To celebrate the release of The Secrets We Keep, author Shirley Patton’s debut novel, I have a Q & A with Shirley I would love to share with you all. It is true pleasure to welcome Shirley to Mrs B’s Book Reviews for a Q & A session. This Q & A will follow a review of The Secrets We Keep.
About the author…
Dr Shirley Patton grew up in outback Western Australia and now lives with her partner, and a miniature schnauzer, in wine-growing country overlooking the beautiful Tamar River, Northern Tasmania.
A decade ago, she left an academic career as a published researcher of family violence, and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Social Work at the University of Tasmania, to write fiction full time. Since then, she has obtained a Masters of Creative Writing, and had published several short stories in a variety of literary publications. Prior to practising social work, Shirley worked in the media as a television newsreader and television chat show host.
Q. Hello Shirley. It is my pleasure to welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. I greatly appreciate the time you have provided to answer a few questions. To begin, The Secrets We Keep, your debut novel for HQ (Harper Collins) Australia has recently been released. Can you give us an outline of what we can expect?
A. Thank you, Mrs B, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my debut novel, ‘The Secrets We Keep’. Readers can expect to be transported back to the late 1980s, in the goldmining town of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Social worker and city woman, Aimee McCartney, is trying to outrun her past from Perth, where her father is a politician in the recently elected government. Her encounters with the local women, Lori, her optimistic work colleague; Kerry, her stoic client; and Agnes, an older woman who holds with the old ways of knowing, force her to confront her past and find a way to resolve an ethical dilemma that requires, as she says, ‘the wisdom of Solomon’. The story explores themes of love, grief, social justice and more broadly, notions of choice and destiny. And how we make meaning of the decisions we make, what we say to ourselves in order to live with those choices. While it is a poignant story, it is one filled with hope. My stories must always have hope – I couldn’t live in a world without hope.
Q. What came first in the creation of this novel – the plot, the characters or the setting when you first set out to write The Secrets We Keep?
A. Following the loss of a parent, and perhaps feeling nostalgic, the setting came first – Kalgoorlie where I grew up. Then my writing mentor asked me to consider a ‘What if’ question, something I might have wondered about, a ‘concern’, so to speak, and the premise of the novel emerged, but not how it would evolve. Then the characters came along to carry the notions of choice and destiny that I wanted to explore. I only knew how it would conclude – the decision Aimee would make – close to the end when I felt I truly knew her.
Q. Did you need to undertake any research to bring The Secrets We Keep to life?
A. I worked as a clerk in a welfare office in Kalgoorlie in the 80s surrounded by inspiring, committed social workers from the city so no research required there for my setting! Aimee’s character, her compassion and sense of social justice honours those women I met – indeed many of the Kalgoorlie characters, although the story is a fiction, are inspired by amalgams of people I grew up with. And by growing up there, the strong sense of place that permeates the whole story emerged organically. But I did need to undertake research into the political and social context of the time, particularly the more controversial aspects.
Q. Let’s talk setting. What made you decide to base your debut novel in the West Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie?
A. Well, as I mentioned, becoming more reflective in my life played a part. I became aware that the place is imprinted on my skin – I know every street, every building, the people, the culture, the history – it’s a part of who I am. And I realised that I wanted to ‘bear witness’ to that particular time and place.
Q. What character did you most identify with in The Secrets We Keep?
A. I wonder if there might be some truth in the idea I’ve heard that there is a bit of the author in their character(s). I think I might identify most with Lori, who is of Italian heritage, because of her exuberance, optimism and also coming from a migrant background.
Q. Is there a particular scene in The Secrets We Keep that you are proud of?
A. I particularly enjoyed writing both the Christmas lunch scene and the protest rally. Both felt full of the spirit of the local people.
Q. Did you celebrate the official release day of The Secrets We Keep in a special way?
A. Yes, it was March 19th 2018, and I was in Sydney ahead of my first book launch the following day. I met with my wonderful agent, Selwa Anthony and then shared a few glasses of champagne over dinner with my partner and a good friend.
Q. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?
Like many authors, the journey took many years. I left an academic career a decade ago to write fiction. In 2009 I obtained a mentorship grant from Arts Tasmania with author, Robyn Friend, to support the writing of ‘The Secrets We Keep‘ and I completed the novel in 2010. In 2011 a friend generously put me in touch with their agent who took me on, which was so encouraging – my agent’s belief in me then and now is invaluable. The novel was sent out to all the mainstream publishers over the next year but without success. One acquisition editor in one publishing house did love it but it didn’t get past the finance people – she was very encouraging and said keep writing. I did keep writing but I decided I wanted to further develop my writing craft so in 2012 I enrolled in a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Tasmania, with lecturers, Dr Rohan Wilson and Dr Danielle Wood (both past Vogel Prize winners) and wrote the first 50,000 words of my second novel. This helped me develop more confidence in my ‘voice’. Between 2014-16 I slightly reworked ‘The Secrets We Keep‘, finished the first full draft of the second novel (YA historical/legend), co-authored a third novel (YA fantasy) with a male writing college and started researching my second adult novel (historical). As advised, I kept writing! Then in 2016, my agent sent the latest version of ‘The Secrets We Keep‘ to HQ (Harper Collins) and to my great delight, they accepted it. So, a decade long journey!
Q. Your writing has been compared to the prolific Australian author Judy Nunn. What writers have inspired you along the way to publication?
A. What a complement, thank you. I’ve read and been inspired by many of Judy Nunn’s novels including ‘Kal’ set in the gold rush days of Kalgoorlie, and ‘Maralinga’, about the atomic testing last century in South Australia. It encouraged me to thread social issues with the narrative of characters’ lives. I love Western Australian, much loved author, Liz Byrski and have read all of her novels – I am inspired by her focus on women and relationships and her respect for the ‘domestic’, valuing the everyday lives of women. Isabelle Allende and Shifra Horne’s novels inspire me for their magical realism and lyricism as did Tim Winton’s beautiful ‘Cloudstreet’ for its whimsical elements. They helped me find the courage to write about the mystical in ‘The Secrets We Keep‘.
Q. Australian writers seem very supportive of one another. As a debut author what support have you personally received?
A. Oh, where do I start! I recently wrote on this very subject for author, Louise Allen’s guest writers blog, ‘In the Attic’. Louise is an example of supportive Australian writers! My wonderful mentor, Tasmanian author Robyn Friend, has been a generous teacher and supporter over many years, as she has for dozens of Tasmanian writers for decades. Well known authors Fiona McIntosh, Liz Byrski, Jesse Blackadder and Amanda Curtin have been generous in their support and encouragement over the past decade for which I am so grateful. I have many, many writing colleagues both in my writing group and as friends, too many to mention, who have played a crucial role in my journey to publication and writing life, and continue to do so. From reading my drafts, to keeping me motivated, to teaching me, to endorsing my writing, to reviewing ‘The Secrets We Keep‘, I appreciate each one. I try to pay it forward.
Q. Can you tell us about your creative working space, where do you write and is there anything vital you need to get started?
A. I love my creative writing space, Mrs B! I wrote ‘The Secrets We Keep‘ at my dining room table looking out the window at the beautiful Tamar River in the Tamar Valley, Tasmania, where I live. It is a very tranquil rural setting. But a few years ago, I created a writing room, with a very wide desk so I could spread out, two wisteria coloured sofas, pale lilac painted walls, white floor to ceiling bookshelves and green accents here and there. I have the same view and love to watch the changing seasons, especially when snow dusts the distant mountains. To get started, usually early morning, I play a meditative instrumental CD called ‘Peaceful Place’ by Sandy McGregor and mediate for five minutes. I like to have a cup of Twinings Ceylon Orange Pekoe black tea in a beautiful cup and saucer to sip on, and I keep the CD playing until it finishes while I write. That is my regular habit but when I have needed more inspiration or motivation I have used Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ techniques including starting the day with a page or two of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing to clear my mind. Mostly, though, I just get on with it!
Q. How do you balance life with writing?
A. Generally, I write three days a week, Monday to Wednesday every week except around Christmas and New Year or when I go on holidays (although I sometimes get bursts of inspiration on holidays and fill a notebook up with ideas). But when I have a tight deadline I will write every day.
Q. What is next on the horizon for Shirley Patton? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
A. Apart from a goal of getting my young adult novel to a publishable stage, I’m researching for and writing my next adult novel set in the mid 1800s in Tasmania based on a true story – a scandal. I feel I could research it forever, that there is so much to learn about the time but I hope to overcome the doubts and just write!
Q. Finally, what 2018 book releases are you most excited to read?
A. West Australian authors, Amanda Curtin’s new release ‘Kathleen O’Connor in Paris’ and Liz Byrski’s ‘A Month of Sundays’.
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews Shirley and congratulations on the publication of The Secrets We Keep.
Connect with Shirley here:
If this Q & A enticed you to read The Secrets We Keep, here is the blurb:
For readers of Judy Nunn’s Spirits of the Ghan… When a newcomer blows into the mining town of Kalgoorlie she unwittingly uncovers a web of lies and a heartbreaking tie with her tumultuous past in this compelling family saga where the personal and political collide.
A mother’s secret, a father’s betrayal, a town on the edge…
When social worker Aimee arrives in the mining town of Kalgoorlie, she is ready for a fresh start. Her colleagues Lori and Paddy seem friendly, and she is also drawn to one of her cases: the Steele family, whose future looks particularly bleak. But Aimee has a dark secret and as the past reaches out towards her once more, she realises that somehow her secret is connected to this unfamiliar but harshly beautiful town and its inhabitants.
As she strengthens her ties with the local community – especially with the vibrant Lori, stoical Kerry and wise Agnes – she finds herself questioning earlier decisions. Can Aimee reveal her secret, even if it is not hers alone to share?
A compelling novel of the transcendental love of children and the truth’s unwillingness to stay hidden.
The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton was published on 19th March 2018 by HQ (Harper Collins) Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.