Posie Graeme-Evans is best known to Australians as the creator and producer of the hit series, McLeod’s Daughters.
However, when it comes to writing, Graeme-Evans has a penchant for historical rather than contemporary drama and in The Island House she has created both an archeological puzzle and a love story that spans centuries.
Here, she speaks to The Hoopla’s Books Editor, Meredith Jaffe.
MJ: What drew you to write about this period in Scottish history? Have you always been interested in archaeology, or was it the mythology that intrigued you?
PGE: Is there such a word as, Scotophile? If there is, that’s me. I adore the landscape and the light and really enjoy the people too. And, it’s not so much the period ie, the time of the Viking raids, but a specific story about one particular battle that set “The Island House” going in my mind. In the North East, close to the village of Pennan, the Battle of Bloody Pits saw a fleet of 200 longships plus three Viking kings attempt to subdue the local population. They lost. Big time.
All three kings were beheaded and their skulls set up in niches in a church built to commemorate the defeat of the raiders. That building stood for 1,000 and I saw its ruins. They were all tough, tough, people with so many extraordinary stories to tell if you cared to listen.
And, yes, I’ve always loved archeology. In fact I really wanted to be an archeologist, ever since I saw the mummified foot of an Egyptian lady when I was six. Weird, but true. And I guess writing this book is the closest I’ve come thus far to actually digging up the past. But never say never…
To write a novel like The Island House must have involved an immense amount of research. How did you go about that task?
Travelling to Scotland! Seriously, that’s the way a book begins for me, once I’ve narrowed down where I think the story is set I have to go there. Can’t beat the “stand, stare and wander” approach; the mind gets out of the way and something begins, almost out of sight.
So often, too, I don’t know what I want until I find it. For this book I went to the North and East of Scotland (the really North ie Orkney) before I began to write. Then, pretty close to the end, I went to the Western Isles. I felt I hadn’t seen enough standing stones, the first time – standing stones are important in The Island House – and I also wanted to see if what I’d written so far felt authentic. And, of course, you’re right. There’s always a great deal of reading to do – fact checking and also for colour and inspiration. That’s no hardship, though, because I’ve always found inhaling facts (!) really pleasurable. Sadly, my obsessions (Convent ritual! Farming practices! Weaving!) are often the first things my dear editor wants me to cut. I think I’m a fact hoarder…
At the centre of the novel is a mystery. Is there treasure on Findnar Island and what kind of treasure is it? How did you determine what the mystery would be that drives the plot?
I spent a long time working in TV, and writing for television drama is a very structured process: story outline, scene breakdown, first draft, second draft, editors draft etc etc It’s also a group activity with a bunch of people – editors, script producers, researchers – all assembled in the script room to analyse/take apart and reconstruct the script (and sometimes the mind of its writer!)
The way I write my books could not be more different. It’s just me and the page – and I don’t plot. For me, writing is discovery and in this book, I literally dug the story out of the ground (thank you Stephen King! That’s what he says writing is and should be.) It’s different for every writer I know, but when I began this story I really didn’t know where it would take me. I loved the idea of something hidden(and, spoiler alert!) and that turned into the long ship and the treasure even if they weren’t there at the beginning ie during the first draft. The long ship burial (sorry! Did it again) appeared as the logical end point of the mystery, but only as the mystery developed in that same haphazard fashion.
Sounds mad I know, and for a good bit of the writing process (until around the end of the second draft I find,) it is. But letting a story grow and change and shuffle around, and even shed its skin from time to time, provides really delicious layers of stuff to burrow through – for writer and reader together. It’s also a pretty laborious way of writing, and slow too, because there are lots of false starts.
Sense of belonging is a central theme in the novel. What were you saying about our need to belong in our physical place and in our families?
I think spirit of place is stronger than we all understand. However, in a way, you only notice you’ve lived without it when you find it (very Zen!) – and that’s what happens to Freya Dane. Unwittingly, unwillingly, she finds her “right” place in the world, and begins to feel like she belongs in a way she could never have expected.
It’s my feeling that the meaning of home, and who you are, only truly comes into focus when you really know somewhere – and in all seasons – over a period of time; and I guess I’ve given that journey to Freya Dane as well. I’ve lived and worked in cities all my life however, increasingly I find I want unpeopled landscapes around me and perhaps this book reflects that more than any of the others. Where I spend most of my time now, the white noise of urban life just drops away and – for me – it’s much more possible to think and to create. I need that peace, and I think Freya finds she does as well (though she ain’t me, and I ain’t her!)
It’s impossible to talk about the theme of belonging without talking about the great love story at the heart of the book. Why did you feel it was important to make Signy’s relationship with Bear more than just a friendship?
It’s not always me. In this book particularly – maybe because I couldn’t crack the narrative at first – the story took control, and the characters became more and more independent on the page. So, I can say, hand on heart, I didn’t plan any of Signy and Bear’s story – it was more a case of being along for the ride, seeing what they were going to do next.
Of course, as I got to know the characters and their world(s), draft by draft, it became more possible to understand where the action was going and I’d work to strengthen the story sinews (as it were) so that the plot held up and the characters behaved in ways that felt real. In a way, I find writing’s like a conversation with a feisty bunch of very different people at a good dinner party. If they’re strangers at the beginning of the night, they sure ain’t by the end!
Freya hallucinates about a dark haired girl when she is on the island and is quite terrified by what she sees in these visions. What was the purpose of this device? I guess this aspect of the story, at its simplest, could just be seen as a trans-time ghost story. But then, after I’d finished the book, I worked out (belatedly) what all the echoes between the characters in the past and the present meant ie who was linked to whom and why. I’ve not written any of that down, but some people who’ve read the book ask me, so I tell them. And it’s all much more than a ghost story…
Religion is a core part of people’s existence in the historical part of the novel. Was this just because that was true to the way of life at that time or were you wanting to say something about how religion affects the way we interact with the world today?
Both, I think. Organised religion, especially at some particularly dark times in human history, is fertile ground for storytellers. It still seems astonishing to me that so many wars have been fought over religious belief. What is that?!
And yes, there certainly are parallels between the three religions in The Island House – Celtic Christianity, the beliefs of the Animists, and those of the Viking raiders – and events in our own time. When people in authority pervert the central message of love and compassion (still the core of most of the great religions of the world) for their own ends – or because the message has become misunderstood or corrupted over time – havoc will always be the result, past or present. We’re seeing that all around us in our world today, it seems to me.
In the modern part of the novel, you juxtapose Freya, archaeologist and preserver of the past against the architect Simon and the previous Lairds who see the past as an opportunity to profit. Where do you stand on the debate as to whether items of historical and/or monetary value should be kept in private or public hands?
Blimey! Just a little question, then? I’m profoundly grateful that extraordinary objects are available to all of us in museums and art galleries but quite often I feel uneasy. In huge institutions like the British Museum, which I love, it’s impossible to ignore that these glorious objects are so often displays of historical plunder. The Elgin marbles for instance.
On the one hand, they actually still exist (considering the Turks used the Acropolis as a gunpowder store and nearly destroyed the place). On the other, the Greek people quite rightly feel those marble friezes should be returned to the place for which they were created. Issues like this must dog every public institution all around the world! And then again – public versus private? We all love beautiful and inspiring objects, and our shopping habits say we like to own them, too.
In a way, the argument is a sterile one. It would be impossible to force the private owners of great art bought in good faith, or inherited, to give them up in the cause of public ownership (though Russia and China gave it a good go.)
Perhaps, though, the US version of philanthropy is worth considering. The Gettys, for instance, have endowed two remarkable free museums in LA where their private collections can be viewed by anyone. Another is the Frick Museum in New York, and there are countless other places all over the world which display private collections. I think that’s a really wonderful idea, and should be encouraged in Australia!
What is your next creative project going to be about? Is there another novel in the offing?
I’m about 45,000 words into the first draft of the new one. It’s another two-time story (quite enjoy that, I find) and is based around a family legend from the North country. it seems to be set in the Scottish borders, but I won’t be 100% sure of that until I go there next year. Looking forward to that!
You can read Meredith Jaffe’s full review of The Island House HERE.
You can read an extract from The Island House HERE.
*The Hoopla’s books editor Meredith Jaffe is a book reviewer and blogger. She lives in Sydney with her husband and four children. You can follow her on Twitter: @meredithjaffe.