A fine new historical novel, set in Broome, has just the shelves, and publishers say it’s going to be an international best-seller. Moonlight And The Pearler’s Daughter is by English writer Lizzie Pook, who penned it while jobless during the pandemic. To Lizzie’s surprise and delight, the book fast became the subject of a global bidding war. (Lizzie also reveals a book by WA’s Hugh Edwards was invaluable while researching her novel.) She chats to The Starfish:
Hi Lizzie, congrats on your book. What’s it about?
Thanks! Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is an immersive historical novel, set against the backdrop of the dangerous pearl diving industry in nineteenth century Western Australia. Our protagonist is Eliza Brightwell, a young, strong-willed British woman whose family has sailed across to set up in the lucrative pearl shell industry. When her father – the eccentric captain of a pearling lugger – goes missing from his boat under suspicious circumstances, it falls to Eliza to uncover the truth of what has happened to him. As she scours the streets of Bannin Bay and beyond she uncovers prejudice, blackmail and plenty of long-buried secrets…
Tell us how the inspiration came to you to write this. You were in Fremantle at the time?
The idea built over a few years and a few separate trips to Australia. But yes, the main inspiration struck while I was strolling around the Maritime Museum in Fremantle. Tucked away among the ships was a small exhibition about a family of British settlers who sailed across to set up home in Shark Bay, WA. The matriarch, Eliza, was an early feminist who questioned contemporary social attitudes. She survived shipwrecks and storms and was generally rather formidable! For a while I had this idea of a settler family with a gutsy woman at its centre, but when I visited Broome the inspiration for my setting, Bannin Bay, stepped forward. Broome – with its milky turquoise waters and blood-red pindan soil – was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. But it also has a very dark history beneath the surface. I became fascinated by the pearling industry, and wanted to know everything about this difficult and complex part of British-Australian history. That’s where the obsession started…
What was it about the WA pearl industry that captivated you?
I had no idea that pearl diving was so full of peril. In fact, hard hat diving was and still is still considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. I became fixated on stories of divers being stalked in the deeps by sharks and crocodiles, of how their air pipes could become entangled in the flukes of whales and how they risked deadly paralysis whenever they descended to the sea bed.
But also, this was an extremely exploitative industry. I think the general impression can be that pearling was a romantic endeavour carried out by ‘adventurous’ white men when, in fact, it was a brutal industry built on forced Aboriginal and indentured labour. This is a hidden part of British/Australian history that should be confronted. I think lots of people would be interested to know about what happened.
In your book, how much is fiction and how much is based on true events?
I had an incredibly rich seam to plunder, so lots of the things that happen in the book – especially in Charles’s diary – are based on real events. They say truth is stranger than fiction; I definitely found that to be the case while researching Moonlight! I was able to get hold of memoirs, diaries and newspaper extracts that provided absolutely invaluable inspiration, and many of the divers’ interactions with whales, sharks and other creatures are things that actually happened in the waters off Broome. Many of the characters are inspired by real people too. For example, I found Conrad Gill – a real-life bosun from the Caribbean who patrolled the streets of Broome with a talking parrot on his shoulder – totally irresistible. I knew I had to immortalise him in the book in some way.
Where did you do most of your research and where were you living at the time?
Research took place across two continents. In London, where I live, I got my hands on every resource I could, spending hours in the British Library scouring reference books, newspapers and diaries. But I knew if I really wanted to immerse myself, I had to go back to WA. So back I went, spending time in Broome, the Dampier Peninsula and even travelling up into the NT, trawling through archives, walking the landscapes with Indigenous guides and interviewing everyone from crocodile wranglers to bus drivers. I visited lugger museums, toured remote pearl farms, I learnt how to spear mud crabs and marvelled at Beagle Bay‘s church with its intricate pearl shell alter. It was a long process and a total labour of love.
Any unexpected gems you stumbled on along the way (eg locating an historian who proved to be a great help, anything like that)?
There are two books I came across accidentally that have proven to be vital touchstones in my research. The first, Port Of Pearls by Hugh Edwards, I found by chance while rummaging through a second-hand book shop in Fremantle. The second is a book that was recommended to me while I was browsing the wonderful Kimberley Bookshop in Broome. It’s called Beyond The Lattice by Susan Sickert and is jam-packed with the most fascinating tales of early life in the township. I couldn’t have written my novel without these two books.
I was also incredible lucky that Bart Pigram agreed to come on board as a cultural consultant on Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter. He helped advise on any cultural sensitivities and, given that he has a family history of pearling, provided a wealth of knowledge and resources.
Taking on the genre of historical fiction requires tremendous responsibility. Did you relish the challenge to ‘get it right’?
I find this an interesting concept. Historical fiction authors are often put under pressure to be 100% accurate. But the truth is: we are storytellers, and what we’re writing is fiction. I’m not a historian – there are people far better placed than me to write a history of Broome or a reference book about pearl diving. I’m here, primarily, to entertain. But as a former journalist, I definitely wanted my research process to be rigorous and extensive. That said, there are certainly things that I will have got wrong in this book!
Being based in London, is it hard for you to remain focused on this story while in such a different environment?
It can be hard when the view from my window is grey, rainy and industrial. But escaping into this story has been a life-saver during the pandemic. I take lots of pictures and video while researching, and that’s helped me feel as if I’m back in Australia. But nothing beats the real thing; I’m desperate to get back out there.
This is your debut novel and already you’re being compared to writers like Hannah Kent, with simultaneous publishing deals across the globe, how exciting! Did you expect such a response to the book?
That’s so incredibly flattering and I don’t think anything can prepare you for such kind comparisons. I wrote and edited the majority of this book while jobless and unwell during a global pandemic. My husband and I had moved back in with my mum and were staying in my old childhood bedroom. Every day I would bash out the words on my laptop with missing keys at a rickety fold-out desk. So I certainly never envisaged that I would end up in this situation!
What is it about it that do you think has inspired such great feedback from publishers?
In truth, I have no idea. But I do wonder if the remote setting struck a chord when we were all confined to our homes. I also think it’s a very interesting and unusual part of history, and one that certainly not many people in the UK know about. I hope people found that intriguing.
How long did it take you to write it?
After several years of on-and-off research, around a full-time job as a travel writer, the actual writing process took about a year and a half. At my most productive times, I’d challenge myself to write 1,000 words a day. Eventually, I had a first draft, which became, a seventh, eighth and eleventh draft – and so on. There’s a lot of re-writing involved in bringing a novel to life, and that takes time.
Did writing the story come easily to you; did the words just flow? Or as it’s your first novel, do you think you had to perhaps put extra effort in, mapping out the plot, etc?
I think there’s a myth that good writing comes easily. Perhaps it does for some people but that’s certainly not the case for me! I’d compare it to training for a marathon; you have to put the work in. It’s hard, it’s gruelling and sometimes the very last thing you want to do is pull on your kit and put in the graft. But you’ll get there in the end.
Did you tell many other people you were working on it at the time, or just quietly work away for a long time?
My close friends and family knew but I was too shy to sing it from the rooftops. It was only when I had a full first draft that I decided to tell more people as I hoped it would act as a form of accountability. Thankfully, everyone has been really lovely and supportive.
Tell us a bit more about you, please. Did you grow up in the UK?
I was born in Salisbury, a small city in the south of England. My parents were both social workers and were big readers – my dad used to go to the local library every weekend and come back with bags of books for us to read. But I never dreamed that I’d ever become an author. I thought that was for rich, middle-aged men with cigars and drawing rooms. I had no idea back then that writing is open to everyone – all you need is a pen and a piece of paper. I went to university in Wales and then moved to London to complete a Master’s degree in journalism. I’ve lived here ever since, working as a journalist, travel writer and now novelist.
Health and pandemic circumstances) have meant that I’ve had to reduce my travel writing in recent years, but I’m hopeful that I can explore a bit more as soon as restrictions allow.
Are you already working on your next book?
I am indeed! It’s another historical novel filled with strong, adventurous women. In terms of setting, whereas Moonlightis is filled with sea, sun and stifling heat, this one is very cold and very icy.