Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? I think my career in teaching with its experience in literature, research and writing have definitely been an asset in compiling the memoir. You also need tenaciousness and determination to complete something like this, which requires meticulous attention to detail. As well, I believe I have the ability to empathise with others, to put myself in another’s shoes, so to speak, and to express their viewpoints in a non-judgemental way.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? While growing up, I heard my mother’s stories of life in the orphanage but it wasn’t until I began to write about them that I was filled with awe at just how dire her situation would have been and at her courage and strength in dealing with that situation. How does an 8-year-old girl old come to terms with being abandoned by her family, waiting and wondering when they will come to take her home again and finally coming to the realisation that no-one is coming for her. Another important moment was having my mother read the book for the first time. Seeing her joy and excitement and the thrill it gave her is something I will never forget.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? I realised that adversity can be overcome by the bonds of sisterhood and family; that coping with harsh conditions doesn’t always bring bitterness. It can make you stronger. Some people will rise above their situation in life and become better people for it, determined to make the world a better place and not let history repeat itself. And of course, knowing there is someone who cares about you and will do almost anything to help you certainly makes the hard times more bearable. To me, family is everything.
Was there any piece of information when writing this book which came as a surprise or which solved a mystery for you? Yes! I had briefly heard the name Fred Masters mentioned in hushed tones by my family but the subject of this man was always taboo. As I was researching, I discovered he was my mother and aunts’ stepfather – the man responsible for stripping the family of all its wealth and for leaving my grandmother alone, destitute and suffering a nervous breakdown. He also left my mother and her young sister on the doorstop of an orphanage in Narellan, NSW.
Was there any image or any information for this book that was particularly hard to source? Sadly, yes. I hoped to see the orphanage’s enrolment papers concerning my mother and aunt to establish whose signature was on them. Alas, these records were no longer in existence so I will never know whether it was my grandmother or her unscrupulous second husband who signed the children over to institutionalised care.
Which are your favourite images in this book? I have at least 3 favourites. My favourite is the one of my mother at 16 years, sitting on the gate of her home in Beverly Hills. She looks so carefree and a even little bit cheeky. You can tell how relaxed she felt at finally having a loving home to live in. My second favourite is the one of her at 18 because she looks so beautiful. When I was a little girl I thought I had the prettiest mother in the world. I also like the cover photo of my Aunty Nellie because the gentle smile she wears is a true reflection of her sweet and caring nature.
What was the best thing about writing this book? It may sound strange, but the moment I presented the book to Aunty Nellie was wonderful. She was seriously ill and not expected to live more than a day or two at the time. She hadn’t known I was naming the book after her so it was a big surprise and thrill for her, as was seeing her own photo on the cover. The book gave her a new lease on life and she went on to live for another 6 months.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? At the book launch in Sydney I was reunited with several old school friends whom I hadn’t seen for many years and it was such a lovely experience. Also, being reunited with my favourite English teacher, Mr Gary Evans, who surprised me by coming along as well was a great thrill. I used to have a huge crush on him. It was wonderful to hear him speak about my book in such glowing terms. But the thing that gives me the most joy is hearing from complete strangers how much they have enjoyed the book and how it touched them deeply.
What do your bookshelves at home look like – where are they and how do you arrange your books? As I am such an avid reader, my bookshelves fill up far too rapidly. I usually have to donate my books to the local Brotherhood of St Laurence store once reading them, only keeping my absolute favourites. So my shelves contain books by Elizabeth Strout, Evie Wyld, Liane Moriarty, Anne Tyler, Monica McInerney and John Banville, to name just a few. The bookshelves are in our living room, haphazardly stacked with books in no particular order, I am ashamed to admit! Sometimes I try to stack them in height order, but they don’t seem to stay that way for very long.
When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? Ever since I was a small child I have always been a lover of fiction so that is where I head. I usually look for something new by my favourite authors first or something from the classics, and failing that, anything that catches my eye really. I like a variety of fiction, contemporary or historical – something that takes me to other places and times. I also love a good mystery. I particularly love fiction because I enjoy that feeling of escape and the total freedom you can experience when immersed in a great story.
Read my review of ‘Nellie’s Vow’ here.