Dr Shirley Patton grew up in outback Western Australia and now lives with her partner, and a miniature schnauzer, in wine-growing country overlooking the beautiful Tamar River, Northern Tasmania.
A decade ago, she left an academic career as a published researcher of family violence, and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Social Work at the University of Tasmania, to write fiction full time. Since then, she has obtained a Masters of Creative Writing, and had published several short stories in a variety of literary publications. Prior to practising social work, Shirley worked in the media as a television newsreader and television chat show host.
I’m privileged to be interviewing Shirley about her debut novel, The Secrets We Keep, at an in-conversation in Busselton. Here’s a sneak peek:
Monique: Your first novel, The Secrets We Keep, has just been released. A story about a mother’s secret, a betrayal, and a town on the edge politically and socially, memories we make and those that make us, this book has captured readers’ attention across Australia. Tell me a bit more about it.
Shirley: Thank you, Monique. It’s the story of four women told from each of their points of view, but the main protagonist, to whom the other three women are linked, is city woman and social worker, 30-year-old Aimee McCartney.
Trying to outrun her past, she moves to the isolated mining town of Kalgoorlie on the edge of the Nullarbor Plains, to work in a welfare office. Through her work and the people she meets she finds herself challenged and, when forced to confront her past, to make fateful decisions.
More broadly it is a story exploring notions of hope and destiny and how we justify the decisions we make when faced with an ethical dilemma. This is also mirrored at a political level by the decisions made by governments. Aimee’s own father is a politician in the government of the time, the late 80’s.
Monique: What made you decide to set the story in Kalgoorlie in the 1980s? It’s been noted by one reviewer that it could be any mining town because the themes and characters aren’t limited to one setting – do you agree?
Shirley: I grew up in Kalgoorlie and during the 1980s I worked and raised a family there, so it was a place I knew well. I’m writing about ‘what I know’ – every street, every building, the culture – it’s imprinted on my skin.
And yes, I think there are commonalities in isolated or small communities. There are both constraints, such as everyone knowing your business and, sometimes, conservatism but also strengths – the way people rally, the looking out for one another and the resilience. There is also the harsh beauty of some of these communities.
When I decided to start writing this story, my first novel, I had not long buried my father in the Kalgoorlie cemetery and I think, looking back, that I was nostalgic and the reflection that follows such an event made me want to revisit the the same setting.
Monique: You’ve lived in Tasmania for 30 years. Did you rely on memory to describe Kalgoorlie or did you go back to get the feel of the place? How has it changed from when you lived there?
Shirley: Yes, there’s quite a contrast between the Tasmanian and Kalgoorlie landscapes! I had visited family still living in Kalgoorlie many times for the first decade of living in Tasmania but yes, I did rely on memory to describe it. I surprised myself with how vivid my memories were – I never set out to create such a strong sense of place, rather it emerged through falling into the story, as if I were watching a movie in my mind. However, the strong sense of place in The Secrets We Keep is one of the most satisfying outcomes and one that most readers comment upon – someone said they could almost taste the dust!
Monique: We know this is a story about a woman whose past catches up with her with an emotional gut-punch – but as you mentioned in another interview, you like to write ‘women into history’, which you’ve done in this book in multiple ways. Can you tell me a bit about the social and political history you chose to focus on in this novel? Were the issues of Aboriginal rights and environmental awareness (even feminism) something you remember from living there?
Shirley: I met my first social workers at my workplace in Kalgoorlie – passionate and committed women and men from the city and they made a powerful impression upon me as a young woman. Later, in Tasmania I became a social worker (and then a social work academic and researcher), so I think it is inevitable that social issues will thread through my writing. Along with wanting to bear witness to a time and place in The Secrets We Keep, I wanted to be true to the political context of the characters but without being polemic. So, the scandals of the Alan Bond era, the issue of mining uranium, past racist government policies, worker’s safety and air quality concerns are background to the lives of the characters. And yes, while living in Kalgoorlie, the issues you reference were part of my awareness.
Monique: The novel has been received very well, with reviews such ‘a gentle story of heartache, hope, respect and forgiveness’ and ‘an all encompassing story with valid themes and relatable characters’. How has it felt for you, waiting for your novel to be launched, and then for the reception from readers?
Shirley: Thank you, those are heartwarming reviews. Waiting for one’s debut novel to be published was quite unsettling – a flip flop between exhilaration and terror – but I think that might be normal. Fortunately, from my perspective, there was almost two years from signing the contract to the structural edit to publication, so I did have time to gain a sense of peace with what I was putting out into the world.
However, the reception from readers, and reviewers, has been beyond my expectations and I am deeply moved and humbled by their responses. I am so grateful because more than anything I had hoped readers could relate to the characters and feel moved by their lives.
Monique: What was the feedback like in Kalgoorlie itself? What was it like launching the book there?
Shirley: I have just launched the novel in Kalgoorlie, and Collins Bookshop were thrilled with the turnout – a full house and their stock sold out! The media were wonderfully supportive, particularly of the sense of place evoked in the story. The Mayor generously launched the novel, with old school friends and neighbours mingling with long term and new residents, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive that a novel had been set in their town, written by a ‘local’! From the beginning I knew I had to do a launch there – to honour the town and the community. And, strange as it may sound, as the train pulled away from the Kalgoorlie station, I felt a circle had closed.
Monique: While the novel is firmly rooted in reality in terms of time and place and changing attitudes, there’s also a link to the mystical with tea-reading, chakras and psychic connections. You’ve added depth by juxtaposing this with Catholic traditions and beliefs. Where did your interest in this stem from and why was it important to have that aspect included?
Shirley: The notions of choice and destiny have always interested me. With a background in social work, values of self-determination and supporting people to have a sense of agency in their lives is important to me – having a social worker as the main protagonist was a device to carry those ideas. But I’ve met many older women like Agnes, women who might have once been the older, wise woman of the village – a confidential, safe place to take your troubles. Many women I’ve met don’t blink an eyelid when one of them says, ‘I just knew that was going to happen’, or ‘I dreamt that would happen’ or ‘I saw my late husband last night’ and they embrace it despite of, or in line with, their religious or philosophical position. It was important for me to honour my experience of women’s different ways of knowing.
Monique: When you wrote this novel, did you know how it was going to flow, how the secrets were going to come out, or did it happen organically the more you wrote?
Shirley: The idea for the story came from my writing mentor asking me to think of a ‘What if’ question that I had always wondered about. It developed from there – the secrets came first then the characters emerged to carry them. I had to learn to trust myself and follow the thoughts as they emerged. So, no, I didn’t know how it was going to flow! And yes, it happened organically, and regularly surprised me – the character of Kerri, whose husband is ill from working underground, was my biggest surprise, and I am so glad she arrived.
Monique: You describe yourself as a late bloomer in terms of writing. What made you turn to writing novels? What are some of the things you’ve had to learn in terms of writing, and marketing your writing?
Shirley: Great question – I often say now, ‘You’re never too old to follow your creative dreams’. I do respect that for many people there are constraints and I’m aware of my privilege. That said, I love to encourage anyone ‘older’ contemplating a creative pursuit, to follow their heart.
The act of expressing myself creatively through writing fiction for the past decade has been deeply satisfying. I always loved writing and initially studied literature at university before transferring into social work but a decade ago the urge to write fiction became overwhelming. I took many writing workshops and year long Adult Education and Tasmanian Writing Centre writing courses over several years before obtaining a government mentorship grant to work on The Secrets We Keep for two years. Later I undertook a Masters of Creative Writing. I learnt to ‘find my voice’ – writing for myself, from the heart, not the critic on my shoulder – a bit like that idea of ‘dance as if no-one is watching’. I had to learn to go deeper, to think in terms of metaphor, to craft my initial thoughts more creatively but also to discover that the more I wrote, the more I learnt and the stronger the writing.
In terms of marketing – I have to laugh at myself. It’s not that long ago I didn’t even own a mobile and when new to Facebook, I had the tightest security and never posted a photo of myself. Well, now, to honour the faith in me by my wonderful publisher HQ (Harper Collins), I have an author page and an author website and I am amazed by the importance and value of social media in letting readers know about your novel. But equally important, has been the personal interaction and connection with readers – I highly value that and always feel grateful, and a little bit in awe, that people are reading my story.
Monique: What surprised you about the publishing experience?
Shirley: Working as a team with my agent, the publisher and editor and later, the publicist, was a surprise. I had no idea how wonderfully supportive that would be – the publisher’s and editor’s attention to detail, the support given, the learning I gained from the structural edit, the publicist’s enthusiasm.
[bctt tweet=”Having your manuscript accepted is only the beginning! ” username=”MoniqueMulligan”]
Monique: The cover is gorgeous – how much say did you have in it?
Shirley: Thank you, Monique – I adore the cover. I can take no creative credit – it all belongs to my agent, the publisher and the creative artists at HQ (Harper Collins). I did ask if there could be red dust as it so emblematic of Kalgoorlie and, on a number of levels, so relevant to the story including the main character arriving in a dust storm.
Monique: How do you start a novel?
Shirley: I might not be the best author to ask that question as I circled around this story, like a dog trying to settle in its basket, for two years! I wrote several different beginnings with different intentions, a few chapters each, before my writing mentor, out of understandable frustration, posed that ‘What if’ question. The secrets captured my imagination and I let myself go where it led me. But the thing that tethered me was obtaining the mentorship grant, having a deadline to meet and committing to spending three days a week as a working writer.
Having written two more novels and one underway, I am no longer constrained by fear or wondering whether I can actually complete a novel. I start throwing ideas on the page, usually by hand, thinking about my mentor’s framework of ‘What do you want to say?’, ‘Why do you want to say it?’, ‘How do you want to say it?’, ‘Who do you want to say it to?’ and trust the story will emerge. I remain committed to sitting down to write three days a week (even if there are days when little emerges) and more when I’m on a roll.
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Shirley: Intuitive. Passionate. Persistent.
Monique: Can you take us through a “typical” writing day? Do you have set days? Any quirky routines?
Shirley: As mentioned I write three days a week, Monday – Friday. Unless on a deadline, I don’t write over December/January or when away on holidays although I recently dot-pointed a story outline on a napkin at a cafe on holidays at Mission Beach! I write best when I rise early at 6.30am, do a brief meditation and sometimes, especially in the early stage of a novel, I follow Julie Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ habit of writing ‘stream of consciousness’ for a few pages in a notebook and then I go straight on to the computer to whatever I am working on. I break for an hour for lunch and continue till about 5pm. If I’m losing concentration or get stuck, I’ll go for a walk with my dog along the Tamar River, and come back refreshed.
Quirky? For the past decade, when I sit down to write I play the same CD. I wore it out recently and had to purchase the same one again. When I want to evoke a particular mood I play music, often Celtic, haunting tunes.
Monique: Do you write, write, write then edit, or do you edit as you go?
Shirley: When I first wrote I constantly edited as I wrote, making me a very slow writer! I am now more confident to write, write, write with minimum reworking over the three days but midway through day three I edit.
Monique: What kind of advice have you heard about writing that doesn’t work for you?
Shirley: Advice I was given that doesn’t work for me is that you shouldn’t feel emotional while you are writing or when you read your writing.
Monique: Most writers struggle with self-doubt. A friend of mine has a portfolio of praise she looks at – I have a poem on my desk that I read when I’m struggling. Is self-doubt something you can relate to and if so, how do you get past that?
Shirley: Oh, yes, until I finished The Secrets We Keep, self doubt sat on my shoulder. It lessened somewhat after that, though off and on, it leaps back on again. The difference now is it doesn’t stop me writing – I bypass it and leap in! Certainly, remembering or reading positive responses to one’s writing is validating and encouraging.
Monique: How has your previous career as a social worker and academic researcher helped you as a writer?
Shirley: Apart from the values and rigour, I’d say an empathy and understanding of my characters and a systematic approach to researching the story background.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Shirley: For me, that writing has to be an angst-driven process.
[bctt tweet=”For me, writing is a joy even when it’s hard. ” username=”MoniqueMulligan”]
Monique: What kind of books do you most love to read?
Shirley: Historical, stories about women’s lives both fiction and memoirs/biographies, and stories by female Jewish writers – there is something about their literary style that speaks to my heart.
Monique: If you could only keep five books, which would they be?
Shirley: Oh, that’s too hard! Um, recently I responded to the request to post seven favourite books on my FB page and number one was Australian author, Drusilla Modjeska’s The Orchard but if I only had five I think maybe a large book such as one of the Russian classics or Caton’s lengthy The Luminaries.