Today’s Q&A feature post is with Roxane Dhand, author of the newly released novel The Pearler’s Wife, published by Penguin Books Australia, RRP $32.99.
Can you tell us a bit about your new book?
The Pearler’s Wife is based on a true story. I stumbled upon it (the story that is) on Western Australia’s far north-west coast in July 2013. To be honest, it was more of a bash of my foot on a great big rock because the year before, Broome had celebrated a 100 years’ anniversary.
Of what? I asked.
Broome, the pearling town turned tourist destination, I discovered, had a big past. It also had a secret. In its heyday, in the late 19th century, Broome had built a reputation not only as the centre of the mother of pearl industry, but also as a rough, remote trading outpost. The massively profitable pearl shell industry drew migrants from across Asia…Hard hat divers from Japan and Malaysia jumped on steam boats to Broome joined by other nationalities – the Chinese, and Filipinos – who signed on as tenders and deckhands. They were dirt cheap to employ and queuing up to come.
In 1911 though, the town’s prosperity came under serious threat.
Broome was a settlement made up of an almost exclusively Asiatic community. It was viewed with distaste by a Federal Government deeply entrenched in the “White Australia” policy. The idea of a coloured workforce on Australian soil was so offensive to the Australian Parliament that the Minister of External Affairs declared that from January 1913, only white divers would be permitted to collect pearl shell off the ocean floor.
The master pearlers (bosses) were horrified at what this would mean to the industry. They protested they could never afford a white man’s wage nor were they convinced that a white man would be able to stand the conditions on board a pearl lugger for any length of time.
Government would not listen and to prove that the pearl shell industry was, of course, suitable for whites, twelve ex-navy divers, experienced in hard hat deep-sea diving were brought out from England in 1912. The venture became known as the White Experiment.
The Pearler’s Wife grew out of their story.
The Pearler’s Wife is set in 1912 in the corrupt, claustrophobic new world of Australia. It tells the story of Maisie Porter, sent from England by her dismissive parents to marry a pearl-fishing captain (and distant cousin) she has never met. On the ship to Buccaneer Bay, she meets a charismatic Royal Navy Diver, William Cooper, who is being manipulated by the perilous pearl shell industry.
A wild, ungoverned frontier town is no place for a young lady just out from England. Her new husband proves aggressively disinterested in her. His main concern is sabotaging an Australian government initiative to force pearling captains to employ expensive Europeans. He is unscrupulous and Maisie soon finds herself embroiled in his world of murder, brutality and treachery. It will take all her courage, honesty and determination to protect the man she loves from the fierce and toxic secrets of her husband.
Which character was the most challenging to write about?
Probably Jane Wallace – Maisie’s new friend in Buccaneer Bay. She grew out of a woman I learned of called Daisy Bates who in real life spent years studying and caring for the Aborigines in the far outback of Western Australia. To make her plausible in the The Pearler’s Wife , I had to read all I could about her and gradually Daisy morphed into the character Jane I created for the book
What inspired you to become an author?
I’ve always had stories in my head since I was a little girl. Apparently I used to tell my sisters stories on long car journeys about a ladybird that lived in a toadstool – but if I did, I wish my mother had written them down! The desire to write was always there, I think, but sometimes you need a little push to get your started. The trip to Broome was more of a shove, really, and within three days I had the story down in outline.
What are some of your favourite reads?
The books I tend to favour (though not exclusively) are an interweaving of fact and fiction and have a root in history. So in no particular order, here oyare ten of my best:
1. Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier. One of the most perfectly crafted books, I think. Atmosphere, characterisation and brilliant story-telling – this book does it for me
2. The Woodlanders – Thomas Hardy. On the syllabus for A level English, I learned the term pathetic fallacy through reading this book which is the fifth of Hardy’s Novels of Character and Environment. “Woods that murmur and trees that sigh…” Just yummy!
3. Eve Green – Susan Fletcher. I love this book on so many levels. Feisty heroine, romance and great story telling. It won the 2004 Whitbread First Novel Award.
4. The Narrow road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan. A powerful beautifully written novel set in a Japanese POW camp in Burma. This won the Man Booker in 2014.
5. A Town Like Alice – Neville Shute. Another Australian writer. This strikes a chord because, as with my book, Shute stumbled on a little known (true) incident and drew on it to create this outstanding novel.
6. The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford. This book is a delightful romp. Just one of the funniest and intensely observed portrayals of love and growing up in a dysfunctional family at about the time my own book is set.
7. Persuasion – Jane Austen. The bitter-sweet character of this novel earns its place on this list. Love lost and love recaptured, how we are sometimes “persuaded” along a course of action when deep in our hearts we know it is not the right one. Delicious!
8. Trail of Feathers – Tahir Shah. This book was inspired by a line from the chronicle of a sixteenth century monk which stated that the Incas ‘flew like birds over the jungle’. The author takes us on his personal journey to Peru and discovers that this ‘flying’ was inspired by a powerful hallucinogen and gives it a go! An A* read.
9. Katherine – Anya Seaton. One of the first historical (romantic) novels I ever read, thus a favourite which kick started a life-long affair.
10. Cross Stich – Diana Gabaldon. The book keeps reappearing on the shelves with different titles and is now televised as Outlander. I read it when it first came out in 1991 and devoured it in practically one sitting. Another historical romance, it is one of the best.
What projects are you currently working on?
The next book is down on paper and is set in 1190 at the time of Richard 1st and the Third Crusade. A couple of years back, I read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and because I found it such a difficult read, I decided I would try to bring the period to life and, hopefully, make it more accessible. When I’m done with that, there’s another story I’m dying to write…..
About The Pearler’s Wife
A distant land. A dangerous husband. A forbidden love.
It is 1912, and Maisie Porter stands on the deck of the SS Oceanic as England fades from view. Her destination is Buccaneer Bay in Australia’s far north-west. Her purpose: marriage to her cousin Maitland, a wealthy pearling magnate – and a man she has never met.
Also on board is William Cooper, the Royal Navy’s top man. Following a directive from the Australian government, he and eleven other ‘white’ divers have been hired to replace the predominantly Asian pearling crews. However, Maitland and his fellow merchants have no intention of employing the costly Englishmen for long . . .
Maisie arrives in her new country to a surprisingly cool reception. Already confused by her hastily arranged marriage, she is shocked at Maitland’s callous behaviour towards her – while finding herself increasingly drawn to the intriguing Cooper.
But Maisie’s new husband is harbouring secrets – deadly secrets. And when Cooper and the divers sail out to harvest the pearl shell, they are in great danger – and not just from the unpredictable and perilous ocean . . .
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