Interview with Alison Booth – Author of The Philospher’s Daughters
Peter: Alison, your book ‘The Philosopher’s Daughters’ is a beautifully immersive story of two sisters and their journey through the wonderful landscape of Australia. I would like to congratulate you on writing it and I am delighted that we have the opportunity to conduct this interview. Many thanks for making the time available.
Peter: What was the inspiration that drove you to write your book ‘The Philosopher’s Daughters’?
Alison: For years the idea for The Philosopher’s Daughters just wouldn’t let me alone. I kept imagining 1890s London and two strong but very different young women, the daughters of a widowed moral philosopher. Someone like John Stuart Mill, a great advocate for the emancipation of women. Someone who gives the girls a relatively modern upbringing. Then I wanted to introduce an alteration in the sisters’ circumstances so that they separately choose to journey into remote and wild Australia. What might happen to them? How might they see life at the ‘frontier’ once they are confronted with the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous population? How would their characters develop as they faced danger?
Peter: Both sisters, Sarah and Harriet, are wonderfully drawn characters and are very different but also come from the same upbringing. They leave England for Australia and have their own experiences and ambitions to navigate. How difficult was it to maintain two separate stories, two separate personalities and maintain a balance where they both remained prominent?
Alison: I love writing from different viewpoints, as they can reveal such different observations about the same events and give the reader a more nuanced perspective. Sarah more or less wrote herself; she appeared in my head fully formed and told her own story. Harriet, the older of the two sisters – a complex character and her father’s favourite – was much more difficult.
I’ve long been fascinated by how children are shaped by the preferences and attitudes of their parents; they can react against them, agree with them, or be crushed by them. The closer we are to a parent, the harder it can be to move away from their influence and develop in one’s own right. This is the burden that Harriet carries.
Peter: You introduced Aborigine characters to the story and you dealt with it in honest historical terms but you also conveyed a lot of respect and some new possibilities? How important and challenging was it to bring this history into your story and provide a platform where you could explore how the relationships between white and Aborigine races could or should have existed?
Alison: Bringing in this history was really important to me and part of my motivation for writing the novel. The second half of the book mostly takes place in the Northern Territory of South Australia. Together with the top of Western Australia, this was one of the last areas of the continent to be appropriated by British colonisers. At that time and in that part of Australia, the frontier wars were still being fought, largely over the establishment of the cattle industry, although they weren’t recognised as frontier wars back then. Indeed, only relatively recently has the full extent of settlement massacres and beyond been documented. I wanted to reflect this background in my novel.
Peter: Are your characters purely imaginary or did you form them from people you know? Who was the most difficult to write? What was the most important aspect of their personality to convey and which trait was the most challenging?
Alison: The characters are imaginary, although one or two little quirks I’ve observed in people I’ve known have crept into the secondary characters. One of the things I love about fiction writing is the way that strange new people turn up in the writing without me being able to say where they came from. I get some pleasant – and unpleasant – surprises when they do.
Harriet was definitely the most challenging character to write. She’s pulled in two different directions: between heart and head, between her artistic talents and the logic she’s inherited from her father. It took me a while to work out what choices she might make and what her future might bring. And it takes her some time – and a journey to Australia – to learn who she is and to slough off some of her father’s expectations about what she should do with her life.
Peter: The landscape of Australia means a lot to you. How much background research did you undertake to get a personal sense of how bleak, inhospitable and beautiful the Australian outback is?
Alison: When I was growing up, we did a lot of travelling around Eastern Australia but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I had my first visit of many visits up north. To prepare, I read extensively the accounts of early settlers and explorers. The Australian National University Library had a wonderful collection of NT literature in the Northern Australian Research Unit; unfortunately this was irreversibly damaged in a recent flood, but the library is working to rebuild it.
Peter: This is a piece of historical fiction and you have undertaken a lot of historical research. Which historical piece of research was the most interesting to discover and why?
Alison: Writing an historical novel gives one a marvellous excuse to delve into the past, to read around that period, as well as to take little excursions in other directions. Perhaps the most interesting for me were the books written by travellers and observers, as well as the information about when women got the vote, and how this varied across the colonies, and also information about colonial attitudes to the Indigenous population.
While researching, I came across a description of a cricket match in Darwin in 1908, written by Fred Blakeley. This encapsulated for me the era and the racism, amongst other things. Reading Blakeley’s account gave me the idea of including a cricket match in The Philosopher’s Daughters. My cricket match, written from both sisters’ perspectives, is a very different cricket match to Fred Blakeley’s, and it formed a useful framing device for the start of the sisters’ journeys into the NT outback.
Peter: What do you hope readers take away from this book? How would you like it to be remembered?
Alison: I hope readers enjoy the journey the book takes them on, and that along the way they fall in love with – and remember – the landscape and its people.
Peter: Do you use storyboarding or mapping processes to develop your plots and interactions, or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling? Would you, therefore, describe yourself as a plotter, pantser or plantser?
Alison: Initially I use a table or scene log to work out the main scenes. When I have multiple perspectives, I put each in a separate column, as this helps me keep track of important scenes as I move down the columns, and helps make sure I’m getting the balance right. It also reminds me of where the story is going. Once I’ve done this scene log, I start writing. Here I follow my instincts and gut feelings. This is the fun part of writing. So to answer your question, I guess I’m a plantser.
Peter: Do you use particular software applications or utilities to support your writing activity? For example, Scrivener or Grammarly.
Alison: I use Word and an online thesaurus.
Peter: What are the greatest benefits and restrictions to being a published Author? Do you get involved in finalising other aspects of the book, for example the cover design, narration and the promotion of the book?
Alison: The greatest benefit is getting the book out into the public eye. With regard to finalising other aspects of the book, I’ve always been asked about the cover design and consulted about other aspects of production, as well as about the promotion, and I’m very grateful to my publishers for this. I’m particularly thrilled with the cover of my latest novel, designed by Emily Courdelle.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Alison: Read prolifically. Read like a writer: be conscious of what tricks the writer might be using, the novel’s structure, the language, the viewpoints. Remember that you might need many drafts – and many years – to get it right. And finally, don’t be put off by rejections.
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
Alison: Probably around 90% writing and 10% promotion.
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on your writing?
Alison: I admire a great many authors. They include Patrick White, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey, Kate Grenville, Rose Tremain, Anna Burns, and Virginia Woolf. Answering the second part of your question is more difficult, as I can’t really view my work with enough detachment to see which authors have influenced my writing.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read over the last 12 months?
Alison: I’ve read some wonderful books this year. Perhaps my favourites are Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Anna Burns’ Milkman.
Peter: If you had a dinner party and could invite 3 personalities from any period in history who would they be and why?
Alison: Nelson Mandela because of his generosity of spirit and emphasis on reconciliation; John Stuart Mill because he was a great nineteenth-century thinker and wrote about the subjection of women amongst other topics; Toni Morrison because she was a wonderful novelist with deep empathy and an ability to write movingly about important issues.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
Alison: I’m working on two. Both are historical although not in the purists’ definition of historical as being set more than fifty years ago. I’m at the redraft stage for both projects so would prefer to keep them under wraps until I work out what needs doing to each of them.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Alison: From my website https://www.alisonbooth.net/
I’m also on Twitter as @booth_alison and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AlisonBoothAuthor/
Peter: Alison, I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. If there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. I would like to congratulate you on this wonderful book and I wish you massive success for the future.
Alison: Thank you so much, Peter. If anyone reading this interview likes my books, I’d be delighted if they could post a review on Amazon and on the website of their favourite independent bookstore. Online feedback is really important for authors. I’d also like to encourage people who want to write a book to stick with it. And to read, read, read.
Book Review for The Philosopher’s Daughters