From oppression overseas to the gold rush and horror of the Eureka Stockade, Sydney-based Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest work is historical escapism in epic, sweeping form. Today she shares a secret and sends a special message as she tackles the Book Club Ten.
Give us the elevator pitch for your new novel, A Great Southern Land.
In A Great Southern Land is an Australian historical saga set in the heady days of the Gold Rush. The novel begins in Killaloe, Ireland, in the mid nineteenth century where news of granted land in Australia greets the oppressed Clancy family. Meanwhile, in Liverpool England, young Eve Richards suffers a cruel fate and ends up bound for the great south land herself, but as a convict in chains. Kieran Clancy and Eve’s paths cross and their fates are irrevocably entwined in this rugged new country, but Eve seeks quiet respectability and the adventurous and now gold-struck Kieran faces an inner battle as he chooses what is closest to his Irish rebel heart. This novel culminates in the cataclysmic events surrounding (and during) the Eureka Stockade and, as an author, I hope the underscoring true history adds to the drama of the tale and that it spurs the reader on — right to the very end — to see how this all plays out for our star-crossed lovers.
Tell us about the standout characters. Who do you love and hate … and why?
Kieran is intrinsically kind which makes him a true hero to me. His big heart, combined with his passionate nature, get him into all sorts of strife but his faults are also his blessings. Eve certainly falls in love with his enthusiastic, compassionate, impetuous nature, all delivered with a fair whack of charm, but it’s this very essence that essentially threatens their happiness. Eve is a graceful, human being living through terrible injustices but her goodness wins Kieran’s heart, although whether or not that will be enough you’ll have to read the novel and see (!). Eileen Clancy, Liam Clancy and Dave Tumulty all have a few scene stealers as minor characters and I developed a real soft spot for each.
What made you want to explore this part of Australian history?
My own ancestors, the Clancy family, emigrated to New South Wales from Ireland in 1841 and gold panning is in my family. I have always wanted to explore the reasons why someone would uproot their lives and traverse treacherous oceans to start anew in a far-flung, untamed corner of the world. Desperation? Bravery? Romanticism? Perhaps all three.
Do you enjoy reading historical fiction yourself? Or other genres?
Yes, I adore historical fiction and I would classify it as a favourite. I also love contemporary, well-written fiction.
Share a little bit more about yourself: Mary-Anne O’Connor in three fast facts.
… blessed. I live in a very happy home with my two wonderful teenage sons, my kind husband, my gorgeous dog Saxon and lots of friends and family pop in and out. I love that.
… the daughter of an artist. Kevin Best was my father and taught me to follow my creative dreams with perseverance but also with optimism — always.
… a deeply contemplative extravert. Ha. It took me a while to write that but weirdly enough it says it all.
Why and how did you become a writer?
I became a writer because the time was right. It seemed the stories needed to be born in my forties and so they were. They poured out very quickly because they’d been brewing for so long and I really did feel it was all meant to be and hopefully I would be published, mostly because they were inspired by family who’d passed away. Like love letters. It took three years though, and it was a tough road. I think most people would have given up but I’m stubborn and … well, the daughter of Kevin Best. Perseverance and optimism won out in the end.
Your first novel Gallipoli Street dealt with Australia during WW1; In A Great Southern Land looks at the early colonial period. What were the most interesting things you came across when researching them?
First-hand accounts and true stories, especially soldiers’ letters, were the most interesting parts of my research. Like they were speaking directly to me. Little details like the common endearments they used in WWI: ‘my darlings’, ‘dearest one’. The pubs they frequented, songs they sang, clothes they wore. I love the idea of a man heading to the gold fields wearing a buttoned down vest. The absolute corruption and oppression surrounding these events was confronting but the responding courage and loyalty they inspired sometimes moved me to tears.
What do you hope readers take away from In a Great Southern Land?
Inspiration and appreciation. Freedom should never be taken for granted and equality and compassion should be Australia’s foremost goal.
What do you plan on writing next?
I’m writing about suffragettes and what a wonderful world I’m in. Australian women led the way for so many and I’m filled with everyday admiration right now. It’s very topical too, looking back at how far we’ve come and yet how far we still have to go.
What are you going to do when this interview is over?
I’m off to do a book signing event for Mother’s Day and I’ll be writing about women’s rights on the train. Seems very apt. (P.S. Happy Mother’s Day Mum. Love you. x)