Always pay attention

Friday, March 31, 2017
Kate Mildenhall interviewed by Nicola Wetzel

A portrait of Kate Mildenhall
Kate Mildenhall

Ahead of her workshop on writing historical fiction, WV intern Nicola Wetzel spoke to Kate Mildenhall about her debut novel Skylarking and the stories hiding all around us, waiting to be uncovered.

What’s the biggest misconception about historical fiction as a genre?

That it’s all about Tudor queens saying 'thou must and come hither!?' Obviously no one who writes or reads historical fiction thinks that (and I’ll add that there’s very fine historical fiction on Tudor queens!), but I think there’s been a reluctance in the past to identify with the genre because of the assumption that it was just one thing, with very specific rules, when in fact it is a really diverse and exciting and creative genre. I’m particularly interested in historical fiction that reimagines the lives of women whose stories might have been misrepresented or otherwise untold: I’m thinking of Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, Hannah Kent’s 'Burial Rites', Lucy Treloar’s 'Salt Creek'. I’m also looking forward to reading Sarah Schmidt’s 'See What I Have Done.'

Your first novel Skylarking is set in a lighthouse in 1880s Australia. What first drew you to this time and place?

Wonderful luck, really. My family went camping with friends to Jervis Bay in NSW, a camping site that was new to us. Between our tent and the shower block, there was a grave. This grave belonged to a young woman who had lived at the nearby Cape St George lighthouse in the 1880s. My interest was piqued! It helped that the story revolved around friendship and the coast, things very dear to my heart. My lesson from this has been to always pay attention; there are extraordinary stories all around us, often hiding in plain sight. They are just waiting to be told.

How do you get inside the skin of a character from another era, where social expectations and opportunities would have been very different to today?

For me, this was one of the toughest tasks, to ensure I could really look through Kate’s eyes at the world around her. I read books that she might have read, researched the school curriculum she would have had access to, sat in the Heritage room of State Library Victoria and pored over the handwritten diaries of young women from the era, and constantly questioned the decisions I had her make. Once I felt I had this part right, it was actually much easier to tune into what I felt were the timeless emotions she experienced – desire, love, jealousy and her confusion about the expectations placed upon her as a young woman.

Your workshop is part of our ‘Writing Women’ series. Does writing by women have a specific history, and is this still relevant?

There is such a rich history of women writers, here in Australia and around the world. It’s so important that we continue to read, and in some cases, discover for ourselves the women writers who came before us. Writer Emily Bitto recently wrote eloquently about this in The Age. There’s still a long way to go, until women writers are read, reviewed and rewarded to the same extent as their male counterparts. Organisations like The Stella Prize do fabulous work to try and redress the balance, I’ve been keeping in mind their Steps of Action as a woman reader and writer.

About Kate Mildenhall

Kate Mildenhall is a writer and teacher. Her education work has taken her into schools, universities, volunteering with Teachers Across Borders in Cambodia and, currently, into State Library Victoria. Her debut novel ‘Skylarking’ was published in August 2016.

About Nicola Wetzel

Nicola Wetzel is a Writers Victoria Intern from Heidelberg, Germany. She studies Public Management at Hochschule Kehl and through this internship she wants to gain new experiences in what it’s like to work in a not-for-profit organisation.