Launch: Camille Booker’s What If You Fly
INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH
Camille Booker’s What If You Fly is her debut historical novel and was runner up for the Hawkeye Prize and long listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.
Tell us in your own words how you are pitching your debut novel.
Growing up in wartime Australia amid questions of equality and social turbulence, Frances crosses the world in search of her brother, the only family she has left. Her journey takes her to Egypt, England, France, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and China, and finding way in that male-dominated, warring world, she learns to trust her own inner voice. The novel is part bittersweet love story, part spy adventure and part crime mystery.
This is your first novel. Why did you choose historical fiction and this period? What was your inspiration?
I have a degree in creative writing and always liked reading historical novels. For this book, I read everything I could that was set in the era. The book’s setting is in Como (New South Wales), where I grew up and is where my husband’s grandparents still live. During visits with them, they would tell stories about the WWII experience there. You know, the personal anecdotes that you can’t get from research. They talked about “the good old days” and it got my imagination churning. The war was a wonderful time there — no immediate threat but everyone was united with a common bond. I wrote down ideas and eventually it formed into this book. I was teaching at a prestigious boys’ boarding school, and I was under a lot of pressure, so I needed this project as a creative outlet. Besides that, I absolutely love the fashion, movies, and music of the period. I think one must have a passion for a period, because you are stuck with it for however long it takes to write the book!
How did you get the book noticed?
Once I finished it, I had no idea where to go from there. So, I entered the ms into a competition that is affiliated with Cambridge University, and when they long-listed it, I realized there was something there, so I entered it into the Hawkeye Press competition here. (Hawkeye is a small Australian traditional publisher.) It was runner-up, and they offered to structurally edit the ms. It was redrafted, redrafted, redrafted and eventually it was good enough for publication. The original story has changed a bit but the main ideas are still the same: being a woman in a man’s world, and discrimination against the “other”. The protagonist’s love interest is an Italian immigrant.
In how many of the book’s settings have you spent time?
As an 18-year-old I was an exchange student in Paris and the Loire region of France, so France always has a special place in my heart. I haven’t been to Egypt or Russia, but I’ve travelled to the other places as a tourist.
There are many scenes of flying. Are you a pilot? If not how did you research that?
I just liked the idea of exploring the sensation. My protagonist has a strong connection to the river and to swimming, and I thought it might be like flying in the water. As for my research, there are so many YouTube videos now that have men taking you through cockpits of old planes, explaining gadgets, and I just watched hours and hours of them.
Did anything surprise you in the writing of the book?
I think finding out just how capable women were during the war. You always hear about what the men did and achieved, but women contributed a lot to defeating the Nazis, and just the culmination of what women were able to achieve in the background was remarkable and their stories need to be told.
We often write what we know—especially in our first books. The biggest thread pulling Frankie through the story was her quests to find her brother and her lover somewhere in the WWII theatre. Did you base either relationship on your own?
The love story was out of my imagination, but I do have a brother and—perhaps this will sound horrible—but I think I wrote about the relationship I wish I had with him. Sadly, I am not very close to my brother— he got swept up in the computer and video game generation, and he is not a good communicator.
You are a mother, staying at home while your husband works fulltime and studies for his PhD. How hard was it to find time to write?
I stopped teaching just before I had my first child. He is now 4, and we also have a baby girl, who is 6 months old. It is really, really difficult to find time to write. I try to have a strict bedtime routine, and there’s the baby’s nap time. I have a really supportive husband and he gives me as much time as he can. It’s a bit of a juggle, but we have always shared our goals and our career dreams. He knows writing means a lot to me, so he’s happy to take the kids, as he is today for this interview.
The next step in publishing a book is selling it! How much help will you get from your publisher and how savvy are you about marketing?
I am still learning! Hawkeye is a relatively small company and they will work alongside an author, but I have to do a lot of the groundwork. I promised I would post something once a week on Instagram, but I can’t do more than that at this point.
What are you working on next?
I am really interested in a PhD in creative writing, where a novel is part of my thesis. I like the idea of a fictional Wollongong (where I live) and a mystery about the lighthouse here. A dark and stormy 1920s eerie and spooky story.
What is the last great book you read and would recommend?
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell. I wanted to keep reading when I got to the end. In historical fiction, I loved City of Thieves by David Benioff.
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