Australian author Alli Sinclair’s latest novel Burning Fields (Harlequin) provides insight into the role played by Australian women on the land during World War II, and their struggles to readjust to societal expectations once their brothers, husbands, lovers or fathers returned from the battlefields. It also highlights the challenges faced by foreigners attempting to find a place in post-war Australia, and the resentment they faced from people whose lives had been irrevocably changed by the conflict, both personally and as a nation. Of course, readers of Alli’s other novels will be expecting a gentle romance to unfold between the pages of the story, and they won’t be disappointed.
Alli was a guest on my Shelf Aware blog series last year, when she released Beneath the Parisian Skies, and I was delighted to meet her in person when she visited Western Australia on a promotional tour for that novel — after having developed an online friendship with her that encompassed our shared interest in US country punk / folk outfit the Violent Femmes. I’m also delighted to have been asked to interview her about Burning Fields, and I hope you’ll enjoy learning a bit more about this compassionate, thought-provoking and captivating story.
ME: What led you to set this new novel in Northern Queensland and Palermo, Sicily, in the period after World War II?
AS: I wanted to write about post-war because it was a huge time of transition for everyone, with returned servicemen trying to find a way to adapt to being back home after their traumatic experiences abroad, and women trying to find a way to return to the role of homemaker after experiencing independence working for the war effort.
Also, immigrants were trying to find a way to fit in to a country that was so very foreign to them and there was resistance from people already living here. From the second Burning Fields came to me I knew northern Queensland was the perfect setting because it is such a beautiful, unique part of the world.
Also, during the war, Queensland had a real fear of being bombed and people had to live with that on a daily basis. So even though the story takes place in a time of peace, the locals are still wary about foreigners, especially nationalities that were fighting against Australia for part of the war. I decided to make Tomas Sicilian because many significant events happened in Sicily during the war and I wanted to weave these into the main story.
ME: You manage to conjure a convincing sense of time and place in this book (and your others). Were you able to spend any time in northern Queensland and/or Sicily while researching or writing the book and, if so, what you can you tell me about your experiences there?
AS: Northern Queensland is one of my favourite places and it was a joy to be able to research the history of this region. Standing in the sugarcane fields, it was easy to imagine Rosie and Tomas having deep conversations and learning more about each other. The sights, smells and atmosphere of a town set in this region are a combination of many towns I visited whilst researching and my own recreational visits throughout the years. When I write, it’s as if a movie is unfolding before me, so the descriptions of places in the story are exactly as I imagine it in my mind and what I’ve seen on my own visits to northern Queensland.
ME: Can you tell me a little bit about the sort of research you did for this book?
AS: I’m a researcher by nature so, as with all my other books, I happily delved into research and came up with some amazing facts that I was able to include in Burning Fields. One of the things I have discovered since becoming a writer is that people are usually very happy to give their expertise or talk about their experiences to help add authenticity to a story. For example, the Cairns Historical Centre, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, James Cook University, Museo Italiano, sugarcane farmers and Sicilian immigrants have all helped with my research for Burning Fields and I am very grateful for their time and passion for my story.
ME: How did the process of writing this novel differ from writing your previous novels?
AS: This was the first time an idea for a book came to me fully formed. Normally I have to chip away, taking weeks to come up with a storyline but when I sat down to write the outline for Burning Fields, the words poured onto the page. It was as if the story had been inside me, just waiting for the right moment to appear. I felt I knew my characters really well, even when it was just at the concept stage. Burning Fields was a lovely surprise as the writing process wasn’t as painful for me as it normally is! I don’t particularly like writing first drafts, I much prefer second and third drafts where I add layers to the stories and characters but this time around, I had a strong feel for the story and characters before I’d even started writing. I was very lucky!
ME: You tackle some big issues in Burning Fields, most notably racism/xenophobia and the sense of displacement experienced by many women who adopted non-traditional roles during the war but were forced to return to their former lifestyle in the post-war era. What were some of the challenges associated with incorporating these issues in what is essentially a love story?
AS: I like to write stories with multiple layers, especially ones that delve into the social issues of the era I’m writing about. Not only does it bring authenticity to the story, it can inspire conversation about the differences between then and now. With the racism and sexism that is woven into Burning Fields, it highlights how much, or in some cases how little, things have changed, and my wish is for this to spark conversations with fellow readers, friends and their relatives about what we can do to one day have a society that is equal for all.
I look at the love story as not just about the relationship between Rosie and Tomas, it’s also about their beliefs and experiences and their relationships with the people around them. That’s what helps shape how they are with each other and within themselves and it’s what helps them grow. No one ever comes to a relationship without baggage or hopes for the future, so I embraced the kind of experiences and wishes people from this era would have gone through, and it was reflected in my characters and their individual journeys.
ME: What were some of the main challenges you faced while writing Burning Fields?
AS: I was lucky to find people who were able to recall their experiences on sugarcane farms or war-torn Italy from seventy years ago, so the research wasn’t too hard, although the subject matter at times was quite challenging. Racism and sexism are topics that get me very heated and I sometimes found myself yelling at certain characters and their deplorable behaviour!
ME: And what did you enjoy most about writing the story of Rosie and Tomas?
AS: I really enjoyed writing the scenes where they did their “walk and talk” through the beautiful countryside as they got to know each other. They come from two very different worlds, so it was lovely to see them peeling away their protective armour and allowing the other in to discover who they really are. As I wrote the story, I felt like I was getting to know them at the same time they got to know each other. It was a lovely experience.
ME: Although you depict incidences of racism in the story, you also incorporate scenes in which people from diverse backgrounds mix and mingle in harmony. What do you think most Australians feel about multiculturalism in 2018 compared with how they felt about it in 1948, when your story is set?
AS: As much as I want to say that Australia is free of racism these days, that’s not the case. I truly hope one day that will happen and we can all get along and respect and embrace each other’s differences. Even though I still think we have a long way to go before racism is eradicated, I look at my children and their friends and their unwavering acceptance of people from all different backgrounds and it gives me hope that we are closer to eliminating racism than we were 70 years ago. I’m not sure if racism can ever be one hundred per cent removed, but it doesn’t stop me from hoping and working with others to help that happen.
My hope is that books like Burning Fields will spark conversations amongst our friends and family, our children, our grandparents, and we can learn from our ancestor’s mistake and find a way to make a better present and future for all.
ME: How did you cope with writing some of the confronting, violent scenes in this novel? Are you able to separate yourself from the fiction, or do you find it difficult to distance yourself from the plight of your characters when they face what are essentially horrific situations?
AS: It’s not uncommon for my hubby or one of my kids to come into my office and find me crying over a scene. I do get heavily involved with my characters and I tend to write instinctually and know when a character does or says something that is or isn’t true to who they are. The violent scenes were hard, especially with my lovely older Italian man as he was so fragile and confused and the language barrier made it difficult for him to stand up to the young thugs. Sometimes after a scene I need to step away and take a long walk or have a stiff drink!
ME: Your heroine Rosie’s relationship with her best friend Kitty helps her through some tough times. In what ways are your own female friendships important to you?
AS: Kitty and Rosie are very much like the type of female friendships I have. They have a long history with each other and have no qualms about calling their friend out on something if need be. Their friendship is more like sisters (except with less fighting!). My own female friendships are extremely important to me and I value them greatly. I have friends in different circles—writer friends, school mums, long-time friends, travel friends—and the one thing we all have in common is that we share a bond and understanding that even though life may get busy, we’re always there for each other and whenever we do catch up, it’s just like we’d seen each other yesterday.
ME: You have a lot of faithful readers here in Australia and further afield. What do some of your personal and online interactions with your readers mean to you?
AS: They mean everything! I love nothing more than hearing from readers and it’s one of my favourite parts of writing. If the characters and stories I create entertain and enrich, then it inspires me to create more and it means I’ve done my job well. I had one reader contact me after she’d read Under the Spanish Stars and told me that after she’d finished reading the book, she was inspired to follow her dreams, just like my heroine. This reader had always wanted to write a book and she’s now done so (and even attended a couple of workshops I’ve run!). I’m so proud of her and I’m so pleased that my books can have such a marked impact on people.
ME: Finally, what can you tell us about your next novel… (no pressure!)?
AS: Ha! I can’t tell you the title as my publisher and I are still deciding! The novel has been written (yay!) and is set in 1994 northern Queensland (the same town in Burning Fields) and also 1952 Hollywood. There’s intrigue, romance, and plenty of secrets that weave between the two storylines. I’m really excited about this story and look forward to seeing it published next year!
Burning Fields, by Alli Sinclair, is published by Harlequin through HarperCollins Publishers, rrp $29.99. I received an advanced review copy from the publisher.
Find out about more new Harlequin releases at HarperCollins Publishers.