Set against the colourful backdrop of a swinging sixties Sydney and the brutality of the Vietnam War, War Flower by Mary-Anne O’Connor follows the journey of six young people through their lives in a turbulent era, and asks – can love still prevail when horror becomes almost too much to bear?
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 St Margaret’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, Sydney. Back then you had to stay for ten days after giving birth so my Mum had Dad change my birth date, to one minute before midnight instead of one minute after, so she could get out sooner. I didn’t find out my birth certificate said the wrong date until I went to get my passport at eighteen! Major identity crisis.
I was raised in Wahroonga and attended Our Lady of the Rosary at Waitara, Mt St Benedict’s at Pennant Hills and St Leos College at Wahroonga. I later went to Macquarie University. It was a huge Catholic neighbourhood and we spent our days rambling through the bush together and playing music. We had tons of fun.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve I wanted to be a writer. Or a member of the Gogos.
When I was eighteen I wanted to be a writer. Or still, a Gogo.
When I was thirty I wanted to be a writer. Although there were rumours of a Gogo reunion…
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I believed I had to try to be perfect. Now I just believe in being kinder to myself. And happiness.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
My father Kevin Best was a much-loved Australian artist and every one of his works effected and influenced me. He painted rays of light in many of them, streaming through the trees, and he called them ‘fingers of God’. He was a very beautiful, uplifting man and it showed in his work. It made me want to do the same with words.
To choose a book? I would have to call a tie between Jane Eyre and Little Women. Both Jane and Jo refused to settle for less than what they felt was on their terms. And such spirit! Also, having such strength when times are darkest is truly a gift and they are the kinds of heroines I want to portray.
Lastly, to choose a piece of music I would once again have to call a tie, this time between God Only Knows by The Beach Boys and Here Come the Sun by The Beatles. The power to uplift and inspire is a beautiful offering to the world and I try to thread this ideal through my work.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book?
I enjoy playing both guitar and piano and I love to sketch but writing seems a better fit for me. Mistakes can be backspaced, composition can be re-threaded at a whim, plots can be twisted then re-twisted again… it’s less pressure I suppose. More elbow room for the not-so-perfect.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
My first novel, Gallipoli Street, was about WWI and my second, Worth Fighting For, centred on WWII. I always intended to write a third novel focusing on the Vietnam years, to explore the impact of a third war in only three generations and how it felt to live through such turbulent times. And so War Flower was born.
War Flower was a labour of love and I spent many long, late nights on the computer and many hours soul searching as I wrote it. I say ‘soul searching’ because it was incredibly humbling to write about our Vietnam Vets. Putting yourself alongside them in battle, wrenching your heart away with them as they leave for war, feeling every moment of joy, struggle, horror, mateship, relief and sorrow was an emotional rollercoaster, yet it’s an experience I will treasure always.
It was fascinating to consider the impact of three simultaneous conflicts and to walk through the decade when people power forced an end to war at last; a climax that resulted in cultural upheaval. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll swept through youth culture and protestors challenged societal norms, spilling onto the streets en masse to sing songs about peace and burn draft papers. Meanwhile the Vets themselves returned home to be met with blame and hostility, something, I must admit, proved gut-wrenching to write about.
My two Australian soldiers in the story, Ben and Angus, face all the challenges the era delivers with mixed emotions and Poppy and Rosemary, the twin sisters who in turn love them, must navigate the young men through as best they can. But of course, temptation is rife. This is a time of free love and a ‘freeing’ of the mind. There’s a great fragility to the sixties, alongside it’s spearhead of strength and change, and it was this that proved most moving when writing the novel.
War Flower is ultimately a story about the generation who chose peace over war but it’s also a story about love and whether or not John Lennon was ultimately right. Whether it truly is, all that you need.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
Two words to ponder: peace and compassion.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Liane Moriarty. She is an absolute genius, in my opinion, and a powerhouse for Australian writing. Her scene construction is sublime and she is also so wickedly hilarious…I really can’t get enough of her work.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Should I admit this? Oh, why not! MOVIES!!! To see one of my novels on the big screen would be a massive, hit the ball out of the park, pop the expensive champagne moment in my life. ?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Never, ever give up. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what anyone else says about your writing or whether or not they believe in you, YOU are the one driving this. You are the one with the dream, the passion, the vision, the talent, the dedication and most importantly of all, the perseverance. Never, ever give up.
Thank you, Mary-Anne!
The 1960s are beating a fresh pulse of political and cultural upheaval through Sydney. For sheltered convent schoolgirl Poppy Flannery such changes seem irrelevant. But it doesn't stop her from longing to join in, especially if it means spending time with the popular boy she secretly loves, Ben Williamson. So when the opportunity for a dream escape to Surfers Paradise arrives, Poppy and her twin sister Rosemary seize it and find themselves in the midst of the swinging sixties at last.
Rosemary embraces their secret new life with a vengeance, discovering drugs, boys and radical politics in a haze ...
About the Contributor
Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.