On my blog today I’m talking to the lovely and lively Judy Crozier. Her early life was a sweep through war-torn South-East Asia: Malaysia’s ‘Emergency’, Burma’s battles with hill tribes, and the war in Vietnam. By nine, Judy had read her way through the British Council Library, including Thackeray and Dickens. Home in Australia, she picked up journalism, politics, blues singing, home renovation, child-rearing, community work, writing and creative writing teaching, proof reading and editing, and her Masters of Creative Writing. Then she escaped and went to France, where she now lives.

  • How do you come up with book titles?

What Empty Things Are These was something of a group effort, between me, the Regal House team, my family and many of my friends.

I’m not good at titles. I started off with After Jehovah, which refers to one of the early pages of the book, where the Victorian patriarch raises his cane to beat his wife and she thinks ‘Jehovah!’ his white hair flies. But it was pointed out that a number of Americans of a religious bent might be startled once they started reading.

I like my current title, except that I think it may only lead people to think the book is a romance – which it so isn’t – especially if they already think that’s what Victorian novels are.

  • As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?

Not sure it was unexpected, since I am terrified of stepping into the abyss (how did I make it from Australia to France?) and so planned events to the last rsvp. But it was very nice indeed to actually meet rather a lot fb friends who came to my events in France (where I live),  and in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne (where I used to live).

Those who have read it (some have taken two or three years to dust it off) email me to tell me how much they like it. And reviews have been generous. That’s been lovely.

  • Who are your literary influences or inspiration?

When I was a little girl, I spent years in Saigon during the war years. Occasionally, things could get … exciting … but mostly it was a little dull for little white girls. I read a lot, all the books coming from the British Council Library. In fact, by the time we left, when I was ten and a half, I had read my way through the children’s section and was halfway through the adults’. A lot of these were Victorians – Dickens, Thackaray and so on. When I was older I added Jane Austen, various Brontes and George Eliot. So, I think you can say all of these influenced both the theme and the language in WETAT.

I am also deeply interested in history and the very notion of people being shaped by their times.

  • What have people most liked or found most meaningful/funny/creative/ challenging about your book?

They generally take a few pages to adjust to the language. I’ve written it in a Victorian style, though with modern readers in mind. Having settled down to this, they then remark on the writing itself, how accurate it is yet how approachable, and the language itself. I took great pains to paint the picture of someone gaining courage in a stifling setting, and of her personal battles in this society, of how she thinks and how she reacts – and my readers have appreciated that. After that, they are taken by the theme, which is a very feminist one, and by the fact that so many aspects of 1860 are absolutely kin to today’s society.

  • Why do you write?

To express myself. This seems trite, but it’s true. It’s not only about expressing oneself, though, it’s about searching for the way to express oneself accurately. Much can be discovered along the way, as you write your way to discovering just exactly what it is that you think and see. Then the work is in getting others to think and see it too. As I’ve often said to my creative writing students, this is why you avoid clichés: to make people see what you are expressing what you say must be fresh, newly-minted, an absolute and recognisable representation. It has to feel real.

  • Where do your characters come from?

It’s interesting how characters suggest themselves and grow onto the page. Mr Farquharson was influenced from several directions: Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, was a fascinating person, though from a slightly later decade than the setting for my own book – but he himself was based on a number of the shonkier ‘entrepreneurs’ of the age. I looked up a few of these, and I added to this research a story that was going around Melbourne’s press at the time about a missing baby, who was rescued but whose family was then further investigated until the public all knew that the father – something of an underworld figure – had another family in Sydney. Neither family knew about the other, of course. I found this riveting, and researched Victorian material about bigamy. There was a lot of it about, apparently.

My main character, Adelaide, is at least partly me, except of course for the bits about crinolines and living in 1860. Still, I dredged my own experiences to understand somebody like this, who grew despite herself and all her fears.

Sobriety probably comes from a number of places in literature and the history of the times, when Methodism and Wesleyanism could be the basis for either progressive politics or social repression.

For the rest, I think a knowledge of historical mores added to that handy tool of writers, the notion of ‘what if’. These helped me to put together a group of personalities who are both accessible to us and of their time.

Which, of course, is the direct ancestor to our own.

  • At what moment did you decide you were a writer?

I think that was when I could hold a pen. But seriously, come to think of it, I used to tell long made-up stories to the neighbours’ even younger children, invent scenarios at home in my room and dress them in bedclothes and string, and of course read and read and read.

My first short story was written when I was about ten, and was titled ‘The Striped Cat’. My first novel was written when I was around eleven, and was all of 30 pages long. It was set in a mysterious foreign country, and the characters were made suitably foreign-sounding by the simple expedient of naming them after my friends, only reversing their names. I also made an appearance as Yduj Reizorc.

Despite all this, creative writing at school, journalism and so on, I didn’t really take my writing seriously until my thirties. Even then I had to withstand the withering contempt of a creative writing teacher I had asked to comment on my stories. He reduced my confidence so that I did no more writing for a couple of years, but eventually one of those stories won a prize….so there you are. Learn from me and don’t give up.

  • What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?

I’m still working on this. When I lived in Melbourne I actually had a study, which I used. But what with the noise engendered by young men (my sons and my tenant) all shouting at each other while playing computer games in their individual spaces, plus the fact that one of those spaces was my study, often occupied by my younger son when his various share-houses didn’t work out…I retreated to my bed. Most of WETAT was written there, much of it on my teeny netbook. Truly, a proper laptop is a much better idea.

However, my bed remains my office, I confess. For a while, the other half of my double bed was always littered with paper, pencils, notebooks, and books in general, but now that I have a partner, all of these have migrated down the side of the bed. I’m not a tidy person.

  • What genres do you work in?

I have discovered that my novels tend to be historical. I have one ready to go and seeking an agent, that is based (perhaps not surprisingly) in Saigon in the 1960s. Another is in skeletal form and is about a vicar in a country town in Australia in the first half of the 20th century, a time of enormous social change.

My short stories, however, can come out of any time, though lately I’ve been experimenting with some different periods in history – from medieval to 18th century. There aren’t many short stories nowadays, sadly.

From this you would have gathered I don’t really dabble in horror or science fiction or fantasy, though I did have a go at a crime story once!

  • How do you start a novel/story?

Good question. After a lot of staring at the ceiling and perhaps notes in various notebooks which I may or may not look at again, I will start at the beginning with a good scene. It’s my way in, just as much as it is the reader’s.

After that, well, I am defined I believe as a ‘pantser’, as in ‘seat of pants’. I do attempt to do an outline, but I never get as detailed as a chapter-by-chapter plan. To be frank, the manuscript as it moves along is an organic thing. The story, while I have a rough idea of where it’s going, will grow, morphing into its real self as it goes along.

Strange things happen to the brain as you write, and I believe it’s best to allow that to happen without too much restriction.

Having said that, my forthcoming Vietnam story, which was actually begun before WETAT , has had a difficult birth. Or should I say, set of births. It is a very different thing now, and I do suggest being a little clearer on where you are going than I was. My excuse is that I had, over the years with this book, to wrestle it away from autobiography and into creative fiction.

Our stories come from everywhere, of course, and often from our lives. But it takes some strength, in the end, to step back from the personal so that all that material becomes both malleable and useable.