INTERVIEW WITH PAULINE TOOHEY
I have a very interesting blog today—if I say so myself—an interview with Australian writer, Pauline Toohey, in which she discusses her historical novel Pull of the Yew Tree. While I have not yet been able to read it due to my recent struggles with the pneumonia dragon, it is high on my TBR list, for it is set in fifteen century Ireland and focuses upon one of the most powerful Irish clans, the Fitzgeralds; I am happy, too, to report that they were Yorkists and a young Richard, Duke of Gloucester, makes an appearance at one point in the novel. I know this is enough to send my Ricardian readers hurrying over to Amazon! There seems to be a genuine curiosity about how we writers do our thing, and Pauline’s interview lifts the veil a bit, giving us a glimpse of a writer at work. Like me, Pauline is a dog lover and goes for long walks with Moby, her border collie rescue, as she searches for inspiration and plots chapters in her head. Although her road is to be found Down Under and mine in the Jersey Pinelands, this is something I’ve often done, too, my dogs pacing patiently at my side as my thoughts slide back into the twelfth century. Pauline shares my admiration for Bernard Cornwell, too, so clearly we are kindred spirits.
Pauline and I thought it would be a good idea to do a book giveaway as part of the interview, so anyone who posts a comment to this blog will be eligible to receive a free, signed copy of Pull of the Yew Tree, with Pauline’s compliments. Here is the link to it on the Amazon mother ship. http://www.amazon.com/Pull-Yew-Tree-Chronicles-Crom-ebook/dp/B00CQCQXWO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400635338&sr=1-1 It is also available for my British, Canadian, and Australian readers on their own Amazon websites, and let’s not forget Book Depository, with its marvelous free shipping policy. Now, I am happy to introduce you to Pauline Toohey, author of Pull of the Yew Tree and an upcoming contemporary crime novel in which she draws upon her two decades-plus experience as a police officer with the Victoria Police.
Q1. Tell us of your debut novel.
A1. Pull Of The Yew Tree is set in 15th century Ireland and follows the powerful Fitzgerald family of County Kildare. The O’Byrne clan from County Wicklow is their eternal angst, being one of the strongest clans from the east. My story is Part One of the Crom Abu series - Crom Abu being the Fitzgerald war cry.
Gaels and Irish Noblemen rarely saw eye to eye, so life was full of warring, double-dealing and unwise pacts, and in this, my characters dive disastrously into strife and heartache … not unlike the Plantagenet crew, I suppose. The tale deals more so with the outcomes of using family members to buy loyalty, and an emotive love story carries the plot. We experience life at that time through the young eyes of Jarlath Fitzgerald and Ainnir O’Byrne. I’m reliably assured tissues are required, but there are occasions for giggles, too.
To this point, there is little conveyed in fiction novel format of the Fitzgeralds and this era in Ireland. I’ve received a warm welcome as a new author from many of your fans, Sharon, with some 5-star and 4-star reviews on major sites. Very chuffed. Very chuffed indeed … and humbled. It’s quite nerve-racking putting your ‘art’ out there for critiquing.
Just a little something to entice your fans; the Fitzgeralds were loyal Yorkists. Richard of Gloucester makes a cameo appearance crossing paths with my characters in the foggy morning that saw the Battle of Barnet.
I certainly hope I’ve delivered characters to love, characters to question, and a beautiful medieval Ireland. I can say, as with all my writing, there’s also a dog to love. Gotta have a dog in a story. Gotta have a dog!
Q2. As the story follows the life of a chronicled family, do you find yourself pinned to a set path? Do you map your story before plunging in?
A2. I read your interview with Bernard Cornwell, and grinned at his admission, “I don’t even know where the chapter I’m writing now will end.”
Yes, I have historical incidents to adhere to, but how I connect them, and how I deal with the ‘between’ remains a pure mystery until completion. I never know where the chapter will take me. What comes, comes, and then I lead on again from there.
I’m given a licence to wander with the fictional characters in my work, but all the same, I certainly have some necessary ‘stops on the road’ when dealing with the real.
At times I envy writers who plot and are able to stick the ‘script’. I’m sure it would make for easier going. Yet on the other hand, I wouldn’t experience the joys of ploughing through unknown territory, and the surprises that a relatively-fluid piece entices.
Q3. Do you use a particular process to develop your characters?
A3. No. Not in the strict sense. Again, and similar to the plot process, things grow (or shrivel as the case may be) almost instinctively. The characters tend to ‘make’ themselves, and no doubt, a finicky editing process is necessary to ensure all is polished. But it’s alleged by some of my readers, that all my female characters in Pull Of The Yew Tree are very strong. It wasn’t intentional by any means. And on churning over the tidbit of feedback, I looked at my family and my friendships. All the women in my life are extremely strong, capable and forthright. I obviously possesses an inherent need to encourage a defined strength in all females.
I will admit to consciously writing a weak female into the sequel. It was an interesting experience, reining in my gut-deep need. But I will not reveal whether I succumbed to inserting a redemptive quality … or perhaps I just did.
Q4. Your thoughts on what makes a piece of writing enjoyable?
A4. If my reader reacts with strong emotion to the losses or wins my characters experience, if my reader laughs and cries, then I’d say ‘mission accomplished’. I think of myself as an ‘entertainer’, not a teacher, not an instructor, nor a historian for that matter. Entertainment and a pull of strong emotion is what I, as a reader, hope for when investing time in a book. I must also add that I am a prose lover. For me, a well-strung sentence can be like music.
Q5. And your experience as a writer?
A5. I discovered the love of writing at a comparatively late age – early 40s. When I declare this information, I like to add the fact that Australian author, Bryce Courtenay (recently deceased) began his penning at a similar age. Big shoes to fill, I know, but you gotta aim high.
My want for writing and scribing stories was always there, I suppose, sitting patiently on my ‘bucket list’, but life and its responsibilities, along with other benchmarks in sight, simply got in the way.
A number of personal tragedies redirected my course, and forced me to find some peace and solace, and there it was, waiting in the therapeutic act of writing. So, here I am. I write every day, and I count my blessings knowing how fortunate I am to have this opportunity.
Q6. Are you influenced by any particular writers?
A6. Inspired and influenced, certainly. I admire many, but want to ‘go my own way’. Having said that, I believe improving one’s writing requires reading ‘great’ pieces. Not good pieces, great pieces.
There are a number of authors I keenly return to, and before I list them, let me assure your readers you and I are not in cahoots with this question. So in no particular order, allow me to answer:
Bernard Cornwell with his simplicity and well-timed infrequent humour, not to mention his fabulous battle scenes;
Sharon Penman (you may have heard of her) and her character development, and meticulous research;
Aussie authors, Tim Winton and Colleen McCullough
The Bronte sisters and Austen.
William Shakespeare’s pure beauty of language;
And my mum for her deeply-personal messages on every birthday card.
There are two particular lines in Pull Of The Yew Tree that herald from my mum’s eloquent ‘parenting’: ‘lower your expectations and you won’t be disappointed’ and ‘that wonderful feeling of want’. Those two lines echo noisily in my memories, and both prove themselves to be fabulous advice over and again.
Q7. How do you stir creativity?
A7. To be honest, there are times it just won’t come. In those dry spells, rather than force myself, I accept the pauses and busy myself with other things. I paint, and I love to reinvigorate my garden. I’m a busy mum with a business to run, and I have a liking for fine-dining. My rescue border collie, Moby, loves long walks, and I play the piano and the guitar. And of course, like many of us, that TBR pile is always in need attention. But to encourage creativity to reappear, I run, pound the roads in my Asics, eyes to the ground. The steps go a long way to budge that blockage. I have a great chiropractor to keep the hips and back in ready-mode, and have also discovered the benefits of pilates.
Q8. What are you reading now?
A8. Two on the go. An oldie but a goodie. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It was my pick for my book club. I find the classics a ‘comfort read’ and often return to them. And the other, The Chemistry Of Tears by Peter Carey. But I also have my head in research material for the 3rd instalment for the Crom Abu series, and, another project a little closer to home.
Q9. My own research often uncovers some fascinating material. Tell us some of your more favourite discoveries.
A9. Hand-penned notes by people of interest, stir me greatly. You get a real feel for their temperament, their humour (or lack of) and their sense of purpose. I can often be found in the quiet rooms of our state library, engrossed in business correspondence and diary entries.
As for the research of medieval times, the following two are perhaps not unknown to your readers, but they certainly gave me fodder to play with. The merkin (pubic wig) often donned to conceal impurities and scarring, and the popular dish of frog blancmange accompanied by jumping frogs. Both make an appearance (not at the same time) in Pull Of The Yew Tree’s sequel. I couldn’t resist.
Q10. If my wish to visit Australia comes true, where do you suggest I visit?
A10. The Great Barrier Reef is a must; stunning place. So too, is central Australia: the red sands, the star-filled nights, the history and indigenous culture; truly amazing. And if I don’t mention a catch-up with members of the Sharon Kay Penman Australian Fan Club I’ll be in all sorts of trouble. Some of those girls know where I live. But make it Melbourne please. Less travel for me.
Q11. And from here, what does Pauline Toohey have ahead of her?
A11. The sequel for Pull of the Yew Tree is complete. Melting of the Mettle is its title. It continues five years on from where the Yew Tree leaves off. Fingers crossed you’ll see it early 2015.
I also have a contemporary crime series (fiction), set to be released later this year.
Outside of writing, I’m exploring avenues to use literature, writing and reading to help the issues of Mental Health in Youth, and Prevention of Youth Suicide. These are causes close to my heart.
Q12. Historical fiction and contemporary crime? An interesting mixture.
A12. I recently retired from a 25 year career as a police officer with Victoria Police. Tackling this second genre grew from a chance meeting with Aussie author, Kerry Greenwood (author of the Miss Fisher series which is now a popular TV series). Kerry was envious of the knowledge my 25 years of service provides me, and insisted it was sacrilege not to use it. I’ve worked at the Homicide Squad, Major Drug Division, City Crime Divisions, and the more ‘busy and colourful’ towns that Melbourne has to offer. So I come well-stocked with plot ideas as well as intricate knowledge of police procedures and processes.
And I took Kerry’s advice.
Anna Murdoch is my main character. She’s a very capable and strong-minded woman, (no surprise there), and she presents to my readers a light-hearted insight into what it is to be human in a job that demands you to be somewhat robotic and cold. In Anna’s telling, I attempt to mix a ‘who done it’ with ‘comedy’. The first of the series is called My Rickety Metronome: An Anna Murdoch Crime Story, and will be out in September.
Q13. Do you have a preference for writing either style?
A13. Each is so different. With historical fiction, the research, and the attention to tone for my liking of prose, is extremely time consuming. I liken it to creating a well-orchestrated song. It’s a joyous yet slow adventure. As for the contemporary crime, all I need to do is close my eyes and conjure memories. It can be quick. Very quick. So as to your question, my mood dictates in what genre I write. How lucky am I!
Thanks so much for your time, Sharon, and for the enjoyment your writing has brought to your readers.
PS … I don’t care what you say, I will never believe Ranulf Fitz Roy is fictional.
Thank you, Pauline, for agreeing to do this interview. Actually, Ranulf is grateful that he is a figment of my imagination, for that allowed me to give him a happy ending and a peaceful death with his beloved Rhiannon, something that rarely happened to his Angevin real relatives.
May 20, 2014