Thursday, July 13, 2017

Interview with Winton Higgins and Michelle Morgan

 


Our guests today are Winton Higgins and Michelle Morgan. Winton is the author of Rule of Law. He is a Sydney writer and senior academic. He grew up partly in the outback, and partly in Sydney. He is a graduate of the universities of Sydney, Stockholm and London. After a brief first career in law, he pursued a much longer one as a social-science academic at Macquarie University and UTS, publishing rather than perishing as he went. As a creative writer he won the 2002 NSW Writers’ Centre’s short story competition, and in 2003 published his travel diary, Journey into Darkness. Rule of Law is his first novel. You can connect with Winton via his website.

Michelle Morgan was a former librarian and is now a full-time writer who lives in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Her first YA novel, Racing the Moon, was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in 2014, and released in the UK and US in 2015. Her latest release, Flying Through the Clouds, was published in April 2017. Four of Michelle's plays have been performed in short play festivals in Sydney, Newcastle and Armidale. You can connect with Michelle via her website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

What is the inspiration for your current book?

Winton: In my academic ‘day job’ I research about genocide, and became inspired by reading more deeply into the first Nuremberg trial 1945-6. Here was an epic  drama in which many aspects of modern life first saw the light of day, right down to simultaneous interpreting at transnational events. Yet it’s so badly short-changed in the history books. I felt a great need to bring it back to life using a novelistic approach.

Michelle: I’d been toying with the idea of having my main character learn to fly, so I began researching aviators and flying in the 1930s. When I visited the Gerringong Historical Society’s Museum to see their exhibition on Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s landing and take-off in Southern Cross from Seven Mile Beach in 1933, I had tingles up and down my spine and could barely talk. That’s when I decided to develop the story around Joe’s dream of becoming an aviator. But I also wanted to create sub-plots and flesh out other characters so readers could relate to the story on many levels.

 Is there a particular theme you are exploring in this book?

Winton: The promoters of the trial pursued the ambition to outlaw aggressive war and human-rights abuses, and to strip even the most high-and-mighty perpetrators of their impunity. They wanted an international rule of law, as the title of my novel makes clear. This is its major theme. A secondary theme concerns what one might call German redemption: the trial set postwar Germany on a long and ultimately successful process of coming to terms with its dark past and emerging as today’s ‘good European’.

Michelle: The title - Flying through Clouds - is a metaphor for adolescence, which is the main theme of the novel.  The book also deals sensitively with many themes and issues, such as: family, friendship, the Depression, resilience, courage, determination, truth, responsibility, survival, fear, loss, grief, bullying, violence, gambling, education and work. Many of the issues that teenagers faced in the 1930s are still relevant today.

Which period of history particularly interests you? Why?

Winton: The 1930s and 1940s, when humanity sank to its lowest depths, but also rose to its greatest heights. This period set the parameters of human evil and human decency.

Michelle: The 1930s are a fascinating period in Australia. Not only did we feel the full impact of the economic hardship of the Depression but we managed to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge and develop an Aviation industry. Our aviators, like CKS, Bert Hinkler and Nancy Bird became famous around the world. Australian cinema, literature and the Arts were thriving. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation was established and the new wireless technology spread throughout the country. Don Bradman was a national hero and Bodyline was a dirty word. After the Depression, serious conflicts developed around the world. Hitler rose to power and World War II was imminent.

What resources do you use to research your book?

Winton: I build on my professional background knowledge and understanding. Beyond that, I’ve used official transcripts, and read many memoirs and contemporary journalistic analyses to get a sense of the participants’ lived experience of the drama, and to glean many fine-grained details about daily life and survival in a devastated, isolated city. And of course Mother Google is always there for me.

Michelle: I spent months reading books about Australia and aviators in the 1930s, and I watched technical videos on how to fly old Gypsy Moths, over and over again. I interrogated everyone I knew who had flown before, and was lucky enough to come across Prue Mason, a children’s author and pilot with extensive experience flying old planes. The Gerringong and District Historical Society’s display on Sir Charles Kingsford Smith was a real inspiration, and I also visited the National Museum in Canberra, Qantas Heritage Collection at Sydney Airport, the Bradman Museum in Bowral, Fleet Air Arm Museum at Nowra, the Temora Aviation Museum and the Queensland Museum as well as small museums in country towns.

While writing Flying through Clouds, I regularly accessed online collections of the National Library of Australia, the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney Living Museums, the Powerhouse Museum, the Dictionary of Sydney and the Glebe Society, as well as the online collections of many other Australian museums and libraries.

What is more important to you: historical authenticity or accuracy?

Winton: I can’t really rank these two, or indeed separate them. My role models all respect (and don’t mess with) the historical record, as I try to do myself. On the other hand I follow them in ‘filling in the gaps’ in that record, so historical characters grow from the stick figures walking across the pages of the history books, into living, breathing human beings with their own quirks, contingencies, fears, loves and conflicts. This transformation renders historical processes truly authentic and arresting.

Michelle: Historical authenticity and accuracy go hand-in-hand. I try to weave historical detail authentically through the narrative and enrich it through the characters and dialogue. It’s only after I have immersed myself in the period and culture that I can start to write and develop the characters. During the editing process, I check for the accuracy of specific historical details that I’ve incorporated to ensure I haven’t used creative license.

Which character in your current book is your favourite? Why?

Winton: Katerina, one of my four point-of-view characters, and a pioneering simultaneous interpreter at the trial. She’s a German war widow and nationalist, one of the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler in the last year of the war. She arrives in Nuremberg with her small daughter, and is newly remarried to an Australian airforce officer who works for the British prosecution. She senses the trial’s potential to clear the way for an honourable German revival; she pursues this mission with a will, as she serves the tribunal while grappling with the trauma and loss she herself has suffered in the war.

Michelle: I love all my characters but my favourite is the main character, Joe Riley. Joe is a flawed character, an anti-hero, but occasionally we see some redeeming qualities. Like many teenagers, Joe is strong-willed, independent and thinks he’s invincible. So that readers don’t just perceive him as a petulant teenager, I’ve made him more complex. Joe loves his family, even though he is constantly arguing with them. He is loyal to his friends, is gentle and kind to young children, and has a keen sense of humour. Sometimes though, Joe just can’t seem to put a foot right.

Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? How long does it generally take you to write a book?

Winton: A plotter for the most part. The time it takes me to write a book varies enormously. Academic ones proceed quite quickly (12 months is my personal best!), but creative writing requires more care, reflection and feedback, and takes much longer.

Michelle: When I start writing a book, I have a general idea of where I’m going, but I’m a pantser. My first draft is all about developing character and voice. When I have a good understanding of my characters and the world in which they live, I become more of a plotter and plot the main turning points of the story. And there’s no story without conflict. But the conflict has to come from the interaction of the characters. During the editing process, I evaluate every scene – What impact will it have? How credible is it? Will it drive the story forward and develop the characters? It took me nearly four years to write and edit Flying through Clouds.

Which authors have influenced you?

Winton: Kate Grenville, Frank Moorhouse, and Hilary Mantel are the stand-outs. Each of them writes powerfully and imaginatively, and exemplifies the approach to writing about historical events and institutions that I consciously follow.

Michelle: These authors have probably influenced me the most: Jackie French, John Marsden, Sofie Laguna, Morris Gleiztman, Marlena Marchetta, Tim Winton, Sonya Hartnett, Ruth Park, Miles Franklin, Harper Lee, J. K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Shakespeare.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

Winton: First, develop ‘the craft’ of creative writing very carefully, and never feel shy about enrolling in your umpteenth how-to-write programme. (As the old Zen saying goes: if you think you’re getting somewhere, go back to the beginning!) Secondly, join or form a writers’ group whose members read each other’s pre-circulated drafts meticulously, and discuss them in detail at its meetings. It needs to be a group committed to constructive criticism with the aim of seeing its members’ work accepted for publication – not a mutual admiration society.  

Michelle: Keep reading, writing and editing, and get advice from professional editors when you’re ready. I think there’s some truth to the 40% rule – when you think you’ve finished, you’ve only done around 40% of what you need to do to make your manuscript the best it can be.

Tell us about your next book or work in progress.

Winton: While I’m waiting for the Next Big Idea, I’m engaging in some memoir writing that I want to eventually collect into a book (but definitely not an autobiography!)

Michelle: I’m currently working on my first full-length play, which, like the short plays I’ve written, is contemporary and for an adult audience. My next novel will have historical and contemporary settings, but may be for adults rather than young adults.


At the end of World War II, the Allies have to decide what to do with the top Nazi war criminals they’ve captured. Rather than simply shooting them, they take the riskier option of setting up a four-power international tribunal to try them, with maximum publicity and all the requirements of due process met. This bold move triggers a tense and gritty drama involving thousands of war-damaged individuals shipped into Nuremberg, a small bombed-out city in occupied Germany. Once there, the prosecutors and judges, led by prominent British and American lawyers, find themselves isolated from the outside world, starved of basic resources, and flying blind into a trial of unprecedented complexity, length and size, while under the gaze of the international media at every turn.

The novel follows four participants through the preparation and ten-month conduct of the trial: a young GI with a German-Jewish background who gets snapped up by the American prosecutors for his interpreting skills; the former head of German Radio, on trial for his life; a German war widow and pioneer of simultaneous interpreting, now remarried to a British prosecution investigator; and one of the two British judges sitting on the tribunal. Through their eyes and ears, we experience the horrors of Nazi war crimes being revealed to a world public for the first time, the perilous makeshift of the trial process, and the moments of high drama when it seems that the whole edifice is about to collapse. They are participants in this very public enterprise while struggling to lead meaningful private lives and pursue their own ambitions amid the devastation of postwar Germany.

In the epilogue, set in the present day, a startling encounter in the old Nuremberg courtroom gives us a glimpse of the trial’s legacy—for the international rule of law, and for a new culture of German acknowledgment of past criminality that reunification has fostered.

You can purchase Rule of Law via  Abbeys and New South Books.



It’s not easy being a teenage boy growing up in the tough neighbourhood of Glebe in the 1930s. It’s even harder when your dream is to become an aviator, your parents are dead against it, and your girlfriend’s father is the School Principal. But Joe has even bigger challenges he must face and obstacles to overcome if he wants to achieve his dream. He has a plan and won’t let anyone stand in his way.

Flying through Clouds can be ordered from your local bookshop, online suppliers such as Booktopia or on Michelle’s  website.
Racing the Moon is available via Amazon and Book Depository.


Winton Higgins and Michelle Morgan areappearing in our Sydney Meet the Author satellite event on 26 July 2017 at the Gordon Library 799 Pacific Highway, Gordon from 6.00-8.00 pm discussing 'Wings into History: How the Past Inspires Historical Fiction' with Justin Sheedy and Kim Kelly. More information and ticketsare available from the HNSA website. 
                                                               

HNSA 2017 Conference

The HNSA 2017 Melbourne Conference is being held on 8-10 September 2017 at Swinburne University. This celebration of the historical fiction genre will showcase over 60 speakers discussing inspiration, writing craft, research, publishing pathways and personal histories in our weekend programme. Among the many acclaimed historical novelists participating are Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Libby Hathorn, Lucy Treloar, Sophie Masson, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott and Arnold Zable. The HNSA’s speakers’ list is available on the HNSA website.

In addition to the two stream weekend programme, there will be ten craft based super sessions and two research masterclasses.You won’t want to miss our interactive sessions on armour and historical costumes either! Purchase a ticket and you will be entered in the draw to win a $100 Dymocks Gift Card.

Our First Pages Pitch Contest offers an opportunity for submissions to be read aloud to a panel of publishers. And we are delighted to announce the introduction of our inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a $500 prize! 




Let’s make a noise about historical fiction!

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