AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET ANNA ROMER

Anna Romer grew up in a family of book-lovers and yarn-tellers, which inspired her lifelong love affair with stories. Her novels, Thornwood House (reviewed here) and Lyrebird Hill (reviewed here), reflect her fascination with forgotten diaries and letters, dark family secrets, rambling old houses, and love in its many guises—as well as her passion for the uniquely beautiful Australian landscape. When she’s not writing (or falling in love with another book), Anna is an avid gardener, knitter, bushwalker and conservationist. Find out more at her website, and follow her on Facebook here.

Monique: Your second “rural gothic” novel, Lyrebird Hill, has just been released. Can you tell readers a bit about it?

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Anna: My main character Ruby Cardel is haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her sister eighteen years ago. Needing answers, she returns to her childhood home at Lyrebird Hill. Here she finds a box of letters written by her great-grandmother who was imprisoned for murder in the late 1890s. The letters reveal a story that strikes new fear into Ruby’s heart: Has she inherited her great-grandmother’s violent nature? Now she must confront the past … and face a truth that will shock her to the core.

Monique: What’s the feedback been like so far for this novel?

Anna: I’m happy to report that the feedback has been wonderful! There have been some really exciting reviews, and lots of readers contacting me to say how much they’ve enjoyed it.

Monique: What do you like most about Lyrebird Hill?

Anna: I really love the theme. It explores the idea that we all wear a mask which hides either the beauty or the beast within us. I believe having a strong theme is important, as it underpins the story and gives it meaning. When I wrote Lyrebird Hill the theme was very clear in my mind on account of its fairytale origins, and I had a lot of fun weaving it through the story.

Monique: Which characters do you like the most in Lyrebird Hill? Which one did you like least?

Anna: I identify most with Brenna. She’s an artist with a strong connection to the land. Despite having led a fairly sheltered life, she’s wilful and passionate. I liked her compulsive nature, and really enjoyed using it to lure her deeper into trouble…

The character I like least would have to be Carsten. He lacks empathy for others, caring only about his own feelings, and I find his particular brand of selfishness to be quite repellent.

Monique: Did you suffer from second-novel syndrome when writing this book?

Anna: I threw myself into the writing of Lyrebird Hill with great resolve, determined to avoid the dreaded second-novel syndrome. I worked ridiculous hours, obsessing over every detail – but my first draft bombed and I had to rewrite it from scratch.

I tend to suffer from ‘idea overload’. Despite my careful outlining, I’m constantly inundated by new ideas that I simply must include. I end up changing the story a hundred times, which means endless backtracking and revising and redrafting.

Luckily I’ve got a brilliant agent and editors who helped me iron out the glitches. Editing a book under pressure is a great way to sharpen your writing techniques, so now I’m looking forward to practising my new-found skills in my next novel. (Please tell me there’s no such thing as third-novel syndrome?)

Thornwood House

Monique: You grew up in a family of booklovers. What was your favourite story as a child?

Anna: I adored all stories – but my very favourite didn’t come from a book.

My father wasn’t much of a reader, he was blind in one eye … But he told the most captivating tall tales. The one I remember most vividly was about how he got his various scars. He had a coin-shaped pink mark on his shin, which he claimed was an old snakebite. A zigzag on his foot was from a crocodile, and the scar on his abdomen that looked suspiciously like the aftermath of an appendix operation, was, he insisted, a bite from his pet tiger when he was a boy.

I loved this story for two reasons. Firstly, because Dad told it to me before my sisters were born, so it was a kind of secret we shared. Secondly, because when I grew up and acquired my own snake ‘scar’ – not coin-shaped and pink, after all! – I realised something wonderful about my father. Despite a harsh childhood and patchy education – or maybe because of it – he had a real knack for telling stories. And after a lifetime of listening to his tales, I like to imagine that some of that knack has rubbed off on me.

Monique: You’re a graphic artist by trade. Were you able to have any input into cover design?Did you have preconceived ideas of what your book covers should look like?

Anna: I’m lucky that I get to give a final okay on the cover, but I have absolutely no input into its design… And that’s the way I like it! I love the surprise of seeing the cover for the first time and being blown away by how beautiful it is.

The team at Simon & Schuster works closely with my agent Selwa, and between them they keep coming up with the most delicious images. Curiously, the covers for Thornwood House and then Lyrebird Hill were both just as I’d imagined they would be. For years I’d been visualising a girl in a white dress surrounded by bushland; I never spoke of this image to anyone, so when I first saw the gorgeous cover of Thornwood House I was secretly amazed.

While writing Lyrebird Hill I lived on a remote property, and from my kitchen window I had a view of a grassy hillside which would burst into wildflower colour each spring. I spent a lot of time contemplating that view – standing at the sink waiting for the billy to boil, mulling over ideas. The cover of Lyrebird Hill captures that grassy slope to perfection (again with no input from me) … While the image of the two sisters running along it embodies the story beautifully.

Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?

Anna: My road to publication was very long and winding and full of potholes – probably more like a weather-beaten old goat trail than an actual road…

I was a late bloomer in the field of writing, and my early endeavours to write a short story were disastrous – but I found the process addictive. Then a visit to my sister in North Queensland one sweltering Christmas sparked an idea about family secrets and murder, and I embarked on my first novel. Over the next few years I wrote and wrote … other novels, six or seven in total. Each one was rejected by a different publisher, but they all taught me valuable lessons about the writing craft.

The first real highlight was when I somehow managed to convince a wonderful agent to take me on. I still thank my lucky stars for her every day. But my journey was far from over. I wish I could tell you that rubbing shoulders with this clever and dedicated woman was the magic I needed to get published – but another ten years went by and my pile of rejection letters grew. Day jobs came and went. I kept writing, determined to improve my skills. There were plenty of lowlights along the way, mostly to do with self-doubt – but I did my best to ignore them and just kept plodding along, refusing to give up. Then, after a particularly disappointing year, I learned the most valuable lesson of all: Stop trying to produce stories you think people will like … and write what you love.

I love mystery and romance, old houses and love letters, characters with dark secrets and crippling flaws; I love that the past shadows the present, and that no matter how deeply you bury the truth, it always finds a way to rise to the surface.

So that’s what I wrote. And when the call came to say my novel had sold to Simon & Schuster, I was over the moon. Who’d have thought a rocky old goat trail would lead to such a truly lovely destination?

Monique: How much time do you spend on research for your historical fiction? How do you research and what’s your favourite part of the process?

Anna: I spend a huge amount of time researching. Reading books, losing myself in libraries, following a convoluted path of letters and memoirs, maps and old newspapers, almanacs and historic photograph collections. Occasionally I’ll need answers that can’t be found in books. How does it feel to fire a gun? How do you pick up a deadly snake? What was it like to live in the bush 100 years ago without the benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing?

So I had shooting lessons, and learned how to handle snakes. And I lived in a humble bungalow in the bush for several years, cooking my meals over an open fire, bathing under a gumtree, growing my own food, forsaking TV for a night outdoors watching the stars. These hands-on experiences are my favourite part of the research process. They push my boundaries, force me into situations I find confronting, and expand my knowledge of myself and what I’m capable of.

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Credit: Anna Romer author website

Monique: Apart from writing-related projects, what else do you like doing with your time?

Anna: I’m a chronic homebody. I love pottering around my house and garden. I’ve just bought a sewing machine to tackle some quilting and dressmaking. I’m a keen knitter, which I indulge in at night while listening to audio books. I escape into the bush with my dogs at every opportunity, and am currently learning how to care for injured native birds. I paint, work in the garden, trawl second-hand furniture shops, and am about to embark upon the restoration of a spooky century-old cottage.

Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?

Anna: I believe that doubt is part of the creative process. Writing is a very intense activity, and sometimes we’re too emotionally involved in our work to see it clearly. Negative feelings can be crippling, but I’ve learned to use them as a sort of barometer. Doubt usually means there’s something wrong, but I’m ignoring it. Maybe my plot is heading off on an awkward tangent, or I’m forcing a character’s actions to serve the story rather than letting them respond naturally. So when doubts arise, I leave that section of the story alone and work on something else.

I pick an easy scene to write, maybe do some editing or field research – meanwhile trusting that my subconscious mind will mull over where I’ve gone wrong and find a solution … and it always does.

Monique: You wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant book-ish idea. What do you do?

Anna: Brew a thermos of strong tea and get to work! I’m an early riser, 5am at the latest, and I find that when I’m in the midst of writing a novel, ideas bombard me at the most inconvenient times. If it’s too ridiculously early to get up (even for me), I whisper notes into my Dictaphone.

Monique: Do you become emotionally attached to your characters? What happens when the book is finished? Do you close the door or wonder what they’re getting up to?

Anna: If I’m not emotionally attached to my characters – even the horrid ones! – I know something’s wrong. If I find it hard to engage emotionally with my characters, then so will my readers.

While writing the book, I do a lot of character profiling. Part of this profile includes my vision of how my characters’ lives will pan out once the story is over. I think about how the story events will change their personality, and what new path these changes will lead them along. When the book is finished, I don’t need to wonder what my characters are getting up to, because I know they’re living the life I envisaged for them.

Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?

Anna: The biggest myth is that writing is a glamorous occupation, involving lots of sequinned evening dresses and high heels … and frequent swanning around at book launches or author signings. The harsh reality, at least for me, is that I spend most of my time in work boots and dusty old jeans. And rather than swanning around to book launches, I’ll be fixing fences or collecting manure for the garden, or chasing feral goats off my vegie patch.

Oh, and writing. There’s a helluva lot of writing involved. It’s a bit of a slog, too. Half of what I write gets trashed, and whatever remains must be edited within an inch of its life. But … glamorous or not, being a writer is immensely rewarding and I feel incredibly blessed to be doing it.

Monique: Which book are you reading now?

Anna: I’m swotting up on how to breed and look after alpacas – I’m on the brink of inheriting a small herd!

Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?

Anna: Sometimes I flip forward to catch a glimpse of what happens next – but only a glimpse. I never venture too close to the final pages, because I like to savour the build-up. Most authors put an enormous amount of thought and planning into their endings, so I’m careful never to pop that carefully-created balloon of suspense.

Monique: If I came over for dinner, what would you serve me?

Anna: A huge salad of delicious things from my garden – lettuce and rocket leaves, capsicum, sweet green chillies, cucumber, chopped walnuts, and juicy tomatoes, all tossed in olive oil with pine nuts and freshly squeezed lemon. Then eggplant and fetta lasagne. Afterwards, a thick slice of my famous almond poppy seed cake topped by clotted cream and raspberry roulade, with organic coffee or tea. How does Friday sound?

Monique: Where in Australia would you take an overseas visitor?

Anna: Because my special love is the bush, I’d take an overseas visitor into the dark heart of one of our wildly beautiful national parks – not along a well-trodden bushwalking trail, but deep into the granite gorges and magical old forests that make you think you’ve entered another world. Eerie, breathtaking, and simply unforgettable.

Thanks for answering my questions, Anna.

You’re very welcome, Monique.