Hello fellow book lovers!
We have another exciting author interview to share with you. We recently had the opportunity to interview Susan Allott, author of The Silence, and ask her a few questions about the book and her inspiration behind it.
There are also a couple of new releases we are excited about and a few books to look out for in the near future!
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We hope everyone has been well and safe.
with Susan Allott
Where did your inspiration for The Silence come from?
The Silence was inspired by my failure to emigrate to Australia in the nineties. I left Sydney and went back to London, full or regret for what I saw as my lack of adventure. It took me quite a long time to process that whole experience, and when I first started trying to write a novel, I began by writing about a woman called Louisa who left Australia for England, overcome with homesickness. As the novel grew, I found myself writing about Sydney from a retrospective place, inventing characters who loved it and called it home. Gradually those Australian characters took over, and The Silence became a story about coming back to Australia, rather than leaving it.
Can you tell us a bit about the setting of the novel? What made you choose to set the story in Australia and England and the different towns/cities that you did?
The Silence is set mostly in Sydney, in a fictionalized coastal suburb called Agnes Bay. But there are a few chapters set in England – for example, the opening chapter is set in Hackney, east London. I lived in a basement flat in Hackney for a few years in my twenties, and I was able to picture it as I wrote that opening chapter. I find it helps to have something I can draw on from my own experience as a starting point and then I can imagine a fictional setting from there. I also set a few chapters in Leeds, in the north of England, which is where Louisa lived before she emigrated to Australia. Like a lot of Australians with British roots, she came from a northern industrial town where the lure of the Australian climate and lifestyle would have been very tempting. I went to University in Leeds, so again, it was a familiar launch-pad for my imagination to spring from.
I wrote about Australia because of my time living there as a homesick ex-pat, and also because when I got back to London I met my future husband who was, by crazy coincidence, Australian. He told me about his paternal grandparents, who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s. His grandmother was homesick for England all her life. I started researching and found this was very common among British ex-pats to Australia: often it was the woman who longed for home, while her husband and kids adapted and thrived. My husband-to-be and I went to see Rabbit Proof Fence at our local cinema, which had a big impact on me. I started seeking out Australian writers – Kate Grenville, Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas – and fell in love with them all. I became fascinated with Australian history and culture, and that fed into my writing.
What drew you to write about the 1960s and 90s?
I chose the 1960s as an era to write about because it’s famously a period of social change, a time when women were gaining more autonomy, and there were revolutions in music and fashion. But for most people, particularly in suburban Australia, the conservatism of previous decades was still very entrenched. I wanted to capture a time when social change was needed but had not quite arrived. In particular, I was keen to show that while opportunities for women were slow to change in the 60s, the treatment of Australia’s First Nations people was still in the dark ages. The policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children is a shocking one, but perhaps the most shocking aspect is how long it continued.
I set the rest of the novel in 1997 because the Bringing Them Home report– the inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people from their homes – was tabled by the Australian Federal Parliament in May that year. I wanted to use that backdrop for the investigation into the 30-year disappearance of Mandy, who was married to a man who removed some of those children back in the sixties. It allowed me to show how much had changed in 30 years, and to weave those strands of the plot together.
Was there a specific character you preferred writing? Were any of them more difficult or challenging?
I loved writing Isla as a child in 1967. I don’t know why but I found the four-year-old voice quite easy to tap into – possibly because I have children of my own, who were young when I started writing. I also loved writing Mandy’s chapters. She is a complex woman, the product of her time, and she is quite different to me in many ways. Through Mandy I learned how to fully imagine a character and bring her to life.
Conversely, Louisa was my most challenging character, and I think that’s because some of her experiences are close to my own. I understood her too well as a British woman living in Australia, homesick and unhappy, and for that reason I struggled to bring her to life on the page. At one point over 50% of the book was written from Louisa’s point of view. One day I sat down and deleted all those chapters. I felt sick for a few hours, as you can imagine, but then the book opened up and I saw what I needed to do to make it work. Louisa is still important to the story but she’s less central than she once was, and much less like me than she was in the early drafts.
Was it hard to write Steve as a character? How did you reconcile the person he is with the job he does? Are the readers meant to like him?
Steve was quite challenging, but he was the character I kept coming back to every time I started to despair of the book; he always fascinated me. He’s inspired by a policeman in a non-fiction book called Australia, History of a Nation, by Phillip Knightley. The policeman in Knightley’s book cries on his veranda at the end of the day because his job requires him to remove Aboriginal children from their homes. I wanted to know how someone would live with that inner conflict, and that creeping knowledge that something they’d believed in was in fact wrong, and had caused untold damage. I wanted to know what it would be like to be married to him, or to be his neighbour, and how the community around him might have dealt with the knowledge of what he was doing.
I wanted the reader to empathise with Steve and to feel quite uneasy about that. I didn’t want to paint him as someone you could easily write off as being entirely bad. It’s so much more interesting to consider whether anyone is essentially bad; what might make a decent person do something terrible; how we might all need to manage the good and bad in ourselves all the time. Steve is dealing with enormous shame and regret, and this shatters his idea of himself as a good person. The question of whether he deserves our sympathy, and at what point we might withdraw that sympathy, is a question I hoped my readers might be asking themselves as they read, and maybe for a while afterwards.
Was the way the book ended always going to be the ending? Or did it surprise you?
I didn’t know the solution to the mystery from the outset. I allowed myself to be open minded about it, and for a while there were a few possible outcomes in my mind. Once I’d made my mind up, I was able to steer everything in that direction. The reader has come a long way with these characters by the time they get to the closing chapters, and I wanted them to have a rewarding finale. An ending needs to answer the questions that the book sets up at the outset, to hold some surprises but also to have a sense of inevitability to it, so the reader thinks, ‘of course!’
I re-wrote the ending a few times, without changing anything from a plot perspective, but just trying to get the pace right. I wanted the ‘what happened to Mandy?’ question to be resolved as well as the questions Isla needs to answer about her family and herself, and I needed Isla to figure it all out in a way that held the tension between what she knows and what the reader knows. I was still re-writing those chapters in the very final round of edits with my publisher.
What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
I researched as I wrote, especially during the early drafts while I was trying to decide where the heart of the story was. The story bent to fit the research, once I made the decision that my character Steve would be a policeman, inspired by that cop in Philip Knightley’s non-fiction book about Australia. I went back to Australia a few times to visit my in-laws and I used that time to drink in the way people speak, the very specific light and colours, the architecture. I took dozens of photos and visited places that were significant to the book. But most of my writing about Australia was done from memory, and I deliberately fictionalised Agnes Bay so that I wouldn’t need to describe my setting with total accuracy.
The most important source while writing The Silence was the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times. I also read and re-read the Bringing Them Home report. When the book was looking likely to be published, I gave it to an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who checked it over and gave it his approval. My publisher also arranged a sensitivity read during the final edit stage. Although The Silence is a work of fiction, I feel a responsibility to the people who went through the events I’m describing, and I wanted to capture it all as truthfully as I could.
Although it didn’t explicitly make it into the book, I also read as much as I could find about Britain’s relationship with Australia and our colonial past. The English state schools I attended in the 1980s didn’t teach us about the violence our ancestors inflicted on Australia’s First Nations people when the colony was settled. I was shocked and ashamed by what I learned, and remain shocked by the fact that English school children don’t learn about the atrocities of Empire to this day.
How long did it take you to write The Silence?
I started writing The Silence when my youngest child started primary school, and by the time the book sold to Harper Collins she was about to start secondary school. So, about seven years! But I was working part-time throughout that period, and bringing up my kids, so life was busy. I had a period of about 6 months when I thought I was going to give up on it and start something new. Then I did a creative writing course in 2016 and was persuaded that I had something worth salvaging. So it was a slow process, and I expect that sounds like an extremely long time to spend writing a book. But I know from talking to lots of fellow authors that it’s not unusual.
The title of the book is very powerful especially when you understand the meaning behind it. Did you choose the title?
I did! When I was writing, I had in mind The Great Silence as a potential title, which comes from a phrase used by the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner to describe the way Aboriginal history was obscured by white Australian historians. My agent wasn’t keen on it at the time, and when the novel was submitted to publishers we used the working title Blind Spot. Nobody liked it much, and throughout the editing process we kicked around dozens of ideas for a new title, but we couldn’t reach a consensus. We really wanted a title that everyone loved, so it could have the same title in the UK, Australia and the U.S.
It was getting a bit desperate as we reached the final editing stage without a title, and I thought I was going to have to accept a mediocre title that nobody loved. I looked back through my list of working titles and found The Great Silence. I was sitting at a bus stop emailing my editors and agent, and the idea came to me as I was typing to simplify if to The Silence. I hit send on the email and got an email back within minutes – they loved The Silence. So did the Australian team and the Americans, the marketing and sales people. It was so obvious once we’d decided – why hadn’t we thought of it sooner? The simplest ideas are often the best.
What made you want to be a writer? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young child. Creative writing was a big part of the curriculum at primary school and I loved it. It was probably my first experience of realising I was good at something and I liked that feeling. I loved art and languages too, but writing and reading were always my big loves. I was so sad to realise that A-Level English didn’t contain a creative writing component – it was just reading other peoples’ books, which I enjoyed, but I really missed writing my own material. And English Literature at University (in the days before Creative Writing degrees and MAs) was the same. By the time I gathered the courage to write creatively again, in my late twenties, I was horribly rusty. But I kept going and it all came back eventually.
What is your writing process? Do you need to stick to a strict schedule, or do you write when inspiration strikes?
I like to drink tea and write undisturbed for the whole morning, while my head is fresh but my inner critic is still asleep. If I get stuck, I go and hang out some laundry or go for a walk. In the afternoons I look back over what I wrote and edit a bit. Nothing is typical right now as my kids aren’t in school, my husband is working from home and (much as I love them) I feel crowded physically and mentally. But I’m doing my best to keep the routine going, writing as much as I can every day, just to keep the muscle working even if progress is very slow.
What are your top five favourite books you’ve read this year?
I recently read a collection of short stories by Curtis Sittenfeld called You Think It, I’ll Say It, which I loved. So sharp and clever and engaging. I also just finished Monkey Grip by Helen Garner, which is set in the period in which it was written, in mid-1970s Melbourne. I found it fascinating for that reason, as an insight into the experience of a young woman in that era, torn between feminist ideology and romantic love. Prior to that I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout which is brilliant. And I’d also pick out Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones which I hugely enjoyed.
Do you have any future projects in the works that you can tell us about?
My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants. I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! – but it’s just as challenging as writing about the other side of the planet in many ways.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers?
Just that I’m so happy The Silence is published in Australia and that Australian readers are enjoying it. I made my peace with Australia in writing this book, after a rocky start all those years ago, and I have a huge affection for your beautiful continent. I hope to visit again some time, but until then I love seeing your reviews and your posts on social media. You can sign up to my newsletter via my website if you want to hear my news – www.susanallott.com
Here are a few new releases to look out for.
Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh, Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins, House of Dragons by Jessica Cluess and Not Cute. by Philip Bunting are ones we are particularly excited about!
We wanted to share some of the books that we are excited for coming out in the next couple of months!
All are available to pre-order now.
Why Visit America by Matthew Baker – 4th of August
Why Visit America is absolutely brilliant and very quickly became a staff favourite. We can’t wait for this one to be released, mostly so we can talk to everyone about it!
Equal parts speculative and satirical, the stories in Matthew Baker’s collection portray a world within touching distance of our own. This is an America riven by dilemmas confronting so many of us, turned on its head by one of the most innovative voices of the moment.
Read together, these parallel-universe stories create a composite portrait of our true nature and a dark reflection of the world we live in.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson – 18th of August
Daisy Johnson’s Sisters is coming in August!
If you haven’t read her two other books – the short story collection Fen, and Man-Booker shortlisted novel Everything Under – there is time to squeeze them in before the arrival of this latest one (we promise you will not be disappointed!).
Johnson writes tangled, darkly gleaming works – often braiding myth, or strange, almost surreal worlds and beings, into the everyday. Her stories are fierce – and they are intensely moving.
We can’t wait for this new one, which apparently draws much from psychological horror… It certainly sounds wonderfully unsettling and creepily atmospheric – an old abandoned family home, and a deep and dangerous bond between two adolescent sisters…
Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan – 1st of September
Here is the Beehive is raw and messy and we loved it. From the moment we started reading this one we couldn’t put it down.
Ana and Connor have been having an affair for three years. In hotel rooms and coffee shops, swiftly deleted texts and briefly snatched weekends, they have built a world with none but the two of them in it.
But then the unimaginable happens, and Ana finds herself alone, trapped inside her secret.
How can we lose someone the world never knew was ours? How do we grieve for something no one else can ever find out? In her desperate bid for answers, Ana seeks out the shadowy figure who has always stood just beyond her reach – Connor’s wife Rebecca.
Peeling away the layers of two overlapping marriages, Here is the Beehive is a devastating excavation of risk, obsession and loss.
Keep tuned for more recommendations, author interviews and book reviews coming soon. Stay safe!