Q&A for Readers, Teachers, Writers

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Elizabeth Jane Corbett

  • · 6 months ago
#LoveOzYA Q&A with Elizabeth Jane Corbett

Elizabeth Jane Corbett is the debut author of The Tides Between, an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth.

Welcome to the LoveOzYA blog, we’re so happy to have you here!

Thanks heaps for the invitation. Your blog is amazing!

Let’s go back to the beginning…have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?

I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel. Ever since I got lost on a lonely moor with the Famous Five, I’ve dreamed of writing a novel. I tried to write one, once, in my primary school years — a horse book. Trouble is, I didn’t know anything about horses, so the project faltered. But I remained an avid reader. As a child, I spent most of my spare time with my head between various page.

During my secondary school and university years, I poured my energy into essay writing. I also wrote some truly dreadful poetry. I married young (like really young), raised four children and the writing dreamed got consumed by sleepless nights and runny noses.

Once my youngest child started school, I trained as a librarian (to help pay the mortgage and because only clever people actually wrote novels). But the dream never faded. It rolled on down the years, gathering momentum, until on a significant birthday (let’s not be specific), I realised it was time to give the novel writing a go.

Tell us about your new book.

Take a young girl, her forbidden notebook, a mysterious Welsh story teller and put them on a one-way journey to the far side of the world. Add secrets, an epidemic, and a malevolent surgeon, and you have The Tides Between — an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth.

The book is a failure actually. I set out to write an adult immigration saga spanning several decades and ended up with a YA novel filled with Welsh fairy tales that is set almost entirely in the steerage compartment of an emigrant vessel. People tell me it is gritty and eye-opening, in terms of the historical detail, yet somehow also magical. I’ve had both YA and adult readers enjoy the journey.

Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?

I was a migrant. My family moved to Australia when I was five years old. I grew up hearing my parents call another place ‘home’. I read the books they recommended, which were invariably British, often with an historical setting, and somehow the two became mixed up in my mind.

I can still remember my visceral sense of shock upon learning that Anne of Green Gables and Little Women were not set in Britain. But…they were set in the past, weren’t they? The place my parents called home?

Anyway, I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that I cannot for the life of me think of an OzYA book from my youth — apart from Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy (which I didn’t much enjoy). My kids read the Billabong series, however, and Silver Brumby and Playing Beatie Bow. So, I’ve redeemed myself since then. Australian YA publishing has come a long way since my youth.

Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?

I cut my teeth on Enid Blyton books. My parents were terribly worried about this at one stage because Blyton’s books had all been removed from school and public libraries. I can still remember Mr Burton, the school librarian, explaining that they were not good for me.

I gave up going to the library after that and went to the Blackwood Book Swap. The woman who ran the book swap didn’t care what I read. I spent many a happy hour in her shop. I grew out of Enid Blyton eventually and returned to the library (I can still hear the collective sigh of relief). We were a migrant family, so finances were pretty tight. But mum gladly paid for me to order every one of the Swallows and Amazons series on interlibrary loan.

What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?

I am still an historical fiction reader and, when I worked as a YA librarian, I loved reading Jackie French’s historical novels as well as those of Kirsty Murray and Ruth Park. Our history is pretty unique and it is not all about convicts.

I am part of an online history discussion group and recently found myself hotly debating the causes of the World War One. Halfway through the discussion, I realised that compared to my British friend, mine was a pretty anti-establishment perspective. I had to concede that I’d been raised with a healthy disrespect for the class system. I like that about our society.

I also like our multi-cultural history because I was born in another country. I like stories that reflect that diversity because, even during the era in which my book was set, we were not a homogenous group. There were Chinese and German migrants and, although they came out under a British government emigration scheme, Welsh, Irish and Scottish migrants had a unique linguistic and cultural perspective.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?

I work as a librarian with City of Boroondara so I’m totally biased. I love our library service. But since, The Tides Between was published, I’ve found Dymocks Camberwell incredibly supportive. They have a First Tuesday Book Club, which is amazing. Brunswick Bound Books have also been supportive. Apart from that, I love the State Library of Victoria (where I do much of my research) and TROVE the National Library of Australia’s website.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?

Am I allowed more than one? Alison Goodman’s Lady Helen books are page turners. I’m in a writing group with Lora Inak and I’ve watched her Unspoken Rules grow, through successive drafts, into a great cross-cultural love story. It’s not YA, but I’m reading Robin Cadwallader’s Book of Colours at the moment and her prose … well, let’s just say, in between turning the pages, I’m weeping with envy.

Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?

I learned to speak Welsh while researching The Tides Between (yes, I know serious nerd factor). I’m now one of the tutors for our Melbourne Welsh classes. So, sitting speaking Welsh with a group of flaming Welsh nationalists is probably my sweet spot. I still read copiously and journal most days. I also crochet and like watching historical BBC TV series.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

  • Worst advice

Write what you know! I’d like to revise that to: write what interests you.

I knew, from the outset, that I wanted to write an historical novel (because that’s what I like to read) and immigration was the defining event of my childhood. So, I decided to write an historical immigration novel. I knew nothing about the nineteenth century assisted immigration system at the outset. But I’d heard of Caroline Chisholm, a nineteenth century migrant woman who advocated on behalf of vulnerable women and children (she is on our five-dollar note).

As I read about Chisholm’s work, characters started forming in my head. One of them, a 15-year old girl called Bridie, had lost her father in tragic circumstances. I had this idea that a creative young couple would help her come to terms with her grief. Initially, they were Irish but I was planning a trip to the UK and would be relying on long-lost family accommodation. I didn’t have any Irish relatives. But Mum was Welsh. Hmm… maybe my creative your couple could be Welsh?

I knew nothing about Wales at that stage — apart from Rugby and male voice choirs. Rugby wasn’t played in 1841 and, even if I could have invented a story in which an entire male voice choir emigrated en masse, I didn’t think a 15-year-old girl would find it interesting.

Some quick research told me Wales had a strong bardic culture. I read the Mabinogion and a swag of Welsh fairy tales. Wow! Like wow! These were my stories. Part of my heritage. And I hadn’t even known they existed. At which point, my Welsh couple became story tellers and basically hijacked my novel.

  • Best advice

Break the task down into postcard-sized assignments. This piece of advice comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, my all-time favourite writing book. I find the blank page pretty scary. I also find editing scary. Actually, writing is pretty damned terrifying, full stop. I always fear my work will not be good enough.

I start every day by journaling, by the end of which, I’ve nearly always clarified what I want to achieve. It is normally something small (post card size) like write one scene in which Bridie tries to get Rhys’s attention. That’s enough to get me started. I often write more than my initial goal but keeping it small, means I am less overwhelmed at the outset.

  • Additional advice (I know, I know, this is cheating).

Expect to re-write sentences, scenes, chapters, and even large segments of your manuscript several times. Nothing comes out fully formed from the outset.

What do you love about OzYA?

There has been an explosion in Australian publishing since my youth. It is diverse, multi-cultural, classy, and intelligent. Whether set in Australia, overseas, or in an alternative universe, we have a unique perspective that deserves to be heard. I love the passion that I find in OzYA and the fact that Aussie’s are contributing to a global literary culture.

The Tides Between is on the CBCA Book Of The Year Notables (Older Readers) list. You can find out more about it here

Visit Elizabeth Jane Corbett at her website here.