It is a pleasure to welcome Meredith Jaffe to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, an author interview series. To help celebrate the release of The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison we sat down for a chat. Thanks Meredith!
What is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
Well, it does depend on the time of day. First thing in the morning, it is tea with a dash of milk. That will be Australian grown loose leaf tea brewed in a pot until it’s nice and strong.
Can you give us an overview of your writing career to date?
Ignoring the primary and high school scribblings, I’ve been writing for just over a decade. A chunk of it was in the form of journalism from my days at The Hoopla where I edited the weekly literary column, The Bookshelf. Most of it has been writing novels (four published, one in progress) and one short story.
How different was the experience of writing The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison compared to your previous releases?
I can’t lie, every novel comes with its own challenges. And even though you grow as a writer with every novel, inherent in that growth is pain. That’s a simple fact of life. I wrote The Fence in 28 days. I wrote Horse Warrior in 10. Whereas, The Making of Christina was nine years between conception and publication. Can readers tell? I suspect not.
The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison sits in between at around four years. It presented so many unique challenges. It meant meticulous research because setting it in a gaol was a form of world building. Creating a cast of male characters whose lives and experiences were authentic but equally challenged stereotypes of prisoners and prison life. And indeed, the sheer number of characters. Dressmakers is an ensemble piece which means that in any one scene, there are a lot of points of view. Writing that without driving the reader nuts with all the head hopping was a process in careful editing. And all the while, making it look like the swan gliding across the lake!
Can you tell us what inspired the creation of your new book, The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison?
Back in 2014, I was preparing to interview UK writer Esther Freud about her new book, Mr Mac and Me. I came across an article she had written for the Guardian about a charity called Fine Cell Work. When I jumped on to their website, I was amazed at the beautiful stitching done by these men. Not just needlepoint but quilting as well. Out of nowhere, the thought came to me, what if one of the prisoners decided to make his daughter’s wedding dress?
Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?
As soon as I had that thought about the wedding dress, I saw Derek. Clear as day. A contemporary story at that time was the library closures in the UK. The furore this caused sparked a debate about how libraries are not supposed to be judged by their financial cost but by their public good. This gave me the Doc, murderer, and prisoner librarian. Last but by no means least, I needed someone in the sewing group who was an exceptional stitcher to pull off the idea that the men would make this dress. And that man is the irrepressible Joey Maloney.
Can you tell us more about the interesting setting base of The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison?
Yarrandarrah Correctional Centre is a fictional gaol somewhere in regional NSW. Like most Australian prisons, it is made up of several separate prisons within the one overarching prison. C Wing, where the story is set, is the brand new minimum security wing. The prison system in Australia is a State-run enterprise and this means the rules and regulations differ depending where you are. I have cherry picked from these to make Yarrandarrah prison function in a way that best suit my story. Therefore, it is an absolute fiction. Pretty accurate but not real.
Did you undertake any research to bring The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison to life?
Tonnes! I’ve never been to prison. I was supposed to tour Long Bay but COVID restrictions put paid to that. I had to rely on reading a lot of content from correctional handbooks, PhDs, and articles on everything from diet to libraries to what toiletries prisoners are allowed to have. I read several memoirs written by people who had been imprisoned. I am also very lucky to have met someone who spent twenty years in the system who was happy to answer all the dumb questions. As I said earlier, the research was critical in underpinning the worldbuilding required to make this novel work.
What issues do you explore in The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison?
I am really interested in the question, do you go to prison to be punished for your crimes versus as punishment for your crimes? Different political environments dictate policy on how the correctional system implements programs around these two points of view. I am fascinated by the whole issue of rehabilitation. Making the wedding dress is the vehicle I use to look at these issues.
I am also really interested in the issue of addiction. Derek is in gaol for embezzling money from the local golf club to fund his gambling habit. But I also explore more socially acceptable addictions like shopping and technology. It allows me to explore the idea posited by Johann Hari in his book, Chasing the Scream, that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection.
The latest statistics state that in Australia, 1 in 3 prison entrants have an education level below Year 9 and a lot of them are functionally illiterate. So the prison library provides an avenue to talk about literacy and how learning to read can directly impact a person’s future and, in this environment, the rates of recidivism.
And another big issue within the prison population is mental health. This is where the sewing group is such a valuable concept because it brings so many benefits to the men. For starters, it fills a lot of time in lives that don’t have that much to do on a day-to-day basis, especially when the men are in lockdown. Stitching is meditative. You can’t stitch when you’re angry. It also allows time to think upon life’s problems and how to solve them. It’s a creative expression that brings its own satisfactions. The men’s sewing group, the Backtackers, brings them together each week. It’s a place to escape the jail talk and boredom and instead build friendships. Plus, they earn money for their stitching and that helps pay for things the prison doesn’t provide. All of which adds up increase confidence, self-esteem and hope. Not only that, the skills they learn at Backtackers are transferable to life on the outside. My fictitious charity, Connecting Threads, and Backtackers are modelled on the real life charity Fine Cell Work. It was such a great vehicle to imagine how much better these men’s lives could be if they had such an opportunity. Not to mention, providing some great comic moments.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison?
Oh golly. I mean the entire novel is filled with surprises because it is entirely a work of fiction. I had to start from the ground up. There is not a single autobiographical moment in it! So writing it has been a learning curve from go to woah.
What do you hope readers will take away from the experience of reading The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison?
I hope readers have a few laughs, maybe a bit of a cry at the end, and that they love every minute they spend with this wonderful cast of characters. I’ve written this to be feel good fiction and that’s how I want people to feel when they’ve turned the last page. Good.
If The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison made it to the big screen, who would you like to cast?
Isn’t it terrible how we all fantasise about who would play our characters? I mean really? How many books ever become movies? But since you ask, definitely Sam Neill for the Doc. Either Mark Coles Smith or Hunter Page Lochard would be perfect for Joey. Derek needs to be played by someone who does bland really well. So I don’t think I’ll go there. I wouldn’t want to insult any famous actors.
When you are not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I often turn to cooking when I need to relax or nut out a plot problem. My other favourite thing is to get stuck into the garden and prune the roses. We have a lot of roses. I’ve discovered a real passion for deadheading!
What book is next on your reading pile?
Kate Holden’s new non fiction, The Winter Road, which is about the 2014 murder of environmental officer Glen Turner by farmer Ian Turnbull out at Croppa Creek. She is such an amazing writer and I’ve been hooked from the first page.
What are you working on writing wise at present?
I’m two-thirds of the way through the second draft of a new novel with the working title I Forgive You. The elevator pitch is, how many ways can you break a marriage.
Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Meredith. Congratulations on the release of your new book The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison.
Can a wedding dress save a bunch of hardened crims? The Full Monty meets Orange is the New Black in a poignantly comic story about a men’s prison sewing circle.
Derek’s daughter Debbie is getting married. He’s desperate to be there, but he’s banged up in Yarrandarrah Correctional Centre for embezzling funds from the golf club, and, thanks to his ex-wife, Lorraine, he hasn’t spoken to Debbie in years. He wants to make a grand gesture – to show her how much he loves her. But what?
Inspiration strikes while he’s embroidering a cushion at his weekly prison sewing circle – he’ll make her a wedding dress. His fellow stitchers rally around and soon this motley gang of crims is immersed in a joyous whirl of silks, satins and covered buttons.
But as time runs out and tensions rise both inside and outside the prison, the wedding dress project takes on greater significance. With lives at stake, Derek feels his chance to reconcile with Debbie is slipping through his fingers …
A funny, dark and moving novel about finding humanity, friendship and redemption in unexpected places.
The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison by Meredith Jaffe was published on 5th May 2021 by HarperCollins – AU. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Meredith here: