An Interview with Johanna Nicholls, Author of Ghost Gum Valley

What is your earliest memory of reading or of books?
When I was a little kid I was fascinated by books, songs and legends that told a story. At bedtime my Dad always told me stories and sung the American gold rush song I loved ‘Oh My Darling, Clementine,’ in which the girl drowns.  It reduced me to tears so often when I was three years old that Dad invented an additional verse to give it a happy ending. I knew he had changed it, but it meant I could go to sleep happy.
Until I was 10, I had a great deal of trouble learning to read. I couldn’t associate sounds with letters and once you have a fear about not being able to read, it keeps getting worse. I was quite tall as a child and felt I always stood out, ashamed because younger children could read and I couldn’t. Dad always read books to me. One day he brought home Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and read me the first two chapters. I fell in love with the characters. Then he told me I had to read the rest myself. That was the book that forced me to teach myself how to read. 
Has a reader ever told you something about your books that surprised you?
To me, that is one of the delights of my new career as an author. The way people react differently to characters in my books really fascinates me. I can’t always predict their reactions. Some people who have lead sheltered lives have instinctive empathy with wayward characters. I am always surprised by people who suspect I have experienced everything I write about – that the wild love affairs in Ghost Gum Valley and Ironbark are all drawn from my life. The truth is I don’t always know where a story is leading. I start out with a plan, but my characters soon become disobedient and tell me where they are going. They even talk to me in my dreams. I never know the exact ending of my books until I get there.
If you could be one fictional character, who would you choose to be and why?
This is a difficult question for me because I walk in the shoes of every character I read. I remember as a kid I wanted to be Jo March from Little Women. I got really upset when she didn’t marry Laurie. I really identified with Jo and her dream to be a writer – I think I was Jo for a while. I can’t specifically identify with a single character in other authors’ novels, but I do identify with my own. If I could choose to be drawn to an era rather than a character, it would be the 19th Century. However, I am relieved to have a return ticket to the 21st Century (laughs). I wouldn’t have lasted long in the 1800s. I nearly died having my appendix out when I was nine years old, so I am thankful for modern medicine. And for our improved legal rights, including the right to marry who you want to marry.
Does Australian literary heritage play a role in your writing and are there any particular elements that you aspire to emulate in your fiction?
I am inspired by many aspects of Australia: our history, bush legends, ghost stories, the skeletons in my family’s closet, and Australian biographies. But as a child I found Australian history boring when compared to European history because there weren’t any beautiful costumes, no battles, no castles. My Dad, who was English-born, told me how wrong I was. How unique Australian history is. He really fired my imagination with stories about the gold rush, ghost stories and the real-life bushranger Captain Moonlite in Blackwood, the Victorian bush township where he grew up and where we spent our holidays. So I fell in love with Australian history because of my father. 
I am a lifelong romantic, but being born the daughter of a comedy writer (Fred Parsons) I’m also deeply attracted to our weird Australian sense of humour. Humour was a survival tool for the convicts and early settlers. I feel life is a balance between romance, tragedy and comedy – although we don’t always get the proportion we want. Humour will always be a vein in every book I write because to me this is what pulled Australians through the darkest chapters in our history. You can only take so much high drama. Humour offers us a reprieve – as Shakespeare’s plays illustrate perfectly.
There are quite passionate and moving emotions that are expressed in Ghost Gum Valley.  This makes it a very compelling read. Do you think your time as a television producer and writer for the media has given you a foundation to drive and understand what grips the audience?
I have always been a very visual person. I think in pictures. Characters and scenes come to me in dreams. My years working as TV Drama Script Editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was an invaluable experience for a writer. It taught me to visualise the structure, but also to have a deeper knowledge of dialogue and how it can reveal characters – not just what they are saying, but what they are thinking. Not so much through a narrator, but through the characters. Theatre and movies from a very young age were a great foundation for me. Many people say they can visualize my books as they read them. I take this as a great compliment because that is exactly what I am aiming for. 
I found your description of late 1800s Sydney fascinating and I could almost hear the horse and carts as I was reading. How did you go about researching this time period in Sydney and then portraying it within the lives of Isabel, Marmaduke and Garnet?
Writing novels was always my long-term dream, but when I was working in television I had to put all my energy into the development of other writers’ projects. I only wrote fiction during my holidays. I was always accumulating books about Australia and built quite a library. My eyes often chance to fall on a book in a second-hand bookshop, which later plays into some aspects of my novels. An author friend, Ian Jones, the Ned Kelly historian, calls this the ‘library angel at work.’ On a practical level, I spend a great deal of time in libraries including the Mitchell wing of the State Library of NSW, State Records NSW and Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum. I do use Google, but prefer primary sources. I don’t rest until I find the answer to whatever I am researching.
Every time I went out on the Sydney ferry I imagined what the foreshores would have looked like in the 1800s. I am thankful to people like Jack Mundey who fought to preserve precious areas of our natural bushland, as he did to save save Kelly’s Bush from being developed. 
Do you think you can personally relate to Isabel or is she purely fictional?
Isabel is the young girl I would have liked to have been as a teenager. I imagined myself as a heroine, but felt I was a wimp. As a cadet journalist I could write well, but had to learn to talk to people at interviews because I was very shy.

Today I am horrified that young girls are still being forced into arranged marriages in some cultures. I don’t think I would have had the courage that Isabel did if I had lived in her era, but this was an idea I wanted to explore. There is a little of Isabel in me, but I can say the same about all of the characters in my books, including male characters. Even my son said ‘you sure got into the head of a young man, Mum. How did you do that?’ (Laughs). A reader of an early draft of Ghost Gum Valley suggested Isabel was a know-all. I didn’t want to be defensive, but I responded that ‘[Isabel] is so young and insecure and wasn’t allowed to socialise in her upper-class English world. The one thing she did know was book learning and Shakespeare.’ I decided to keep that in, and had fun pitting her against Marmaduke.

Did you remove anything major from this story that might be used for material in the next book?
No, I can say this quite firmly because the writing of each book is like a different pregnancy and birth. I may have cut one or two minor characters out, but there’s always some new character demanding to have their own story told. There was the occasional character I had to kill off. I’m attracted to exploring different aspects of Colonial society, so all my books will have a fresh research base. I enjoy doing research. I just have to be careful I don’t go off on a tangent. I don’t think I have the temperament to write biographies but I do love reading them. I enjoy putting biographical details and historical events into my fictional world. 
Did you do that with any of the characters in Ghost Gum Valley?
Samuel Terry was known as The Botany Bay Rothschild. An emancipist, he was the wealthiest man in the Colony. But also a modest man, and he and his wife worked hard. So when I created the character of Garnet Gamble, who wanted to get into upper-class Colonial society but could never be accepted, I used Samuel Terry as the guy that Garnet, the second wealthiest man in the Colony, was desperate to beat. Garnet would be a great role for an actor because he embarks on a complex ‘journey’ through the book. I hated him to start with but ended up loving the old bastard. (Laughs).
There are threads of the theatre and juxtapositions between Isabel de Rolland and Shakespeare’s Othello in Ghost Gum Valley, was this intentional?
I wrote those scenes through Isabel’s eyes and what she would have seen and felt, about her hero, actor Edmund Kean. I did this as a tribute to my father who told me a fund of stories about Kean. He was the greatest actor of his age. On stage, his rages were so powerful that during one performance, Lord Byron had an apoplectic fit in the box from sheer terror. Othello was Kean’s last performance. He collapsed on stage and died shortly afterwards. I did not realize when I wrote that scene I was setting the scene for a murder that happens later in the book. 
One thing that Marmaduke and Isabel have in common, even though they can’t stand each other, is that they have a love of theatre and Shakespeare. It was natural for them to quote from plays and to correct each other. I chose to use my love of theatre because I wanted something very different to my first book, Ironbark.
In previous interviews I read that you dislike “political correctness.” Was there a part in Ghost Gum Valley that you thought people were not going to like, but it had to go in?
I know there will be some eyebrows raised because my characters may not reflect some readers’ attitudes – or my own. It was a very conscious decision. I believe people in our contemporary era hold beliefs that don’t translate back in time. I had to remember that the characters in Ghost Gum Valley did not have historical hindsight. For example Garnet was full of prejudices and could not read newspapers so he had to rely on what was being said in the world around him. I write from the point of view of my characters, how they would perceive events and people in their era. It is not necessarily my opinion.  Contemporary historians’ opinions are often in conflict. I choose what fits the story and the characters. As for political correctness, I feel many people are scared to speak out about things because it doesn’t fit with the accepted point of view. Perhaps people have become scared to say what they really think.
Thank you for your time Johanna, and congratulations on the success of Ghost Gum Valley.
Johanna suggested three must reads for our members:
Harp in the South by Ruth Park Watch out for me by Sylvia Johnson