Aussie Author Round-Up: Pamela Hart, The Soldier's Wife

Readers who have come to know Pamela Freeman through her award-winning children’s books and adult fantasy will be excited to hear that she has decided to spread her wings into the adult historical genre, writing under the pen name of Pamela Hart.

In celebration of the timely release of her first historical fiction novel for adults, The Soldier’s Wife (due for publication on 28 April), as well as the Centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign in World War One, Pamela joins me today to answer some questions regarding her journey as a writer, her move to historical fiction as well as what ANZAC days means to her.

Pamela has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney, where she has also lectured in creative writing.

She has also worked as a freelance business and technical writer in many areas including public relations and television.

Writing under the name Pamela Freeman, she wrote the historical novel, The Black Dress (a fictional account of the childhood of Mary MacKillop in Australia) which won the NSW Premier's History Prize for 2006 and is now in its third edition.

Pamela is also well known for her fantasy novels for adults, published by Orbit worldwide, the Castings Trilogy and her Aurealis Award winning novel Ember and Ash.

She lives in Sydney with her husband and their son, and teaches creative writing to adults at the Australian Writers' Centre.

The Soldier’s Wife is her 28th book.

Please feel free to pull up a stump and get to know her and her world of writing a bit more.

Before I continue though, I’d just like to thank Hachette Australia, especially Jess from their publicity department, without whom this interview would not have been possible.

Pamela, it’s really great to have you here to celebrate this exciting advancement in your writing career.

It really is! I think I’m as excited about The Soldier’s Wife as I was about my very first book!

Tell us a bit about your childhood?

I’m a Sydney girl, born and raised in the western suburbs near Parramatta. I had a wonderful family (still have!) and the only thing which marred a lovely childhood was a lot of illness – but that turned me into a reader, so I guess I wouldn’t have been a writer without it.

I know it’s been a long road for you with twenty-eight books now under your belt, but could you tell us about your journey to publication?

Well, unlike a lot of writers, I never wrote anything as a child or teenager. I didn’t start writing until I was at university (UTS), where I studied film and television production. I moved into script-writing after a couple of years in PR, working first for the Powerhouse Museum and then for ABC Kids, where I began as a researcher but ended up writing a lot of scripts. That was when I began writing stories for kids, and my first stories were published in the NSW School Magazine.

One of those stories, Betony’s Sunflower, had a cast of characters I was very interested in, so I kept writing stories about them (I’m still writing stories about them!). Those stories turned into my first book, The Willow Tree’s Daughter.

For all those people out there who are trying to become a writer, it’s worth saying that TWTD was rejected twice before it was picked up by Allen & Unwin, and then it got shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award! So just because your story is rejected doesn’t mean it’s no good.

I kept writing children’s stories for some time and then after my son was born I began writing for adults as well – the exact opposite of what most writers do.

What prompted your move to the adult historical genre?

My grandfather was a soldier at Gallipoli. Two years ago, my son’s teacher asked me to come to his class for ANZAC Day and show the kids my grandfather’s medals, and talk a bit about his experiences. So I did that – and in addition, I read out to the class the copies of the telegrams the family had received when he was wounded. It was a terrible litany: they moved from ‘We regret to report Private Arthur Freeman wounded’ to ‘seriously ill’ to ‘dangerously ill’ to ‘still dangerously ill’ and then, about a month after the first one had arrived, ‘out of danger.’

As I read the telegrams, I started to wonder what it would have been like to be the person receiving them – and that’s really where the book began.

My grandfather was an orphan and had put his age up to join the Army, so his telegrams went to his sister, but I wanted a stronger relationship than that – hence The Soldier’s Wife. I based the war experiences of my soldier on my grandfather’s war record.

I’ve not yet read The Soldier’s Wife (can’t wait for it to arrive at the top of my reading pile) so, for the benefit of myself and your readers, would you mind sharing with us the story we can expect?

It’s a story about the home front – about the people who waited for and longed for and loved the soldiers who went to war.

The main character is Ruby, who is a country girl from Bourke who was only married a week before her husband Jimmy joined up (that was surprisingly common). She comes to Sydney so she can see him again before he sails to the Dardanelles. After he leaves, she gets a job as a bookkeeper in a timber yard and because of the war is forced to take on far more responsibility than she expected. Naturally, this changes her – she doesn’t stay a naïve country girl for very long. Then she gets the first of those telegrams, telling her that Jimmy has been wounded…

Can’t tell you much more than that because of spoilers! 

What kind of research did you do for this book?

I’d already done quite a lot of research into Australia up to 1909 for my book The Black Dress, which is about the childhood of Mary MacKillop. So I had a good general background. But I knew very little about Sydney in 1915, and I did a great deal of research through contemporary documents and images, especially the newspapers of the day.

We know a lot now about what happened at Gallipoli, but I had to find out what was known then, which was quite a different understanding of the events there. One thing which really surprised me was how big the very first anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove was – the ANZAC Day march started in Sydney in 1916, and some of the wounded from Gallipoli were driven through the streets, along with marching bands and troops on display. So it was a genuine outpouring of pride in our soldiers. The speeches that were made then are very moving.

Did you plan to have this story published to coincide with the Centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign?

It’s just a happy coincidence that the book is coming out during the Centenary celebrations – I certainly wasn’t thinking about that when I started it! My son’s teacher asked me to his class almost exactly two years ago, so it’s just luck that it could all be edited and ready to go now.

What does ANZAC day mean to you?

I’m very proud that Australia honours service and courage rather than victory, and to me that’s what ANZAC Day is all about. A lot of countries mourn the casualties of war, and many countries celebrate great victories, but Australia celebrates all those who served, those who died and those who survived, and acknowledges that they all paid a price for that service and that we should be grateful to them for that. I am very grateful.

Do you as a writer have a motto or maxim? What is it?

‘The difference between an amateur writer and a professional is the number of drafts you’re prepared to do.’ In other words, draft and redraft and redraft as many times as it takes to get the story right. 

Being such an experienced writer as well as working for the Australian Writer’s Centre, you are obviously pretty au fait with writing advice! What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A lot of people say to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book if only I had the time’. And my reply to them is a quote from Pat Walsh: ‘The number one reason your book won’t be published is that you haven’t written it’.

Seriously, if you want to be a writer you have to give it priority. And you have to be prepared to take criticism and do the redrafts. See motto above! You may need to radically change your narrative position. You may need to throw away 45 000 words. You may need to pull out one entire storyline from the book and change it all. Just do it. (And by the way, those are all things I’ve had to do to my work. I won’t say it was easy… sob.) You are in service to the story, not the other way around.

Whatever work it takes to get a good story is worth it.

What’s a typical working day like for you? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?

I teach two nights a week at the Australian Writers’ Centre, and I’m a mum, so I fit my writing in around those things. I write primarily on a laptop because I can take it with me wherever, and when I’m in the middle of a book I aim for 10 000 words a week. If I can do 5 x 2000 a day, that’s great, but life is often not so regular, so I find it easier to set a weekly target. For example, as I’m way behind my target this week I’ll be writing all weekend!

What are you working on next?

I’m in the middle of a novel set in 1920, about Margaret, a war bride who comes out from England to meet her ANZAC husband. He doesn’t meet her ship, and Army records show he’s already married. So she starts a new life in Sydney. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that!

One of the fun things in this novel is that Margaret gets involved in the surf life saving movement and learns to ‘surf shoot’ (which is what they called body-surfing back then). I’m having a lot of fun figuring out what kind of swimming costume she would wear – Aussie girls were right in the forefront of fashion in that area!

Now, onto the easy and fun part of the interview!

What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview? How would you answer it?

No, that’s the hard question!

How about: Your husband is a wonderful man, isn’t he? And I would answer: Why yes, he is! (As I say this, he’s working on my new website, So he deserves praise.)

Pizza or Pasta?

Pasta as long as I am making the sauce (I have allergies). And if I can make the pasta, too, so much the better! Favourite recipe is fresh-made fettucine with toasted pine nuts, asparagus and leeks tossed in olive oil – with grated parmesan for those who like it.

If you had a book club, what would it be reading and why?

I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and I’ve been forcing everyone I know to try them, so I guess it would be Wolf Hall (although everyone but me seems to have already read it). Why? Because it’s a fascinating, fabulous exploration of a complex and difficult character.

Second choice (by a hair) would be Kimberly Freeman’s Evergreen Falls because I love the way Kim interweaves two historical periods and always gives you such fascinating characters.

Give us three good to know facts about you – be creative!

I’m a drummer (mostly jazz, only at home).

The most perfect food in the world is a bowl of wonton noodle soup.

When I look into my wardrobe, I realise I have to stop buying black, red and white clothes. Blue, maybe. Green. Purple?

Pamela, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you here with me today. Thank you for joining me.

It’s been lovely to chat.  I hope you enjoy the story.


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