Escaping into the past

Thursday, June 2, 2016
By: 
Kate Mildenhall interviewed by Michelle McLaren

A portrait of Kate Mildenhall
Kate Mildenhall

Looking for inspiration? Historical events make a great basis for fiction, according to author and Writers Victoria tutor, Kate Mildenhall. With our Historical Fiction workshop coming up in July, Kate told WV volunteer, Michelle McLaren, how she came to write her debut, 'Skylarking'...and why learning to sail a yacht is on the horizon.

Why historical fiction? As a reader? As a writer?

As a reader, I am drawn to historical fiction for that all-encompassing escapism that occurs when you fall deeply into the stories, the landscapes, the sounds and the smells of the past. I believe readers are innately curious to learn about the past and the characters who inhabited it, and also, I think to wrestle with alternative versions of the past that the ones they might know, or think they know. I’m drawn in particular to historical fiction that deliberately sets out to tell a different version of events to the one that might be most readily accepted, or that takes an unusual, or otherwise voiceless character’s perspective. Some of my favourites include Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’, Sarah Waters’ ‘Fingersmith’, Hannah Kent’s ‘Burial Rites’, Lucy Treloar’s ‘Salt Creek’, Geraldine Brooks’ ‘People of the Book’, Toni Jordan’s ‘Nine Days’, Kelly Gardiner’s ‘Goddess’ and gosh, so many more.

In this instance, as a writer, the past hooked me in and wouldn’t let go until I’d examined it, peered into the shadows and the gaps, and tried to make sense of the history by considering it from a different angle.

Research is an essential part of historical fiction. But while writing can be tough, research is less demanding. Do you find it difficult to balance the time you spend writing and the time you spend researching?

Yes! The beauty, and the terrible pitfall of research, is that it can go on forever. Google certainly doesn’t help! Some research is completely delightful – spinning around inside the original light at the top of a lighthouse comes to mind – while other research can be painstaking and often, fruitless. At times, I certainly used research as an excuse to put off the writing. One of my go-to writers for advice and mentoring, Kelly Gardiner, advises "Do the research, learn everything, and then leave most of it out.". Kate’s voice in ‘Skylarking’ was always very strong for me, so rather than relying on research to guide the story, it was always easy to escape to her and see where she would take me,

'Skylarking’ is set in the 1880s and inspired by a true story. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind your debut novel?

I was camping with family and friends two years ago at Jervis Bay in New South Wales. Between our camping spot and the toilet block was an old grave. That grave belonged to Harriet Parker, a young woman who had lived at the nearby lighthouse during the 1880s and who had died at only nineteen. I found out a little more of the story when we were exploring the ruined Cape St George Lighthouse and discovered that she had been best friends with Kate Gibson, the daughter of the Head Lighthouse Keeper, and that they had grown up together. When I returned home I did some digging on Trove and found the newspaper reports of Harriet’s death. The details I found there, including that Harriet’s death occurred at the hut of a local fisherman, McPhail, had me hooked.

I have reimagined the lives of Kate and Harriet, in ‘Skylarking’, exploring their friendship and their interactions with those around them on the remote cape where they lived, and what may have occurred in the lead up to that day in the hut.

Your Historical Fiction workshop includes a behind-the-scenes tour of State Library Victoria. How has SLV helped you write your novel?

Oh, libraries! As research for ‘Skylarking’ I spent hours in the Heritage room at State Library Victoria, reading the journals of a young woman in Hobart during the 1880s, and the records of the Cape Otway light keeper to name just a couple. The beauty is not only in reading about these people’s lives but also to see their handwriting on the page, to feel that you are reaching through time to hear and experience the lives of these people. It makes my heart sing! Libraries are treasure troves of stories. Stories that can be unlocked through images, manuscripts, collections, paintings, books…and of course, by the knowledge and experience of wonderful librarians. Think you have nothing to write about? Spend a day meandering through a Library’s collection, on site or online, and you will. It was in the resource of the National Library of Australia, Trove, that I found the records of Harriet Parker’s death, and where the story of ‘Skylarking’ began.

I also spent many evenings writing in the Dome, finishing the manuscript. Such an extraordinary place to work and think and create, especially as daylight fades and those green lamps begin to glow – truly inspiring.

You mentioned recently on your blog that you’re already working on your next novel. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about it?

Only that it’s a definite shift away from historical fiction, for the moment! (And the research involves learning how to sail a yacht…).

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’ will be published in August 2016. Find Kate on twitter @katemildenhall.

Update: Kate will be running a Historical Fiction workshop for Writers Victoria at Labassa in April 2017, as part of our Writing Women series at the Having a Voice Australian Heritage Festival.

About Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren is a Writers Victoria volunteer, a Melbourne Writers Festival intern and an emerging literary critic. She blogs about books at Book to the Future and procrastinates on Twitter.