LIGHT AND SHADOWS: the bright lights and the dark places of writing

A quick update on what’s ‘s been keeping me so busy for the last few months. I haven’t added a blog post on here since October but I have been keeping up to date on my two Facebook pages, Instagram and Twitter so I haven’t been slacking!

What have I been up to? I’m still in the business of trying to juggle several different writing projects at the same time and I’ve come to realise that it will always be that way. The work that’s obsessed me for fifteen years, researching the history of the WA’s southwest, continues and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop searching for more pieces of that historical jigsaw but I’ve also discovered that I love writing fiction.  Two years have flown by since the first nervous steps I took, months of research and a year of writing a draft of the first novel (currently known as ‘Last Year’s Manuscript’) followed by a year of research and writing of ‘This Year’s Manuscript’ while tweaking constantly at LYM which seems never to be completely finished. In the last few weeks I’ve also been pulling together the notes for a new non-fiction book, collecting all the new research gathered in the years since my biography of Georgiana Molloy was first published. I don’t have a title yet and I have no idea how long the writing will take but if I can finish work on TYM soon, things might go more quickly. And, just in case there’s ever any spare writing time hanging around, I’ve already done the research and first notes for Next Year’s Manuscript. When I find the time to start writing NYM, it’ll be another nineteenth century story, set in South Australia and Cornwall, the beautiful place where I grew up. The first chapter is based on a short story I wrote thirty years ago and kept to myself but it’s been calling to me all this time.

Writing is one of the things that make me feel most alive, like living in a bright light, but there are often times when the same work, especially the research, feels like walking in shadows. The choices I’ve made for plots and settings in the last few years have taken me into history’s dark corners. As I continue researching the lives of the Molloys and the other Augusta settlers, as well as the background for LYM, I come across information that shocks and saddens me, and I realise that being a historian and a writer both carry a heavy weight of responsibility. I’m not sure we can ever know the truth of the past, or even if there is such a thing,  but it’s important to face full-on the evidence that surfaces.

Research for past and current projects has taken me many times to archives on slavery in British colonies and I’ve read so much that I didn’t think there was more for me to learn about those terrible times. Last week when I was searching for information about the life of one particular individual, something new appeared on my screen and I was back again in those dark, terrible places, the hidden corners of history. Here’s a summary. The information speaks for itself.

In 1795, when the threat of an invasion by Napoleon’s forces seemed imminent, the British government felt they needed to raise a new regiment of soldiers to protect their interests in the highly valuable colonies of the West Indies. These islands had been providing huge wealth for years and important trade in sugar and rum. The army needed men quickly, so they purchased enslaved people from their enslavers, the plantation owners. The government also purchased enslaved men directly from the ‘slavers’, off the ships that had carried them from the places where they were captured on the west coast of Africa.

Between 1795 and 1808, the British government bought more than 13,000 enslaved men, paying around £80 for each human being. (This was roughly equal to an English curate’s annual salary at that time.) The army believed their new troops would be more resilient to life in a tropical climate and the deadly Yellow Fever that was killing so many soldiers from Britain.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British Army was the single largest purchaser of enslaved people.

There’s a strong argument that they did more to continue slavery in the British colonies of the West Indies than anyone else, including the plantation owners, the ‘slave factors’ who bought and sold people at markets or the companies who owned and operated the ‘slave ships’ that carried enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean.

There was already a huge wave of public condemnation of slavery but surely, in paying money to each enslaver, the British government acknowledged in a very public way their belief that one human being can have ownership over another.

A Private of the 5th West India Regiment 1812

J C Stadler after Charles Hamilton Smith: ‘Costumes of the Army of the British Empire,

according to the last regulations 1812‘ National Army Museum         Public Domain

 

 

Through a different lens

This image is a photograph of a letter seen through the magnifying lens of the Reading Room camera at the Battye Library. I chose this one because I wanted to write today about different ways of looking and different ways of thinking.

I’ve been bent over my keyboard for weeks trying to complete some writing by the end of May. It’s been a challenging activity. Some days, my mind has been blocked, twisted into knots with uncertainty. Other days, the words pour out easily and I can’t stop the flow.  When writing feels difficult, I treasure the solace, empathy and support that come from talking with friends who are writers. I know I’m not alone in that. I also find guidance and inspiration in reading. The words on the pages are the building blocks of stories and noticing the way other writers put those words together, sit them next to one another along the lines, that always helps me. But lately, I’ve realised that staying with what I know, the familiar and the comforting, is not the only way to learn and grow in my own work.

I’ve had lots of opportunities in the last couple of months to enjoy the creative outcomes of artists in a range of different media. That’s been a reminder that there are many, many ways of looking and many ways of telling stories. The freedom from words feels a bit like walking a new path that connects two places you know well. You arrive by a different route and the journey is different. You see things you’ve never seen before along the way. Whether the new track you’re taking is music, photography, sculpture or painting, or any other medium, seeing things from a different perspective can shed light in remarkable ways on your own viewpoint when you sit down to write again.

Today I visited the studio of Elisa Markes-Young, a local artist, as part of the wonderful Margaret River Region Open Studios annual event. I’d been in touch with Elisa and her partner, Christopher Young, last year when they held a joint exhibition that included some pieces inspired by the life and work of Georgiana Molloy. MRROS draws in such a wide range of artists in this region that it’s impossible to see everything. It’s an amazing privilege to see creative people working in their own environment so we always try to visit a few studios we haven’t been to before. I heard that Elisa is exhibiting one of the Georgiana works this year so her studio was at the top of my list.

She talked to us about the thinking behind the piece, and last year’s exhibition, and described how she had first come to the idea of representing the journey into botany as Georgiana’s refuge following the death of her eighteen-month old son by drowning. After thirteen years of research, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Georgiana Molloy and perhaps I do know most of the facts but what Elisa showed me was a completely different, new way of looking at the life of a woman I know well.  Something to do with a different viewpoint. Something to do with the life experiences of Elisa herself. Something to do with personal memories and emotions. Something to do with working in a medium that does not rely entirely on words. It was refreshing, inspiring and very moving. And I learned a lot.

One of the images here is from that piece which includes black mourning ribbons, embroidered with words from a letter Georgiana wrote in 1837 about her little boy’s death.

MRROS is on for another week and I’m definitely planning to stretch my mind and heart again over the next few days by exploring artists who work in different media.  If you’re around, or just down this way for a while, don’t miss out!  The list of contributing artists is HERE. Elisa and Chris are number 73 in the list and their delightful studio is close to Margaret River town centre.

 

 

 

Endings or beginnings?

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When the frenzy of writing has been going on for more than a year it begins to feel like the only thing there is. It invades every waking moment and sometimes the sleeping time, too. I dream of words. Not sentences or meaningful phrases, just words. Then suddenly, it comes to an end, on the day a complete manuscript is saved and printed.

That happened to me recently and I hadn’t experienced the feeling of closure for two years, something seemingly enormous, finished. I sat at my computer the day after the manuscript was sent off to my agent and looked at my ‘writing wall’ as I have done for hours every day through a summer, an autumn, a winter and a spring. It’s a large board, covered in pictures, photographs, snippets of text and anything else that captures the essence of the places and people in the story. Photographs of old portraits provide faces for me to stare at while I search for the best words to describe a nose, or a smile, or a way of standing. Landscape paintings show me the settings I’m trying to recreate in words. Since part of the plot is set in places I’ve never been, these add something more to the other research that underpins everything. I don’t need my writing wall any more but I can’t bear the idea of a blank canvas in front of me so it will stay right where it is until I begin collecting images for the next one and that won’t be until after Christmas.

Time at the end of December has already been set aside for the reading I’ve missed out on for months. The Reading Pile has become The Reading Tower. There’s always at least one book on the go but it’s a long time since I’ve been able to do that delicious thing of disappearing into a book and devouring it from beginning to end in one long gluttonous read. Reading is still the most important part of writing, for me anyway, because that’s where everything begins – characters, places, lives, words. Especially words.

Sorting through the piles of loose papers on my desk today, I’ve realised that finishing one thing isn’t an ending, it’s a beginning. There’ll be a lot more work to do on my manuscript next year. There’s a historical writing project to begin in January, that’s been waiting patiently in the wings for months. And there’s a backlog of transcription that I can’t set aside any longer if I want to write more on the story of Georgiana Molloy, to make new information available before the end of next year.

I never like to wish time away but I’m looking forward to 2017. Here’s the exciting news: at the end of February, I’ll be joining about 60 other authors at the Perth Writers Festival. I can’t think of much that could be more thrilling than taking part in my own local festival to celebrate reading and writing. 2016 is ending on an equally exciting note too. The wonderful crew at ‘Readings’ bookstores in Melbourne included ‘Georgiana Molloy: the Mind That Shines’ in their list of ‘50 great reads by Australian women in 2016’.  While I was writing the book I had no idea I might create something that could be described as ‘a good read’ so that means a great deal to me.

There are so many times when writing makes you feel vulnerable and inadequate, useless and foolish, but other writers tell me they often experience the same self-doubts. We have to keep going, bent over notebooks and keyboards, finding a way through to the end of the story. And then beginning another.

 

See the Readings bookstores list of ‘50 great reads by Australian women in 2016’ here.

Publication Day!

Tomorrow, March 22, is the publication date for the new Picador edition of ‘Georgiana Molloy, the Mind That Shines’. We’ll be celebrating a happy ending to more than a decade of work and a year of self-publishing but with so much going on it feels like an exciting new beginning at the same time.

I’m so happy with the wonderful job that publisher Alex Craig and editor Jodi Devantier at Picador have done with the book, and the new interior design and subtly updated cover from Lauren Wilhelm.  There are two more sections of new colour images and I finally have the hand-drawn maps I’d hoped for in the first edition – which had to fall by the way in early 2015 when we reached our budget limit.

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The best thing of all at the moment is having the opportunity to talk to so many people about the book. I can’t say I look forward to the nerves involved in recording live radio interviews that will air in every state, but it feels fantastic knowing that the outcomes of my research into Georgiana’s life will be reaching so far in the next few weeks. My original objective was to make the story publicly available, even if that meant printing fifty copies at home and sending them to libraries or just publishing the book on a website.

In the new edition, a few extra lines appear in the list of thanks, including an acknowledgement of the hard work of the whole team at Picador; so many people contributed their skill to the final lovely package. There’s also an expression of gratitude to my agent, Martin Shaw of the Alex Adsett Literary Agency, who’s done so much to support and encourage from the very first tentative email I sent him on 21 July last year. He’s simply the best and I could not be luckier.

And there’s another important addition to that list: ‘Huge and heartfelt thanks go to the many bookshops and other retailers who supported the self-published book in 2015 and started it on its journey.’ Booksellers shared their enthusiasm with readers and did a great deal to keep sales flying high.

Finally, I’m so glad that the book being published tomorrow still has the same statement on its very first page – and nothing else – just the acknowledgement of country. It was a personal choice for me in March 2015 and Picador have retained it in this new edition.

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Everything changes and things move on.

With just a few copies of the 2015 self-published book left in bookshops and the new 2016 Picador edition on its way, it’s time to update the information I share about ‘Georgiana Molloy, the mind that shines’. It’s also an opportunity to create a website that can manage everything, including new writing.

The design is underway so watch out for that news in a couple of weeks. The site will look very different but all the original information will still be there, including the photographs.

The Picador book will be released on 22nd March.

Meanwhile, please stay in touch via this website or the Facebook page: Georgiana Molloy 1805 – 1843

Exciting news

My first and strongest motivation in writing a book about the life of Georgiana Molloy was to share as widely as possible the full story and the true facts. Selling so many copies, so quickly, since the book was published in March was a wonderful surprise and hearing from so many readers who’ve enjoyed the book has been fantastic.

But self-publishing has its limits and with an increasing number of requests for copies from bookshops in other states, and from readers in the UK and US, we realised that we couldn’t manage to meet demands on our own and I decided to look for a publisher. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind journey…

First, I was signed up by a literary agent who’s turned out to be the best agent I could have wished for, Martin Shaw of the Alex Adsett Agency. He returned my first email within hours and was excited enough about the book to pitch it to major publishers within a couple of weeks. Then he guided me with wisdom and sensitivity through the process when I was faced with more than one publishing offer and a decision to make.

Pan Macmillan will be publishing the book next year under their Picador imprint and after meeting my publisher, Alex Craig, for the first time last week in Sydney, I’m absolutely sure that Georgiana’s story is in the safest of hands to move on and travel more widely than Mike and I could ever have taken it on our own. It’s an overwhelming privilege to be working now with an agent and a publisher who bring such knowledge, experience and creativity to what’s been a very personal project until now. All I have to do is learn to let go – and try to focus on the book I’m writing now!

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And here’s a photo of a very happy moment: signing the publishing contract in the Reading Room of the Battye Library in Perth (where so much of the research was done) with Georgiana’s great-great grandson Patrick Richardson-Bunbury, to whom the book’s dedicated. He signed as the witness on the contract.

‘Cover to Cover’: an interview

As part of Writing WA’s ‘Cover to Cover’ series, I enjoyed a discussion with Meri  Fatin about Georgiana and John Molloy, the research that kept me hooked for so long and the process of writing and publishing the book. The programme is currently being aired several times on the Westlink TV channel (602) and is also available now to view on YouTube, using THIS LINK. (30 minutes)

 

Book Club notes can be downloaded from the ‘For Readers’ / ‘Book of the Month’ section of the ‘Writing WA’ website.

Another review in the ‘West Australian’ newspaper

A lovely review by Writing WA in today’s West Australian newspaper.

“Bernice Barry’s biography not only brings Molloy’s life and times alive for readers but also shares her years of research.”

You can read it in full in The West Australian.

August news

Another great review this week. Thank you to the National Trust (Australia) and to reviewer Dr Robyn Taylor (NT quarterly magazine, ‘Trust News’ August 2015).

‘This beautifully illustrated book is a joy to read’.
It ‘has a different approach’ that ‘brings psychological depth to the main characters and greater poignancy’.

And thank you to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, one of my favourite online browsing places. A fascinating article popped up on Facebook this morning.

My own research showed that the Leach family were close friends of the Kennedys and the reason Georgiana met her future husband. John Molloy and Jonathan Leach fought together in the Peninsular Wars. The other two brothers, George (a lawyer) and William Elford Leach were also close friends with Georgiana’s parents and she knew them from childhood as house guests in her home near Carlisle. William Elford Leach was a very talented zoologist whose work influenced Darwin, but he died tragically at a young age. Georgiana’s youngest brother George was entrusted with some of Leach’s precious specimens. You can read about this on Page 111 of ‘Georgiana Molloy: the Mind that Shines’ and if you’d like to know more or to see images of the beautifully hand-coloured pages of Leach’s most well-known publication, here’s the link. Thank you BHL!

https://www.facebook.com/BioDivLibrary/posts/10152889273631566

‘History West’ August 2015 (RWAHS)

A big thank you to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and to Gillian Lilleyman for her review of ‘Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines’ in ‘History West’, August 2015, which describes the book as ‘an even closer study of Georgiana and ‘a sensitive reappraisal’ that ‘will assure this fascinating pioneer heroine a new generation of devotees’.

Writing about the strand of anecdotes that relate highlights from my own research story, Gillian Lilleyman says, ‘Anyone who researches family and social history will relate to her excitement at chance discoveries, the fragmented pieces of information that suddenly fit together’.

‘Although the author maintains a presence she has a light touch. Her elegant prose is very readable. Particularly eloquent are her descriptions of the gardens and landscapes of Georgiana’s past which, accompanied by Georgiana’s own words, convey a greater appreciation of how, along with her strong religious faith, Georgiana’s love of nature gave her the fortitude to adapt to pioneer life.’