Best-selling author and TV producer, Posie Graeme-Evans discusses her new book, Wild Wood, her love of Scotland and England and the time McLeod’s Daughters out-rated the Today show.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of your latest book, Wild Wood. Can you tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea?
Interestingly for me, ideas will sometimes take a while to germinate. I might think of something and then years later it pops up in another form. You don’t know what it is necessarily immediately. I was in Scotland a few years ago, and I visited an amazing castle called Dunvegan on the Isle of Sky. It’s the home of – guess what – the MacLeods.
They’ve got a wonderful legend there about a fairy woman who falls in love with the young leader of the MacLeod clan about a thousand years ago. They marry and she has a child and about a year later, she has to go back, she gets called back, but she gives him what is now called The Fairy Flag (you can actually see it at Dunvegan; it’s up on a wall). She says to him, ‘I’ve got to go but you can unfurl this flag twice in battle and it will save your house. Unfurl it for the third time and the House of MacLeod will cease to exist.’
That legend, which is a thousand years old, stayed with me and in a way it influenced my thinking in terms of the story that runs between the old time in the book and the new. There are traditions all over the world about fairy women or women from another world marrying mortals. I reckon that was the inspiration.
When you finally sat down to write the book, how long did it take to write?
It’s a process which I’ve worked out. This is my sixth book and it tends to take me about fifteen solid months of work, but there tends to be breaks in the middle because you write a draft and I work very closely with an Australian editor who’s absolutely terrific. She’s a great structuralist and she gives me good feedback and we discuss what she thinks, and then I’ll write another draft. It’s a process which takes, all up, about eighteen months.
My publisher in the States is Simon and Schuster – it’s Simon and Schuster all around the world actually – and they will come back with comments. It takes the time it takes. Some amazing people can turn a book around in a year and honestly, that’s not me. The way I write is kind of organic, I don’t plot. I sort of let the story find me and it’s quite a wasteful way of working sometimes.
Your books are quite historical in nature. How do you go about researching?
I’ve always been fascinated by the past. One of the things I really wanted to do when I was young was be an archaeologist – my last book The Island House fulfils that ambition with the excavation of a Viking ship and a Viking warrior grave – and Wild Wood is another part of it. I’m just in love with Scotland. I think it’s because I was born in England and lived there as a child (I came to Australia when I was about fifteen) so the landscape in England and Scotland just blows me away. I can’t get there often enough, so I go there and if I’ve got an idea then I start to find a setting for it, and once I’ve found a setting, it starts to kick the story into gear for me.
This one, Wild Wood, was in fact in the Scottish borders – an amazing, amazing place to go and so glorious. We stayed in a fortified tower house in the borders and it had been built to repel the reevers, the people that I write about. It was so evocative to me, the big curling right-handed staircase so a man with a sword coming down had the room to fight, where it was much harder for a man coming up … just so many details came alive for me, they’re there in the book.
I went to I don’t know how many huge castles – it was such a violent place for so long, castles get built which are massive. Hundredfield [where the book takes place] is fictional but it’s informed by all those castles I saw. It seems I have to go there physically and walk that ground.
You’ve explored various eras of history throughout your previous books. Do you have a favourite era?
I did write a book called The Dressmaker a couple of years ago and that was set, much to my surprise in Victorian England – it was Jane Austen-ish in its own way – and I actually quite enjoyed writing it. But I don’t normally write books set that late. This one, Wild Wood is 14th Century and 1981 just before Charles and Di get married. I get up to the War of the Roses. The Tudor period on is not of such great interest to me, it’s also been so written about that I’m interested in nooks and crannies, I guess.
It’s not a conscious thing. Really, what comes first is the germ of the story, and then the time period declares itself [and] characters start to turn up.
Did you feel any pressure writing Wild Wood, given the success you’ve had with previous books?
Yes (Laughs). Every book is harder to write because the stakes are higher. You never know, no matter what you’ve done, if you can come up with it this time. I’ve spoken to lots of writers and I think it’s common performance anxiety. But I do it. When I’m writing, I forget to be fearful, I just write.
Is there a particular character in this book that stands out for you?
You know, I’m so lucky because the characters that I write about, that I follow in the book, I generally like them all. That’s honest and it’s true. How do you choose children? Bayard, the knight in 1321, the youngest of the three sons – it was quite extraordinary, his voice was the first thing that came to me. I was stunned. The thought that I would write half a book in a male first-person voice, boy! I didn’t believe I was going to do it but I did.
I love Jesse. I like Mack. I don’t want to give any spoilers out. But I like them all, even the characters that oppose you, or oppose in the story.
What inspires you to write?
Anything. As with this one, it was a legend. I’ll hear a snatch of conversation, or the words of a song, or I’ll see someone’s face or light hitting a hill in some way. It’s just random. It’s like something fires in your brain and I don’t think you’ve got any control over it, it just happens. Suddenly, something starts to unpack and cascade down. That seems to be what happens.
Click here to buy your copy of “Wild Wood”.
You’ve been in television for a long time now, most notably with McLeod’s Daughters and Hi-5. Can you tell me about that process?
It’s a while ago now, but McLeod’s is definitely the show that will never lie down and die. I get emails everywhere from all over the world every day of my life, and on Facebook and all of the rest of it, from people who are just passionate about it, because it’s still on in all different countries. It was sold to over 200 countries.
It was a long time coming. Networks are the way they are, and in those days, they dismissed the notion that women and a women’s audience could make a show for them. They thought that if men didn’t watch it, it would fail. I said, ‘You know, it’s only half the human race and they’re the ones that make you the money.’ No matter how hard it got, and it got very hard, I was never convinced the damn thing wouldn’t work. In the end, I was lucky enough to be vindicated. On the first night, it smashed the ratings. We made 224 episodes over eight years – it was just of those flukes.
Hi-5 was created with Helena Harris and she had previously done Bananas in Pyjamas. We had known one another a long time. Again, it was a really, really simple idea. That piloted a long time ago. Again, when it went to air in 1999, inside a year, we were out-rating the Today show. It was amazing. The network was kind enough to offer to buy out our interest in 2008, the same year McLeod’s finished.
It was time, I think. I didn’t know how I was feeling about TV, and my books were getting more and more serious so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give myself the time.’
Obviously, you were convinced you could make the shows work, but did you expect them to be as successful as they have been?
No. I think anybody who creates something for a living will get some sense that whatever it is that you’ve got at that moment, has something that might work, but there is so much randomness as to whether something will work. I believe there’s a great deal of luck involved in right place right time, things coming together, the stars aligning that allows a thing to fly. The networks, will only ever give you that time, they won’t say ‘Right, you’ve got three series’. It’s [a] very, very insecure thing to do and you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to think, ‘I’ve got this. That’s great, and on we go.’ That’s the nature of working in a creative industry; it’s deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply insecure. It’s not for the feint-hearted.
Do you have any rituals you like to follow while writing?
(Laughs) I have to have a cat in the room, I think. I’ve got two cats, they’re a pair of brothers … and one of them is like a Labrador. I live and work at the moment in Tasmania, at the top of a ridgeline. It gets cold in winter, which I adore, so I light the fire and that cat has got a beacon. He turns up and then he sleeps all day. The other one comes and goes. He’s a bit of a good luck charm.
It’s not so much a ritual but I call stormy weather writing weather. When it’s rainy, when it’s cold, when it’s wild outside, that fills me with delight because then I love to be inside and writing. If there’s a cold snap coming, I know I’m in for a good few days.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
It’s so simple. You have to begin. That’s what you have to do. You start, you sit down. You open a new document on a computer and it doesn’t matter what you call it. You call it first draft, and you begin. The other thing is to not set yourself up for failure. People think, ‘I’ll write every night when I come home from work’ and they don’t do it and they hate themselves and then they stop before they start.
I would write for one half-day a week and it was always on the weekends. It would most often be a Sunday. I’d try to sit down at about one o’clock and I’d write through until about six o’clock. It took me a while to establish that as a pattern, but once I did, it’s like putting 20 cents in the bank every week. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but slowly it built.
The other really big mistake first-time writers make is that they try to polish every word as they go along. They’re never satisfied with what they’ve written; they try to make it perfect. That means they never get very far (laughs). They get ten pages of what they consider to be perfect prose. I developed a habit, I’d write about ten pages, 4, 000 to 5, 000 words and I’d come back the next Sunday and not try to edit it, just clean it up for glaring mistakes. By the time I’d done that, I was back into that world after about a week and off I’d go. I write pretty much consistently now, five days a week, and when I’m under the gun, I write seven days a week to get it done. That bit about keeping going and moving forward and not getting stuck by trying to turn every word into the most perfect you can find, is critical.
Do you have any favourite authors or books?
(Laughs) I have so many favourites and it depends. I’m promiscuous, I read lots of books and I read lots of different writers. I think Hilary Mantel is amazing. I do genuinely think she’s amazing. I couldn’t read Wolf Hall when it first came out and a friend of mine said, ‘Keep going and it will grab you,’ and it did. I’ve read other works of hers, most notably Pitch Black, which is dark as dark but by God, it’s good. She’s pretty inspirational.
There are two female historians who I think are fabulous. Alison Weir – she’s amazing. She brings real historical characters, as a historian, to life. Here books have absolutely yummy detail on scholarship, but anybody could read them, you don’t have to be a scholar. And a wonderful lady by the name of Liza Picard, who is just marvellous. Those are three women writers that I like very much.
Posie Graeme-Evans’ latest book, Wild Wood, is released in Australia in April 2015.
Images Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
(This article first appeared in cargoART Magazine 2015)