Welcome to Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. Here to share a pot of tea and to chat about her brand new book, No Small Shame, is Christine Bell.
Christine Bell is a Melbourne fiction writer. Her debut novel No Small Shame will be published by Ventura Press (Impact Press Imprint) through Simon and Schuster – 1 April 2020.
In October 2019 she was awarded the inaugural HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Author.
Christine has 35 short fiction titles published for children including picture story, chapter and YA. Her short stories have won or been commended in national writing competitions and published in various anthologies. Christine is a Varuna fellow and holds a Master of Creative Writing (RMIT) and a Diploma of Arts – Professional Writing and Editing. She served as the Assistant Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Victoria for five years from 2014-2018 and as a judge for the CYA Writing and Illustrating Competition through 2014-2017.
Christine is working on her second adult historical novel, set in France in the aftermath of the Great War. One of the most exciting aspects of this project, and being a historical fiction author, is the research. The idea for this new novel germinated with a question she asked during a tour of an AIF military cemetery on the Somme battlefields while researching No Small Shame.
When she is not writing, Christine is attempting to learn to play the piano and planning an upcoming research trip to France.
Hello Christine. It is my pleasure to warmly welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. 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?
Thank you very much for inviting me. I’d adore a cup of English Breakfast tea with a teeny bit of milk on the side please. And I’m always up for a slice of banana cake with passionfruit frosting.
Can you tell us what genres you write for and how many books you have had published?
My last two manuscripts and current work-in-progress are all fictional works set in different historical eras. I’ve had 35 short fiction titles published for children. No Small Shame is my first adult novel.
Can you describe your new book, No Small Shame in just a sentence?
No Small Shame is the story of a young Catholic immigrant torn between love and duty at a time when there were high expectations but little agency for women.
Why did you choose the title, No Small Shame for your novel?
The publisher actually changed the title to No Small Shame, ‘stealing’ (in their words) the title of one of the chapters in the novel. Though I loved the original title, I quickly came to see how No Small Shame resonated through the characters’ feelings, actions, behaviours and the shameful deeds of war. Plus it’s catchy and suggests all manner of story possibilities.
How long did it take you to write No Small Shame?
A very long time! Years in fact. The early drafts took three years and a Masters to complete, but in the end I realised that the work didn’t fit into either the literary or commercial camp. So I set it aside for over two years while I wrote a YA historical novel. When I began work on No Small Shame again, it took me close to another three years to rewrite, polish and get it submission ready. The novel is all about deeply complex characters but with an epic storyline. It still straddles both literary and commercial genres, but I rather think now it might appeal to readers in both camps!
Can you tell us about the research process to bring No Small Shame to life? How did you incorporate this research into the narrative?
The research process was huge as the book spans seven years, two continents, a world war, a steamship voyage and the day-to-day life for women and families after men returned from WWI.
Tracing my family history and my maternal great-grandparents journey from the tiny Scottish pit village of Bothwellhaugh to the State-owned coal town of Wonthaggi in 1912/13 inspired the novel’s era and the settings.
But it was the effects of war on men and subsequently their wives and families that became the focus of my research during the rewrite. I studied letters, diaries and accounts of family life to gain a strong sense of the true picture, behind closed doors. The majority of WWI returned soldiers did not resume normal lives and that meant neither did their families. The challenges of living with a man with a mental illness became even more pressurised when combined with duty, as well as cultural and religious expectations.
Can you tell us more about the main themes of your novel?
No Small Shame includes various themes: choices, love, duty, grief, belief and betrayal. Oddly, I never considered shame was one of them during the writing! I’ve always been fascinated by how a single choice can change a life. Women had a distinct lack of choices a century ago and few ways to extract themselves from a bad choice. But my main character, Mary, is resilient and quietly determined. She remains strong in her belief that things will work out if she keeps faith and works towards her aims. She learns though through challenging circumstances that right isn’t always what she’s been taught and that she has greater agency to direct her future than she initially believes.
Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?
I wanted Mary to come to Australia believing in new beginnings and opportunities. She never dreamed all the old constraints and expectations of her class and religion would travel along with her to the new country. I wanted to explore what life would’ve been like for women of my great-grandmother’s era and how the first small steps towards agency for women evolved. Mary’s character grew immensely over the span of the novel as she grew up and had to negotiate an unhappy marriage, children, war, death and the forbidden love of a man from a different religion.
Can you tell us more about the different settings present in No Small Shame?
During a visit to the State Coal Mine museum researching my family history, I couldn’t quiet the whispers – there’s a story here! Though my story and characters are entirely fictional, the setting locations are real or were once upon a time.
Bothwellhaugh was a tiny coal mining village in Scotland. It was demolished in the 60s after the coal mine closed. I made contact with an ex-miner from Bothwellhaugh, who shared many specific and authentic details on the village and village life, and I was fortunate to travel to Scotland to meet a park ranger who provided valuable primary sources and further factual information. I also ventured down a Scottish coal mine and visited the battlefields of France. These were invaluable experiences that informed on both my settings and the narrative.
Wonthaggi began in 1909 as a tent city, but by the time of my story it was a growing town of new buildings, hospital and cottages for the miners. I was able to find the building plans and specifications for the cottages which really helped me to bring them to life.
What ingredients do you feel are necessary to compose a successful historical fiction narrative?
A strong sense of place, time and character are imperative, much the same as for any work of fiction. The difference with historical novels is that the era needs to be integral to the story and the character’s journey, as well as inform the reader. Actions and behaviours need to be relevant to the era and the story needs to be one that would not work if set in another time. If the storyline can be easily transported to any era, then there’s no real necessity to make it historical.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading No Small Shame?
A greater appreciation of how women’s steps towards gaining agency often had to be achieved by slow degrees, particularly when they came from a place of poverty, low education and strict religious constraints. Not every emerging feminist was feisty or loud or able to change the trajectory of their lives through protest or rebellion.
How did you make the transition from a short fiction children’s book writer to a historical fiction novelist?
My first published titles were short fiction works for children, though a novel was always under way in the background and my big dream was to one day be a published author of novels. As my children grew older, so did my characters. And now that my children are all grown up, my interest over recent years has turned more to adult issues, particularly exploring women’s issues.
Can you tell us about your creative working space, where do you write and is there anything vital you need to get started?
Before I can even think of opening the page, I need a large cup of tea. I love my office, which looks out onto my back garden – quite a tranquil and lovely space. My office has a full wall of book shelves, a red filing cabinet, an electric standing desk and a long desk for research. (If I’m truthful, this desk often becomes a dumping ground for books, papers, manuscripts, magazines etc!)
What is the best part of being a published author?
No Small Shame is my debut novel, so I’m really excited and a wee bit terrified. Having loved Mary and the story for so long, I’m thrilled that it is going out into the world and hope it will find many readers. It’s a tough read at times and may well break your heart.
Aside from writing, do you have any interesting hobbies?
I always wanted to learn to play the piano, but was told as child that I was tone-deaf with no ear for music. For many years I couldn’t afford music lessons and just considered it too late. Then twelve months ago, I decided that I shouldn’t let it be a regret. I should at least try! And then Santa bought me an electric piano. I’m learning to play simple songs, slowly, but am absolutely loving it. I’m also learning to master a mirrorless camera. I feel I’m cheating a bit, as my camera is so clever it pretty much makes every shot great anyhow!
If you could slip back in time, what era would you travel to and why?
I would travel to France in the era of Sylvia Beach, Gloria Stein and Hemingway in the 1920s and immerse myself in their world of writing, reading, eating oysters and drinking wine in cafés. It has always sounded so romantic to me. Though if my work didn’t sell, I wouldn’t be very good at starving in a garret!
What is next on the horizon for Christine Bell? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
I’m working on a novel that tells the story of a young Australian soldier who stays on in France after WW1, the French girl he loves, and the traumatic reason he refuses to go home.
What 2020 book releases are you most excited to read?
Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater and The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall; The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante.
Finally, wrapping up our tea themed interview, who would you most like to share a pot of tea with?
I would love to sit down with an Australian soldier from WW1, just after the war ended. I have some very definite questions I’d like to ask him regarding his perspective on certain issues.
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews for Tea with Mrs B Christine. Congratulations on the publication of No Small Shame.
Australia, 1914. The world is erupting in war. Jobs are scarce and immigrants unwelcome. For young Catholic Mary O’Donnell, this is not the new life she imagined.
When one foolish night of passion leads to an unexpected pregnancy and a loveless marriage, Mary’s reluctant husband Liam escapes to the trenches. With her overbearing mother attempting to control her every decision, Mary flees to Melbourne determined to build a life for herself and her child. There, she forms an unlikely friendship with Protestant army reject Tom Robbins.
But as a shattering betrayal is revealed, Mary must make an impossible choice. Does she embrace the path fate has set for her, or follow the one she longs to take?
From the harshness of a pit village in Scotland to the upheaval of wartime Australia, No Small Shame tells the moving story of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.
No Small Shame by Christine Bell was published on 1st April 2020 by Ventura Press.
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