Unfulfilled dreams, childhood violence and undiagnosed mental illness divide and unite two sisters at the heart of The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin), the poignant and profoundly beautiful debut novel by Perth-based Louise Allan — the latest guest in my Shelf Aware series.
Louise is generous, warm-hearted, witty and inspirational. In the WA writing community she is highly respected and much-loved, partly because she has been willing to share the highs and lows of her journey toward publication with the aim of helping others navigate the process; and partly because she is always ready to boost and encourage other writers, myself included.
Her On Writing blog is always thought-provoking and entertaining (and often amusing); her photographic series Midweek Moments (with fellow Perth-based author Monique Mulligan) captured the beauty of the world she encountered in her daily life; and her Writers in the Attic blog series provides a platform for experienced, emerging and hopeful writers (myself included).
Louise is a former GP, who stepped away from that role before pursuing a writing career, and she retains the kind heart, empathy and air of wisdom that must have made her a reassuring presence for her patients. With The Sisters’ Song, she has channelled her significant intellect and innate empathy into creating fictional characters who are fragile and flawed, vunerable and volatile, beautiful and terrible, and, above all, utterly convincing. Woven throughout the narrative is a musical motif that reflects Louise’s passion for music and singing.
Drawing on her own troubled childhood and the experiences of her ancestors, Louise has crafted an honest, heartfelt and heart-rending account of sibling rivalry, emotional upheaval and unrealised dreams. The novel spans a seventy-year period from the 1920s to the 1990s, and set in Louise’s home town of Launceston, Tasmania.
In case you can’t tell, I loved it — despite, or perhaps because of, it’s dark themes and the disappointments that plagued its eponymous sisters, Ida and Nora. Louise has managed to capture the essence of Launceston and the surrounding countryside, and provides candid reflections on love, loss, grief and the impacts of emotional abuse and mental illness.
Pour a cup of tea or coffee, sit back and enjoy reading author Louise Allan’s responses to my Shelf Aware questions.
Q. Louise, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. Writing hardly feels like work because I enjoy it so much—the days I have to drag myself to my computer chair are rare indeed. There’s a satisfaction in creating something that wasn’t there before—it’s like playing imaginary games all day long and I can’t believe it’s my legitimate career.
How do I do my so-called ‘job’? Deadlines and bum glue. And, if I’m completely honest—the Freedom App. You see, I have a little internet addiction problem and I rely on my friend, Freedom, to curb it for me.
Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline?
A. I’m about 25,000 words into Novel #2—I wish I was further along, but I obviously haven’t been using Freedom enough.
I have no shortage of ideas to write about but I have an ‘available time’ problem. I already have an idea for Novel #3, plus a subject I’d love to explore in a nonfiction book. I love writing essays that ponder life, and it would be nice to write more of those, too.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?
A. We have bookcases in just about every room of the house. Books also reside on the coffee tables, inside wardrobes, and on and in our bedside tables. That’s not counting the boxes of favourite children’s books I couldn’t discard and are in storage in the hope they can be passed onto the next generation.
Last summer, I did a major culling of as many books as I could bear to part with—about half. I felt bad, but it’s better they’re in the hands of someone who’ll read them.
Q. How are your books organised/arranged? (ie alphabetically, by theme or genre, using some sort of formal or informal filing system, by colour perhaps?
A. I organise my fiction by author and my non-fiction by subject. The subjects are ordered according to the way I ordered them on a bookshelf about twenty-four years ago, and because that seemed to work, I haven’t changed it since. The subjects seem to flow into the different stages of life—for example, personal development leads into books on marriage, which leads to books on parenting, and so forth. Then there’s my writing books—there’s a shelf full of favourites that I often refer to, and about two more shelves on top of that.
Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. Fiction seems to predominate in my bookshelves and those of the kids. In the music room/library, it’s more non-fiction—books you read when you want to learn.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. Bed. My husband not infrequently has to remove my specs, place the book on my bedside table and turn out my light because I fall asleep with it in my hands. I love falling asleep reading.
Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?
A. Right now (*at the time of responding to these questions), I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed for book club, as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the book club my husband and I are in together, which also only has two members: him and me. I’m also reading a friend’s manuscript—this is the third or fourth time I’ve read it, so I’ve seen it through its various incarnations and I think, this time, it’s ready to go!
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. Recently, I read and loved The Museum of Modern Art by Heather Rose. I loved the prose and the theme of art connecting people. I loved Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos for its story of redemption.
My favourite books ever are: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I think is about as close to the perfect book as you can get, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which is funny and sad all in one, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.
From the classics, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles never fails to move me. I know D’Urberville is the antagonist but, personally, I despise Angel Clare for being a self-righteous hypocrite. I keep returning to The Great Gatsby for the prose and the power of the story—Daisy doesn’t deserve you, Jay.
Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?
A. I’d keep the ones my kids have written because there are no other copies of those. And my Jane Austen boxed set, which was a present from my husband.
Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?
A. I’d love to sit down with Harper Lee and tell her how much I love Atticus Finch, his kindness and his wisdom. I’d also invite F. Scott Fitzgerald and ask him how he wrote such florid prose but made it sound so effortless. Then I’d tell him to let Gatsby know not to waste his time on Daisy. I’d have to have Thomas Hardy there, too. His books were ‘out there’ for the subjects he wrote about given the morality of the time.
All of these authors really understood people and human nature, so much that we still relate to their characters today. I’d love to pick their brain for even an ounce of their wisdom.