Flashbacks in Fiction

In this post, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I debate the use of flashbacks in fiction.

SYDNEY: A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me! I thought of all the books that use that literary technique.

Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left. Moreover, if you reassembled events in their chronological order, they would lose the mystery and terrific vitality that the flashback structure invests the story with.

More recently there is A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, which relies on flashback so extensively that without them, the reader would understand nothing about her main characters. The novel is flawed, in my opinion – deeply flawed. But that is not the fault of the flashbacks.

The Killing Lessons, a crime novel by Saul Black, published in 2015, uses flashbacks to uncover why the killer does what he does. Crime fiction in general uses flashbacks through dialogue to uncover the sort of information that will help the detective understand the murder victim and who might have killed them.

Flashbacks are a way of revealing back story, that drama from the past that drives the main characters in the present drama. There are other ways of revealing back story. But it has to be disclosed in some way, or in a variety of ways, if the main characters are to achieve psychological and emotional depth. Back story helps the reader invest emotionally in the main characters. Even commercial fiction benefits from a strong back story, and if done correctly, that benefit can be conveyed through flashbacks.

JENNIFER: I wonder if that fellow writer was me, Sydney. It may have been, because I am wary of flashbacks. They’re a useful device, but their drawback is they bring the momentum of the main narrative to a screaming halt. Flashbacks differ from exposition, where you tell readers something about a character’s past. A flashback is a fully dramatised scene.

My advice is never to use flashbacks in the first fifty pages. Wait until a story is well-developed and has built up energy. If you can wait until half-way through, that’s good. Three-quarters of the way through is even better. Flashbacks reveal information and motivation, and detract from the mystery. Readers will no longer be curious about why a character behaves in a certain way. In my latest novel, Journey’s End, I have a protracted flashback in the final act. If that scene came any sooner, it would prick the balloon of narrative tension. Keep them guessing, I say.

SYDNEY: No, it wasn’t you, Jenny, though I can see why you think it might have been! I hold a different view from yours entirely. I think discovering motivation late in the drama is a mistake, usually – although I can conceive of occasions when it’s useful. If the character has depth, then uncovering motivation won’t dispel mystery. There should be plenty more to learn about a character – including about their motivation. Nor do I think flashbacks bring a narrative to a grinding halt. Does Wuthering Heights scream to a halt when Mr Lawrence reads Cathy’s diary? Does it scream to a halt every time Nellie tells him more of the story of Cathy and Heathcliff and the Linton family? When done properly, flashbacks deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. I’m not that interested in linear narratives. I read them but I do like a narrative that jumbles things up. Plenty of novels and short stories are built on a switching back and forth in time and benefit enormously from it.

JENNY: I think of novels such as Wuthering Heights as “flashback novels”, exceptions to the general rule. Almost the entire novel is told in flashback. If a book begins with a woman on her deathbed, for example, the majority of the novel could be her recalling her life story. The flashback fundamentally becomes the novel’s main narrative, and the present day story is little more than a framing device.

I still maintain that flashbacks in more conventional novels slow the pace and risk losing readers. It’s something writers should be aware of. That said, I have published six novels which all contain flashbacks because, as you say, they do deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. Flashbacks are worth the risk. These are my tips if you decide to use them.

  • Use appropriate starting points. Memories are triggered by objects or our senses: a photograph, the scent of pine needles, a magpie’s morning chorus. Use these devices to transport the character back in time.
  • Hook the reader into the main story first. Give them a reason to go with the flashback. This means not using one too early, and choosing an exciting part of the story to insert it in. You want the reader to care enough to dive back into the present day narrative.
  • Make it completely clear that it is a flashback. There’s nothing more annoying than reading about a character in present-day Sydney and suddenly you’re back in 1970 Sicily without quite knowing how you got there.
  • I signal the transition with a break, and by changing the verb tense. My stories are usually in past tense, so I write the first two sentences of the flashback in the pluperfect. For example: ‘He had studied German at high school. It had been his worst subject.’ This grammatical change is necessary to tell the reader that they’re going back in time. After two sentences I go back to simple past tense: ‘He hated his teacher, that was the problem. Frau Goetz was a sadistic cow.’ On transitioning back to the present, I do the same thing in reverse. Two sentences in the pluperfect, break, then back to the simple past tense.

SYDNEY: These are good tips for the transition between present story and flashback. For me, the most important thing is to give the reader a good reason to go with them. That means setting up a mystery surrounding a character which can only be answered by flashbacks. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is a good example of that. Much as I disliked Jude, the main character, I wanted to know about his past, the one he refused to tell his friends. Thus, by withholding it and describing symptoms of his psychological disturbance, Ms Yanagihara sets up a mystery that is then solved in long flashbacks. The reader is in a privileged position — the story unveils to the reader all Jude’s secrets while keeping them hidden from the other characters. That privileged communication is one of the most powerful devices a writer can use.

As to ‘flashback novels’, I think you have to ask yourself why the writer chose to use flashbacks instead of stripping away the framing device and simply presenting the story in chronological order. There will be a very good reason for it, a reason that can’t be served by a linear narrative. Linear narrative is the most popular out there, but there are times when it impoverishes a story.

Also think of all the commercial fiction that uses different storylines involving separate casts of characters — George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, for instance. Although these different storylines are not flashbacks, they demand that the reader jump from one story to another, which is what flashbacks do. Does that multi-story structure alienate the reader? No. Think of the novels written with two or more timelines involving different sets of characters. For example, Green Darkness, by Anya Seton, a commercial historical novel set in modern-day England and in the Tudor period. Again, these are not necessarily flashback stories, but they demand that the reader jump from one storyline to another. Does that alienate the reader? No. Plenty of commercial women’s fiction uses the multi-story structure. Again, while these might not be flashbacks, they ask that readers leave one storyline and commit to another, which is the objection to flashbacks.

So, whether to use flashbacks or not, consult your own taste. Do you like flashbacks? Whenever I come upon them, I go with them. Since I like them, I disregard the so-called rule that prohibits them. But hey, call me an outlaw.

If you don’t like them, don’t use them.

‘Fortune’s Son’

Featured

I’m proud to announce the upcoming release of Fortune’s Son, my new Australian historical saga that will be released on May 29th this year! Fortune’s Son has been a long time coming, and as my agent says, it is the book of my heart.

Can one man’s revenge become his redemption?

Young Luke Tyler has everything going for him: brains, looks and a larrikin charm that turns heads. The future looks bright, until he defends his sister from the powerful Sir Henry Abbot. His reward is fifteen years hard labour on a prison farm in Tasmania’s remote highlands.

Luke escapes, finding sanctuary with a local philanthropist and starting a forbidden relationship with his daughter, Belle. But when Luke is betrayed, he must flee or be hanged.

With all seeming lost, Luke sails to South Africa to start afresh. Yet he remains haunted by the past, and by Belle, the woman he can’t forget. When he returns to seek revenge and reclaim his life, his actions will have shattering consequences – for the innocent as well as the guilty.

Set against a backdrop of wild Tasmania, Australian gold and African diamonds, Fortune’s Son is an epic story of betrayal, love and one man’s struggle to triumph over adversity and find his way home.

PRAISE FOR JENNIFER SCOULLAR

‘Lovely lyrical prose. Scoullar, it turns out, is a writer of documentary calibre.’
The Australian

‘An excellent read!’ Newcastle Herald

‘Superb! … Scoullar’s writing has a rich complexity. Poetic and visual … the landscape vivid and alive.’ Reading, Writing and Riesling

Rewilding Our Homes and Hearts

When I was a child I lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between it and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

emperor-gum-caterpillarThat was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as moths as large as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with sinuous grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. The heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

As a keen amateur naturalist, I’m fascinated by the notion of rewilding – restoring flora and fauna to their historical range. The theory has gained popularity after conservation success stories such as bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park and the large-scale return of Europe’s apex predators like lynx, bears and wolverines.

Zealandia Sanctuary

Zealandia Sanctuary

New Zealand provides a shining example. It is restoring Wellington’s former water catchment to forest. The sanctuary known as Zealandia, is an ecological island in the centre of the city, and home to some of the country’s rarest species. Now an important tourist attraction, it’s responsible for increased sightings of birds like tui and the endangered kaka in surrounding suburbs.

Australia is beginning to embrace rewilding. Quolls, bilbies, bandicoots and bettongs are being returned to parts of their natural range. Plans are afoot to bring Tasmanian devils back to the mainland after a four-hundred-year absence. Many ecologists advocate reintroducing dingoes to control introduced pests like rabbits, cats and foxes – a concept I explore in my new novel, Journey’s End.

Yet rewilding isn’t restricted to sexy, large-scale conservation efforts. We can all play our part. Rewilding Australia founder, Rob Brewster, says ‘It’s about filling those vacant rock crevices, and hollow logs with the marsupials that evolved over millions of years to fill these niches. It’s about acknowledging that the world should be a wilder place – and that humankind merely shares a spot in this wild world!’

wildscapes_008And it can start in our own backyard. Wildscaping is the new gardening buzzword for mingling layers of native trees, shrubs and ground cover. Throw in a pond, a rock wall and a nesting box or two. This provides shelter and foraging areas for species that prefer different heights and micro-habitats. Then sit back and watch the garden come to life. Even pots of natives on a balcony provide vital habitat. Nature wins by growing stronger and more diverse. We win by reconnecting in a small way with the earth. Imagine local communities wildscaping schools, railway corridors, vacant lots and parks. Before long our urban landscapes could be transformed into thriving webs of life.

I’m very fortunate, where I live. Yet many of us lead lives so far removed from nature, that we rarely even touch the earth. We delude ourselves that we are somehow immune to and separate from the natural world. But at what cost? The cost to our declining environment? The cost to our hearts? Rewilding isn’t just for our land. It’s a concept for our minds and spirits as well.

The Supporting Cast

cross blogI finally have the first draft of my new novel in. Hurray! Now I can get back to regular blogging. This week I’m discussing a story’s supporting cast with friend and writing mentor Sydney Smith.

When I told my agent that I was writing a sweeping historical saga, the first thing she did after asking about my main characters, was to ask about my secondary characters and subplots. We all lead lives surrounded by family, friends, mentors, bosses, competitors and even enemies. Main characters are no different. I give my top-level secondary players their own character arcs – ongoing personal struggles that form sub-plots running alongside the major one, adding complexity and depth.

My rule for these secondary character arcs is that they must support and supplement the main action. Challenging the protagonist for example, or getting them into trouble. Helping them learn lessons or see things from different points of view. Their arcs must conclude before or at the same time as the main plot.

catch-22A good example can be found In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The main plot concerns U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Yossarian’s attempt to avoid dying in World War II. A subplot develops around mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder’s rise as the king of a black-market food selling operation. It provides countless connections and reflections on the main plot.

SYDNEY:-
Gawd, it’s been decades since I read Catch-22. I don’t recall Minderbinder at all, though I remember Major Major because of his unfortunate name and his role as victim and loser extraordinaire. He looked like Henry Fonda, I recall.

Yes, I agree with all that you say about secondary characters. I would add only that a secondary character must want something, have a goal they pursue, a problem they work on. That gives shape and direction to their character arc. That goal must interfere in some way with that of a main character. The intersection points are places where the conflict detonates into action.

I find that new writers do everything possible to limit their secondary characters. If they build up those characters into vital players in the narrative, the writer’s job suddenly becomes more complicated. Writing a novel is hard work. But in fact, while getting your secondary characters to add vitality to the story increases your work – you have to think about them and how they affect the main action – it also fills in that blankness that surrounds these characters. All new writers know what it feels like to have a character but have no idea what they should say or do. The writer gives them things to say, actions to perform, but it’s unsatisfying. A puzzle surrounds the secondary character, a puzzle that is solved when you give them a problem to solve in pursuit of a goal. Suddenly, the character has direction and meaning in the story. Suddenly, the writer feels energised in their relationship with that character. It’s like a character who was mute opens their mouth and speaks.

JENNY:-
secondary-charactersYes, characters need to clash. Your protagonist is desperate for a baby? Give her best friend an unwanted pregnancy. Protagonist wants to breed dingoes? Have her neighbour breed sheep. Protagonist policewoman has been raped? Have her boss assign her to the sexual assault squad. Protagonist is scared of water? Have her mother need rescuing from a flood. It’s easy when you get the hang of it.

Some other tips. Give your supporting character quirks, to make them instantly recognizable. Maybe they’re the witty one, or the forgetful one, or the funny side-kick. Maybe they’re a taxi driver who always gets lost.

Know their back story. Help readers understand the relevance of the supporting character by providing a few details about their life. This ties in with giving them their own character arc.

And most important of all, know what their function is in relation to your main character. Are they friend or foe? Are they a mirror or foil to the main character, showing contrasting choices and behaviours. Are they a false ally—seeming to help the main character while actually pursuing their own agenda? Understand this function before you start writing them.

SYDNEY:-
supporting-characters-2I go with everything you say, Jenny, except the last bit. The imagination needs time to brew on characters and story. I find in the work of my students that a character might appear in draft after draft but their purpose in the story is unclear. I never advise a writer to get rid of a character who doesn’t appear to have a purpose in the story, or advise them to foist a purpose onto that character. I work closely with the writer’s imagination and trust it the way I trust my own – even when the student doesn’t! Given time, the imagination will work out what this character is doing in the story. If the character is obstinate in maintaining a foothold despite their apparent lack of purpose, it will turn out that they have a vital function in the story, one that spins the story into the stratosphere. I love it when that happens.

Some Thoughts On Character Arc

cross blogI am madly writing in order to reach a deadline for my new novel, so my blog has been neglected lately. But there’s always time for some thoughts on craft, especially when in the throws of finishing a novel. Today, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I talk about character arcs.

 

SYDNEY:-
A character arc is the journey a character takes through the course of a story, from someone whose actions and decisions are shaped by their internal antagonist (also known as their character flaw), to someone who has modified or overcome their internal antagonist and is rewarded with the thing or person they most want in the world.

Mr DarcyMr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is a good example. He begins the story being proud and disdainful of others, judging people on their social standing, and ends by having a more open and accepting attitude. His reward is marriage to the woman he loves.

In The Last Coyote, by Michael Connelly, Harry Bosch’s internal antagonist is his refusal to accept that he is having a mental breakdown which is endangering the welfare of himself and others. Through the course of his investigation into the murder of his mother many years ago, he is confronted with the consequences of his reckless refusal to acknowledge that he is dangerous. His actions bring about the torture and murder of his supervising officer. By the end of the novel, he has acknowledged his flaw and has changed it. His reward is the solution to his mother’s murder.

The important thing to note is the vital role of the internal antagonist. If the character has no internal antagonist to overcome, they cannot change. They will be at the end of the story the same person they were at the start. Their circumstances will be different. But they themselves will not be different. They will not have learned an important lesson about themselves. They will not have been tested and will not have met that challenge.

JENNY:-
ScroogeWhen planning my character arcs, I focus on the personal lie the protagonist lives by. What false belief about himself and/or the world is causing his life to be unfulfilled?This fundamental misconception can take many forms, but it must be deep-seated – influencing the character’s every thought and action. Usually it can be simply stated in a sentence. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge believes a man’s worth is based on how much money he makes. In Schindler’s Ark, Schindler believes it is okay to exploit other people for profit. In Toy Story, Woody believes that his worth only lies in being the favourite. In Jane Eyre, Jane believes the only way to earn love is by serving other people.

The lie is born of a wound in the character’s past. Barely realised at first, it acts as an obstacle to achieving his goals. I always identify this lie right at the beginning. It becomes the foundation for planning the character’s transformative journey.

SYDNEY:-
Character FlawThat’s an interesting take on the issue of internal antagonist, Jenny. Some people put it that way, as a lie the character tells themselves, or a secret they keep from themselves. Whichever way the writer phrases it to themselves, the vital thing is that they understand ths aspect of character and the role it plays in the story as a whole.

As a teacher and manuscript assessor, I have seen how writers avoid this whole concept of internal antagonist. They desperately want their character to be liked, and believe the best way to achieve that is by making them free of this kind of character flaw. But that is death to a character. Readers want to identify with flawed people. The great stories in literature show that the flawed characters are the ones we love and who endure.

So I look for ways to help writers get around that fear of making their character flawed and unlikeable. Sometimes, it’s simply the way it’s expressed. I thinking referring to the internal antagonist as a lie or a secret is a good way of doing that. I’ll have to use it in future!

Launch Of Journey’s End

JE LaunchThank you so much to the friends and readers who attended the recent launch of Journey’s End at Readings Bookshop in Hawthorn. It was a great event. For those who couldn’t come, here is a transcript of the Q&A with Kathryn Ledson.

  • (1) Back in 2010, when you and I were sitting together in Andrea Goldsmith’s novel writing class with the rest of the LLGs, did you imagine we’d be sitting here today, barely six years later, talking about your 6th novel? How on earth have you managed to do it?

    Well, of course not. I didn’t think either of us would be here. It’s surreal, isn’t it? And I’ll remind you that you’ve published three novels yourself in that time Kath. What an inspiration Andrea must have been! I’m committed to writing a novel a year, so I take my writing time very seriously. I set myself a modest daily word count. Around a thousand words a day, and often less. But the point is I do write daily. It’s amazing how quickly the words add up.I’m inspired to take Steven King’s advice. He says when writing a novel you have three months. That the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season. It takes me a lot longer than that, but I always think of him when I reach the three-month mark, and I hurry up.

(2) For a lawyer, you know a hell of a lot about wild places and wild creatures. Where did this passion come from? Was it childhood influence or something that coincided with your change of career?

I think I was born this way. Perhaps we all are, it’s just that I never outgrew my natural childhood wonder at nature. I didn’t grow up in the country. We lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between us and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

That was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as stunning moths as big as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with snake-like grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. That heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

  • Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    (3) You’ve invented a new genre that we’re calling “eco-romance”. Some people are quite misguided about novels with romantic elements. They are often dismissed as being light-weight, poorly written, and so on. Your novels are far from poorly written – in fact, they are beautifully written, and touch on issues that others might prefer left unsaid. Can you tell us about some of the issues you’ve brought into the light in your other novels?

    A compelling story is always the most important thing for me, but I also explore rural conservation issues in all my novels. Brumby’s Run has cattle grazing in Victoria’s high country. Currawong Creek has coal seam gas mining on the Darling Downs. Billabong Bend has water use in the Murray Darling. Turtle Reef is about protecting the Great Barrier Reef. And the first novel I published a little eco/thriller/horror story called Wasp Season, is about invasive species – namely European Wasps. The wasp queen has her own point of view. You’d love her Kath!

(4) Let’s talk about Journey’s End – tell us first about Kim Sullivan.

JourneysEnd_coverKim Sullivan is the main character, and is a Sydney botanist. She and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment. They dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. However, when Kim is tragically widowed, selling up is the only practical option. She and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale.

The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all. The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals …

(5) You write emotion so well, Jen. I found myself hopping from laughter to tears to anger, even shame. All of your books have well defined themes. So what’s Journey’s End really about?

In some ways the novel is about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s also about Kim finding the courage to step outside her comfort zone and rediscover what’s fundamental and authentic in her life. When she sets about rewilding Journey’s End it’s not just about her land. It’s about her mind and spirit as well.

(6) We’ll talk more about that in a minute… I remember you saying once that if your characters must inhabit the city, then you get them to the country, as fast as possible. I’m keen to know about Tarringtops – where the property Journey’s End resides, and where Kim Sullivan takes her children. Does Tarringtops exist? Did you go there?

Tapin Tops National Park

Tapin Tops National Park

Tarringtops is a fictional blend of Barrington Tops and Tapin Tops – real national parks high on the Great Eastern Escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. And the character of Kim Sullivan is inspired by my old school friend, Kim Gollan, a real-life bush regenerator. She can’t be here tonight because she’s on remote Lord Howe Island, restoring habitat for the Lord Howe Island Giant Phasmid, the world’s rarest insect.

Twenty years ago Kim and her husband Pete established the Dingo Creek Rainforest Nursery at Bobin on the edge of Tapin Tops National Park. I’ve had the great privilege of staying at their nursery, and having a guided tour of Tapin Tops’ subtropical rainforest by two passionate botanists who love and understand it.

  • (7) I was completely convinced that Kim Sullivan is an expert horticulturist, and it’s hard to believe you’re not. How do you know so much about, for example, wild orchids, dingoes and trophic cascades? What sort of research do you do?– Well as you can imagine, having real-life Kim as my friend helped a lot for this particular book. But I’ve been an amateur naturalist all my life. I’m fascinated by everything wild and have some kind of David Attenborough complex. I read a lot of non-fiction. At the moment I’m reading a book called Once and Future Giants – What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Mammals. Also a book about Australian wildflowers, a book on Tasmanian history, and the 40th anniversary edition of Born Free by Joy Adamson, A Lioness of Two Worlds.
    Novels with similar subject matters are also must reads. For example, one of my works in progress has a fair bit of falconry in it. Reading novels such as H is for Hawk and My Side of the Mountain adds to the knowledge bank. I also immerse myself in locations when I can by taking research trips. When you visit a place, maps turn into landscapes and you get a feel for the people. And of course there’s always Dr Google
  • (8) Journey’s End takes us beyond Australia’s borders and touches on a very topical issue – racism. Tell us about Taj.
  • snow leopardTaj is an Afghani refugee who has been given asylum in Australia through the Interpreter Resettlement Program. He comes from Nuristan province in the north-east, an area which doesn’t conform to the stereotype of Afghanistan being a place of deserts and bombed out landscapes. Nuristan is instead a place of mountains, rushing rivers, and vast stands of oak, cedar and pine. These wild forests of the Hindu Kush reach all the way to the snow-capped summits of the Pamir range, known as the roof of the world. Next stop, China. Snow leopards and bears still live there. Wolves too.Taj is Tingo’s town handyman, but like many refugees, he once had a very different career. I’ve met a Pakistani taxi driver who was an orthopaedic surgeon back home, and a cleaner who was a lawyer. It’s hard starting out in a new country and Taj has a haunted past. It takes him a while to find his feet.
  • (9) As well as animals and the environment, children always play an important role in your novels. Taj has a very special relationship with both Kim’s children. Can you tell us about this? 
  • – Kim has two children, 11yo Jake and 7yo Abbey. Both children have highly emotional responses to Taj, who is working around the house and yards, preparing the property for sale. Jake hates him. The children’s soldier father was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and perhaps understandably, Jake can’t get past the fact of where Taj comes from. Abbey on the other hand loves him – she is drawn by the gift Taj has with animals, and by his gentleness.
  • (10) Journey’s End is a love story in more ways than one. There’s a gentle, budding romance, and a worrying one. This book explores the love between adults and children, humans and animals, female friends, animals and nature. For you, as its writer, which of these romances came most easily to the page?

    As you might guess Kath, the romance with the animals and nature came most easily. Followed closely by the love between the animals and the two children. I completely understand that intense childhood connection with the natural world. Because, as I said before, I never outgrew it.However, this time I didn’t have my usual struggle writing the human relationships. I think this is because of my respect for Kim and the fact that I’m secretly in love with Taj. He’s a wolf-whisperer. What’s not to love? 
  • (11) I think your books are more than just greatly entertaining. They’re important and I think should be widely read. For example, I love that you’ve shown in Journey’s End how we can SHARE our environment with its indigenous plants and creatures, instead of culling or destroying them. What else would you like your readers to take away from this story? 
  • – Journey’s End has several main themes. It’s about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s about finding the courage to live an authentic life. It’s also about overcoming prejudice. Both Taj and the dingoes are unfairly judged throughout the story, Taj by Jake and the dingoes by the town. Prejudice is a very destructive force that is based in fear. It’s only when people confront their fears that positive change can happen.
  • (12) Finally, I want to ask about your writing process. I was well into my third book before I discovered mine. Do you have one? What’s yours? 
  • – I write very consistently, daily if I can. I’m not a fast writer – a thousand words a day is about as much as I can manage, and I often write less, but it’s amazing how quickly the words add up. I edit as I go, producing very clean manuscripts that don’t require much redrafting.I do chapter summaries as I write, noting characters, POV, location, and main plot points. This is an invaluable tool during the redrafting process. If I want to add scenes I can see straight away where they will fit in best. I roughly plan the book before I start, putting plot points on a whiteboard, following a three-act structure. It always changes a lot in the writing, but it helps to have some sort of guide.
  • (13) And now, what next? It’s exciting. Are you allowed to tell? 
  • – I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new contract for a historical saga that will be out with Penguin in the first half of next year.They say history is written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It will begin in late 19th century Tasmania, and is the first novel of a trilogy. It’s the story of Luke Tyler, a man unjustly condemned to prison in his youth, and of Isabelle Holmes, the girl he loves. It follows their lives over a twenty-five-year period.CoorinnaLike in all my stories, animals play an important part. It will also be the story of one of the last Tasmanian tigers, soon to disappear from Earth after twenty-five million years. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. I think it’s time to fill the gap. 
  • The novel will explore the forces that caused the extinction of the greatest marsupial predator since Thylacoleo Carnifex the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years earlier. What if the ultimate culprits weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play? And could the heroic actions of one young fugitive determine the fate of an entire species? I’m having a lot of fun writing this one!

Beauty & Lace – Review of Journey’s End

Australian Women Writer's Challenge

Releasing a new book and getting ready to launch it is a busy time in any writer’s life. LaunchSo instead of my usual blog, I’m posting a review from the online magazine Beauty and Lace. Thank you Michelle for reading Journey’s End as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, and for the five stars! (Winners of the prize draw can be found at the end of the post)

I hereby extend an open invitation for my readers to attend the launch at Readings Hawthorn at 6.30 PM on Thursday July 7th. I will be in conversation with friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. I will be terribly serious and Kath will make jokes. Free wine and nibbles.

 

Jennifer Scoullar goes from strength to strength and I finished Journey’s End the way I started it, on the brink of tears, though very different types of tears.

JourneysEnd_coverKim Sullivan and her husband Connor have big dreams of their life together and many of them centre on the rundown property Connor inherited, Journey’s End, and finally the time has come to start working on all of their plans. In a few short days Connor will be back from war-torn Afghanistan and they can start making their dreams for Journey’s End realities.

Until the knock on the door that changes everything, the knock on the door every wife and mother fears; the knock that says Connor isn’t coming home.

Two years later Kim decides it is time to put Journey’s End on the market, all of the dreams she had for the property were dreams she shared with Connor and without him it just seems way too hard.

Life has moved on but the family is struggling and the passing of their dog Scout is what broke me in the opening pages; I think because I can relate as I have an old dog of my own who is starting to slow down and I can’t bear to think of life without him. They decide to take a trip to Journey’s End to scatter Scouts ashes and look at what needs to be done to ready the place for sale. My biggest issue here was that I couldn’t understand scattering ashes in a place you’re about to sell, but that’s just me and I am already torn with how to make the decisions when the time comes.

The first trip to Journey’s End is heartbreaking for Kim, the family have moved out of the family home so they don’t have the constant reminders at every turn; once they get to Journey’s End that’s exactly what they find. It’s like having to let go all over again. But there is something comforting about the place and before long Kim decides to take 12 months off work and go to Journey’s End to get the place well and truly ready for sale and give the children a change of scenery.

As is always the case in Scoullar novels the surroundings, and the animals, play as large a role in the story as the people.

Kim Sullivan and her children need to heal, they need to learn to live again and they need to learn to live with their grief, rather than just keep on with the one foot in front of the other existence.

Journey’s End also needs to heal, it’s been left neglected for too long and there is much work to be done to bring it back to a thriving property. The property has a conservation covenant on it, meaning that it can’t be logged, and it will affect the type of buyer that’s attracted. The neglect of the property has attracted an endless stream of wild animals, the ones that are actually more looked upon as pests in farming areas. Lots of wild rabbits, foxes, kangaroos, wallabies, goats and they even see a couple of brumbies on their first visit.

Much of the story centres on the wildlife work done by Kim’s neighbour Mel, and in turn the Sullivans as they take on the overflow and always have a menagerie of orphaned animals around, and the regeneration of Journey’s End. The replanting, the controversial pest eradication program and the slow fixing up of the house.

Alongside the story of the property is the reawakening of Kim, the blossoming of Abbey and the calming of Jake. The change of scenery is good for the family; they meet new people and have a totally different set of experiences in the small town of Tingo than they would in Sydney.

The story isn’t all about the Sullivans, there is also the mysterious Taj; a relative newcomer to Tingo who generally keeps to himself but is a great handyman around town.

The story is narrated in the third person but alternates, not evenly or regularly, between Taj and Kim.

Taj has a haunted past and his grief and loss is evident in his eyes, though no-one in town really knows his story. Jake takes an immediate dislike to him and Abbey is the complete opposite being drawn to him. Taj is not only a talented handyman but also has a way with animals. He works on the house and yards for Kim to help ready it for sale, and they begin to also work together on Kim’s plans for the property and rewilding the bushland.

Ben is the real estate agent looking after the sale of Journey’s End and he forms a friendship with Kim. He is charming and charismatic, perhaps a little too much, and Jake takes an immediate shine to him, though Abbey never warms to him.  The reactions of the kids illustrate the sharp contrast between the two men in the story.

The characters are beautifully drawn, they are realistic and believable; their pain is palpable and their reawakening is a joy to watch. Scoullar has done another stellar job of creating fantastic characters that complement one another and make you feel… even if that feeling is one of anger.

The small town of Tingo and its characters are an interesting mix and help complete the picture when it comes to the more controversial plans Kim puts into place on her property.

Journey’s End has a little bit of everything, it’s a little bit suspense, a little bit romance, a lot of regeneration and a great deal of environmental awareness. Love, learning to laugh again, friendship, family and living with loss are all major players in this engaging new Scoullar novel.

Every Jennifer Scoullar novel I have read helps bring awareness to an environmental issue and I have loved every one of them, and now I need to go and track down the one or two that I have missed along the way.

Journey’s End is book #30 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2016

Congratulations to jay hicks and Janine K for each winning a signed copy of Journey’s End. I shall email you soon for your postal address 🙂 Thank you to everyone who commented.