Q&A with Shirley Patton.
First of all, I absolutely love your title! I’m a bit of a title snob and yours would definitely entice me to pick your book off the shelf. How long did it take to come up with this title?
Fairly quickly, actually! And thank you for feeling it would entice you to pick it up. I find that very encouraging. But The Secrets We Keep wasn’t the working title I had cradled for years. Just before the uncorrected proofs were to be printed last year and circulated, a discussion between myself, my HQ (Harper Collins) publisher and my agent ensued, regarding a change of title. The final title is my suggestion and everyone loved it. The funny story following on from that was when I returned from holidays overseas several months later I discovered a very famous author had released his book, The Secrets She Keeps! Here’s hoping all his millions of fans accidently click on mine when they are searching for his!
What is the best form of encouragement you have received?
The best encouragement I have ever received came from my writing mentor Tasmanian author, Robyn Friend. I attended her ‘Writing a Novel in a Year’ course, over a decade ago, offered first through Adult Education in Launceston then through the TWC. A few years later I obtained a mentorship grant from Arts Tasmania to work with Robyn and over two years I wrote The Secrets We Keep. Robyn has an inspiring ability to understand what you are trying to say and do, and to guide you beyond the purple prose and find your voice. And she told me it would get published! Of course, there have been many, many people who encouraged me and still do, and many forms of encouragement – too many to mention here. I am grateful for all of them. To show my gratitude, I try to pay it forward.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Although I wrote most of The Secrets We Keep over two years, I must admit I fiddled around with the story for two years prior to that. I always knew I wanted to bear witness to a time and place – Kalgoorlie, Western Australia in the 1980s – and I always knew there would be some element of the numinous, the mystical, as it has always interested me. It took Robyn Friend finally asking me in a slightly frustrated but encouraging way, to think about a ‘What if…’ question that I had always wondered about, for me to find my focus and my characters.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
It is such an individual experience and I’d be loath to offer any universal advice. I am also a beginner, a late bloomer. Young emerging writers will have a very different experience. The most obvious is read, read, read and write, write, write. I like the suggestion I’ve heard to try to write the kind of book you love to read – write for yourself. For me that is very aspirational and I have a way to go but I did take that advice when writing The Secrets We Keep! I have been like a sponge learning from other experienced writers. And, oh, the joy of being around people whose eyes don’t glaze over when you talk writing! The best thing I ever did was to form a critique group of four, called The Gunnabees who have met every month for three hours for a decade. Our members have all been published but it’s still the name.
What I have learnt over the past decade is not to worry too much about what it is I am trying to say, or what the story is really about – that emerges as I trust myself and just write. A few basic questions to get me going is enough now – I use Robyn Friend’s four key questions: What is it you want to say?’; Why do you want to say it?; Is it worth saying?; Who do you want to say it to?; and How are you going to say it? (Write Your Novel in a Year course notes, Friend 2007).
What are some of your favourite landscapes to use as settings?
Born in Ireland and growing up in outback Western Australia, before coming to Tasmania thirty years ago, has shown me the sharp contrasts between different landscapes. I also lived in remote Maree in Central South Australia and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
My favourite landscape to live in is Tasmania – it replenishes my soul. But in my novel I’ve loved evoking the harsh beauty of Kalgoorlie and its desert surrounds. It feels imprinted on my skin; I know every street, every building, the flat red land with the horizon visible for 360 degrees, the dry then the storms, the excitement when it rains. The landscape is almost a character in the book, said my publisher. I like that. My next novel is set in Launceston in the 1860s and it’s taken all of my thirty years living here to even begin to feel a sense of the landscape. Reading Professor Lyndell Ryan’s magnificent book, The Aboriginal Tasmanians (1981) over twenty years ago, first opened my eyes to the history and the landscape. It was a humbling experience. More recently, I have had the good fortune to be part of a group of artists drawn together by artist and lecturer, Patrick Sutczak (UTAS), who have been invited, over the past two years to walk, and be inspired by, the land at the Cameron family’s Marathon property, past Evandale. I hope to draw on these experiences for my next novel.
Can you tell me a bit about your academic research into domestic violence? What drew you to this research area and what are some of the things you’ve learned?
A decade as a social worker, a decade as a lecturer and researcher, a decade as a fiction writer – that has been my past thirty years. The oppression of, the strength of and the stories of women’s survival are threaded through each. My research report, Pathways: How women Leave Violent Men has played a role in the development of the Tasmanian government’s domestic violence strategy (http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/47012/pathways_how_women_leave_violent_men.pdf )
It was a deeply satisfying experience listening to women’s stories of the barriers and pathways to leaving a violent partner and seeing those stories influence policies, laws and practice. I will be forever grateful to the then Office of the Status of Women for their support and funding.
We are often drawn to write about what we know and personally and professionally I knew about domestic violence. Most significantly, what I learnt was the question isn’t why don’t you leave – the insightful question is how did you ever manage to leave?
Do you find you often come back to these topics in your writing? Such as when you write short stories?
Yes, I do but women’s stories more broadly. Although some of my short stories have a male protagonist, including the one I am working on at the moment, my passion is writing about women’s lives, including ‘writing women into history’ which I hope to do in my next novel. A primary theme for me is hope and that is always present in my writing.
What is your favourite time and place to write?
For the past decade, I’ve quarantined Mondays to Wednesdays to write. My family and friends know these are my writing days. Of course, life has a way of altering one’s best laid plans or the joy of travel takes you away for weeks at a time. Apart from that I am quite disciplined and committed to a writing life. My favourite, or perhaps my most productive time, is early morning. I love to sit at my writing desk and watch the sun rise over the Tamar River as I slide into what I call the ‘writing zone’, a place where time alters and my characters live.
Can you tell me some other things you love to do when you aren’t writing?
I love travelling to new places, in Australia and overseas. In the past two years, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to travel to China, Hawaii, New Zealand, Canada and San Francisco. I love train travel, buses, cruising and flying (except in small planes!). But also simple things – socialising with family and friends, sharing good food, wine and conversation. I love watching films, especially French films – I’m a long term member of the Launceston Film Society; walking the pathway to the magnificent Launceston Gorge; curling up in bed with a good book; eating out with my beloved; walking my miniature schnauzer along the Tamar River.
Most of all, I’m just grateful for my existence, and I treasure every day.
The Secrets We Keep will be launched at Fullers Bookshop on the 22nd of March https://www.facebook.com/events/406771453112444/
and at Petrarch’s Bookshop in Launceston on the 12th April – https://www.facebook.com/events/764450100412147/