Today’s Q&A post features Julian Leatherdale, author of the newly released The Opal Dragonfly, published by Allen & Unwin Australia, RRP $29.99.
In your words can you tell us a bit about your new book.
It is the story of the rise and fall of an ambitious family living in the finest house in 1850s colonial Sydney told from the point of view of the youngest daughter Isobel. From her mother, Isobel inherits a beautiful opal dragonfly brooch which brings her frightening visions in dreams. Plunged into social disgrace, Isobel seeks freedom in her forbidden love for an artist and hopes to find her true self.
Which character was the most challenging to write about?
Young women in 19thC Australia, especially those from middle class families, were expected to be pious, modest, cultured and educated (but never clever or high-achieving), obedient and subordinate (to their father and future husband). So it was challenging to write a main character who was credible as a 19thC dutiful daughter and charitable doer of good works but also someone modern readers could identify (or at least sympathise) with. Isobel is, in fact, talented, clever and strong-willed and does risk breaking social conventions. It was also important that in the face of many trials and tragedies, Isobel’s spirit not be crushed; as readers, we must be convinced by her strength of character and her self-transformation as she is exiled from her childhood world of privilege and her hero-worship of her father.
What are you favourite stand out reads and why?
This is such a hard question to answer because I like to read widely and am always being surprised and delighted by new authors and books. Recently, I was deeply impressed by Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land for the boldness and breadth of its vision, the rigour of its research, the beauty of its writing and the inner lives of its characters. For dark, witty humour and clever dialogue-driven story-telling, I loved Madeleine St John’s The Essence of The Thing; if you liked her Women in Black, this is worth a look. Among current day historical fiction writers, I loved Tom Keneally’s Shame and the Captives (a compelling narrative of the Cowra breakout told from both sides) and have thoroughly enjoyed two Kim Kelly novels ‘The Blue Mile’ and her latest ‘Lady & the Fox’, both so well researched with such vivid characters and authentic voices. For the sheer mastery of words and story, it is of course hard to go past Thomas Hardy (Woodlanders is a personal favourite) and Jane Austen (Mansfield Park), both of whom I re-read to ‘warm up’ for writing my own two novels.
What inspired you to become an author?
I have written in some form or another ever since I was a teenager – plays, musicals, poetry, song lyrics, film and TV scripts and several novels in the bottom drawer – and enjoyed all those experiences, collaborating with others as well as working alone. My wife, Claire Corbett, is a novelist and – not that I needed convincing – reminded me of the great pleasure she took in creating worlds. I cannot imagine my life without books and reading: in that sense I have been inspired by writers all my life. But taking the big step to becoming a published author took the inspired support of my wonderful agent and my brilliant publisher at A&U.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have gone back to writing for theatre over the last year. My two-act black comedy The Man Who Became Santa was selected for a play competition by Weatherboard Theatre Inc and is being developed for a performed reading by professional actors in May. I have also started research for my third novel set in King’s Cross in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
About The Opal Dragonfly by Julian Leatherdale
Miss Isobel Clara Macleod, youngest of the seven children of Major Sir Angus Hutton Macleod, Surveyor-General of the colony of New South Wales, had the singular misfortune to know that at seven o’clock that morning her father was going to die.
September, 1851. Sydney, city of secrets and gossip. Seventeen-year-old Isobel Macleod is determined to save her father because she loves him. But when she dares to trespass in a forbidden male world, she will be plunged into social disgrace. A wave of ill fortune threatens to swallow up her family and their stately home, Rosemount Hall, ‘the finest house in the colony’ on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour.
Is Isobel to blame for her family’s fate or does the cause lie further in the past? When Isobel was four, Major Macleod returned from an expedition with two ‘souvenirs’: an Aboriginal girl who became her friend and two opals fashioned into a dragonfly brooch for her mother.
When Isobel inherits this ‘unlucky’ heirloom, she wonders if the terrible dreams it summons are a curse or a gift. Now Isobel’s hopes for her future depend on a charming bohemian who encourages her hidden passion to become an artist. Will she now be permanently exiled from her family home? Or will she be transformed into a new self, like a magnificent dragonfly emerging into the sunlight?
A daughter sacrifices her reputation, two men bid for the love of a woman, freedom is found in the heart of a dust storm, a father’s legacy reveals past crimes.
Inspired by Elizabeth Bay House and the other grand villas of Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Hill, The Opal Dragonfly tells the bittersweet story of an ambitious family’s fall from grace and a brave young woman’s struggle to find her true self.