Rosalie Ham is an Australian author most famous for her debut novel The Dressmaker, a black satire about love, payback, and 1950s haute couture, which was made into a major motion picture starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, and Hugo Weaving in 2015.
Recently I was fortunate enough to meet Rosalie at an event where she explained how the movie was made, her part in it, and the challenges of shifting a story from prose to film. Rosalie was so inspiring that, grabbing my courage in both hands and telling myself that being scared every now and then is good for me, I introduced myself and asked if she would consider appearing on the Last Word of the Week blog. And here she is!
Thank you for joining me today, Rosalie. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Rosalie: I tend towards the ironic, and so some readers don’t ‘get’ that sort of tone or my black humour, but I get that not every book is for every reader.
That’s a great way to think about it, very wise. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I have favourite scenes in all four novels, so I’ll pick a couple. In The Dressmaker it’s at the end when Sergeant Farrat is sitting on top of The Hill. Everything around him is razed, the landscape burned flat to the ground, smouldering and smoking, cinders floating. The District Inspector of Police arrives and asks, ‘What happened?’
The sergeant replies, ‘There’s been a fire.’
At the beginning of Summer at Mount Hope Phoeba, Lilith and Maude are sitting on the narrow bench of the family sulky which is stranded in the middle of a roadside dam. The three 19thcentury ladies are wearing their Sunday best, sheltering from the sun under their vast, ostrich plumed hats. Their skirts are bunched on their laps exposing the lacy trim on their bloomers, their boots are up on the dash, slimy green water swirls just below their bottoms and the tail of the horse supposedly conveying them to Church floats before them. In the quiet of the country lane, they hear a carriage approach. It is the grand Britzka containing the wealthy neighbours from the vast property to the west. Maude speculates, ‘They may not notice us.’
Oooh, yes, these are perfect. From what I have read, I understand that your characters are not completely imaginary, but based on real people. Has anyone recognised themselves in your books?
I suspect most writers create characters using elements of real people. Because characters, basically, carry a theme, creating a plausible vehicle is my main focus. The added personality traits are instilled to make them more memorable and hopefully readers might then find empathy with a character and his or her purpose. Some readers out there might just recognise why a character says and does certain things.
No, I’m not a character in any of my books. Generally, in order to create an effective character for a particular role that character needs to do what you want them to do. Their intention is their narrative drive, if you like, so their intention has to be quite separate to what I might say and do. It’s essential to strive to present a balanced argument, so you need to think about alternate arguments and create characters to present them so they all need to be other than the writer’s personal point of view. The story becomes about the argument rather than how I feel about the point I’m prosecuting.
That makes sense. Take yourself back ten years – what would that Rosalie like to tell you?
Trust your ability. Believe in yourself more, go for it, your stories will reach further than you imagine.
Amazing, yes. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
More writing. I’ve got a few more events to attend this year to promote my last novel, The Year of the Farmer, then there’s a rough first draft of my fifth book that I’m dying to get stuck into. As I see it, there are at least two more novels I could write. And I have a dream that one day I’ll adapt one of my novels to a stage play. And I need to do all of this while teaching part time.
What’s the single most important quality in a writer, in your opinion?
Talent. Some books are written through sheer determination and they’re good. Readers will get much from them, but some writers are different, their stories boil straight from the heart, they burn and shimmer, they’re well-structured and moving, revelatory, unique, life-changing, and above all, memorable. That sort of writing can’t be taught, it comes from the way writers look at the world and convey it to others.
And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I’d be Phoeba Crupp from my second novel, Summer at Mount Hope. I’d grow my own grapes and produce fine wine, raise beautiful sheep with superior wool, cultivate exceptional grain crops and work hard with nature. Because I value friendship above romance, I’d carry sad matters of the heart in my back pocket like a spare hanky. When my father betrays me, I’ll turn that to my advantage and make my life a testament to female strength and the fighting rural spirit.
She sounds divine. Great choice.
Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Rosalie. I was indeed a pleasure and an inspiration to meet you.
If you’d like to book Rosalie to talk at your school, library or book club (or fundraiser, lunch, valedictory…) please get in touch with Booked Out Speakers, Melbourne on (03) 9824 0177. I can highly recommend her as a speaker!
Rosalie is represented by Jenny Darling and Associates (03) 9696 7750
Today I’m so pleased to introduce you to Chris McMaster, who has wonderful news for all of us speculative fiction folk: writers, readers, book lovers that we are.
Here is news of a brand spanking new publishing house, that is not only seeking submissions, but also looking for staff to be involved with a new and more equitable business model.
Now you just HAVE to read on, don’t you?
Welcome to my blog! What project are you talking about today, Chris?
I’m launching a new publishing company—and a new type of publishing.
Southern Skies Publications is a traditional small press indie publisher, established to bring Australian and New Zealand speculative fiction to print, and to work with other writers to bring their novels to life. I wanted to specialise in speculative fiction from down under: especially science fiction in all its many forms (Hard, Soft, Opera, Military, Dystopia, Apocalyptic, Alternate History, Time Travel), fantasy (Dark, Epic, Heroic, High, Low), and more.
I want Southern Skies to be able to help authors get their books to market. Self-publishing can be daunting. Traditional publishers can be closed doors. Southern Skies can offer the label, as well as the freedom to play a significant role in the production and marketing of the product.
We’re now team building, looking for folks who want to apply as well as develop their skills through participating in this exciting opportunity.
Can you tell us more about why you’ve started up?
I was excited to be offered a contract for my first novel, American Dreamer. It plays with time travel, alternate realities, interference by ‘gods’, and fighting back. I am still waiting, after one year, to be assigned an editor. In the meantime, I’ve written the third book in that series (now with beta readers), wrote a science fiction book (I’m almost done with first draft!) AND learned a lot about the publishing business.
I studied the model of my American publisher and saw where it could be improved. I think I’ve done that with Southern Skies, and am seriously contemplating asking to have that first contract torn up. I think we can do a better job.
Oh, that’s quite a story! Many writers have described their processes using analogies – the famous Hemingway one, for example, in which he says that writing is simply a matter of sitting in front of the typewriter and staring at a blank page until you start to sweat blood. Others speak of stitching scenes together, following characters on a journey, immersing themselves in a storyline. What can you say about your process?
I love analogies, and have applied this one to Southern Skies: The whaling venture. It took me a very long time to finally read Moby Dick. I tried every few years, and eventually succeeded. As well as being a cracker of a yarn, it has an intriguing business model. Everybody on board a whaling ship has a percentage of profits. On those ships, it was whale oil. With a book, it is royalties.
Think back in time to when we didn’t know any better and whale oil was a valued and lucrative commodity. Ships were sent out to hunt whales, and it was only when they returned with the oil that any profit was turned. Somebody fronted the money for the ship (in most cases with Southern Skies that is me, but not always). They got a share of the profit. The captain of the ship got a share—our writers. And everybody who worked on the venture got a percentage. The harpooners, the deckhands, the first mate.
The marketeers are our harpooners, and they always get a fair share. Where writers also market, and develop their platform, their share increases. Editors are indispensable, and they get a fair percentage. Cover design is vital, which is why our graphic artist gets a percentage. Of course, all this is negotiable. We can be more flexible than a Nantucket whaler when it comes to individual arrangements.
I like the analogy of the ship, as each book will have its own crew, ensuring the success of that venture. I have heard the, “I’m way too busy for that!” reaction, but we’re only as busy as we choose to be. We’re in charge of that. You might want to play a part in one book, or two, or even three. You can be as busy as you want to be.
Oh, maybe another analogy: think microbrewery. There are the huge brands, that mostly taste the same. Try to talk to the folks there and see how far you get. Then there are local brews produced by people who care. You go to the counter and order your pint, and you talk to the brewmeister about it. You can meet the team. You could probably even join the team. The beer is special because of that, as well as the individual flavour it offers, and the pride the team put into their product.
Southern Skies is like that.
It’s great to hear how passionate you are about this venture, Chris. Where can we find out more?
It’s a cross-disciplinary book that scrutinises the characteristics of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and considers the potential of literary speculative fiction.
Eugen Bacon Author
That sounds wonderful. As a genre-hopper myself, I’m fascinated by insights into all of these. Is there one aspect of this book that you relate to most?
I really love this book because it is a reader’s paradise. It has vignettes and excerpts and samplers from renowned artists and novice students. It has writing exercises at the end of each chapter. It offers provocative and useful insights on speculative fiction, moving—as one reviewer professed—‘between ideas and stories, between analysis and narrative’. It is a book that celebrates amazing authors like Ray Bradbury and Octavia Butler, and supreme theorists like Roland Barthes and Simone de Beauvoir in embracing the pleasure of the text, and writing about the ‘other’.
I’m sold! I want my copy asap (but you have to sign it for me). What do you think drives you to pursue your creativity?
Dominique Hecq, a wonderful friend and mentor (she was my doctorate supervisor), articulates it best. She says that she writes to answer incipient questions troubling her mind, or to relieve some form of anxiety where cause may not yet be symbolised. She states, ‘I write because I must do so, exhilarating, detestable or painful though this might be.’
Like Hecq, I write to… find.
You write with very fluid genre borders yourself, of course.
How do you do it? Many writers have described their processes using analogies – the famous Hemingway one, for example, in which he says that writing is simply a matter of sitting in front of the typewriter and staring at a blank page until you start to sweat blood. Others speak of stitching scenes together, following characters on a journey, immersing themselves in a storyline.
What can you say about your process?
My approach to the compositional space is with excitement, with a sense of urgency, with a knowing that writing is an active speaking. Writing is a search, a journey, a coming through. Text shapes my silence. It shouts my chaos. I often start with a skeleton, a general idea, and then the writing shapes itself.
Finally, what five words would you use to describe yourself as a writer?
Experimental. Inventful. Bold. Otherness. Poetic.
Eugen, thank you so much for having Something to Say!
Here’s an invitation for us all! Put it in your diary.
Scandinavian bookstores to be exact, some of which are worth the investment of several hours. Although all these shops have sections where English books are stacked and shelved in their dozens, I found myself drawn to the local language books. Here I confirmed that, for better or worse for us authors, potential readers DO judge a book by its cover.
The conventions of genre in imagery help us to distinguish crime from fantasy from romance from historical fiction from military memoirs from poetry, and so on. Classics with new, interesting covers (like those in the header image) live on the strength of their titles and authors. Newer fiction must usually play by the rules, although that doesn’t necessarily mean playing in the same well-worn rut.
For example, I like this new fantasy cover for the prolific (and wonderful) Brandon Sanderson‘s The Final Empire (first published 2006). This cover clearly references the genre but presents a more up to date, fresh, arty take on it. You could think that its first imprint was at least ten years later.
In a watercoloured, simplified way, all the genre markers appear. Fantasy city: check. Mysterious being: check. Spooky question to set up the fantasy premise: check. Weird misty atmosphere: check. Potential to adapt for the later books in the series: check. And is there a suspicion of snow on those towers … Jon Snow? GOT readers say: ‘my kind of book’, as do Harry Potter and LOTR folk. Probably, as do fantasy readers in general.
And here’s a novel clearly set in or around the time of the First World War. Clearly. It also features the poppy on the spine, so you know the genre even when it’s facing the wall.
It’s Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants in Norwegian. Even if we hadn’t noticed the guns and the sepia-tinted photo, that poppy gives it away. Are those soldier-photos and poppies clichéd? I guess yes, but they also act as immediate identifiers for readers who are eager to read something similar to books they have already enjoyed.
Now what about family sagas and romance? Evidently (from my observations), a reader wants to see a woman on the cover, most often with her back to us, contemplating her situation. Her attitude and costume communicate the historical period covered in the novel:
Many crime stories also feature women, usually with their backs turned to us, walking into danger. Women? Of course, I should say ‘girls’ for that genre 🙂
My own WWI novel will be published later this year, and I am agonising over what might make a good cover – to poppy, or not to poppy? – being the main question. Do I need a rising sun to mark it as Australian? And a woman in historical costume to signify that it is a family-based romance as well as a war story? My brains are on the rack.
If you have any brilliant ideas for what I could suggest to my publisher, please leave me a comment below!