Limprecht is in the throes of launching her new book, Long Bay (which I reviewed last week) but she kindly took the time to answer some questions for me. Her answers are thoughtful and articulate – just like her books, really.
And in a literary scoop for Adventures in Biography, read on to discover just how recently Limprecht became an Australian citizen – welcome to Oz, Eleanor!
To recap, Long Bay is a fictional account of the real-life Rebecca Sinclair, a woman convicted in 1909 for manslaughter, as the result of performing a botched abortion. Sinclair, in her twenties, was sentenced to three years hard labour at the Long Bay Women’s Reformatory. Six months later she gave birth to a daughter. Limprecht’s novel depicts Sinclair’s life with insight, sympathy and telling detail. The razor-sharp line between making just enough money to keep a family and falling into penury is chillingly demonstrated and lends the novel – a genuine page turner – a dark air of foreboding.
There are lots of stories in the archives – why was it that Rebecca Sinclair’s story captured you?
Rebecca’s story captured me at first just from curiosity – during my initial research into the Long Bay Women’s Reformatory I came across the letter which begins the book, from the prison authorities to Royal Hospital for Women saying we are sending this prisoner for her accouchement (confinement) – please return her when she has had the child. Then I found another letter, written one month later, saying thank you for returning her to prison with her 14-day-old child. So at first I wondered how you kept an infant in prison in 1909. I wondered what Rebecca’s sentence was for: what she had been guilty of. And then, when I discovered that it was for manslaughter from what appeared to be a botched abortion, I was intrigued. How was this a young woman with her sad, piercing gaze (at this stage I had found her prison photograph) involved in this underworld, and how was she also a mother? When you think of a convicted abortionist in prison you don’t think of a young, pregnant mother. So I was captured by how this story came to be.
Some writers might have included an author’s note explaining what was ‘real’ and what was fictional. Why did you decide not to include that sort of explanation?
Good question. I think because even the real documents which I included in the story are only fragments of what might be true – we cannot look at archives and newspaper articles as honest truth, because they are selective versions of what might have actually happened, and we cannot know. So while I wanted to weave these real documents and the “facts” which I could find in, I had to invent a lot about Rebecca’s life simply because there was no information. Without her time in prison and in the courts, we would have only her birth certificate, marriage certificate and death certificate as records of her existence. Only because of her institutionalization can we begin to guess at what her life was actually like. So while without those records I would never have found the story, and while I am grateful to them, I also was conscious of not wanting to preference them or hold them up as truth. Truth is more complex, I think.
What was your writing process? Lots of research, then lots of writing? Or did you undertake the research as you went along?
I began just researching, and then realized that I would have to mix it up and write in chunks otherwise I would never write anything. I love researching, I love chasing leads in different directions and following little threads of clues, whereas actually sitting down and writing takes more discipline. So I broke it up into chunks of researching interspersed with chunks of writing. I tried not to do both at once, because if I was researching while writing the tone of my writing took on the often dry, formal language of the research documents.
How did you go about organising your research material?
Not my strong point! Because I did this as part of a Doctorate of Creative Arts I had to force myself to be very particular about keeping an accurate bibliography and copies of all of my material. I did eventually use EndNote to organize my bibliographical materials and I kept hard copies of my papers in a hanging file. I am glad that so many images are digitized now and I am grateful for phone cameras which I used to take photographs in the archives and in museums. I also read, in an interview with Charlotte Wood, author Margo Lanagan talk about how she used scrapbooks for her novels to organize images and scraps of inspiration. I made a scrapbook for Long Bay of images which really brought me into that particular time, and I found that really helpful.
Your first novel, What Was Left, is a work of contemporary literary fiction. Long Bay is historical literary fiction. Did you discover any meaningful differences between writing contemporary and historical fiction?
I was really excited when I decided to write Rebecca’s story that I had the basic timeline of a plot already, and that I wouldn’t be flailing around in unknown waters like I did with What Was Left. With What Was Left I felt as though I had no map and just went into the bush, trusting my instinct to find the way. The bushland was familiar and it was territory I knew, in many ways – places I had been – so this method worked for that plot. With Rebecca’s story I had a map, but the landscape was unfamiliar. The bushland was completely foreign to me. Which was why I had to do so much research. I don’t know if that is a meaningful difference but it was definitely a difference.
Long Bay evoked for me the works of Ruth Park. Which, if any, writers informed your work?
Thank you, I love the works of Ruth Park and am very glad that you say that. I did read her novels, as well as many others set in Sydney around the period I based Long Bay in. But I didn’t set out writing Long Bay with a particular author influencing me. That said I read constantly and every writer I read makes me consider my own writing. I feel lost without something to read. And I have a very big soft spot for Kate Grenville’s historical novels and the way she can evoke a world with a few descriptive words.
The ending of Long Bay is perfect, and for me evoked a strong emotional response. When did you know how your book would end?
I’m so glad you think so. It was so hard, Michelle, finding the right ending. I actually wrote four endings to Long Bay, two that were set many years in the future (one where she had actually died), and at one stage I tried ending it when she arrived at Shaftesbury. But the endings so far into the future were too neat for me – I don’t like books that end without some unknowns, some present but fragile hope. I don’t like books that tie up their endings in a nice neat bow.
What was the hardest thing about writing Long Bay? And the best?
The hardest thing was doubting my ability as a non-native Australian to tell this story. Because I was born in the US and lived overseas and in the US for most of my life until moving to Sydney in my early 20s, there is still so much about Australia I am unfamiliar with. Researching and writing this book for me was a total submersion into Australia’s past. I just shut my mouth and jumped in. I think that sometimes it takes an outsider’s eyes to see a place in a fresh, new way. So this was both the worst and the best thing. I have also, I might add, lived in Sydney now for longer than I have lived in any one other place. And just last week I became an Australian citizen. When I sang ‘Advance Australia Fair’ – I’m embarrassed to admit – I cried. I thought about the people who came here on boats from England hundreds of years ago, and the people who came here on boats only to be turned away in recent years. How lucky I am to be given these opportunities, to have access to these stories. Writing them, fictionalizing them, is my way of trying to be worthy of the opportunities I have been given.
Where to from here? What does your next writing project hold in store for us?
I’ve started and stopped two very different projects and I don’t know which I will return to. One is sort of memoir and the other is another work of historical fiction. Get back to me in a year and I might be able to say which one is working!
Want to know more about Eleanor Limprecht?
- Limprecht provides more information about the historical background to Long Bay (including some surprising information about Rebecca Sinclair’s granddaughter, whose name you might already know…)
- The Australian newspaper’s review of Long Bay
- Booktopia also managed to ask Limprecht Ten Terrifying Questions (all quite different to my nine benign ones…)
- If you enjoy podcasts, then you’ll aready know about Conversations, with the ABC’s Richard Fidler (it’s definitely one of my faves). Check out the Eleanor Limprecht interview posted just last week.
Other author interviews here at Adventures in Biography
This interview conducted as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge