A new novel written by local author Sharron Booth has just hit the shelves. explores the relationship with a young woman and her mysterious grandfather, a former convict. It’s based on real people, events and places. Sharron chats with The Starfish:
Congrats on your book Sharron. What’s it about?
It’s about family secrets: what it takes to cover them up and what happens when they are brought out into the open. The story is based on real people and events and explores the life of Edwin Salt, a man transported to Western Australia as a convict in the 1860s. The novel begins in the early 20th century, with Edwin’s daughter Agnes living in Adelaide with her own family including eldest daughter, the outspoken and inquisitive Fan, who spends her days swimming in the ocean off Semaphore beach. One day, Agnes announces the family will be moving to Fremantle to take care of Agnes’s father, a man nobody has ever mentioned. Fan is angry with her mother for uprooting them and to spite Agnes, she forms an alliance with her grandfather. She’s curious and she can’t help herself, she starts snooping through his stuff to find out more about him. That’s when things begin to unravel.
Who was convicted murderer Edwin Salt, how did you find out about him, and what made you decide he was good fodder for a novel?
I found out about Edwin Salt while researching something else. I was reading about a prison warder who had risen to senior levels in Western Australia’s colonial prison service. That man had an unremarkable record except for an incident in which a female prisoner named Annie Edwards accused him and another warder of assaulting her. She wrote to the governor about this. Her claims were dismissed because she was a woman, a thief and a prisoner. I couldn’t believe what I read in the letters about her case and immediately wanted to know more about this woman who was brave enough to speak her truth to power.
I found out Annie had married a man called Edwin Salt. After going down a few more research rabbit-holes, I discovered he’d arrived in WA as a convict after committing a terrible crime. He’d been able to start a new life in Western Australia – get married, have children – with seemingly no mention of his past at all in the WA records and no real consequences. I became quite obsessed with figuring out how someone might go about covering up such a big secret for so long and the effect this might have on his own life, and on his family’s life. So I thought I’d be writing about a convict, but I ended up writing about family secrets.
You’ve set the book in two historic time frames; did that pose its challenges?
The novel is told from three different points of view: Edwin, his Western Australian daughter Agnes, and Edwin’s granddaughter, Fan. I originally wrote it in three separate parts then brought the characters together at the end. Interweaving the three narratives was technically challenging, but I knew the characters and the story inside out.
I wrote all the key scenes and plot-points on different coloured Post-It notes and laid them in lines on my floor. Yellow for Edwin, green for Agnes and pink for Fan. This helped me see the broad arcs of character and story and weave them together so the reader would see the story unfold as Fan uncovers secrets about her family’s past.
Do you find many West Australians still don’t know much about their convict past, and , what are they missing out on, do you think?
It fascinates me that around 10,000 men were transported to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868 and yet we don’t tell many stories about them in our cultural life. We often hear about Moondyne Joe and J.B. O’Reilly, but what about the thousands of others? Each of those convicts had a story and those stories have helped shape us today. If we don’t look at our convict past, we’re missing out on an important part of our individual and collective histories.
How did you first acquire such an interest in the topic of our convict history?
I suppose it was about the giant cover-up that men like Edwin Salt had to perpetuate, rather than convicts per se. For a couple of generations it was considered shameful to have a convict ancestor. I think most families have some kind of secret or cover-up in their histories, and that’s what I’m drawn to: how silencing the past affects present generations.
As a writer, I’m interested in those stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we’re not, and in exploring what might happen when secrets come to light. Plenty of scope there in our convict history!
Where did you do most of your research for the book; and it did it take long to prepare before you were ready to start writing the story?
I wrote the novel as part of my PhD and was fortunate to be able to look at the files for Edwin’s trial in the National Archives in London, and also in Scotland. I also went to Lichfield, where Edwin was born, and to Adelaide, and did a lot of research in WA’s Battye Library and State Records Office. As well as archival research, I walked a lot in the places where my characters had lived and in some cases, died: breathing the air, feeling the geography under my feet. I spent about a year on the research, but I was writing scenes and character studies and notes at the same time, letting the research spark my imagination.
Did the words just flow? What was your daily writing routine and how long did it take to write the book?
I wish I could say it was a linear process and that it flowed. I had many stops and starts. I did so much research that I had huge amounts of material and I found it all equally interesting. It took me a long time and many, many drafts to chisel into the big marble block of research and find the shape of the story I wanted to tell. I took a lot of time off. I found it very hard to deal with self-doubt. I gave up more than once. I had to teach myself how to bounce back after set-backs. It took several years – I can’t bear to add them up!
My best writing routine was quite boring. Get up early, make a pot of tea, write. Go for a walk. Write again. I found that setting a daily word-count target was the single most effective productivity tool. It also helped me dodge perfectionism. I didn’t need to write perfect words, I just needed to write words. I could edit them later.
Sharron, how old were you when you moved to WA , and why did the family move here from England?
I was almost ten years old when we came to Perth. Mum and Dad moved here as thousands did from the UK in the 1970’s in the Assisted Passage Scheme – for what they saw as a better life and more opportunities. As a result of this experience, the themes of migration and dislocation have always threaded through my writing.
When did you discover your love of writing, and did you always dream of coming out with a book like this?
I always wanted to write. I wrote poems and stories and lived in imaginative worlds in my head far more than I lived in the real world. When I was about eleven, I wrote a play for a school assignment that featured the top clique of girls who never talked to me. I wanted to flatter them into accepting me into their group. We’d recently studied Canada in social studies, plus I was obsessed with Abba; it was the ‘70s. So the synopsis was something like: the cool girls and me are in a pop group and we somehow get lost in the Yukon. I also wrote a science fiction book for the same reason. Those same girls and I were kidnapped by aliens and we had to land a spaceship with no instructions or grownups. Both projects got fantastic marks but were dismal failures at improving my social standing.
It took me a long time to start taking my writing seriously. I was easily discouraged when I first started my undergrad writing degree as a mature-aged student, way back in the late 90s. I didn’t think I’d write a book like The Silence of Water but on reflection, the moment I first read Annie Edwards’ letter all those years ago, I knew this story was going to be my obsession and I wouldn’t rest until I’d finished.
Who will The Silence of Water appeal to, do you think?
I think anyone who likes stories about family secrets, and enjoys strong women characters, might like this book. I’ve always seen The Silence of Water as a mother-daughter story, with Agnes and Fan clashing and having to figure each other out. It’s my favourite relationship in the whole book. Anyone who has an interest in convict history could also find it worth a look.
The Silence of Water, by Sharron Booth (Fremantle Press) is available in book stores now. For more info visit fremantlepress.com.au