are pretty shoes, Katy,’ she said to me. ‘I had some just like them when I was about your age. My father had forbidden me from buying high-heeled shoes, but I bought the highest pair in the shop anyway and wore them dancing.’

Nana Connelly was a small, pretty woman, who wore neat sensible dresses and had her hair set into curls that sat short but soft around her face. Her blue eyes were as light and clear as a child’s and her skin, which never saw the harsh Queensland sun, was pale. My sisters and I used to stay with her sometimes in the school holidays when we were younger, and it was she who introduced us to the delights of Sarsaparilla and Creaming Soda, and riding on the city council bus, and the collection of Girls’ Own annuals that had belonged to my mum and her sisters when they were our age. But in all that time she never spoke about herself. She limited conversation instead to questions about us: what were we doing, did we enjoy school, who were our friends?

That Christmas Eve, though, as the table fell silent around Nana’s interjection, rather than stop, she continued: ‘One night, during the war, before I was married, my girlfriend and I went out to the cinema, and on the walk back home to Spring Hill we came across a footpath party. The American soldiers had just arrived in Brisbane and they were dashing.’ Her eyes dappled with memories as she spoke: ‘Their uniforms were brighter than ours, their teeth were whiter, and the things they said! Those accents made everything sound more daring.’ As she continued to speak, her words conjured a vision in that Christmas-scented room, of young people from long-ago, enjoying an evening of merriment on a warm Brisbane night, while the world beyond them was at war.

Conversation moved on eventually, and Nana returned to her usual role of listener. Night frayed towards midnight, my husband played piano and we all talked at once, and laughed, and the candles burned low so that red wax pooled on the table and set around the little totems of cherry stones, the debris of a happy family dinner; but I glanced sometimes at Nana. Her demure smile was back in place, but behind it now I saw that young woman with new shoes on her feet and a dashing soldier on her arm, caught up in a swirl of music and chatter and heat, her unknown future – including all of us – stretching ahead of her.

Nana died five days later, back in Brisbane, sitting on the sofa beside one of her beloved grandchildren. She slipped away quietly; self-contained to the very end; and with her went her trove of thoughts and memories. I am grateful for that Christmas Eve and the urge that came upon her to share one of them with us. I am glad, too, that I went to sit beside her that night and whispered my own secret, a few weeks sooner than I’d planned. She’d taken my hand and squeezed it, and in her smile of pleasure I’d glimpsed satisfaction; acceptance, I think, that the threads of time were continuing to unfurl into a future that would outlast her own.

My baby was born the following July, and he spent his first Christmas on the floor of the house on Tamborine Mountain, surrounded by his family. On the sideboard above him was a recent photo of Nana, smiling at my wedding, a corsage of sweetpeas pinned to her jewel blue dress. Beside it, stood an older photo in black and white, Nana and the handsome husband she would lose too soon, taken in front of their house in Stafford when it was new. Propped nearby was an 80s snapshot of my sisters and me, and in front of it a recent photo of my baby son.

This year that baby is 15, with two younger brothers, and visions of a future that extends beyond our family home. I hope that he will always come back to us at Christmas; that he will relish his independence, but embrace the value of continuity and the importance of family. Christmas, by its nature, is an occasion of nostalgia and memory, of tradition and repetition, when the layers of time can be glimpsed more easily. And, while the decorations and the food and the music are wonderful, it is the coming together of loved ones, bringing with them the ghosts of Christmases past and the dreams of those yet to come, that really matters.

Kate Morton, 2018

* The illustration at the top of this article is by the very talented Tom Jellett and was drawn to accompany the article when it was published by The Australian newspaper on 22-23 December, 2018. What a privilege to have one of my memories brought to life in such a vivid way.

Nana Connelly and friend, photographed in Brisbane around the time of the footpath dance

By |2019-03-24T12:35:04+00:00March 20th, 2019|

Video: My Life in Books

Long before I was a writer, I was a reader. My parents taught me how and, from the moment I discovered that wonderful other worlds lived within the black marks on white pages, I was hooked. The older I get, the more aware I am that childhood reading – indeed, all reading – is a type of landscape every bit as shaping as the geographical landscape outside the window. Herewith – my life in books!

By |2019-03-23T18:20:27+00:00August 29th, 2018|

Essay: Ideas behind The Forgotten Garden

Another book birthday this month – The Forgotten Garden has reached double digits while I wasn’t looking! It’s almost impossible to believe that ten whole years have passed since Cassandra, Nell and Eliza first left my imagination for yours, and yet, at once, it feels like an age since I was writing a manuscript called ‘The Authoress’, living in a little wooden worker’s cottage cut into a steep slope in the shadow of the Paddington Antique Centre. To celebrate – and because people often ask about the ideas and inspirations behind the story – I have written a few words about The Great Dusty Trunk inside my head and the pieces of silver that came together to start The Forgotten Garden.

A book is never one idea: it is thousands of tiny idea-fragments, carefully selected and polished, that fit together mosaic-like to form a complete picture. I am a collector of such fragments and inside my mind there sits a great, dusty trunk – wooden and antique, I like to think – into which they are dropped over days, months and years, jumbling together until such time as they are needed. Some are images – snippets that I have glimpsed or gleaned; others are snatched pieces of overheard conversation, facts that I’ve read, issues that I’ve wondered about and puzzled over, and observations of the people whom I’ve met.

When I am ready to start work on a new novel, I open the lid of that trunk, picking up and turning over the items in hopes of discovering hidden treasures. Some have faded while I’ve been gone; others have become sharper, brighter. I have learned, however, that it is never one fragment alone – no matter how shiny it might be – that forms the basis for a story. Three or four small ideas must somehow fit together in that particular moment – timing is key in this curious process of alchemy – to form a kernel: a picture that gives me enough sense of a story to know that I can build an entire novel around it. The illumination when that happens is one of the most euphoric experiences in the entire, long, winding, maddening, exhilarating book-writing process. It is like cracking open the door in a dark room and seeing a strip of blinding light; it is hope and promise and anticipation and nervousness and yearning all rolled into one; it is what writers mean when they use words like ‘magic’ and ‘meant-to-be’.

The Forgotten Garden was born, in part, from two images that haunted me. My husband’s family migrated from Sweden to Australia in the early years of the twentieth century, and my mother-in-law – a keen family historian – often told us stories of their sea voyage. They were moving to start a new life on the other side of the world, with little in their suitcases beyond hope for the future and a change of clothing. There were seven children in the family, left to their own devices for much of the time because their mother was busy below deck with her infant son. As the ship crossed the equator, one of the four-year-old twins died from sunstroke.

No matter how many times I heard this story, I could not get the image out of my mind of seven Swedish children transplanted from their homeland onto a blindingly sun-drenched deck; the gleam of the ocean and the taste of salt spray in the air; their cotton dresses and flaxen hair. The longer I nurtured this picture, the more my imagination edited and embroidered, until the focus narrowed and I saw only one little girl twirling along the deck; somehow the deck became a wharf and the little girl obtained a white suitcase, which she was sitting atop, all alone, as night began to fall. Who was she, I wondered, and how did she come to find herself alone on the other side of the world from where she belonged. What would happen to her if no one came looking?

The second image that presented itself when I was dreaming up The Forgotten Garden, was that of a woman hurrying along a narrow, cobbled lane. Again, this was a picture that I’d been carrying for many years. I knew that it was London in the early twentieth century; I could see only the hem of the woman’s heavy skirts, but I could hear the rustling of fabric and the clip of her heels hitting the stones as she hurried along. There were other sounds, too, of the river and its docks – seagulls and sailors – and the air smelled like brine and ropes and commerce. The scene had a sense of urgency and the woman a great seriousness of purpose: I was eager to glean who she was and where she was going in such a hurry. I had known that when I figured out the answers to such questions I would be able to write the stories to which these two characters – the little lost girl and the hurrying woman – belonged. But it was a great surprise, when I finally realised who they were and what they were doing, to find that they belonged together in the same book.

The third idea-fragment that combined to form the kernel of The Forgotten Garden came from a story in my own family’s history. But unlike the long-held images of the little girl and the hurrying woman, I had only recently learned my grandmother’s secret. When she turned twenty-one, my nana’s beloved father told her that she wasn’t his biological child. I don’t know whether he anticipated the impact that this news would have on her, but for Nana it was a ground-shifting event. No matter that her father loved her just the same as he had always done; that he considered her as much his own as he did his biological daughters; things had changed. Nana’s reaction wasn’t dramatic, but in some essential way she felt herself to be different from the person she had been before; her place in the world to be less sturdy. For decades she told nobody else, keeping the truth about her parentage concealed from her friends and sisters until she was in her eighties and decided, finally, to tell her own three daughters.

I am interested in identity and aware of the fragile nature of our human sense of self: even the strongest person is vulnerable in the right – or wrong – circumstances to a crisis of confidence. In The Forgotten Garden, Nell receives similar news to my grandmother. In Nell’s case, however, discovering that she was a foundling shatters her identity completely. She loses her sense of belonging anywhere or to anyone. She withdraws from her family and friends, breaks off an engagement to her childhood sweetheart, and spends the rest of her life on a quest to discover her true identity. The character of Nell was vivid to me immediately; I knew her and loved her and felt certain that I had to tell her story.

When those three fragments locked together, the kernel of ideas that would become The Forgotten Garden was illuminated and impossible for me to ignore. There is a feeling of inevitability at this stage of the writing project, a sense of rightness: I am no longer dealing with characters, rather people; I am not inventing so much as learning. Every day spent in their company brings them more vividly to life and I begin to discover unexpected and exciting things as their stories unfurl. But characters need a setting and, as anybody who has read my books will know, sense of place is of great importance to me. As a writer, but as a person, too, I am inspired by the environment – both built and natural – and consider the setting of my books every bit as much a character as the people.

It took me a while to find an English location for The Forgotten Garden: I knew it had to be coastal and I wanted a history of smuggling in order to feed into the overarching fairy-tale atmosphere that I wished to create. I auditioned a number of stretches of coastline before coming, by chance, across mention of a place called The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Heligan, I discovered, was a grand country estate in Cornwall, owned for many centuries by the aristocratic Tremayne family. Along with the house and farms, the Heligan estate was also home to the most wondrous formal gardens. Generations of green thumbs had scoured the globe bringing back samples of the world’s varied vegetation, and a team of thirteen gardeners was in charge of maintaining the Antipodean garden, the Italian garden, and the African garden, to name but a few. In 1914, however, when World War I broke out, the entire gardening staff enlisted and none returned. The Tremayne family moved away, the garden grew over, and people forgot. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that the estate of Heligan was rediscovered and restored to its former glory, and eventually opened to the public. The idea of a once-beautiful, much-loved garden that time had forgotten was irresistible to me. My story had not only found its location, it had also acquired a forgotten garden – and a new title.

Along with having the pleasure of bringing Cornwall to life – the strange enchantment of the place a perfect fit for my story of fairy-tales and fishermen – I used my home location in The Forgotten Garden. Nell’s old timber worker’s cottage in the hills of Paddington is the very house in which I lived with my family while I was writing the book, and the Antique Centre where Nell and Cassandra have their stall is a real place, hunkered down on the hill directly behind my home. In 2007, when I was writing The Forgotten Garden, my eldest son – almost fifteen now, with two younger brothers – was four years old and an only child, and my mother used to come from Tamborine Mountain to visit us each week. We three would make our way up the steep Brisbane hill together for lunch at the Antique Centre café, followed by a wander amidst its crammed and crowded stalls.

Memories of this time in my life are inextricably linked to the former theatre with its trove of treasures, in the same way that they are tied to the people of The Forgotten Garden, in whose footsteps I spent so much time walking and in whose lives I invested so much of my own. It was a joy weaving a location I’m so familiar with, and for which I bear such great fondness, into my story, and it’s an enormous thrill to know that so many people who may never make it to my little pocket of Brisbane, Australia, have the opportunity to sample a small slice of it: to climb with Cassandra into the mango tree in Nell’s backyard, to hear the magpies’ calls getting stuck in their throats, and feel the heat of the day making everything sag with delicious time-slowing predictability.

Because of course the idea trunk in my mind contains my own memories and experiences, too: I have been that child, sitting in a tree while my mother and grandmother drink tea inside the cool dim house, as the sounds of garden – insects burring, birds singing, the concrete path expanding in the sun – cast their soporific spell and the day draws out and grows wings that enfold me. The mango tree that Cassandra climbs was in the back corner of my own nana’s Stafford garden when I was small – the same nana whose life was tilted by her father’s revelation when she was young. It is a tiny fragment of childhood memory, unimportant in my life’s scheme, and yet pressed and preserved until such time as it was needed.

Weaving such personal memories into stories is one of the quietly pleasing aspects of being a writer. Writing is about communicating, and storytelling in particular depends upon the transfer of something real so that each reader becomes as much a participant in the events – and the emotional experiences – of the book as the author and characters. Every time a reader tells me that she loved The Forgotten Garden, I know that we have connected: the story, the cast of characters, the cottage on the edge of a Cornish cliff – all vital and real to me – have made the extraordinary (and yet completely ordinary) leap across time and place to become real in her mind, too. Such connection lies at the heart of storytelling; it is the most wondrous part of the process; it is the point. I am grateful to every single person who opens The Forgotten Garden, lets the sea air surround them, and brings Cassandra, Nell, Eliza and their world back to life.

By |2019-03-23T18:21:36+00:00June 13th, 2018|

Update: New Book

It’s done! I’m thrilled to tell you that the new book is finished and will be published in September/October 2018. It’s another big one, as you can see from the rather large stack of pages on my kitchen table, and spans a number of periods between 1850 and the present day. It’s set partly in Victorian London and partly inside a big old house called Birchwood Manor, which is tucked within a quiet bend of the Upper Thames.

There are secrets and mysteries aplenty and characters to whom I can’t imagine saying goodbye. Giving balance to any sadness I feel at coming to the end of my time with them, is the utter excitement of knowing that soon they will be your friends, too. I am so looking forward to sharing them with you. (I wrote about the incredible magic of reader/writer mind-meeting in my essay for the 10 year anniversary edition of Riverton.)

I have posted more info about the publication dates and the story itself on The Clockmaker’s Daughter page, and will add cover images and all other information – including further international publication dates – as it comes to hand. I’ll be on book tour around publication so now is a good time to let your local bookseller or publisher know if you would like me to visit your town. I look forward to seeing you then and talking books; in the meantime, I’ll get back to polishing the story and helping my characters pack their suitcases. Happy reading and best wishes always. X

By |2019-03-23T18:22:10+00:00March 21st, 2018|

Essay: Introduction to the Ten Year Anniversary edition of Riverton

Well, somehow it’s been ten years this month since The House at Riverton* was published, and to celebrate Pan Macmillan has released a Tenth Anniversary Edition complete with a special party-dress jacket and a new introduction about writing, reading and the relationship between the two.

***

Ten Years; or, Time Capsules, Tapestries and the Art of Learning to Let Go

June 2017 will mark ten years since my first book, The House at Riverton, was published. I’d already finished two manuscripts when I began writing it, but The House at Riverton felt different from the start. I’d given up on publication by then and wrote with no expectations, ignoring questions of genre and markets. I also wrote with a small baby – my first – on my hip. Literally, at times. I wrote for the love of storytelling and wordplay, and the joy of escaping into my own imaginary world.

I’ve learned over the past decade that novels are time capsules of their author’s life. They can’t help but be, for writing is one of the ways in which an author processes the world. It used to trouble me, this idea that a book would be different depending on the year in which it was written. Books are such solid, certain things, with firm covers and printed text and bold, clear titles. They can be quoted from, their pages referenced. They have authority and certainty and fixity. But stories are none of these things. They’re living creatures, with organic, shifting forms. They shimmer in the light and then disappear just as quickly into darkness; they evade capture like fish in a deep, cool stream.

This mutability disturbed me at first. As a reader, I was accustomed to devouring finished novels, and now, finding myself in the Middle of Things, able to choose what happened next and to whom, to decide how an event was described, or whether perhaps it was better that it happened off stage, was liberating. But it was also disquieting. If something I saw while I was wandering through the Paddington Antiques Centre with my mum triggered a thought that gave me an idea for something my character might say in the scene I was writing, I felt glad. But I was also vaguely suspicious. It all seemed so arbitrary. How could I trust that the idea I’d had that day was the right one? What if it wasn’t? What if I’d have had a different – better – idea had I spent the day at home instead? What if I accidentally followed the wrong tangent and took my story in a direction contrary to The One it was meant to follow?

I now know that there’s no such thing as The One. At least, there’s no way of knowing what form The One will take until the published book returns from the printer, a fait accompli. A story is made up of thousands of small ideas – threads that weave together to form the whole – and the tapestry is assembled over a very long period of time. Every image, every spark, every fragmentary concept, filters through the author’s mind, finding expression in the words available to her on a particular day. A writer can plan, of course, but there’s as little hope of anticipating the precise shape a novel will take as there is of predicting the future. Each day’s writing is dependent on conditions in the writer’s life, and life leaves its mark on us all. The author who finishes a book is a different author from the one who started it months or years before.

Oh, how I love that idea now! There’s so much possibility when the ending isn’t written. And no matter how much planning a writer does, the execution can’t help but throw up multiple opportunities. (Complications, too, it must be said.) Ideas are everywhere and they can be spun into useful threads and woven into one’s story whenever and wherever they’re found. There’s truth in that sort of creative process, and vitality and uniqueness – for we are all individuals, with lives and thoughts and influences that combine to make us who we are. A story, then, is like the person who wrote it: varied, problematic, complex, mobile, alive. The tale that is trapped in printer’s text and bound between covers is simply the most recent version of the story at the moment the deadline was called. Rather than moving on with the author, the story becomes a book and is fixed in time.

The House at Riverton, like all of my books, reverberates with the many things I loved and felt and saw and thought and heard while I was writing it. Some ideas were new to me and others I’d carried for years. Looking back at it now is, for me, a bit like watching a home movie I’ve only recently rediscovered, or leafing through an old photo album, or listening to a favourite mix-tape from a long time ago. I see the scenes for what appears on their surface – the story of the Hartford sisters and Grace, the passing of a particular time in English history, the elegant and inevitable decline of Riverton Manor – but I see other, deeper layers, too. Shadow imprints that cast me back precisely to the place I was in, and the person I was, when they first came into my mind.

When I read the name ‘Riverton’ in the pages of my novel, for instance, I am here in the present but I am simultaneously sitting on my bed thirteen years ago with a notepad on my lap, scribbling ideas for a yet unwritten story. I’ve taken a brief break. My baby son is asleep in the room across the hallway of our tiny wooden workers’ cottage in Paddington, and I dial the number of the Queensland Government ‘Riverton’ Child Health Service to ask for advice on when he should be feeding, sleeping, burping. As I speak to the stranger at the other end of the line, as her kind voice tells me I’m doing a good job, that everything will be all right, that my little boy is fine, I think about this wonderful place, this ‘Riverton’, from where advice is dispensed, and I imagine it a beautiful country residence in the middle of serene green grounds; a place where kind women are waiting near antique telephones, ready to allay the fears of nervous new parents. Riverton. I scribble the word in my notebook as we speak and absently sketch a pattern around it. Afterwards, when the call is over and I’ve returned to planning my story, I’ll see the doodle and remember my vision of the place, and know, in a very inauspicious, matter-of-fact way, that the English manor where my characters live will share this lovely name. (Never mind that the Child Health Centre later revealed itself to be a 1970s-era brick office block two suburbs from where I lived.)

If, today, I read a passage in which elderly Grace is treated as if she’s invisible, I am cast back to the morning I watched my grandmother make a purchase from the supermarket near her flat on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. I see the roast chicken she’s bought for our lunch and the stick of butter and the loaf of bread. I see my nana’s enigmatic smile – shy and ladylike, a smile from another era – as she waits with her hand outstretched, her palm ready to receive her change. The purchase isn’t large, but to feed her visiting family is an extravagance for Nana. This day is an occasion. I notice how neatly her lipstick is applied and the way the pearly fabric of her good dress glistens. I see how short she’s become and note the uncomfortable shoes, tight around the toes, which she’ll put away in a cardboard box when we get home. And I still feel a cold whip of quiet rage as the girl behind the checkout flicks the coins across the counter without so much as a glance in my nana’s direction.

When I open the chapter named ‘Waiting for the Recital’ and read about the Hartford children and their Game, I am immediately back in Rosalie Village, in the warm subtropical dusk, walking with my husband on the way to dinner. The horizon hangs before us in pleats of deep mauve and orange, and my mother is at home with our baby boy. It is a rare night out and we’re both looking forward to it. I feel lightened by anticipation. We’re crossing the driveway between the ice-cream shop and an Italian restaurant when the solution to a problem I’ve been worrying at for weeks comes suddenly to mind. I’ve been seeking something to bring the children in my story to life, to bind them together, to convey the secret language that all siblings share. I’ve been thinking, too, about my own childhood – I do that a lot, since becoming a parent myself – and the way my sisters and I seemed to have such long, clear days to play and invent; how jealously we’d guarded the secrets of our childhood world from the adults who moved above us. And suddenly, The Game comes fully formed and with it, a crucial insight into the relationship between the three Hartford children that had heretofore been missing. Picturing the three of them, my thoughts latch onto the concept of a three-sided shape, its strength, and at once I am at a desk on Tamborine Mountain, hunched over a high school textbook as my engineer father explains the mathematical properties of the triangle, how important it is to bridge-builders, how vulnerable to collapse if one side should weaken and fall. And so, two ideas at once.

Reading now about my fictional sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, and their proud, well-meaning father, their family stretching back across generations, I am also in a coffee shop on Latrobe Terrace, a concrete car-park in front of me, and my newborn baby in his shiny pram beside me. I’m still learning how to be a mother, how to fill the long days without university and work. I see my baby in his pram, my tiny blue-eyed son (who’s now a teenager, with long skinny legs and a jaw that’s becoming more like a man’s than a boy’s), and I see the notebook spread out on the table in front of me, the family tree I’m sketching, the ideas that come as I scribble, these made-up people who are real to me, and who provide company during the long, strange days. I am one of three sisters, as is my mother; her mother before her was one of seven. I am eager to write about the sibling relationship and I want to write about women. An aspect of my nana’s biography provides the vital plot twist in the story, a narrative turn that underlines its feminine focus and is all the more unexpected for it. She has died since I started writing, my quiet, unassuming nana, and to weave in one of her special talents, a skill that made her modestly proud, pleases me enormously.

Each scene, each page, each thought within the book could tell a similar story. I don’t remember them all. Some inspiration is fleeting. Some ideas barely leave a trace. Nevertheless, the fact remains: the finished book is a time capsule. It is a tapestry of particular threads, discovered along the way and entwined to tell a story that would have been different without any one of them. What’s more, such openness and flexibility is the point. Being receptive to the world and its suggestions, noticing threads wherever they may lie, is how it’s done. It’s impossible to know it all at the beginning of a story, just as one must remain open to possibility in order to lead a rich life.

And what I didn’t realize when I was just beginning, when I was filled with existential worry as to which version of my story was The One, was that even if such a thing could be envisaged from the start, the moment a book is taken from the shop, library or study shelf and opened by a reader, it loses its fixity once more. For the text might be finalized by publication, but the story it describes remains open to interpretation. We all read differently, bringing our experiences to bear. A reader might not see my life experiences underlying the text, but she will certainly overlay her own, converting the text into a living, breathing story that is unique to her.

And this is the magic of fiction. This is its beauty. It is a conversation between two people, a place where two minds meet across time and space. It is alive and it is intimate and it gladdens me enormously to know that a book will tell a different story depending on the day it’s written and the day it’s read; that you will bring my story back to life even as you make it your own.

London, 2016

* Riverton and Shifting Fog are the same book.

By |2019-03-23T18:27:33+00:00June 23rd, 2017|

Update: New US/Canadian paperback jackets

As promised, the new US and Canadian paperback jackets. All with gorgeous stepbacks (a hint of which you can see in the pics below). I love the way they capture the idea of stories within stories – gateways from one place or time to another, hidden texts, mysteries, secrets and hidden truths. A few of my favourite things, in case you hadn’t noticed…

 

PS The scattered-petal image at the top of the post appears inside Secret Keeper.

By |2019-03-23T18:28:14+00:00April 10th, 2017|

Update: New Australian/New Zealand paperback jackets

imageI have been remiss in not posting sooner about my new Australian paperback jackets. If you’re in Australia or New Zealand and have a habit of getting lost amidst the shelves of your local bookstore, you might already have seen them? The hope was to capture a sense of history, mystery and secrets – of texture and layers of story – of past and present – and to reflect my (apparently insatiable) love of peel-y old wallpaper, houses in need of a lick of paint and forgotten photographs of people whose lives were once vivid and urgent. And of course I also wanted them to be beautiful to look at. (And cradle. And sniff.)

I love them, and hope you do, too.

Stay tuned, US and Canadian readers – there’s a new family of paperback covers coming your way, too. Similar brief, different results, equally beautiful jackets.

By |2019-03-23T18:28:54+00:00January 12th, 2017|

Update: Next year’s words

regents-parkHappy New Year! This morning was so glorious that I couldn’t resist a walk across Regent’s Park. It was finger-tinglingly cold, but incredibly beautiful. Those bare branches! The long wintry shadows! The low sun turning the sky from gold to blue!

I’ve been working on book 6 and look forward to sharing it with you as soon as it’s ready. The story is set in a number of places, both geographical and temporal (no surprises there!), but the main historical storyline takes place in nineteenth-century England – a treat for me because it’s one of my favourite worlds to find at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

2016 was a year of contrasts and I’m glad to see 2017. TS Eliot (close to my heart for a number of reasons, not least because I was introduced to his writing by my dear friend Herbert) wrote that ‘last year’s words belong to last year’s language, And next year’s words await another voice’. I always love the sense of possibility at the turn of the New Year and look forward to finding as many of the right words as I can in 2017.

Wishing you much happy reading, much happy writing, and much happiness generally as you travel along this year’s path.

Kate

By |2019-03-23T18:29:24+00:00January 6th, 2017|