Author Interview: Anna Romer

Today we are doing things a little differently and Anna’s interview, though hosted by me, is all questions asked by readers of Lyrebird Hill. There were so many wonderful questions that it was hard to narrow it down, and some were very similar so I have reworded and combined. Thanks for your input readers.

Our interview with Anna is a little longer than usual but it is well worth the read and there are some fantastic snippets of information in here that I am glad to have found out.

Hi Anna, welcome to Beauty and Lace and thank you for giving us your time.

It’s my pleasure to be here, Michelle.

Juanita Thorn: Anna, did you have to study the Aboriginal language to be able to use some of their words and be able to write in the disjointed way the Indigenous talk (how they miss certain words in a sentence)? And please…what does ‘bunna’ mean?

I haven’t studied Aboriginal language, Juanita – though as you can guess it’s a topic dear to my heart. I find aboriginal words and names beautiful and musical, and feel privileged to live in a country where such ancient dialects are still spoken.
When I wrote Lyrebird Hill, I tried to focus mostly on the Gamilaraay language which is spoken by the Kamilaroi people. Kamilaroi is one of the largest indigenous nations in Australia, encompassing the region around Tamworth in central NSW up to Moree and beyond … including the area west of Armidale where I set Lyrebird Hill.

The dialogue of my aboriginal characters took a fair bit of tweaking before I felt comfortable with it. I generally watch a lot of NITV, and really enjoy programs where elders tell stories about the history and legends of their land, or where people relate anecdotes from their lives. I love hearing people speak their languages, and find myself listening very carefully to their lyrical speech patterns.
I also read some fascinating books which helped me hone my ear to the voice of the aboriginal storyteller. Three books I really enjoyed and found most useful were: “Elders”, by Peter McConchie; “Wise Women of the Dreamtime” by K. Langloh Parker; and a brief but wonderful memoir, “A Mee Mee’s Memories” by Kay E. Kneale. After reading Kay’s book, I couldn’t resist naming one of my favourite characters Mee Mee … which means “grandmother”. Incidentally, Mee Mee’s proper name in my story is Yargul which means “black orchid” … a reference to Brenna’s passion for wildflowers.

The name “Bunna” comes from an aboriginal word for “rain”. In fairly arid areas like the one where Lyrebird Hill was set, rain is always welcome and refreshing – which is how I imagined the women of the clan must have seen Brenna’s visits to their camp.
In the background was my idea that Bunna was her original name, later anglicised to Brenna. I would have liked to weave this little detail into the narrative, but sometimes you have to leave things out to keep the pace ticking along.

Tracy G: My question to the author is probably a bit out there, but it’s been bugging me. When Brenna first moved to Brayer House she went for a walk and found a graveyard, she sat down to do some painting and a stray growling dog showed up, she threw her food for it to eat. I kept waiting for the dog to return, like they would become friends or something, but it never happened. My question is why did you put the dog in the book?

Tracy, those ‘bugs’ in a story generally mean the author has unintentionally slipped up in some small (or large!) way… but in this case my slip-up was semi-deliberate.

While I was working on Lyrebird Hill, I tried to rescue a beautiful dog from a remote country pound. It was a kelpie, one of my favourite breeds. Sadly he’d been badly abused, so I was determined to give him a loving home. But when the vet was preparing to spay him, they found his jaw was broken and had to let him go to sleep. I was heartbroken, and mourned him for ages. As a kind of therapy, I wrote the poor little guy into Lyrebird Hill as the stray dog – even describing the caramel-coloured spots on his white coat.

In the original version of my story, the stray dog is later killed and his body left as a warning to one of the characters. Wisely, my editors suggested I take this scene out. It slowed the pace and created too much confusion, and the story worked better without it.
After I removed the scene, I realised there was no point setting it up by having Brenna meet the stray dog in the clearing. I knew it was misleading to leave it in, and knew that observant readers would probably question why I’d introduced the dog and then not followed through. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to delete him from the story. It felt like a sort of tribute to the beautiful little white kelpie I’d lost.

Anna Romer

Katrina, Simone and Rachel: My question to Anna is the only thing that puzzled me when I finished the book. Why would Brenna leave her young neighbour the locket? Why did it not stay in the family? Why did Doreen cherish the locket so much? Is there another twist to this story that is yet untold?

I knew early on that Brenna wouldn’t keep the locket … it held too many painful memories for her. So I spent a lot of time working out why the locket would have eventually been given to Doreen, and why it would mean so much to her. I even drew a diagram showing who the locket was passed on to and when!

By the end of the story, Ruby has worked out that the locket once belonged to Brenna. During the showdown scene (and I won’t be naming any names!), she wants to know how it came to be in Doreen’s possession. In my final edit I decided that this part of the conversation seemed out of place. It also slowed the action – so I deleted it, intending to insert the information about the locket into an earlier scene. Clearly my post-it notes failed me and that never happened!

In my original draft, when Ruby asks (her opponent) where Doreen got the locket, this is the reply:
“Old Mrs Whitby gave it to her. Doreen would have been fourteen. It was the year her mother died, she was desperately lonely. She used to visit Lyrebird Hill and read to Mrs Whitby, or do odd jobs. Apparently they struck up quite a friendship. One day Mrs Whitby brought out the locket and wanted to give it to Doreen. Doreen said no, it was too valuable – but Mrs Whitby insisted. It became Doreen’s prize possession … the only thing I’ve ever seen her get sentimental over.”

(This question was asked by Katrina Freckleton, Simone Tong and Rachel Furner though worded differently so I’ve tried to combine the three here)

Lyn B: If I could ask the author one question it would be where she gets the inspiration for her depiction of such strong female characters? From history? Her own family? Both Ruby and Brenna are such well-rounded characters described with all normal human frailties but with such guts and feistiness.

I love this question Lyn, it’s one that gets discussed quite often at my place! There were (and still are) some wonderful women in my family who have deeply inspired me over the years. Occasionally I’ve woven fragments of their lives into my stories, or drawn from their personalities to flesh out my characters. I also love reading about women from history who have overcome personal ordeals, and as a result found the best in themselves.

For example, my portrayal of Brenna was inspired by the botanical artist Ellis Rowan, who was born in Melbourne in 1848. Ellis made a living from her gorgeous flower paintings, and trekked about the countryside in search of specimens – at a time when women were denied proper education, and heavily discouraged from achieving anything beyond their domestic life. Ellis was a confident child, and grew into a strong woman – but she had her fair share of challenges … which is what made her so interesting to me.

The thing I love most about writing a novel is the journey I take with my characters. I never set out intentionally to write about strong women. Rather, I write about women who are flawed and vulnerable. My main character usually starts out insecure, fearful, down on herself. But by the time she reaches the final page, the story has changed her. Her adventures have forced her to confront her fears, overcome her weaknesses – and become strong.

Carolyn: What happened to Pete in the years from when he was sent to Newcastle and how did he end up with the farm next door?

Carolyn, I’m afraid Pete’s history was another casualty of my heavy-handed editing. Originally, there was a scene where Pete revealed his background to Ruby, but I took it out intending to reinsert it somewhere else. Sadly, I never ended up finding the appropriate place.
Here’s a snippet of Pete’s dialogue from that deleted scene. It’s night-time, Ruby and Pete are sitting by the campfire at Lyrebird Hill. Ruby asks what became of him after he returned to Newcastle. This is his reply:

‘Everything seemed to go downhill when I got back. I’d been branded a thief after Doreen Drake’s necklace went missing, and I guess I lost faith in who I was. I slid into a life of juvenile crime – car theft, that sort of thing. When I wasn’t struggling to fit in with yet another foster family, I was biding my time in remand homes. I’d just turned sixteen when out of the blue, I got a letter. Someone called Esther Hillard wanted to know if I’d be interested in a job. I was keen to escape Newcastle … but I have to confess the idea of returning to Clearwater was what really drew me. I guess I was hoping you might still be around.’

He gazed into the darkness, his features lit by the flickering firelight. ‘When I finally met Esther I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’d been years, but I would’ve recognised Granny H anywhere. She employed me to help around her property – cutting firewood, mending fences, gardening. She was a bossy little thing, but she was also incredibly kind. She restored my faith in people … and in myself. I moved into her old cottage across the river. She refused to dock any rent from my pay, so I managed to save a nice little stash. Eventually I was able to take out a loan and buy the place off her. Complete with all its memories from when I was a kid. My happiest memories,’ he added quietly, looking back at me with a smile.

Christine Cherry: Was the story of Brenna and her tribe taken from any real life experiences you have had with Aborigines?

Hi Christine, the story of the aboriginal clan who lived at Lyrebird Hill was entirely made up … but the events were based on the Myall Creek massacre that took place in 1838. Myall Creek is much further north than where I set Lyrebird Hill. As far as I know there weren’t any major massacres in that area west of Armidale – at least none that that I discovered.

My fascination with aboriginal culture was inspired by my grandfather. He worked on the railway for many years, and had aboriginal friends. He used to tell fascinating stories, and when I was five he introduced me to the gourmet delights of witchetty grubs. In my 20s I hitchhiked into the outback and met some amazing aboriginal people, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I developed a more focused interest in their heritage and culture.

This really came about while I was living in the bush. I’ve got an extensive collection of pressed wildflowers, and spent many hours – like Brenna – marvelling over their uses as bush medicines. The more I researched, the more intrigued I became by other aspects of traditional aboriginal lifestyle. What foods they ate, how they tracked and hunted each different animal, the roles of women and elders, their stories and legends … and in particular their relationship to the natural world.

Lisa Bartlett: When going from one era to another did you have to stop in order to go from the voice of the present to the voice of the past or did it flow together easily?

It did flow fairly easily, Lisa – because I wrote large chunks of one character’s viewpoint at a time. Brenna’s historical story came first, and then Ruby’s was woven in around it.

I loved being in the skin of both my main characters, but some days I’d wake up caring more about Brenna … Other days, all I could think of was Ruby. I made a vision board for each story thread – photos, maps, old postcards, that sort of thing – and that helped me focus on who I had to be for the day.

During the structural edit (where all the loose ends are tied up) I was head-hopping all over the place. For the most part it flowed, but I was always very aware of keeping the women’s voices individual, and making their dialogue and behaviour appropriate for their time-period.


Mandy: To Anna, I would love to ask the question of when she is actually writing the novel, when it comes to scenes where the tribe were killed or when Pete was shot or animals hurt, do you actually shed tears as you write this? I ask this as I remember in High School where we had to write stories, whenever I wrote something sad, I would find myself with tears as I wrote.

Hi Mandy, thank you for your wonderful comments about my book. To answer your question – yes, I’m a regular waterworks! I try to feel strong emotion as I write – anger, tears, giggles, yearning, nostalgia, regret – because I believe that if the writer is deeply involved with the characters and story, then the reader will be too.

Sometimes I know how a scene will end, so I work myself into a state by listening to certain music tracks, or reading old letters, or conjuring painful memories. Other scenes are unexpected, like the Owen scene at the end of Lyrebird Hill. I had a vague idea what would happen, but while I was writing I sobbed my heart out, dripping tears onto the laptop. When I finished I ran outside and stood staring down at the river for the longest time, wondering how on earth I’d managed to dream up something so terribly sad. I thought the scene would upset my sister, so I deleted it … but then I realised it was important to the story, so back it went.

It’s a harrowing way to write, but I hope the end result is worth it. When my sister first read Lyrebird Hill, she told me that by the end she was a blubbering mess … and this made me really happy! I adore that feeling of getting swept away in a story, of laughing and crying with the characters. I’m always pleased when readers tell me one of my stories has done that for them.

Amy: Could you tell me a bit more about your research into the cultural references to the Aboriginal people in the area and if there was any direct historical content around the massacres described in the book?

Great question, Amy. As far as I know there weren’t any major massacres in the area where I set Lyrebird Hill. That’s not to say they didn’t happen – simply that I was unable to find any specific mention of them.

The two massacres described in Lyrebird Hill were both based on the Myall Creek massacre which took place in 1838 at Myall Creek, which is near Bingara in northern NSW. A group of about thirty unarmed aborigines – women and little children among them – were driven up a hillside and murdered. The events I portrayed in my story were inspired by true accounts I read of the massacre … and yes, those scenes were very hard to write. The interesting thing about Myall Creek is that it was the first massacre where the perpetrators were punished. After two trials, seven of the men who’d been involved in the murders were found guilty and hanged.

A couple of books I found really insightful were “Blood on the Wattle” by Bruce Elder, and “Demons at Dusk” by Peter Stewart. But be warned, reading about these massacres is heavy going. I tried to use a light touch in my story, but the actual historical events are heartbreaking.

Kerrie, Sharon, Lucie and Mary ask similar questions about characters: Who is your favourite character, who did you feel more connected to and whose perspective did you prefer to write?

I loved writing from Brenna’s perspective. She’s an artist with a strong connection to the land, like me. Despite having led a fairly sheltered life (unlike me!), she’s wilful and passionate, and prepared to sacrifice everything for those she loves. She’s practical and level-headed, but when she falls in love she throws caution to the wind. I really enjoyed working with this reckless, compulsive side of her nature, especially when I was digging her deeper into trouble.

My favourite characters were probably the Wolf, because he was based on my own childhood sweetheart … and Lucien, who was inspired by someone I’m close to. I had fun writing them, and would have loved to explore them both in much more depth, but by then the book would have been the size of a brick! (Maybe next time, he he.)

Mellzy and Ellen would like to know where your inspiration for Lyrebird Hill came from?

The idea for Lyrebird Hill grew out of my fascination with old fairytales. I’ve always loved the story of Beauty and the Beast, and this was my inspiration for Brenna’s historical viewpoint.

My location was also hugely important. For a few years I was the caretaker of an isolated bush reserve, which is where I wrote Lyrebird Hill. I felt a million miles from civilisation, and my living conditions were really rustic – perfect for researching rural life in the 1890s. My cottage had no indoor plumbing; my bathtub was outside under a gumtree. My electricity came from a tiny solar panel, and if I wanted to make a phone call I’d have to drive for two hours to get reception.

Why would anyone live in a place like that? Because I was free to do as I pleased. Because I woke up every morning to a chorus of birdsong, and I went to sleep at night to the gentle murmur of the river. I came to love that special place with a passion. I felt as if I truly belonged there, almost as if I’d lived there all my life. I started daydreaming about how it might feel to return to such a place after an absence of many years, perhaps even to solve a childhood mystery … and that’s how Ruby’s character was born.

After walking along the river and climbing a slippery outcrop of boulders, I’d go home and find myself writing about it. I discovered a small dark cave up the hill from my house (where you might possibly find a lyrebird’s nest!), and there actually was a spooky little abandoned cottage on the far side of the river. As Ruby’s story developed, my own surroundings continued to creep into the novel – although they played a more sinister role in Lyrebird Hill than they did in my own experience!

Thanks for your time Anna.

It’s been a real pleasure, Michelle. Thanks everyone, for engaging with my story and taking the time to express your thoughts. Most inspiring!

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