Best-selling WA author Fiona Palmer – who’s just written her own, Aussie bush version of Pride And Prejudice – is living proof that you don’t have to live in the big smoke to land a multi-publishing deal.
From the tiny town of Pingaring, (population 30) in the WA wheatbelt, this mum of two has managed to churn out 15 best-selling novels!
What’s more, she didn’t read a lot as a kid, didn’t finish her final year of school, and her English teacher never encouraged her.
But somehow, it just happened anyway.
One day, when she was 25, Fiona – a new mum working hard running the local shop with her mother – realised she had stories in her she wanted to put down. Whenever she had a free moment, she let her imagination fly, and set about tapping out words. The result turned into a romantic novel, The Family Farm. It was to become Fiona’s first best-seller.
She wrote about what she loved: the land, farming, and romance, and found the words came easily.
“I was so busy with my new baby daughter and with the shop work, sometimes I wouldn’t write anything for months at a time,” Fiona, 40, recalls over a coffee in Cottesloe.
(She’s driven up to Perth for a round of promotional interviews to herald her new book, Matters Of The Heart.)
“I just wanted to talk about farming and the rural life that I love, and throw in some romance.”
Because she was so busy, writing the book took her years. “Finally, it all came together; I showed it to Mum and she was amazed! She said, ‘you should try and get this published! I actually hadn’t thought about that!’
So Fiona went to her computer and Googled “how to get your book published.” She found that there was a writers’ competition going, in which the winners got to be mentored by experienced authors. “So I entered, and I won!” she beams.
Soon she was getting advice from WA author, Janet Woods. “She was amazing. While she didn’t mess with what I was trying to say, she taught me valuable techniques; back then I didn’t know how to set up a manuscript or anything.”
Fiona then posted three chapters of her story to Penguin – “which I now know you’re not supposed to do! There’s a process; and most people go through an agent first!” Within days, though, a Penguin rep replied saying they loved it and wanted to publish it.
Fiona hasn’t looked back. The Family Farm sold thousands of copies, and the publishers were clamouring for more. Fiona was happy to oblige.
“I draw my inspiration from living in a small country town, outlining what it’s like and the hardships,” says Fiona, fiercely proud of her rural heritage.
“I like to celebrate the good things about living on the land but also include the serious issues like depression and suicide that are part of rural life.”
These days she has her own literary agent, and after eight books with Penguin, she moved to another major publishing company, Hachette, with whom her latest book is published.
Matters Of The Heart is Fiona’s modern, rural take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, set in rural WA. (The characters are even named Lizzy Bennet and Will Darcy.)
“I’d always wanted to write a modern day Pride and Prejudice, and the country setting works so well. We even grew up having local dances, it all just slotted together in my mind!” she nods.
The book’s been out little more than a month and already the reviews are glowing, heartening for Fiona, as even after 15 best-sellers, she doesn’t take anything for granted.
“It’s stressful putting out a new book,” she admits. “And this time round, I was risking offending a lot of die-hard Austen fans – but so far I’m hearing people love it!”
She adds, “I’m always pushing myself to try new things. But I have a big loyal fan base, from Australia and New Zealand. They send me a lot of messages telling me what they like.”
And what do they like?
“I think it’s that I’m authentic,” she responds. “I live in a small country town so I know what I’m talking about when I write about the land.”
And not that she needs to these days, thanks to her literary success, but Fiona, whose two children are now teenagers, works part-time as a farmhand.
“I enjoy the work and it keeps me in touch with what’s going on. I get to include a lot of funny little things in my books,” she grins.
“Such as.. I heard about how some local dogs buried some chooks but they were dug up in time, and just got up and ran off! Readers love little stories like that. And they’re authentic.”
Coming from a town of 30 who’ve all known her all her life, being a best-selling hotshot hasn’t changed the way the locals see her one iota.
“If it all stopped working, I’d take off and do something else,” she shrugs.
“It’s all just about having a crack!”