Letters, Lyrebirds and the Australian Landscape – with Anna Romer

Posted in Latest Posts, Writers' Block: Author Interviews

Letters, Lyrebirds and the Australian Landscape – with Anna Romer

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Today I’m in my favourite place – a bookshop! A shaft of warm sunlight settles upon a hedonistic-looking cat lazing across the window display of new and used books. While I await my guest, it’s all I can do not to snoop. What might be hidden among those well-thumbed covers? Perhaps a cache of letters tied with ribbon, a love note, or a faded flower pressed between pages…I’m here to meet a writer whose haunting tales of love and family secrets are utterly addictive. Join me in welcoming Anna Romer, author of the just-released Lyrebird Hill.

RH: Anna Romer, welcome to your own little corner of Writers Block. I’ve loved recreating Ruby’s bookstore, the Busy Bookworm. I hope you like it. Earle has offered to do a coffee and/or bakery run for us today, so what do you fancy?

AR:  I’m thrilled to be here, Rowena. The Busy Bookworm is certainly cosy, and I do adore the smell of old books. I’ll go with my usual bookshop fare: dandelion tea and lemon poppy seed cake with a dollop of fresh cream … thanks Earle!

LyrebirdRH: I’ll join you in some of that poppy seed cake, and stick with my usual soy latte. *Earle settles his akubra and slumps off, but not before tipping a wink at Anna*

RH: Congratulations on another outstanding novel, Anna. Last year your debut novel, Thornwood House, was released to great acclaim, and early reviews suggest the same success for Lyrebird Hill. Tell us a little about writing a second novel on the back of such a stellar debut. Looking back, what advice would you give your pre-published self?

AR: I was very secluded when I wrote Lyrebird Hill, living in a rustic bush hideaway that had limited contact with the outside world. The success of Thornwood House seemed very distant and dreamlike, almost as if it was happening to someone else. But as the great reviews and feedback trickled in, I realised that all my hard work had paid off; people were enjoying my story, which was a real buzz! It gave me a tremendous boost of confidence. I powered through Lyrebird Hill, and as a result my writing was more focused. There were setbacks, as there are with any novel – but knowing I now had a keen readership kept me strongly motivated.

RH: *secretly hopes some of that confidence rubs off…*

backyard in the mist Courtesy Anna Romer

my backyard in the mist
Courtesy Anna Romer

AR: Before I got published I was very disciplined and wrote every day, but my novels were huge unwieldy epics that took years to complete and meandered all over the place. My best advice for my pre-published self would be to master the art of creating a tightly plotted and vibrantly characterised story – by writing shorter novels and aiming to create one a year. You can always go back and layer, but your story needs a strong core. Forcing yourself to write fast to a deadline prepares you for the rigorous schedules of being a published author, as well as training you to stay focused on the central story question.

RH: Well, if those rambling epics led to two such wonderful books all that effort certainly paid off. *refreshment arrives on a tray complete with a pot of tea for Anna and a mock bow from Earle*

RH: Lyrebird Hill tells the stories of two women: the historical tale of Brenna Magavin living at Lyrebird Hill in 1898, and the contemporary story of Ruby Cardel drawn back to the property that had been her childhood home and is forever remembered as the place where her sister Jamie died. When we meet Ruby she is in a relationship, estranged from her mother, and has little recollection of living at Lyrebird Hill. Then she meets Esther, and everything changes. Tell us a little about Ruby and how her character developed. For example, did she grow as the story unfolded, or did you know who she was and what had shaped her before you began to write?

AR: I always try to create the sort of character who will be most challenged by the story I have in mind. For Lyrebird Hill, I wanted my lead character to be damaged in some way, so her journey through the story would lead to a healing. Because of my ‘Beauty and the Beast’ theme, I wanted her backstory wound to reference the ‘beast’ element. So Ruby was attacked by a dog when she was little, and the resulting scar still brings her discomfort when she thinks about the past. I wanted her scar to represent deeper psychological pain, but also to symbolise her struggle with her ‘inner beast’.shutterstock_162040667

Ruby fears her own potential for violence. She’s blocked her memories of the year her sister died, but as a consequence has always been plagued by guilt and self-doubt. Ruby needs to solve the mystery of her sister’s death. The answers lie inside her own mind, but they are heavily guarded by fear. When she learns that her great-grandmother was a murderer, her private fears escalate and the real conflict begins.

Right from the start I knew who Ruby was and what shaped her. I knew she would embody my theme of beauty versus the beast. I knew her greatest fear would be that she killed her sister, and with each story challenge she’d be forced to face up to that fear.  Fear and guilt were her bones – but it was only as the story unfolded that she fleshed out more fully.

RH: Your mastery of theme is something I’d love to discuss. First, let’s chat about that incredible opening scene. A man is dead, another is dying, and the narrator hints at secrets she should have disclosed and claiming ‘love has made her a murderer’. I’m always fascinated by how an author decides on the best beginning. Lyrebird Hill has two story lines and there must have been many scenes to choose from. How did you determine this was the best opening? When do you write the opening, is it pretty much fixed when you begin, or do you only know once the story is done?

shutterstock_208038862AR: My opening scenes are usually the first thing I write. That doesn’t happen by accident; it’s the result of months, or sometimes years, of preparation.

Before I start writing a novel, I spend a lot of time mulling over my theme and basic storyline. I play with ideas, ponder my characters, and create a mental map of where I’d like the plot to go. At this stage, I’m not emotionally involved in the story. That comes later, often only when I’ve answered the many brainstorming questions I set myself.

The emotional connection happens when a really intense image forms in my mind. It’s like a spark that catches fire in my heart. When the image starts infiltrating my dreams, I know I’ve got my opening.

For Lyrebird Hill, this early image was a woman sitting on the cold floor of an old library, bent over her diary, frantically scribbling her final entry by candlelight. Beside her, a man lies dying. Desperate to make sense of what’s happened, she begins to relate the events that led her here…

I knew from the moment I wrote this scene that I wanted it to frame my historical story. I love the device of a story frame, where you begin with the ending but leave it hanging at a crucial moment. This makes a promise to the reader that the questions raised here will be answered later in the book. Since this library scene felt so intense to me, I knew it would also make a powerful finale to my historical storyline.

RH: Those scenes are certainly very moving. Lyrebird Hill also has a powerful sense of place. Not only has the old homestead and its secrets survived for more than a century, the granite rocks and bushland play an important role in Brenna’s and Ruby’s lives. The three thousand acre property of Lyrebird Hill holds the truth to Jamie’s death, love for it is central to Brenna’s choices, and it is at the heart of how the lives of these two women intersect. At what point in the writing process did you decide place would anchor both stories, and how did it influence the development of the novel? Why was a sense of place so essential to this story?

river beneath orchard Courtesy Anna Romer

river beneath orchard
Courtesy Anna Romer

AR:  Even before I sat down to write, I knew that the setting would play a vital role in both stories. I was caretaking a remote bushland reserve at the time of writing Lyrebird Hill, and my connection to the place was incredibly strong. The gumtrees, the granite rocks, the river, and the wildflowers – they weren’t just a backdrop to my life, but an integral part of it. I couldn’t have kept them out of the story if I’d tried.

As I wrote, familiar elements of my surroundings began to creep in. My outdoor bath, the spooky cave on the hillside, the dangerous outcrop over the rapids, and the gnarly old walnut tree – each of these ended up playing a significant role in the unfolding plot.

For example, my old bathtub under the gumtree (where I enjoyed many a moonlit soak!) sets the scene for a few of Ruby’s critical moments. It is where she first begins to let down her defences, and later in the story it jogs an important memory. Towards the end, the bath is where she’s most vulnerable – and also where she finally understands the threat she faces.

My novels are very much about finding your place in the world, so it’s essential for my characters to have a strong connection to a house or landscape. For Ruby, Lyrebird Hill holds the answers to a deeply troubling question; for Brenna, it’s the place inhabited by the people she loves. By giving the property an almost hypnotic attraction for them, I wanted to reinforce their desire to be there. This also hints at their link to the indigenous people whose lives were once so powerfully entwined with the place.

shutterstock_163572236RH: Each story in Lyrebird Hill has its own complexity and by weaving them together you add another layer of intricacy. I’m interested in how you keep track of all the threads in your stories. Other writers I’ve interviewed who’ve used dual storylines have differed in how they manage these. Some just write from the middle and see where it takes them. Others keep story bibles and timelines. Share with us a little of your approach to writing dual storylines. Why did you choose this structure for Lyrebird Hill?

AR: First I work out how much of the story I want each viewpoint character to occupy. If one character engages me more, or resonates more strongly with the theme, then I give them a higher percentage of novel space. I work out the word count for each viewpoint, then break the story into four “acts” so the plot points are evenly spaced.

I write one viewpoint at a time. I begin with the historical thread, which in many ways forms a kind of foundation for the entire novel. Then I go back and write the contemporary thread, all the while jotting notes on my plot map. Most scenes will eventually get shuffled around quite dramatically, but writing one plotline at a time allows me to focus on each main character’s core story question.

My notebooks end up bulging with maps, calendars, timelines, character histories, photos, glued-in envelopes covered with plot points, and pages of wild scribble. I refer to it constantly during the editing process, and everything vital is marked with coloured page tabs for easy access.

shutterstock_193463366I chose the dual storyline structure for Lyrebird Hill because I wanted to explore how the same theme might resonate through two very different stories. I also really liked the idea of having Brenna’s historical thread closely follow the fairytale plot of Beauty and the Beast, while mirroring this plot in the frightening make-believe games Ruby played as a child. Brenna’s story also gives weight to Ruby’s fear that she is inherently bad, and I really enjoyed using this possibility to create intrigue.

RH: *caught by the romantic image of a bulging notebook, and decides not to admit to the chaos of her office*

RH: You write haunting, almost gothic, tales in which old mysteries simmer and eventually surface. In Lyrebird Hill both Brenna and Ruby uncover family secrets as they learn about themselves and the events that shaped them. Some of these the reader discovers as the character does, but others are known to the character and only revealed to the reader as the novel nears its climax. Tell us a little about how you determine what to reveal and when? How does building suspense impact upon those decisions?

AR: For me, building suspense is an organic process. At the brainstorming stage, I have a list of suspenseful situations I like to choose from: ticking clocks, hidden agendas, forbidden love, betrayal. I assign these mini-themes to my characters and then juggle them around, working out the best way to milk them for heightened emotion, and for greater suspense.

For the big reveals I make a map. I chart out the story on a huge strip of butcher’s paper which I tack onto my wall. Then I sit and ponder it – sometimes for hours, even days. I use sticky notes to move the reveals around and see where they best fit.

picnic area Courtesy Anna Romer

picnic area
Courtesy Anna Romer

I try to be as stingy as possible when eking out clues. I like to weave little strands of intrigue throughout the narrative, which I do at every opportunity – but I try to keep them as subtle as possible. That way, when the surprise is finally revealed, the reader gets a sense of “I knew it!” Even if they guess the twists, they can still enjoy a feeling of satisfaction.

RH: Lyrebird Hill proves your skill as a weaver! Memory and its vagaries play a large role in Ruby’s search for the truth. When her sister died Ruby was also injured and she has lost almost a year of memories around that time. She’s also lost many of her childhood memories and some of these resurface as she reconnects with Lyrebird Hill and her past. How did you go about making this memory loss, and its return, so believable? What type of research did it require, and what were the most useful sources?

AR: I used the metaphor of a buried vault to describe the gaps in Ruby’s memory, which allowed me to signal to the reader when Ruby was about to remember something. The senses can play a powerful role in jogging memory, so I used a variety of sensory prompts to foreshadow her recollections – the sight of a chopping block, the smell of wildflowers, a snippet of conversation. There’s a scene towards the end where Ruby’s running a bath, and the sound of water gushing from the tap makes her think of rain. Her brain latches onto this association, and tosses up a memory of the rainy day her sister died.

yellow buttons Courtesy Anna Romer

yellow buttons
Courtesy Anna Romer

This process of unravelling the past was really quite straightforward. I didn’t need to do a lot of research. I’ve always been drawn to books and films that explore the mysterious inner workings of the mind, so I’ve got a lot of material stashed away in my own dark memory-vault.

Years ago I saw a 1974 German film by Werner Hertzog called The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. It follows the story of a boy in the early 1800s in Germany who claimed that he was raised in isolation in the basement room of an old house. The story is based on a true account, which included some letters found on the boy at the time. The film explores the impact of sensory deprivation on a developing brain, and this concept had a profound effect on me.

Another fascinating source of insight was the classic 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, called The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. It contains a series of essays each dealing with an aspect of brain function such as altered perception and spontaneous memories.

I love the way some research raises more questions than it answers, because it’s often those gaps in knowledge or logic that spark an idea for a plot twist or theme … and sometimes even an entire novel.

ThornwoodRH: You’ve previously mentioned your ‘Beauty and the Beast’ theme. In Thornwood House you drew upon that superbly creepy tale of Bluebeard, and in Lyrebird Hill many of Ruby’s memories are related to fairytales –Esther is a great teller of them, and Roo and Wolf play ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the bushland. Why fairytales? Have these been important in your life, or is there something about them that sparks your creativity?

AR: I feasted on fairytales as a child, listening spellbound as Mum or Grandma read to me at bedtime. I loved that these tales were brimming with terror and woe, yet always left me with a sense of having learned something.

I’m still fascinated by stories that are clear-cut, yet deal with weighty moral concepts such as sacrificing yourself for love, or the destructive nature of greed. I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, which explores the idea that all stories – myths, fairytales, and legends – share the same basic components: a character who must undergo a series of trials and tribulations, then face their greatest fear before returning home transformed.

When I trawl through my dusty collection of books looking for a new fairytale to ponder, I feel all the old childhood excitement bubbling back. I’m really inspired by the idea of plotting a story that’s strong at its core, and then embroidering it to create a narrative that’s new and thrilling. But the real drawcard of fairytales for me is their power to engage your mind and heart, and then linger in your thoughts for days, weeks … even a lifetime.

RH: In Lyrebird Hill, the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ theme unites many of the characters. Some see only beauty in others but not the beast, others see only a beast and overlook the beauty, and the true beasts, of course, don’t recognise themselves at all. You are obviously conscious of theme when you write. Do you feel theme is necessary to an evocative novel, or is it in the eye of the beholder?

AR: Having a strong theme is very important to me. It’s the nucleus from which my characters and their motivations evolve. I often have several themes on the boil at once. One will usually obsess me more than the others, which was the case while writing Lyrebird Hill. I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to explore with this story, and then I formulated my theme: “Only when you find the courage to step out from behind your protective mask, can you see the true nature of others.”

ground orchid in my 'bathroom'  Courtesy Anna Romer

ground orchid in my ‘bathroom’
Courtesy Anna Romer

I wrote this in big letters on a piece of paper, then stuck it on my plotting wall. Whenever I found myself going off on wild tangents, I’d reread my theme and let it guide me back on track. For me, a theme is vital for creating a novel that’s evocative and meaningful. It’s also useful for developing plot, and in particular for creating a satisfying character arc. 

For example, there’s a character who refers to the aboriginal people at Lyrebird Hill as ‘savages’ who live like ‘beasts’. This outburst deeply distresses Brenna, who has known only love and kindness from her indigenous friends. While writing this scene, I wasn’t sure how she should respond, so referred back to my theme. I decided to have her react with courage and emerge from behind her protective mask, which helped to illustrate her journey towards transformation.

RH: Your novels are located in the Australian landscape and in each you acknowledge the indigenous people who inhabited the land and who have been corralled, or worse, due to white settlement. Share with us a little about why these stories are important to the narrative of your novels?

AR: I love learning about aboriginal culture in the days before the Europeans came here. Initially I was curious to know more about bush medicines – what they were used for, and how they were made. But then I became fascinated by the day-to-day life of the indigenous people: what they ate, what they wore, where they lived, as well as their stories and legends, the roles of women and elders, and in particular their powerful relationship to the natural environment.

You can’t explore aboriginal history without recognising the devastating impact on their culture by European settlement – the massacres and persecution that wiped out their communities, and the struggle to maintain their presence in an increasingly hostile world.

shutterstock_146777330These histories are important to the narrative of my novels because they are important to me. I couldn’t write about the bush without describing the beauty I see there, just as I couldn’t write about Australian history without acknowledging the indigenous people whose spiritual connection to this country is so strong. I’m not a historian, and I’m certainly no academic – my interest in these issues is purely humanitarian. I suppose it’s my way of trying to better understand human nature; why we’re driven to behave the way we do, and how the spirit can triumph over the cruelty and loss it sometimes endures.

At the end of the day, my aim is to create a story that touches people’s hearts. To do this, I have to write with passion and authenticity. I hope that by exploring the themes and ideas that most deeply inspire me, I can create a more rewarding experience for my readers.

RH: Thanks so much for sharing your time and knowledge with us today, Anna. *The tea is finished, the plates scraped clear of cream and Earle is snoring in the sunlit corner, the cat across his lap* This is where I’d usually offer you more refreshment, but I don’t want to wake Earle. So, I hope you have some energy left because it’s time for your …

fast five image 2

RH: What is your all-time favourite book/movie?

AR: Book: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. Movie: Aśoka, 2001 directed by Santosh Sivan

RH: What are you reading now?

AR: Cesar’s Way by dog whisperer Cesar Millan – a fascinating look at dog psychology and how to have happy, balanced best friends.

RH: What is your favourite word?

AR: “Luminous”

RH: What is your worst writing habit?

AR: My tendency to chop-and-change the story – not just in the first draft, but all the way through – which creates a ridiculous amount of backtracking and revising. My sister (who has read endless versions of each book) despairs of me, so does my long-suffering editor. I’ve promised everyone that next time things will be different…

RH: What is the best bit of advice you ever got (about writing or life in general)?

AR: “Follow your bliss.”

shutterstock_47206081RH: Great advice. I’m certainly glad your bliss has led you to writing *smile* You’ve just released Lyrebird Hill and must be exhausted by the rounds of publicity, so I certainly appreciate your visit today. Without putting you under undue pressure, what’s next for Anna Romer? Will your next novel also centre on a house and the secrets within its walls?

AR: Yes, definitely a house with secrets! I believe the house symbolises the self, and I love exploring my main character’s state of mind, and in particular her growth towards transformation. The next house I’ll be visiting is a spooky cliff-top cottage overlooking a windswept beach with a history of shipwrecks. The woman who lives in the cottage becomes obsessed by a series of murders committed back in 1860s Melbourne, only to discover that the past may be about to repeat … And that her own family is in the firing line.

RH: Sounds fantastic! I’ll definitely be pre-ordering that. *laughs* Thanks for joining us today, Anna.

AR: It’s been a great pleasure, Rowena. Wonderful questions!

RH: Where can we find Lyrebird Hill and your other bestselling novel, Thornwood House?

AR: You can find Lyrebird Hill at all the independent bookshops, as well as the chains. You can also get them online: BooktopiaBookworld and Fishpond    

RH: To keep up with Anna and her forthcoming books, go to her Simon and Schuster Australia author page or check out her website: http://www.annaromer.com.au

Author Bio

S&S official photoAnna Romer grew up in a family of book-lovers and yarn-tellers, which inspired her lifelong love affair with stories.

Her novels reflect her fascination with forgotten diaries and letters, dark family secrets, rambling old houses, and love in its many guises—as well as her passion for the uniquely beautiful Australian landscape.

When she’s not writing (or falling in love with another book), Anna is an avid gardener, knitter, bushwalker and conservationist. She lives on a bush property in northern NSW.

 

Poppy at the river (FILEminimizer)

 And because we can’t resist a beautiful dog, here’s a picture of Poppy courtesy of Anna Romer’s beautiful photography.

 

If you enjoyed this interview, please leave a comment to show your appreciation for Anna’s generosity. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. I have to say I think that is the best interview I have read yet. Well done Anna and Rowena. The photos are also wonderful, so well suited to Lyrebird Hill. I often find myself thinking of Earl so I was so happy to read he was included too!

  2. Thank you Sarah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it–I certainly did 🙂 The photos from Anna were a lovely addition and made me want to get out my camera and take shots of the places that inspire me!

  3. Hi Sarah, thanks for your lovely comment… I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview, Rowena’s questions were so inspiring I just had to ramble on! My photos were taken on the property where I was living when I wrote Lyrebird, which was also my inspiration for the book’s setting. 🙂

  4. You are welcome to ramble over here anytime you like, Anna. It was lovely having you visit. And everyone needs and Earle in their life 😉

  5. Lovely interview and great photos Rowena en Anna! Very interesting read :-)!

  6. Brilliant, wonderful insight into a wonderful story and a great talent.

  7. Thanks Jenn 🙂

  8. Thanks for dropping by Vera. So gald you enjoyed it. 🙂

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