A Pocket Full of Posies…
Posie Graeme-Evans is a rather special person to me – one of Australia’s top TV drama producers, her largest claim to fame is a much-loved TV drama based around a family of farmers who just happened to be women. Everyone in Australia knew McLeods’ Daughters and waited with baited breath for each episode.
I was such a fan of that series.
Who wasn’t enthralled by the jackeroos, the property owners and the whole grazing life? For me it was a slightly glossy but nevertheless honest depiction of the ups and downs of Australian farming. The only difference for me is that on our farm (or any south of Oatlands in Tasmania) there are no flies!
Posie, however, left TV to become a writer and with four strong historical fictions to her credit, I actually approached her after Gisborne: Book of Pawns was finished in the hope she would have time to read it and if she liked it, provide me with a strap-line for the cover. But she was frantic, completing her latest novel and now I can understand why…
This story, The Island House, is an exciting and unusual blend of a contemporary story with a piquant historical fiction set in Celtic times and the research alone was all consuming. Let alone Posie’s ‘producer-ly’ need to investigate every inch of her favoured locale.
I have enjoyed this book immensely and it has cemented Posie’s position as a much admired historical fiction writer. The novel combines so much that I require in a good book – strong female protagonists, wrenching emotion, an amazing locale in the Scottish isles (a setting redolent of parts of Posie’s and my own island home) and a deep mystery that ebbs and flows through the narrative like a coastal tide. In addition, Posie’s style is refined. So many historical fiction authors of today could learn from her: historical fact leavened with a damned good story!
I was keen to talk to Posie about her writing and about The Island House and she kindly agreed.
Posie, welcome to the Big Red Chair…
Thanks so much, Prue. A privilege for me.
1. If we could start at the beginning. When did you actually decide you wanted to be writer?
I don’t believe there was ever an “that’s it!” moment but I know I used to write stories and poems from quite early in my life. Around ten, I think, it really started to take hold because I was also the classic bookworm. My parents travelled around a great deal, too, so books – and then writing – became a way to understand a world that was always changing around me. Whoever said, “Readers are writers, writers are readers” was so very correct; at least for me.
2. Was it ever a question of either a writer or a TV producer?
Not really. I ran books and TV in parallel for years. I used to write my books on Sundays (true story) and produce during the rest of the week. In fact I started writing my first novel, “The Innocent” one blistering hot summer in Adelaide when I was making what turned out to be the pilot of “McLeods Daughters.” That was 1996 so it’s a while ago now, and it took until 2002 for that first book to be published. Ah, writing. Patience almost the first quality we need I think. And resilience!
3. Why hist.fict which is the essential core of your backlist?
I’m fascinated by the past. I think we’re them, and they’re us – by which I mean the essentials of human nature, the things that drive us, seem constant, to me, throughout time. They just wore different things, ate different food, got around in different ways… But I love the panoply of the past, the way remarkable people’s lives are there for us to draw on in our work (though, as we know, history tends to be written by winners.) I’m also pretty interested in the lives of women and the voices of people who weren’t famous, or rich, or infamous in their own times. And, can’t beat, “what if…?”
In the end, though, these might seem like solid reasons to write about the past, but in the end I’m not completely certain why I keep setting my books in other eras. Maybe because most of the TV I’ve made is based in the present. However, “The Island House” turned out to be set in in both the past and the present (somehow, I don’t think I control such choices) and the new book I’m writing, “The Silver King” (working title –it’s already had about four other names) is a dual time story also.
4. Favourite era?
Once I would have said the High Middle Ages and I’m still drawn to that era – faaaabulous frocks! But I enjoyed writing “The Dressmaker”, too, and that novel was set in 1840’s – 1850’s England. And now, “The Island House” goes all the way back to around 850 AD. “The Silver King” seems to be set around the end of C12th (and the present, too.) I say “seems” because I haven’t quite nailed the real date of the action yet. I guess I just go where the story takes me.
5. Why then you would then choose to write essentially a contemporary story interwoven with an ancient tale? Why not just write one or the other?
I liked the fact that the one illuminated the other, and vice versa, too. The intersections between the characters in both times deepen the stakes, especially in the present and I liked exploring that in plot terms.
6. Reading your novels, one is struck very much by the cinemagraphic style. It’s one of the most enjoyable things about your work. It’s easy to see the eye of a TV producer in the writing. How does such a graphic (in the nicest sense) method evolve?
I do see pictures in my head when I write, and sometimes it feels like I’m describing a film as it all rolls along. That, too, gets deeper with each draft I find; at first, the description seems sketch-like, just a few lines, literally on the page (in both senses of sketch) but as the tractor beam of the story pulls me closer, the images clarify on the page as well.
7. I imagine you with a storyboard up on the wall of the study, with every chapter blocked out in a pictorial sense. How close to the truth am I?
Actually, I’m embarrassed to tell you that I don’t plot at all – it would be so much easier for me if I did. The way I work is very wasteful of effort and first draft an especially testing time because I’m groping in the dark to find the world and the characters – and getting used to how they speak and what they look like. Each draft though, adds layer upon layer and in the end – after four or five drafts – I start to feel there’s a world on the page. Mind you I rely on the feedback of my editor, Nicola O’Shea, very much. She reads each book, draft by draft, and gives me great “big picture” notes at each stage. She also has a forensic eye for structure and character continuity. And, she knows how to talk to writers: how to tell the truth about what needs to be done, what’s working and not (from a readers point of view) yet she also understands the fragility of the process for the person writing the story. She provides hope and confidence when you’re deep in the mire and can’t get out of the mud…
8. What inspired The Island House?
I had a professor of English when I was at Flinders University. Ralph Elliott was his name. He was a very great scholar of Medieval literature, and also the literature of the Norse. The worlds he opened up to me have been a big, big influence in how my stories have been told – in both TV and novels. And, when I was about eleven I read “The Saga of The Volsungs”, and endless books of Nordic myths and legends. That all stayed somewhere in my mind, right at the back, too. And then, for the longest time, I thought I wanted to become an archaeologist. That’s all I know, I guess. Influences are tricky things. So much of what finally makes it to the conscious mind is unfathomable and tangential.
9. When talking with you, you mentioned that The Island House had its own intense issues for you, the writer. Can you explain?
It seems to me I want to tell stories that have big, simple, moral issues at their core. Loyalty is important to me and I believe that love is, in the end, the central foundation in our lives (and how hard that is to get that right during the course of a life). Self sacrifice, too, has been such a theme in human existence, and what you do when you fail, as each one of us does and will. And altruism is as great an influence in human history as greed has ever been. I think, also, that most people are benevolent in their hearts. Time and circumstance tests so much of that basic goodness, and I’m interested in the wrestle that sets up in our souls (yes, I think we have a soul) when we have to make impossible choices. I’m also drawn to the idea of Karma/re-incarnation. Not to say that I believe in it all the time – because, when I’m being rational it seems so far-fetched – and yet, and yet. Anyway, I find I want to explore parallels between the past and the present. And, I have a strong mystical streak. That’s getting harder and harder to ignore (when, sometimes, I want to.) Working that out in telling a story is satisfying, I find.
10. The Island House is such a fascinating blend of ancient and contemporary. How hard was it to blend the two stories without losing the narrative drive?
I thought about that constantly, and it drove me crazy! In the end, Nicola suggested breaking the book in to two parts – putting all the present together, and all the past. That was a way of making sure that the stories in both times had integrity and tensile strength, and that neither era was short changed in story terms. That was a very helpful thing to do. And in the end, the balance ie when to cut back and forth, just seemed right (but not before I’d had the odd sleepless night or twelve.)
11. I found the Book Club questions in the back very interesting. One question asks who the reader likes best: Freya or Signy. I thought long and hard about this and decided I liked Signy’s story best, perhaps normal for me as I tend to gravitate towards the historical (but I do need to underline the fact that Freya is an intense, strong and utterly likeable character as well and is the vital link in Signy’s story). My question to you is whether you have a favourite of the two.
I absolutely can say, hand on heart, that I don’t. I came to like them both so much – and felt they were genuinely different people; ie women embedded in their own times being pulled and pushed by the mores of their communities. In the beginning, the book was called “Freya Dane”, but as Signy got stronger and stronger as the book developed, it just didn’t seem the right thing to call the book by the name of only one protagonist.
12. One thing I like about your style is that you provide the reader with historical fact without making it a headache-inducing info-dump. How hard do you find it to leave historical information behind in favour of the narrative?
Verrrry hard. Love obscure factoids! When I was writing “The Dressmaker”, I became obsessed with the sewerage system of London. Honestly I could bore on for Queen and Empire with that fixation. But, fortunately I think for me, TV does teach you to keep the drive of the story front and centre. Wept tears of blood though, (and always have, in both forms ie writing and TV) at what has to be cut out to keep the energy going on the page.
13. On your website, one of the questions you answer is what qualities you would aspire to personally. One was compassion, which you said you found hard. How then, did you manage to give such depth of compassion to characters like Gunnhilda and indeed Signy?
Ah … what a wise question. Was it Jane Austen who said that in the heart of every writer there is a chip of ice? Don’t know about the ice, but I do know I’m an observer – standing outside, looking in. But I’ve seen some pretty terrible things in my life and sometimes the glass of observation breaks. And I think that writing is often a surprise – what appears on the page sometimes (for me) has been buried deep. So deep, I may not have known it was there. Perhaps I can feel things more deeply for having written them – and recognised, in the words on the page, the things that matter most to me.
14. Your career as one of Australia’s most exceptional TV drama producers is well known, so one imagines by returning here to this odd little island, you are removing yourself from where the action is. Why return to Tasmania? Does the perceived isolation hinder or improve your writing, do you think?
This place is very good for my soul. I was slowly withering in Sydney. Not because it wasn’t exciting, and that I wasn’t stimulated/intoxicated by the buzz of what I was doing there, but because I just hungered for the natural world. I wanted seasons again, and to be able to see the sunset properly. I yearned for unpeopled landscapes and a smaller community. Besides, cities always have white noise in the background. I’d had enough of that and really needed to think myself down, as it were. To become accustomed to silence again. And yes, it helps my writing I think. I’m gregarious, if given half a chance, and I really needed to see if I could tolerate the isolation that writing full time brings. In Sydney there are just too many fleeting distractions. The distractions exist here too, but they’re ones that speak to me more satisfyingly now; ie have I fed the chooks/weeded/dug the spuds in…
(Oh how I relate to that!!!)
15. Once again hearking back to your website, I detect a real affinity with fantasy/the Other life. You imply there is another dimension. Would you ever write fantasy/historical fantasy?
I think I might be working my way in that direction. This new book is actually based fair and square in a legend I read as a child. But that’s another story…
Posie, thank you so much for your time and indeed for the honesty and detail.
The Island House is available from:
And your favourite bricks and mortar bookstore.