Deborah O’Brien is an Australian writer and visual artist. She is the author of the bestselling Mr Chen’s Emporium, its sequel The Jade Widow, plus A Place of Her Own and The Trivia Man, as well as a dozen non-fiction books. Her latest novel is The Rarest Thing.
1. You’re a visual artist as well as a teacher and writer. How does your visual work creep into your writing?
That’s a very interesting question. As a visual artist, I’m always experimenting with light and shade and I suspect I’ve carried that approach into my novels, creating dark moments to tone down a tendency to be ‘heart-warming’. Another aspect of being an artist/writer is that I picture the scenes in my head as I write them, as though it’s a film, which means the writing process becomes both a visual and a text-based experience.
2. You write historical fiction. What is it that draws you to the historical?
It’s the time travel, the notion of journeying into the past and becoming immersed in another world. I always think of that famous quote from the novelist L.P. Hartley, who wrote The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ I enjoy exploring those ‘foreign countries’, whether it’s the 1870s in Mr Chen’s Emporium, or 1966 in The Rarest Thing, or the 1930s and ’40s, which is the setting of the manuscript I’m writing at the moment. In many ways, writing historical fiction is pure escapism.
3. Do you have any tips for the aspiring historical fiction writer?
Do your research. Familiarise yourself with the period. Live there in your imagination until you know it intimately, and then just start writing. You can fact-check the details as you go along. Oh, and resist the temptation to dump chunks of historical information into the story, no matter how fascinating you might find them – too much historical detail can overwhelm a manuscript and slow down the narrative. The historical infrastructure of a novel should act like the electricals in a house – everything should work properly, but you really don’t need to see the wiring.
4. The Rarest Thing features a paleontologist main character. Are you yourself interested in fossils or where did the idea come from?
I find fossils fascinating but I have to confess my only experience of paleontology has been watching Sam Neill and Laura Dern in Jurassic Park! Actually, it took me a while to come up with an occupation for Katharine. What kind of job would enable her to accompany Scott King on his High Country trek to locate and photograph the mountain pygmy possum in its habitat? A photographer’s assistant? A journalist? Then my lovely niece Natalie, who’s a zoologist at the Melbourne University, came up to Sydney to measure koala skulls at the Australian Museum as part of her ongoing research into koalas and climate change. I was so intrigued by Natalie’s work that I decided to make Katharine a scientist. A zoologist like Natalie would have been the obvious choice, but I’d already formed a mental picture of someone more comfortable with ancient bones than living, breathing creatures.
5. The Rarest Thing is the first time you’ve self-published a novel. Have you learnt any lessons along the way?
Yes, I certainly have! For a start, I’ve learnt how difficult it is to wear multiple hats: writer, editor, designer, publicist and so on. I’m more comfortable with some of those roles than others. I did outsource a few aspects of this project – the proofreading, for example, and the printing, of course.
I’ve also learnt to typeset a manuscript. I know that sounds odd but it turned out to be a deeply satisfying experience. The way the words fall on the page has always been important to me, and in this case, I could actually tweak the text myself. I worked through the book, word by word, line by line, adjusting the spaces and playing with the layout. It was like knitting a jumper, stitch by stitch – a surprisingly creative process.
6. What was your favourite part of writing The Rarest Thing?
I really enjoyed writing the early chapters where Katharine and Scott meet for the first time and begin to develop a friendship. I wrote those scenes like a ‘meet cute’ romance novel but with hints that the book would deal with some very dark issues. I also loved writing about the Burramys (mountain pygmy possum), both as a character in its own right and as a metaphor for Katharine’s situation.
Thanks so much for answering these question, Deborah, and good luck with your new release The Rarest Thing. For those keen to follow Deborah, you can find her on Facebook here and at her website here. You can purchase her new release novel at Lomandra Press. Finally, you can read my review of The Rarest Thing here.