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Episode 68

Join hosts Veronica and Darren for a literary step back in time as we delve into the trials and tribulations of convict life thanks to a deep and thorough chat with historical fiction  author David Cairns of Finavon! Not only that but there are chats about Razz'a and Snips and which one was best, the various different types of book readers, what makes gold so special and who were the Australian celebrities born in 1968... 

But that's not all! There's industry news, the Reader's Cafe featuring a book review by aweseome contributor Naomi Shippen, and a special appearance by superstar author and podcast producer Hayley Walsh of The Write Words Podcast in the Writer's Lounge, so we invite you to hit play, sit back and enjoy a little reading and writing love...


When did you first admit that you were a writer? 

Interesting question!  I've been writing most of my life – initially writing poetry (which I also used to win my wife some 35 years ago!).  However, my transition to becoming a writer was in 2017 when I resolved to write about my wife's forbears after visiting the Female Factory in Hobart on holiday.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

I would read traditional stories like the adventures of Robin Hood that came in Christmas presents but the first author that I recall was probably Enid Blyton and her Famous Five – but the author that first captured me was W.E. Johns, author of the Biggles books.

What inspired you to write/this book/these books? 

My wife, Victoria, is Australian and has always been proud of her convict forbears who were transported to Van Diemen's Land in the 1830s.  However, she knew very, very little about them.  Eventually we visited Hobart and called in at the Female factory where the archivist showed us the original record of one Mary Ann Goulden, Victoria's great great great grandmother.  Until then she had been a name on a page.  Now, reading of her exploits in the handwriting of her gaoler, the flame of her life began to flicker and I determined to not only research the truth about her but also to create a story so that she would become three dimensional, a real person, alive. For Victoria but also for this feisty lass from years past.

Do you write for yourself or for a particular audience? 

I'd have to say, both. I enjoy writing (usually), I enjoy conjuring up images and emotions with words, but my main goal is to reach those who enjoy experiencing times past as well as the emotions stirred by a story that draws you in, by characters with whom you empathise, by villains that you can get angry about. I love to hear from my readers and I've been gratified to hear from descendants of Robert Bright and Mary Anne who have thanked me for bringing them closer, making them live, rounded people rather than a few lines on a page.

Is there anything specifically Australian about your book/books?      
There is absolutely nothing more Australian than tracking the lives of those that built this great sovereign nation. Austrlia is a wonderful canvas on which to paint my pictures.

Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Hmm. There's nothing that future scholars will ponder over, mapping words or numbers to reveal a hidden truth.  Interesting thought though!  However, because I spend a lot of time researching the events of the time, every now and then you will come across a piece of history that you probably did not know before. Writing about the genesis of the MCC in Melbourne, for example, describing the smell of freshly cut wood in the newly built pavilion.  Maybe not secrets but undiscovered treasures maybe.

Why do you think listeners should read your book/s?  

First, I think history has a lot to teach us.  I strongly believe that, to paraphrase the quote, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Second, following the adventures of characters with whom you can identify as they experience long past events, locations, buildings, interfacing with notable people of the past is a great way to enjoy your surroundings today.  To know that this building or that street, or that hill once witnessed a remarkable event makes that otherwise dormant insignificant artifact more real and conjurs up colourful memories, enhancing your experience.  But most of all reading a good book is a great way to exercise your imagination and walking with long gone people who made this country as this land was turned into the world that it is today can't be a bad thing.  The future is built on the past, the better we understand it the better our future will be.

Is there a message in your books? 

I'm not advocating for anything particularly political or philosophical.  However, I guess you can't totally remove personal philosophy entirely as you write so in the Helots' tale there is an underlying respect for the dignity and equality of everyone.  And perhaps some throwaway comments that look asance at the privilege of the 19th century that caused so many so much hardship, pain and death too. 

There is also aadmiration for the way those who would have been described as an underclass fought back against the system.I describe the Eureka Stockade in one of the chapters and, even today I'm apalled at the way the miners were treated and in awe of their spirit. I guess if there is a message it's one that Scotland's poet, Robbie Burns, penned – 'The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, The Man’s the gowd for a’ that', finishing the poem with'That Man to Man the warld o’er, Shall brithers be for a’ that.'

Who is your most or least favourite character to write? 

I have villains in my stories but none that reach the level of a Hannibal Lecter. However, I can't say that I don't enjoy writing about them because a good story has to have contrasts and greys and reds as well as pinks and golds to bring out the depth of emotion.

What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

That makes me smile as I reflect. I've had several that I found both gratifying and encouraging. One was from a reader for whom English was probably not his first language – "This book everything is good. The author did an amazing work to publish this kind of book. Also this book is a helpful books. I really happy to read it. Everyone need to must listen this book. I want to recommended this book for all reader.  Thanks you so much."

What genre do you write in?  

I guess I'd have to say Historical Fiction although there's always a lot of factual history there too as I weave in real people and events of the time. The Helots' Tale is in many respects a true story embroidered with imagined conversations and speculation where facts proved impossible to discover.  Bushranger Gold, another of my books, is  a true story about a huge gold robbery which includes a mystery unsolved to this day.

What genres do you mostly read?

I have catholic tastes ranging from books on technology to political science to non-fiction historical fiction, science fiction, mystery and adventure. I love historical novels based on fact – Nigel Tranter's stories about Scotland in particular.  I enjoy mystery and adventure – in addition to the classics of Dickens and Conan Doyle I also enjoy authors like David Baldacci and Michael Connelly.  Oh too - Conn Iggulden's story about Genghis Khan and Bernard Cornwell's 'The Last Kingdom'. And of course I have a library of historical non-fiction that I refer to constantly.  I could go on but I'll stop here.

What book are you reading at the moment? 

At the moment I'm reading a book about the future of artificial intelligence, AI 2014 by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan. The potential of AI is both amazing and frightening. It makes you think about Isaac Asimov's I Robot and the three laws of robotics.  Really think.

As a writer, are you a plotter or a pantser or somewhere in between?      
More the latter than the former. I begin with a basic sketch of the story but while the foundational elements will stay the same, I find that the story usually leads me along and it can take me to places I hadn't imagined when I began. There were large blocks of the Helots Tale that almost wrote themselves – I just guided the pen, so to speak.

How much research is involved in your writing?   

More than you can imagine! The Helots' Tale, for example, required more than a year of heavy research before I put pen to paper.  Then, as the story develops I am constantly checking out references and events even down to checking the weather for that day or the press comments from contemporary news items etc.  If historical fiction is to be believable it needs a solid foundation – that only comes from long hours of research and sometimes detective work to uncover hidden realities.

What’s your writing routine – if you have one?

I wish I had one. However, it's more something driven by the muse.  If the story is singing in my head I will be writing from dawn to nightfall and beyond. If not, I set aside a few hours (am or pm depending on what I might otherwise have to do) and just keep at it until I have added 1,000 words or more.

Where do you write?  

I have a study at home where I can work with few interruptions.  Fortunately my wife tolerates me, maybe because she shares my nature in becoming very involved in things that she does such as making historic costume dolls for her business or studying bridge bidding techniques.

What’s your favourite writing food and drink?

A cup of tea and a biscuit. Definitely not wine, beer or whisky – they signal relaxation to me!

Who helped you most when you were starting out? 

Other than Victoria, who was a great encouragement, I am a self-made author for better or worse although I suppose I'd have to thank Charles Dickens for his style and Conan Doyle for the way he built his stories.

What’s the most useful writing advice you’ve been given? 

Don't be afraid to cut things out – maintaining a pace is more important than documenting everything.  I have to admit that I am not a fan of Jane Austen (I hear howls of dismay) but as a schoolboy it was purgatory reading Vanity Fair and the endless lengthy diversions from the core story.  It's the best example I can think of to illustrate the validity of the advice.

What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?  

I am going to finish my next book, The Case of the Emigrant Niece, introducing an antipodeam pair akin to Holmes and Watson and publish before Christmas then start and hopefully finish the second book in this series.

What inspired your book cover/s?   

They had to generate a sense of the time and, as this is a story about the lives of two people, even though there are no drawings or photos of them, I wanted to have them on the cover – part of their resurrection.

Who would you most like to read your book as an audiobook?  

There are a number of good narratorsout there  – my wife listens avidly to audio books while she works and likes Tamala Shelton and Sandy Greenwood just to throw out two names.  Going out on a limb, Sam Neil would be good but I actually can't say I have an obvious candidate other than specifying an Australian or regular British accent.

What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

Just start. And persevere. Then seek feedback from friends and family to help refine your style.

Any final words for potential readers or writers? 

To potential readers, if you enjoyed reading Dickens for the atmosphere and characters and like to flare your imagination to take you back in time, please have a look – you might even enjoy the experience as I am told others have done judging by their comments.  As a potential writer, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. You have an undiscovered path ahead of you. The adventure is about to begin!

What would you like to write about if you had the time?

My wife wants me to write a story of the Burke and Wills expedition and other Australian character stories. I guess she wants to bring Australian history to life. I may yet do it. There's a minefield of nuggets there yet to be explored. I guess it depends on people like those on this podcast.

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