Caroline Overington is the author of two non-fiction books, Only in New York and Kickback, which won the Blake Dawson Prize for Business Literature. She has twice won a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism, and has also won the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for Journalistic Excellence. She has written four novels: Ghost Child, I Came to Say Goodbye, Matilda is Missing and Sisters of Mercy. Note: This interview took place in 2012
Sisters of Mercy is about two sisters, born a generation and a world apart. One is born in England, during the war years, and raised partly in an orphanage. The other is born in Australia, after her parents migrate. They only meet when the father dies, and the Will is read. The English sister comes out to meet her Australian sister- but then disappears. Of course, the Australian sister is blamed, and indeed, she’s already in prison when we meet her. But is she guilty and if so, of what crime? I’ve not written a book like this before, from the point of few of a female prisoner. It was challenging.
Snow Delaney is an unsettling, confronting character – at times, as a reader, it’s uncomfortable being “inside” her head. Did you have this same impression when you created Snow, when you wrote her story? Or was hearing this surprising to you? Did Snow surprise you as a character? Did you know how you’d write her, or did she “tell” you?
As above, I am surprised that people have reacted so strongly to her. I suppose she tricked me, too. When I started creating her, she was a woman in prison for a series of crimes, insisting that she was innocent. I wasn’t sure at that point whether she was innocent or not. Only later, did I think, well, what if she’d done this or that? But the reader didn’t go through that process with me. She is simply as she is, not created along the way.
Where did the idea for this novel come from? Were you inspired by particular events or your feelings about an issue?
I’ve had an experience quite like the one in the book, where a woman who was accused of a serious crime (against a child, not her sister) tried to convince me of her innocence. After spending time with her, I didn’t know what to think: a jury had found her guilty but plenty of people thought she was innocent. I thought, what if I go in and bat for her and she’s duped me? What if she really is evil? On the other hand, what if she’s innocent, and I don’t do everything in my power to try to help her? It’s an interesting situation to be in – not comfortable at all.
Some reviewers, including myself, have thought that your frustration, even anger, about the welfare/justice system comes across strongly in Sisters of Mercy. Is that a fair assertion … or are we way off the mark?
No, you are quite right. There are some children in the book who don’t get the care they need, and I’m extremely upset about that. It happens in the real world; I’ve seen it, parents struggling to cope with a disabled children … it is frustrating that we can be such a rich country, and neglect people who need our help the most.
More generally, what sort of reaction do you get to your books from readers? What kind of issues resonate with them the most?
The most common thing, and the best thing, is when people come up and say, “Your book sounds real! It reads like my own family, or my own situation, or something like that happened to somebody I know …”
There’s quite a lot of books written about the beach and the bush in Australia but not a lot written about the suburbs – how we live, our messy families, the struggle of every day life when there has been a divorce, or somebody has a mental illness… I see a real hunger for those stories, and I’m pleased that I’ve been able to write them, because that’s what I really care about – real life.
Sometimes people say – “I read your book in two days!” and I think “That took me a year!” and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write fast enough!!
You’ve recently been appointed associate editor at Australian Women’s Weekly. What does this role involve? How is this different to working in newspapers?
A monthly deadline instead of a daily deadline means I can take more time to think about things, and research and so forth. I’m not thinking, wow, now I can write things that women care about! I’m thinking, I can write about what thoughtful, intelligent people care about, in a longer format, with more time.
It’s clear that you juggle a lot of things – what’s your secret? Do you ever feel “Mummy guilt”? How has motherhood changed you?
No, I don’t feel guilty about working. The juggle is the same for me as for everyone: you do what you think is important, and let the trivial stuff slide. Motherhood is fantastic, so is work … it’s all good.
Tell me about your writing process. How much do you rely on research? What hurdles do you have to overcome to research your novels? Any interesting anecdotes you’d like to share? And how do you fit writing fiction in with everything else?
I rely heavily on my experience as a reporter, and my memory of families caught in trauma … some of them, especially the grandparents who have tried to step in and hold their families together – I will never forget them. I write as much as possible from the heart. But of course, there are things I have to look up, like anyone!
Are you working on another novel at the moment? Yes!
Which book/s are you reading now?
I read Gone Girl. I loved it. I have asked my hubby to get me the new Tom Wolfe for Christmas. We’ll see whether or not he was listening, or just pretending to listen while watching TV!
Which five pop fiction characters would you most like to have a dinner party with?
I’m not a dinner party kind of person. But I’d love to have met Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving). I want to see how small he is. I want to hear his voice.