When did you realise you wanted to be a novelist?
Thirty-nine years ago, as an eight-year-old. I was in primary school in Clare, South Australia and for a weekend project I wrote a story about a family called the Smiths who go on a train trip from Adelaide to Perth. After great deliberation, I called it “The Smith Family Go to Perth on the Train.” (I’ve since realised I don’t have to sum up the entire plot in the title.) I showed it to my school librarian who covered it, catalogued it and put it on the shelves of the school library. For the rest of my years there, a book I had written was on the shelves beside the ‘real’ books. I know that definitely planted the seed that one day I might be a ‘real’ writer too.
What is the process of creating a new novel?
For me, it starts with the characters. I am almost like a film director, choosing my cast, deciding what sort of family they belong to, where my story will be set. I then drop that family into a complicated situation – and the plot takes off from there.
All of your novels have strong family themes, is this something that’s important to you in your own life?
Very – I’m fascinated by families, my own and others, real and fictional. I love the drama and comedy that runs side by side in family life, the ties and the tensions, the bonds, and in my own family, the humour, especially. I laugh a lot with my mum and my six brothers and sisters.
The House of Memories is a beautiful story, how did you come up with such an intricate story?
The novel was sparked by something that happened to me 18 years ago, when a baby niece I was babysitting nearly choked on a piece of orange while we were having a picnic. I had my back to her as I was tidying up and just happened to look around in time to see that she had turned blue. After a brief moment of panic, I was able to get to her in time, and get her breathing again, but I’ve never forgotten that moment of terror. Thankfully, that real story had a happy ending, but the memory has never left me. The House of Memories grew from that memory.
How much research goes into writing a novel such as this?
I did a lot of general research, reading books, magazines and newspaper articles, and listening to radio interviews about loss and grief. But mostly, I imagined how I would feel if such a tragic and desperately sad event happened to me. I think I would react exactly as Ella does.
Was it a difficult process to make the dream become a reality?
It took another 22 years, so yes! Throughout school, and then in my first jobs in children’s TV, the music industry, publishing etc, I continued to do plenty of writing – everything from TV scripts, press releases and articles. I began writing short stories in my early 30s. I had dozens of rejections, but then three were published in Australian magazines. That gave me the confidence to begin my first novel. I spent more than 2 years writing it, before nervously entering it in a Write a Bestseller competition an Irish publisher was running in 1999. I came runner-up and was offered a 3-book deal. That’s eleven books ago now.
You’ve had so much success, do you find that ideas for stories come more easily these days?
I’m lucky in that I always seem to have plenty of ideas simmering, but I still get the same feeling of fear and excitement at the start of each book. I don’t think that will ever change.
Is it challenging to write from different characters perspectives?
I loved it. The three main characters in The House of Memories are very different: 34-year-old Ella, the mother of the little boy at the heart of the story; Ella’s stepbrother Charlie, a father of four in Boston, and their half-sister Jess, who was there at the time of the tragedy. I thought about each of them for many months before I began the book, so they felt very real and distinct to me by the time I started writing. Ella writes in first person, Charlie via emails and Jess through her diary entries, so that also helped me keep their voices very different.
House of Memories evokes so many emotions, what do you hope people get from reading this novel?
I hope people will be moved and entertained, that they will care about the characters and also feel that there are always many sides to a story, in fiction and in real life.
What do you love about being a writer?
The writing. Nothing compares to the feeling I get on good writing days when I am at my desk, the words are pouring out, the plot is twisting and turning, the characters seem to be making decisions for themselves. I love those days.