Louise Allan grew up in Tasmania, Australia, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing. She has had several short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals. Louise’s first novel, The Sisters’ Song, is out now with Allen & Unwin. The manuscript has previously been shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship.
Apart from writing, Louise also enjoys music, photography, walking and nature. Louise and I connected over a shared love of writing and photography and worked on Midweek Moment posts together for a year. I remember the day she called to tell me her book was being published and it’s been a genuine pleasure to watch the journey unfold.
Monique: You’ve just released The Sisters’ Song, a historical novel set in Tasmania. Tell me a little about this book.
Louise: This novel is about two sisters, Ida and Nora, who have equal but opposite dreams: Nora aspires to a life on the opera stage, while Ida dreams of motherhood and having a family of her own. Both sisters are given a glimpse of their dreams, but they’re quickly taken away. The rest of the story is about how they cope with the cards life has dealt them.
The story is about motherhood, children and women’s dreams, with the thread of music woven through it.
Monique: You’ve woven together a story of two sisters whose shared experience affects them very differently. What was your starting point for the story?
Louise: The initial inspiration for my novel was my experience of motherhood, both as a daughter and as a mother, so I drew from my memories of events and family stories I’d heard.
My two grandmothers were the inspiration for the two main characters in my novel. My paternal grandmother, on whom I’ve based Ida, was a good-natured person—humble, gentle with a great sense of humour, and devoted to her family. She was very maternal, but had to wait for motherhood, having three stillbirths before having my father and uncle by caesarian.
By contrast, my maternal grandmother was grumpy and strict. She didn’t seem to like children much, but was blessed with eight of them. The harsh way she treated her children—my mother and her brothers—were the inspiration for the character of Nora.
Once I had these two characters, I thought I’d see what happened if I put them together as sisters. It seemed to work because the story really took off!
Monique: Both sisters have a startlingly different approach to motherhood – Ida desperately craves children but can’t have them, while Nora resents the children she has and struggles to mother them in the way they deserve. As a mother of four, how did you get your head into the space of someone who doesn’t want to have children? Was that hard? What kind of assumptions did you come across about women?
Louise: I actually found it easy to get into the headspace of someone who mightn’t want children, perhaps because I have four of them myself! I’ve felt the push and pull of motherhood—the conflict between my own needs and desires, and those of my family. There have been times I’ve felt angry at my children and resented them because they’ve prevented me from doing something I wanted. Of course, the resentment and anger doesn’t last, but I drew on that feeling when writing Nora.
The notion that not all women might want children is still considered abnormal by many, and women who’ve chosen to remain childless are often thought of as ‘selfish’ and not real women—look at the ridicule directed at our female prime minister a few years ago.
While motherhood is satisfying and wonderful in so many ways, there are parts of us that it doesn’t fulfill, and those parts are just as important and valid. I’d have been a very unhappy and frustrated person if motherhood was the only purpose in my life. Every woman should be able to pursue her dreams, and she really shouldn’t be judged for wanting to do that.
Monique: Likewise, with Ida, how did you get to the bottom of Ida’s yearning for motherhood? The feeling that something she desires and needs so deeply is out of reach?
Louise: That was easy, too! I’ve always loved kids and gravitated towards them, even as a child and teenager. Like Ida, as a child I loved my doll and wished she was real, and I always dreamed of having a family of my own. (I put off worrying about how I’d combine it with the career I also wanted and just hoped I’d be able to do both.)
One of the most amazing things about being human is that we can create new life. I find it awe-inspiring that we can grow a whole new being within us, who will then grow up and go on to do the same.
Monique: Louise, although the story is about two sisters, would I be right that at its essence it’s about mothers and their relationships with their children. Would you like to share some more about this?
Louise: You’re right, it is about mothers and children, despite what the title suggests. For me, that was always the central theme of the book.
When I first started, I wanted to tell the story of a beautiful child, as I believe all children are, who was crushed by child abuse. I knew that tale was grim and bleak, but I had to write it, because it was my story. By writing it, I cleared the way to find the bigger story underneath. I was able to look beyond the child abuse, and find what might be at the root of it—the generations of women with unfulfilled dreams. Girls born with hopes and desires, but whose aspirations were thwarted, either through biology or society or both.
This probably makes it all still sound depressing, but I don’t think it is. There’s definitely hope at the end!
Monique: The Sisters’ Song is told from Ida’s POV. What do you admire about Ida’s character?
Louise: Ida’s able to accept life as it comes, even its tragedies, and not only get on with living, but find joy and love. She sees good in people, and so brings out the best in them.
I’ve met people like Ida, and they amaze me! I wish I could be more like them.
Monique: Nora can come across as the more flawed sister, because she resents her children, her ‘lot in life’. I think she makes people uncomfortable because she speaks to all of us who’ve lost or let go of dreams, even if we don’t want to admit it. We can relate to her, but we don’t want to. What do you think?
Louise: From some of the messages I’ve received from readers, I think you’re right! Nora is confronting. She reminds us of that part of ourselves we pretend doesn’t exist—the part that feels rage at our kids, and a degree of resentment at having to give up so much when we became mothers. We’d much rather think of ourselves as selfless, and it’s the image of motherhood that’s portrayed in the media. As mothers, it’s hard to admit that we don’t always feel like that, and we feel guilty, like we’re betraying our families.
Nora is passionate and talented, and born to things other than motherhood. I wish she’d had the chance to pursue her dreams because she would have flourished and I think we might have seen a completely different Nora.
Monique: Louise, you’re a doctor and spent many years in the field. What attracted you to writing?
Louise: I’m not 100% sure what attracted me to writing. It’s very different to medicine but there is overlap. Medicine is about people and stories, much like books are. There’s a lot of piecing together of the different parts of the story to paint the whole picture and get to the root of the issue, which is the same when writing a novel. You need empathy for your patients in medicine, the same as you do for your characters in a story. The biggest difference is that as a writer you spend a lot more time on your own than you do as a doctor.
I stopped practising medicine because life as a working mother of four was too hectic. Looking back, I can see now that it was also because the creative, artistic, imaginative part of me was also saying, When do I get a turn?
I had a strong urge to create something, to leave something of myself behind—other than my children, of course!
Since I started writing and spending hours of each day in my imagination creating stories, I’ve never had more fun!
Monique: What was that moment like when you found out your book was getting published?
Louise: When my agent rang and told me that Allen and Unwin were going to publish my book, I felt overwhelmed and couldn’t speak. I think my agent thought my silence was because I was underwhelmed, and she kept talking, telling me how great it all was. I knew that—it was everything I’d been working towards for many years—but all I wanted to do was get off the phone and sit with the news on my own, savouring the moment for a while and letting it sink in.
Monique: What do you find easy about writing? What’s hard?
Louise: This probably won’t make any sense given what I’ve said about how much fun writing is, but I find almost everything about writing hard! I have no shortage of ideas, which is fun, but sitting at my computer and transcribing them to the page is difficult. I look for any reason to procrastinate, and I have to discipline myself to write.
Having said that, once I’ve written, the rewards outweigh all of the pain! I’m one of those people who don’t like the actual writing, but I love having written.
Monique: Who do you imagine your ideal reader to be when you are writing? Has that changed now that the book is published?
Louise: My ideal reader is me!
I write for myself, the type of book I like to read.
That’s the only way I can do it.
I actually had difficulty when my agent asked me to rewrite The Sisters’ Song, because I felt as if I was no longer just writing for myself, but for her and future readers. I tangled myself in knots and, in the end, I decided to take her advice on board but still write the book I wanted to.
Although none of that has changed since I’ve been published, I must admit that I’d love to write something that was an international bestseller. But the bottom line is, I can only write about what interests me, tell the story I want to tell and in the way I want to tell it. If it resonates, it resonates. I’d never forgive myself if I compromised on that for commercial reasons. At least by writing a story I love and that I’m proud of, as I did with The Sisters’ Song, it doesn’t matter what readers think, because I’m still proud of my book.
Monique: You’re part of several writing accountability groups. What’s good about this sort of group?
Louise: I’m only a member of one accountability group, the ‘Lollygaggers’. At least it started as an accountability group but, as you know because you’re a member, it’s evolved into much more than that. As Lily said in her post the other day, we really are a ‘tribe’ of like-minded people and have become close friends. We vent to each other when we’re annoyed, we’re a shoulder to cry on when things aren’t going well, and we’re a cheer squad when good things happen.
It’s a wonderful group of which to be a member and I’m grateful to have such good friends—that includes you, Mon! 🙂
Monique: In addition, you’re part of an amazing writing community in WA. What makes it so special?
Louise: From my initial interactions with the WA writing community, I’ve always felt welcomed. At the first writing workshop I ever attended, someone asked me what I was writing. I was rather stunned that someone would be interested in a lowly newcomer like me, especially coming from medicine where those at the top rarely deign to acknowledge those below them.
The culture in the WA writing community is one of giving a hand up to those coming through.
It’s an encouraging and supportive community. There are probably a few who aren’t, but I’m yet to encounter them.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Louise: I’ve needed resilience when writing, but I also needed it as a doctor, when studying, and at other times of my life. Life is full of disappointments, and acknowledging that feeling and just letting it come, goes a long way towards getting over it.
That’s what I tend to do—acknowledge the disappointment, have a cry, and I’m usually bouncing back within hours.
Monique: What’s the best thing another writer has ever taught you?
Louise: Rosemary Stevens has been a great writing tutor and mentor to me over the past eight years. Her approach to writing anything is to start with the senses. Describing what you see, hear, touch, smell or taste never fails to kick-start something, a memory or a scene, and after a while, the writing takes off on its own. Whenever I’m stuck, that’s my fallback—return to the senses and start there.
To connect with Louise: