1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Armidale, northern NSW and lived on two different mixed properties (near Kingstown and Cumnock) until about I was about ten, when we moved into Tamworth, NSW.
It obviously felt like I’d moved to New York as I penned my autobiography for a grade 5 assignment and ended it with something like: “… and here I am, living and going to school in the city, but my heart still lies in the country.” I went to high school at Calrossy, and then onto Women’s College at the University of Sydney where I did a BA. Between sporting and social events at uni, I made lifelong friendships and even met my wonderful husband, Alex!
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I was a competitive swimmer at a state and national level and so, naturally, I wanted to be an Olympian. I was doing eleven sessions a week and would go to the Institute, a training camp or a carnival every holidays. It was really, really hard work, and I was obsessed. I loved the rhythm of moving through the water, sucking oxygen deep into my lungs. I still love being in water … pity I live on a mountain now. I have to make do with an annual beach holiday.
At eighteen, I wanted to grow up fast and be as far from my country town as possible – I only applied to university in Sydney (I didn’t even have a second option on my university application form!). At the time I planned to study law, probably because my conservative careers advisor at school told me that’s what I should be aiming for and I always did like a firm goal! Luckily I have fabulous parents who told me just to study what I loved at uni, and the job would follow if I worked hard enough (they hoped!). I loved all the arts subjects, but worried I wouldn’t find work because everyone around me seemed so much smarter and were doing sensible, worthy subjects like pharmacy, science, engineering, vet, law and economics.
Thirty was a bit of a blur for me – I fell asleep in the spare room breastfeeding at my own thirtieth! I had a baby and was pregnant with my second and was working pretty much full-time as a publishing manager. We’d invested into the Prince Wine Store and had visions of moving to the country and building a house. At thirty I was trying to be everything all at once … uber-mother, career-woman, builder, gardener, entrepreneur and establish myself as a freelance writer. Sound familiar? Utter madness.
It’s ironic that at thirty I yearned to swap the crazy city life I’d built, for a simple life in the country and give my a kids a little taste of the strong community I had growing up. It turns out the grass is not always greener! Who knew?
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
The bigger the city, the more exciting life would be! Especially if it was overseas … why do so many of us Aussies feel the need to go offshore to ‘find ourselves’ and ‘achieve success?’
I’m guilty as charged, but as I get older I fall more and more in love with my beautiful country. Oh look, just like that I’m sounding all nostalgic and middle-aged!
4. 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?
I studied Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda when I was in year 12 and I still remember how much it blew me away. The way Carey managed to capture the sublime and the ridiculous in a single sentence. The image of the glasshouse floating down the river will stay with me forever. I’m in awe of his vivid descriptions, the poignant relationship between the Oscar and Lucinda. So contradictory, so tender … I remember telling my marvellous teacher, Mrs Carr, in year 12 that I had to find a way to work with books. I never actually considered I could, you know, write one!
At university I was obsessed with A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Actually, anything written by A.S. Byatt. Her descriptions and dialogue are among the finest I’ve ever read. And I loved the gentle unravelling of a literary/ generational hunt. Genius.
The New York School poet Frank O’Hara sent me down the rabbit hole of the Abstract Expressionist painters for a while in my Honours year. Introduced me to the concept of Ekphrasis … and the thrill of research.
Sorry, I’m at four … but I can’t forget People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, that powerful Australian female voice anchoring a story across countries and time. Brooks is brilliant and set the bar with her sense of place and gutsy female protagonists. Her writing is at once entertaining and razor sharp. I adore her.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Frankly … I don’t have that many other artistic skills!
Perhaps in a different life I’d study landscape architecture; never say never!
Reading is my #1 passion. Why not give it a go? Nobody was going to get hurt if I failed (just my pride!). I’ve set high goals right through my life … and fallen short many, many times. Failure builds resilience. But discipline and determination in other areas definitely fed into my writing. I’m more workhorse than racehorse, but I get there in the end.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel …
The Midsummer Garden brings to life the stories of two women across the ages, both of whom are supposed to be preparing a wedding banquet when we meet them.
Artemisia, is an herbalist who holds a lowly position in the kitchen of a medieval French château, and Pip, a young Australian marine biologist, struggling to find balance between ambition and identity, love and sacrifice.
When a gift of several dusty, beautiful old copper pots arrives in Pip’s kitchen, the two stories come together in a stirring, abundant celebration of love lost and found.
The story begins on a windswept coastline of Tasmania and travels to Tuscany, Paris, the countryside France and the Basque region in Spain. It’s a classic coming-of-age tale with a touch of romance.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they feel hungry!
On a more serious note, I’d love for readers to get a thrill from the armchair travel as they curl up and lose themselves in different worlds. I adore the interplay of different settings and eras when I read, and I’d love readers to delight in the creation of the whimsical medieval wedding feast, and learn a little about the magic and wonder of herbs.
The garden has always been a powerful metaphor in literature and I’d like to take readers on a botanical journey.
Pip and Artemisia are both flawed women, both just trying to work out how to achieve their goals in their respective positions. Like many of us, they make mistakes. But they don’t quit and they never take the easy option. They are good people and hard workers. Artemisia doesn’t have many options in life at all. But she has hope and sometimes that is all we need to drag ourselves through the dark times.
I wanted to pen a kind of love letter, almost to my younger self. To say: ‘you know what – just make sure you elbow out a little room for yourself. It’s not being selfish to want to thrive.’ Women tend to put themselves last when it comes to career, love and family. With the benefit of hindsight, I know my family is most settled and happy when I’m fit, well and working hard at something I love. Life just seems to hum along when you dig deep and follow your passion. Try to live with conviction.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
See question 4, and then add Charlotte Wood for her raw, brutal honesty; Liane Moriarty and Sally Hepworth for their biting humour; Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende for their whimsy; Jodi Picoult for her slingshot to my heart on any issue she tackles; Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan for their epic landscapes and mighty internal grappling; Nayomi Munaweera for her sensuality; Zadie Smith for just about everything; Jane Harper for her poise; Natasha Lester because she is just so articulate and generous about her writing process, as well as being a lovely historical fiction writer … ditto Elizabeth Gilbert … I discovered Dominic Smith this year and I adored the mystery and hunt in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos … I could keep going all night but that’s a start!
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Well, I’m only new to the fiction caper and the goalposts keep shifting. At first, I just hoped I might write something worth publishing. Now, I want to improve my skills and excite the reader with each new book.
I hope people feel when they read my work that they’ve been transported and entertained in a different world for a bit, perhaps learned something about the medieval and natural world. I want to keep writing about different places, giving readers perhaps a new look at a country, or era.
I always want to explore and enchant. I also want to keep exploring the real-world dilemmas for the modern working woman. Like many working women, I haven’t quite found that sweet spot of perfect life/work/ambition/family balance. It changes every week. Some months it’s magic, others the wheels fall off. Sound familiar?
I wanted to pen a kind of love letter, almost to my younger self. To say: ‘you know what – just make sure you elbow out a little room for yourself. It’s not being selfish to want to thrive.’
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Probably the same as everyone else! Read widely, study how great writers perfect their craft and then step away and find a way to make it your own.
Be passionate and be fixated because it will take up an enormous amount of head space and so you need to make it count.
Be disciplined and do the work. There are very few writers who have the story just pour from their fingertips. Most rewrite and re-work and massage until it is ‘just so!’
Learn the craft. There are so many amazing writing courses around, along with online writing communities. Try both, if you can.
There’s a lot of great podcasts around with fabulous advice; I listen to many of these religiously. But sometimes when I’m struggling with writing, they can get too much and make me feel quite like I’m never going to measure up. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break from the advice, and find your own solutions to a problem.
Do some exercise, get outside and make sure you have a hobby that can help you switch off and fill up that creative well. I love travelling, hiking alone up my mountain, being in my garden. When I’m stuck on a plot twist you’ll often find me mulching or transplanting grasses by the hundred!
Lastly, get yourself some discerning readers and listen carefully to their feedback. You don’t have to agree, but it’s curious to see how your words create reactions in people.
Your book doesn’t really exist until someone reads it and brings it to life. So always be gracious when someone has taken the time to send you some feedback.
Thank you for playing, Kirsty!
The Midsummer Garden
Travelling between lush gardens in France, windswept coastlines of Tasmania, to Tuscan hillsides and beyond, The Midsummer Garden lures the reader on an unforgettable culinary and botanical journey.
1487 Artemisia is young to be in charge of the kitchens at Chateau de Boschaud but, having been taught the herbalists' lore, her knowledge of how food can delight the senses is unsurpassed. All of her concentration and flair is needed as she oversees the final preparations for the sumptuous wedding feast of Lord Boschaud and his bride while concealing her own secret dream. For after the celebrations are over, she dares to believe that her future lies outside the Chateau. But who will she trust?