author of The Teacher’s Secret
Ten Terrifying Questions
To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Brisbane and raised and schooled in Wollongong – first at West Wollongong Public School then at Smith’s Hill High School. Because my father was a French scholar, we spent his sabbatical leave in France and I attended school in Normandy and Paris. I also spent time in school and university in Germany.
What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I wanted to act. At eighteen, I wanted to be in foreign affairs. Languages have always been my great love – I speak French and German – and I thought they’d come in handy. At thirty, I was working as a criminal lawyer at the Legal Aid Commission of NSW – which I loved – and had aspirations of becoming a barrister specialising in criminal law. Instead, I moved into migration and refugee law.
What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen, I believed that if you couldn’t do things perfectly, or at least well, you shouldn’t do them at all. Now I think if you want to do it, just give it a shot.
So whilst I’m the most physically inflexible person you’ll meet, I’m now the most enthusiastic student of yoga. I try not to demand perfection of myself: instead, I set myself a task and aim simply to finish it. This gives me the courage I need to start the first draft of a new piece of writing, which can always be revised into shape later.
What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – for the passion that bristles through the book;
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – for the sparseness, crispness and dryness of her writing and the fabulously clear depiction of her characters;
Harp in the South by Ruth Park – for the humour and the anguish, the resilience and the grit of her characters.
Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Although I learnt to play the piano, it was never something that came naturally to me. I’m not mathematical and never quite understood the mathematical connections of music, nor could I play by ear. I can draw but I’m not a great talent. I lost my nerve for acting. Writing and speaking have always come most easily to me. I feel a sense of great achievement when I find the right words. There is also something exhilarating about the space the novel form gives you to create a completely imaginary world.
Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Teacher’s Secret is Terry’s story. It is also the story of Nina, who finds herself both unexpectedly single and in charge of a classroom of difficult students; of Joan, who struggles to cope with the death of her elderly mother; and of Rebecca, who seeks refuge from her homeland.
More than anything, though, it is a tale of scandal, rumour and dislocation, and the search for grace and dignity in the midst of dishonour and humiliation.
“Suspenseful, moving and full of heart. I couldn’t put it down”
– Richard Glover, author of Flesh Wounds.
What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope readers will have immersed themselves in the little community of Brindle as they follow the travails of the people who live there.
“Elegantly structured, unsettling, yet with moments of surprising wit – in this novel Suzanne Leal captures the life of a small community with real tenderness”
– Kathryn Heyman, author of Floodline.
Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
My father, who is a skilful writer, taught me that with enough work even the most complex of ideas can be expressed using simple, clear language. This is the writing I most admire: writing that is deceptively simple and explores difficult issues with beautiful clarity. Michelle de Kretser does it in Questions of Travel; Rachel Seiffert in The Dark Room; Bernhard Schlink in The Reader; Charlotte Wood in The Natural Way of Things.
I would like to be able to have the space to write for at least three hours each day. I would like to keep working with my publisher and editor Jane Palfreyman. She understands my work, can pinpoint its flaws and provides me with the direction I need to improve it.
I would like the freedom to write about those things that disturb me, that confuse me, that delight me, that make me laugh.
What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I would advise aspiring writers to just start writing – not to worry about the quality of the writing, but to simply start writing. Many aspiring writers get put off by the enormity of the task ahead of them and the expectations they have of themselves.
More constructive, I think, is to whisper to yourself, I’m going to write something, just something, not something great, not something extraordinary, just something. If you expect too much of yourself, you might be too scared to even start. But once you do start, you may well surprise yourself with what you manage to create.
Thank you for playing, Suzanne!
The Teacher's Secret
The Teacher's Secret is a tender and compelling story of scandal, rumour and dislocation, and the search for grace and dignity in the midst of dishonour and humiliation.
A small coastal town is rocked by scandal when a beloved teacher is forced into early retirement. A popular teacher with something to hide. A new principal determined to uncover the truth.
A young mother, suddenly single, who struggles to rebuild her life. A grieving daughter who must learn to face the world again. A family forced to flee their homeland and start afresh ...