- How did the idea for Palace of Tears come about?
I have lived in the Blue Mountains for over 25 years and often wondered why more novels are not set in this beautiful part of the world. Not long after reading Kate Morton’s Secret Keeper, it occurred to me what a great setting the Blue Mountains would make for a family saga and mystery thriller. Its eerie and wild landscape appealed to me as the perfect backdrop to a Gothic story of secrets and tragedy. But I realised craggy cliffs and rising mist were not enough; such a story also needed an imposing building at its heart, a family inheritance haunted by memories.Like many locals I have long been fascinated by the magnificent and unique Hydro Majestic hotel built by successful department store magnate Mark Foy at Medlow Bath. I was soon convinced by my early research that here was a fantastic source of inspiration for my own fictional creation, a story of the secret and troubled relations between the wealthy Fox family, owners of the elegant Palace hotel, and their neighbours, the Woods from the cottage next door.
- Palace of Tears is rich in detail, and spans a significant time in 20th century Australia. How much research was involved, and how did you go about it? To be honest, there was a huge amount of research involved as I tried to take nothing for granted. As a result, I worked on this book solidly, seven days a week for over two years. My research into the Hydro Majestic included a back-of-house tour of the property in 2013 while the hotel was being refurbished by its new owners. I explored the local archives discovering great photos of the Hydro’s fancy dress parties in the 1920s as well as a long, very informative and funny interview with Mary Shaw, Mark Foy’s grand-daughter and self-appointed family historian.I read books, blogs and journal articles on local history and Australia’s homefront experience in both wars as well as biographies of famous guests Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Nellie Melba. I dug into the National Film and Sound Archives for publicity shots and interviews about a (now lost) film shot at the Hydro in 1921. The National Library’s digitalised newspaper archive on TROVE was a brilliant resource. I downloaded hundreds of articles, interviews and photos on topics as diverse as hydropathy, 1920s dinner menus and the treatment of single mothers in the 1950s.
Once I had sketched out my story arc, I researched whatever the next chapter demanded but always stayed open to new possibilities and surprises to influence my writing. The hardest part was knowing when to stop and what to include and exclude. I was always guided by what the story needed in the end and was willing to let lots of my research go when it came down to the final editing process. I accepted that my research had served its purpose to help bring the novel into being.
- What were your reasons for fictionalising real places – like the Hydro Majestic – and real people – like Mark Foy?
It was simply to give myself the freedom to write my own dramatic story rather than be tied down to a rigorous, detailed historical fiction account of the Hydro and its founder. Palace of Tears is a fictional drama in its own right with a plot and characters that are entirely my creation. Adam Fox shares a few personal qualities with Mark Foy – ambition, showmanship, risk-taking – but he is by no means a fictionalised portrait of the historic person. In the same way, I think of the Palace as a fictional half-sister to the Hydro, her story drawing on colourful episodes in the Hydro’s history without being a slavish copy of the actual hotel.
- What were some of the difficulties you encountered when writing the novel and how did you rectify them? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help? The ‘difficulties’ included some of the usual logistical ones for writing a novel. I am still a scribbler in black notebooks which piled up higgledy-piggledy in my study and meant that I relied on my memory to find what I needed. My wife, who is also a novelist, has told me she has been using a tool called Scrivener to organise her research notes and I am seriously intending to look into that for my second book. I still find working on paper the best way to visualise and massage a sketch of the storyline; it is fascinating and instructive to go back and see all the circles and arrows that led to revealing linkages and new story directions.Because the story involves three major plot twists, I had to play around with the structure in later drafts. I had to make sure each chapter was clearly signposted in time and place to help the reader keep track. In later drafts, I made a decision to keep all chapters under a certain length. I was thrilled when I cut several in half and rearranged them to find I had created even more dramatic tension. I also tried to be scrupulously fair in my storytelling so if you reread the book, clues to all my plot twists are there for you to find.
My closest person to a mentor is my own wife who read the first draft of the novel and provided critical feedback at both sentence and structural level. I trust her judgement completely as she does mine. We are very lucky to have each other as our first readers.
- What is the biggest lesson you have learnt on your author journey? Persistence and acceptance. Like all writers, I have several manuscripts in the bottom drawer and I had to learn the hardest lesson: how to persist as a writer in the face of rejection but also have the discipline and maturity to know when to move on to another project. Writing takes a great deal of courage and risk but then all worthwhile things in life are like that.
- What gets you inspired? Often it is an image. I was a photo editor in my early career so I love the expressiveness and mystery of old photos that suggest the beginning or middle of a story or a scene. Historic research turns up the most unexpected details and incidents that challenge the writer’s imagination to fully inhabit those moments. Or sometimes the point of inspiration is a simple scene in my own life. My first chapter in Palace of Tears started with me looking out my study window and watching my daughter playing inside our hedge.
- What’s next on your goals list? A second novel. I have started researching and have some elements in mind for a story.
- What’s your typical day like? I’m not sure I have a typical day any more. But here goes. After getting my kids off to school and having coffee with my wife who is also a novelist, I try to deal with the ‘administrivia’ (emails, phonecalls, bills) and buckle down for a day’s research or writing, hopefully no later than 10.00 am. I always dress for work – nothing formal but no PJs or track pants. Habit of a lifetime.Somewhere in the day I try to fit in some exercise, usually a brisk walk, a great time for generating new ideas – and writing is so bad for your back! Making cups of tea ensures I get up from my chair every now and then. I find I need at least two or three hours to really get into the flow of writing which can peak around mid to late afternoon.
I usually write until about 5.30 or 6.00pm. If there have been interruptions I will often work late into the night until the inspiration dries up for that day. During the research phase, I will have a pile of books to read and take notes as my night-time reading. But at the moment I am enjoying reading novels for pleasure in the evening – after watching Dr Who with my daughter!
On other days, I do some bread-and-butter freelance journalism in which I may have to research a topic, interview one or two experts by phone, and deliver a finished article to my editor on short deadlines, typically a week or less. And for the last two months, I have been writing blog posts and author talks for Palace of Tears which has been most enjoyable!
- What advice can you offer to people who aspire to become authors?
Read. Read widely. Support your fellow Australian writers by buying and reading their books as you presumably hope that people will do the same for you one day. Be content to get something down on the page to get you writing each day – you can always fix it later. A first draft will usually contain what I call ‘the scaffolding’ – the text that helped you build the story but must now go.
The Speedy Six
- Describe yourself in one word: Curious.
- You wish you wrote: The Cat in the Hat
- Can’t leave home without: Notebook.
- First thing you wrote: A short ‘novel’ inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield when I was 10.
- If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: The Cat in the Hat!
- The best thing about being a wordsmith: Freedom.