Welcome to Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. Here to share a pot of tea and to chat about his brand new book, Sweet Bitter Cane, is G.S. Johnston. I reviewed Sweet Bitter Cane this week, awarding it five full stars!
G.S. Johnston is the author of three historical novels, Sweet Bitter Cane (2019), The Cast of a Hand (2015), The Skin of Water (2012). And a fourth novel set in contemporary Hong Kong, Consumption (2011). The novels are noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings.
In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels.
Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Canberra, Australia. He is treasurer of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.
He would be impressed with humanity if someone could succeed in putting an extra hour in every day.
Hello Greg. It is my pleasure to welcome to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews and thank you for joining me for Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. To set the mood for our tea infused interview, what is your preferred beverage, tea, coffee or other? And side accompaniment, scone, cake or other?
Tea would be lovely, something fragrant. And scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam would be a delight.
Can you tell us what genres you write for and how many books you have had published?
The bulk of my writing has been Historical Fiction. I like the “ladder” history gives me for a timeline, and then I can weave in an out of that. But I have also written contemporary time-based novels. Sweet Bitter Cane will be my fourth published novel although I have many more in many bottom drawers.
Sweet Bitter Cane has just been released. Can you describe the book in just a sentence?
Sweet Bitter Cane is the story of a young woman seeking to escape the social injustices of post WWI Italy, only to find herself in a storm of new injustices she hadn’t foreseen and has to fight to survive.
How long did it take you to write Sweet Bitter Cane?
The actual writing was very quick, a year. This included the research and editing. Once I finally started, it came together quite easily. It was great fun to write.
Where did the inspiration for the lead character of Amelia come from?
My neighbour told me about her mother’s story. This forms the novel’s second half of Amelia’s life. But I felt I wanted to write what had happened before the 1930s, in order to understand what happened later which seemed mainly driven by old grudges. But my neighbour didn’t know much of this time, and so I felt free to research and imagine. As it turned out, some of my suppositions were correct.
Did you need to undertake any research to bring Sweet Bitter Cane to life? How did you incorporate this research into your book?
The initial research happened over thirty years of slowly hearing these stories. Then, more specifically, my neighbour gave me a folder of documents about her parents. This was such a gift and saved me so much time but also was the trigger to commit to the project. Once I started writing, I guess my eyes and ears were pricked to hear more about it. I remember wandering the tightly-packed and mildly-disordered shelves of Gould’s Books in Sydney, sadly no longer with us, and finding entirely by chance a very small volume on Australian life in the 1920s. The description of a house in this book, with the description of iron filigree, became Amelia and Italo’s first house in Babinda. Very late in the writing, another friend’s father told me the reason a slouch hat is worn the way it is. This became Fergus’s hat. The ideas come from everywhere. I just have to listen.
Can you tell us more about the inspiration for the evocative Australian setting of your novel?
The “real” people lived in Babinda in Far North Queensland. I thought of changing the town, even inventing a town, but when I started to research, the town had many features I could use. The name, Babinda, whilst it’s a local indigenous word for mountain, has the sound of an Italian name and this helps to entrance Amelia to travel from Italy. The high rainfall, arguably the highest in the country, was another feature, as were the broad streets and the “multicultural” aspects of the town. I have a photo of a shop with a Victorian pelmet, the name is A. C. Mellick Drapery & Mercer (a Lebanese family) and an Italian flag flies in front of it. In the documents, there was a character reference from the town’s pharmacist who was Chinese. Irish and English settlers’ names pepper the town. It seemed such a crucible for this story I decided to use it.
What ingredients do you feel are necessary to compose a historical fiction based narrative?
No story will work without escalating tension. Usually, in history, you find an event. This in itself is often not enough for a novel. So, I have to look at the event, and imagine in all directions to find a story of people. And this involves wondering what the hell they were thinking at certain points, and this can never be known. So, I guess it’s about working back to the germ of the story and then working forwards again with imagination.
What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing Sweet Bitter Cane?
Writing the back-cover blurb. Harder than a novel. Just joking. There were many hard things, but the hardest was probably finding information about the women living on the cane fields during that time. They have been unwritten by history. I was fortunate to have access to my neighbour and when I prompted her, she managed to drift in to memory and many small details of their life emerged. At one point late in the novel, I needed Amelia to reminisce about her life in Italy. I thought she would do this through cooking and I struggled for a long while to find something identifying with her Italian village, and that she’d not have been able to cook when she first came to Australia due to a lack of ingredients. And the heat of Babinda would have forebade the heavy, warming food of northern Italy. My neighbour suggested, pizzoccheri, which is a particular type of pasta made in the north of Italy from buckwheat. Perfect. And perfectly yummy when I cooked it, purely for research purposes.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Sweet Bitter Cane?
Amelia’s life goes through many restless phases, but I think she comes to rest when she decides that what she has in her immediate life, her husband, her family and the farm, are all she needs for happiness. Live simply and be content. She is happy at the end of the novel. What happens after that is for the reader to decide.
How will you celebrate the official release day of Sweet Bitter Cane?
I want to be happy, sparked with joy, but I’m full of trepidation. To quote W. B. Yeats, I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
What writers have inspired you along the way to publication?
I read as widely as possible. But there are three authors and books I keep going back to for inspiration, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Byatt’s Possession- A Romance, and Ondaatje’s The English Patient. But as of last year, I have to add another, Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Unbelievably good and technically inspiring.
Can you tell us about your creative working space, where do you write and is there anything vital you need to get started?
Sweet Bitter Cane was written in a lovely space in the year before I left Sydney. The house had a small room above an old coach house. We had an ancient cat, Rose, who had decided to live mostly up there and we had an old rescue Labrador, Joey, who finally lost enough weight to get up the stairs. So the three of us wrote Sweet Bitter Cane there, Joey around my feet and Rose on my desk, invariably perched on what I wanted to read. For inspiration, I had a view up the driveway to the street, another out across the neighbours’ rooves to the sky. There are two contradictory things I need to start to write; I need to feel relaxed but at the same time feel a tension to get the work done and not dither.
Aside from writing, do you have any interesting hobbies?
I like to cook, mainly Italian, but have tentatively branched out to Indian of late. Rather than Eat, Prey, Love I think my next novel should be Eat, Eat, Eat. I read a lot, and like to watch a lot of movies as I can consume stories very quickly. Apart from that, by the time the pets are cared for, and the house and washing are cleaned, there aren’t many hours left in a week.
What is next on the horizon for G.S. Johnston? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
I have two projects on the go at the moment. The most advanced is set in contemporary Sydney, looking at the “new” pressures coming to play on a modern family’s life. It has a number of working titles but I like Dione C. Mee at the moment. The other is set in Italy just before the outbreak of WWII. I was lucky enough to go to Italy in 2018 for research which was very inspiring. I have done a lot of work but felt I needed to put it down for a while. I’m hoping when I go back to it, it will be clear what needs to be done. At the moment it is called Bread – A Romance. I know. Food again. But who can resist fresh bread?
What 2019 book releases are you most excited to read?
Clearly, Sweet Bitter Cane. But to be honest, I don’t look at the present releases that much. An example of this is A Fine Balance which was released in 1995, and I didn’t find it till 2018. How I missed this, I don’t know. A book has to mature for me, prove its mettle. They seem to appear in my reading life when I need them.
Finally, wrapping up our tea-themed interview, who would you most like to share a pot of tea with?
Wow, that’s a long list of tea dates, but I would think Joni Mitchell. When I was VERY young, I heard Big Yellow Taxi and realised the Old Man of which she sung wasn’t her father but someone else. It was the first time I felt I’d gone behind the veil of words to the deeper meanings. Years later I heard her song Amelia (yes – I borrowed this name) which effortlessly incorporated Greek mythology into the wilds of the popular song. But she’s unwell now, having suffered a stroke. But I’m sure we’d find things to chat and natter about.
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews for Tea with Mrs B, Greg. Congratulations on the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane!
Sweet Bitter Cane: An Italian-Australian World War II saga
One woman. Two men. A war.
Twenty-year-old Amelia marries Italo, a man she’s never met. To escape an Italy reeling from the Great War, she sails to him in Far North Queensland to farm sugarcane. But before she meets her husband, she’s thrown into the path of Fergus, a man who’ll mark the rest of her life.
Faced with a lack of English and hostility from established cane growers, caught between warring unions and fascists, Amelia’s steady hand grows Italo’s business to great success, only for old grudges to break into new revenge. She is tested by forces she couldn’t foresee and must face her greatest challenge: learning to live again.
Sweeping in its outlook, Sweet Bitter Cane is a family saga but also an untold story of migrant women – intelligent, courageous and enduring women who were the backbone of the sugarcane industry and who deserve to be remembered.
Sweet Bitter Cane by G.S. Johnston was published on 20th February 2019 by MiaRebaRose Press.
Connect with G.S. Johnston here: