New Voices: Laura Carlin, Lauren Chater, Kali Napier and Lucy Treloar

Myfanwy Cook

Captivating readers with their creative blend of historical fact and fiction are debut novelists Laura Carlin, Lauren Chater, Kali Napier and Lucy Treloar.

Every author draws his or her inspiration from a different source, and for Lauren Chater, author of The Lace Weaver (Simon & Schuster Australia, 2018) it was when browsing the shelves of her local library’s craft section in 2014. She says, “I stumbled across a book called Knitted Lace of Estonia. Curious to know more, I pulled it out and sat down to read, little realising that the book would be my portal into a world of lace shawl-making, Estonian folk tales and stories of anti-Soviet resistance. I soon learned that the little Baltic country of Estonia had been occupied many times throughout the centuries, starting with the Danes, the Baltic Germans and finally the Russian Soviets and the Nazis. It was the intriguing detail of the lacemaking that drew me in, the idea that these female knitters, who had suffered the worst kind of atrocities under the heel of governing nations, had survived and managed to preserve their heritage in the form of these seemingly innocent-looking shawls. I decided I had to write a book that not only exposed the brutalities that Stalin’s Russian government inflicted on the Baltics, but also celebrated the courage and fortitude of the Estonians who resisted and survived such terrible hardships.”

Chater worked for many years in a variety of media roles before turning her love of reading and research into a professional pursuit, establishing a popular blog and winning the First Pages pitch competition at the HNSA Conference 2015 and placing second in the Short Story Competition at HNSA Conference 2017. In preparation for writing The Lace Weaver, she says, “I read lots of books about both Estonia and Russia and interviewed Estonian women, some of whom were lace makers. They proudly showed me their beautiful crafts, and it was an honour to hear the stories behind the different patterns and how they came to be ‘master knitters.’ In 2015, I travelled to Estonia and Russia. The highlight of my trip was visiting Haapsalu, where the tradition of making lace shawls is believed to have originated. I bought quite a few shawls while I was there and took them home to study them. However, it was the characters of the women who had made those shawls which fascinated me most. When I began to imagine how they must have lived, suffering under the daily oppression of the Russian occupation, the story really came to life. The novel’s heart is the knitting circle, a place where women can be themselves, tell their stories and support each other. The lace shawls become their voice, a way for them to communicate what can’t be said.”

Lucy Treloar, like Chater, also stumbled across the story for her novel, Salt Creek (Aardvark, 2017). Treloar feels, she says, “as if a book is waiting to be written, and when a writer stumbles on it it’s as if the untold story says, ‘Finally!’ I’d been carrying what became Salt Creek for as long as I could remember by the time I began writing in the lea of a sand hill above the roar of the Southern Ocean.”

For Treloar, ‘the Coorong,’ the setting of her novel, played a key role because it “has an almost mythical quality for my family. Every school holiday of my childhood we’d make the 500-mile journey to our beach house in South Australia, each time passing the Coorong – a grand, remote and melancholy landscape of rolling saltbush and shimmering sky. My mother would tell almost fantastical stories of one of our ancestors and his large family (13 children!) who in the 1850s moved to these wilds in an attempt to restore the family fortunes.”

She explains, “There was my great-great-great grandmother (the model for Salt Creek’s headstrong Addie), who legend has it ‘ran wild with the blacks’; her mother, who was rowed across the Coorong lagoon at dead of night in the middle of an obstructed labour in a desperate search for help; and an indigenous boy who lived with the family. Those fragmentary tales were the foundations of Salt Creek, but it was visiting that landscape and feeling it around me that made the stories come alive – almost as if I’d had an electric shock. I kayaked up a narrow lagoon to the windswept Younghusband Peninsula and the old family homestead, and thought of long-ago children galloping horses along the white beach and roaming the vast sand hills and finally understood why my family was still haunted by that resonant landscape. There, watching my own children tumbling down the dunes, I began writing Salt Creek. Everything followed from that moment.”

Moments of epiphany for writers can be sudden, but often the seed of an idea is planted which takes the writer on a longer voyage of discovery, as in the case of Kali Napier. Her novel, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge (Hachette Australia / Piatkus UK, 2018) found its origins, Napier says, “when I worked as a family history researcher, connecting Indigenous clients with knowledge of who their family members were, where they came from, and how they were connected to their Country. Because of the long history of forced removals, forced employment, and control of all aspects of Indigenous people’s lives under State Protection Acts in Australia, many of these connections are lost to descendants. Only when piecing together these families’ stories of trauma, secrets, and belonging from the government archival records, did I start voicing aloud an urge to ‘write a book.’”

However, Napier realized, “Their stories were not my stories to tell. At one point in my novel, Mrs Feehely, an exempted Aboriginal woman, cautions her daughter, Ruby: ‘Those are our stories, girl. You keep them to yourself’ when Ruby asks to share a Dreaming story with ten-year-old Girlie. Girlie learns a valuable lesson about the power of stories to create connections, and to delineate who she did and didn’t belong to.”

Napier continues, “But as Girlie discovers, there are gaps and inconsistencies in the story of who she is. Just as there are in my own, caused by migration, estrangement, and the silencing that comes with second marriages.”

Napier relates, “I had lived in the Mid-West of Western Australia for several years, where the novel is set, where to be considered an insider, I would have needed ‘three generations in the boneyard.’ Years and a cross-country move later, a basic search of the digitised newspaper archive revealed that my father’s maternal family had actually come from the Mid-West, and my great-grandfather had been a bankrupt who’d moved to Dongara during the Depression to establish a shop. This sparked the idea for my novel, as I sought to discover through fiction what my unknown ancestors’ lives might have been like. What would it have meant to them to have to walk away from their way of life and begin again amongst strangers? What aspects of their past would they have not been able to leave behind, carried within them? And what happens when that which they’d thought long buried catches up with them?”

Laura Carlin left school at 16, and it was only after 28 years of working in a bank that she began to write. The Wicked Cometh (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018), Carlin says, is the result of  “a lifetime’s love of British history, and a passion for the English language. It was inevitable I would one day turn to writing historical fiction, but with so many pockets of history to explore, few can be as compelling as 1830s London: an influx of immigrants and internal migrants, as a legacy of the Napoleonic wars, swelling the population of London to 1.7 million; a burgeoning police force struggling to contain the increase in criminality; and an un-reformed Parliament, unfit to protect the interests of the underclass. London was indeed a dark and dangerous place.”

Already having an interest in the period, Carlin was fascinated to discover the real-life events from which The Wicked Cometh is inspired: “countless people going missing from the streets of London, and the terrifying suspicion that a serial-killer was at large, greater in scale and depravity than the city had yet known.”

Over the years of research she conducted, Carlin says, “I also gained an awareness that although reference materials tell us what happened, they don’t always say what it felt like to be there, so it was important to me that the story’s narrator was one of the vulnerable poor: young, orphaned and female; the type of voice generally unrepresented in textbooks and archives.”

In order to convey the dramatic nature of her subject matter, Carlin has written her novel, she says, “in first-person, present tense – to lend immediacy to the narrative – I really hope the reader becomes immersed in the time period, and vicariously experiences the feelings, emotions, shocks and triumphs of the narrator, Hester White.

The Wicked Cometh shines a light on a very dark period in British history, but it is also a story of survival, hope, friendship and above all, love – teaching us that in the end, there is light in the dark. Then again, maybe it’s best not to read it alone, at night, with the lights down low!”

Historical fiction writers such as Carlin, Chater, Napier and Treloar are, in many ways, like Chater’s knitters of lace shawls in Estonia: they can follow a pattern of historical facts, but are also able to knit these into new and vivid stories using their craft as wordsmiths.

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see showcased.

Posted by Bethany Latham

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