I’m back with Indie Author Spotlight #10, and I’m moving to a biweekly rather than weekly format. I really enjoy writing and sharing these posts, but I’d like to have time to write some other posts, too. I just don’t have enough time to do this weekly, blog about anything else, edit, AND, you know…do real-life stuff! So! Thank you for your patience with me, and please keep reading to learn more about one of my favorite indie authors, Lee Richie, and the stories behind his new release, Black Bones, Read Earth.
Black Bones, Red Earth is one of the best books I’ve read this year – it’s thought-provoking, emotional, and edifying. My interview with Lee Richie is focused mostly on the stories behind this book and how it came to be, as well as how it led him to become an advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians. I think you’ll find his interview compelling, and I do hope it’ll lead you to purchase and read his phenomenal book. I read it during my possible-COVID-19 isolation, and I have so many thoughts that I do intend to share in a separate review post. For now, I’ll let Lee speak for himself.
Why do you write?
Like most writers, there’s a compulsion to write. I think it’s a need to share thoughts and opinions, experiences and beliefs without having to justify them. I hate arguing. I’d sooner state my position and let others debate it, take it or leave it. For that reason, I hate forums. I think they can be very destructive places where anyone who has a differing point of view is often ridiculed or bullied by those who want only their opinion to be recognized. Writers of novels tend to see everyone’s point of view. We empathize with others and that allows us to get inside the heads of characters to tell a story. One of the biggest challenges is to write from another gender’s point of view. Or another culture. There’s been a lot of controversy lately surrounding who has a right to tell a story. Can someone of one color write a first-hand account of another? Is it right for a rich white author to tell the tale of a poor black slave, a German Christian to portray a holocaust survivor? I believe strongly in the freedom to write anything, on any subject, from any point of view, as long as it does not promote hatred and as long as the author is not trying to misrepresent themselves or their story. Obviously, you can’t pretend to have climbed Everest if you haven’t but you can write a fictional account of so doing. We are all human beings and have the ability to imagine what others are going through, be they saint or killer, rich or poor, black or white. Of course, if you’re writing about certain sensitive topics like race or religion for instance, it comes with responsibility.
Are you a Panster or Plotter?
I’d have to say I’m primarily a panster. That’s what I love about writing fiction, you never quite know where it will take you and which characters will assert themselves in the story. But it’s not quite as clear-cut as panster or plotter. When I’m writing a novel it’s like taking a road trip with different versions of me coming along for the ride. It starts with an idea I’d like to explore. For example: I heard about a little place out there somewhere and it might be fun to find it without a map. We then all jump in the car and head in that vague direction and see what we can find along the way. The panster in me takes the wheel first and is the carefree risk taker, sometimes driving a little too fast, taking a sudden turn on a whim and just going for it on winding roads and unknown territory. Once a novel begins, I write until the end without a plan and without reading it until finished. That’s when we change drivers and I take a nap in the passenger seat while another me takes control of the wheel and starts the re-writes. Then there’s the couple of kids in the backseat arguing over where to go next and what our final destination should be. Writing a novel is hard work and it would be easy at times to take a shortcut home. I enjoy the start of the journey – the first write – and the end when it finally comes together. But, the graft in the middle is navigating those long straight roads and takes a lot of discipline and concentration just to stay the distance.
You previously wrote a young adult novel, Alexander Bottom & the Dreamweaver’s Daughter, which I got to beta read and look forward to sharing my kids when they’re a bit older. Why the switch in genre?
Alexander Bottom & the Dreamweaver’s Daughter is the first in the Alexander Bottom series, and came about after writing weekly installments for my grandson. He liked it so much that I decided to turn it into a book. I never intended to write for that age group. At the same time, I don’t want to restrict myself to any one genre. I write whatever offers the best challenge at the time, whatever takes my fancy. I currently have two thrillers finished as first drafts and I’m working on the second book in the Alexander Bottom series.
What inspired you to write Black Bones, Red Earth?
There were several threads of inspiration for Black Bones, Red Earth. The main one, and the starting point for the book, being my mum’s story. When she was almost eighty, it was accidentally discovered that she had been orphaned with her two sisters; she was four years old at the time. Mum had kept this secret all her life. I was astonished that she had been able to hide her story and wondered why she felt the need to do so. Her mother died of TB and her father – my grandfather – just gave the girls up to an orphanage. They told the sisters that men weren’t made to raise girls. Mum came out of the orphanage at thirteen when she was sent to work as a parlor-maid. She vowed to keep her past a secret and created a fantasy childhood in which she attended boarding school while her father roved the world during a distinguished army career. Mum confided that she created her new childhood because she felt ashamed of the truth. Eventually, she almost believed her own story. It got me to wondering what it would be like to keep a secret, even from family, all your life and what terrible stories from their past must some people be hiding?
The second story to inspire the novel came from my dad’s brother. He came to Australia after WWII as a young lad under the Big Brother movement, a charity created to help British youth start a new life after the war in Europe. His initial experiences were extremely traumatic after being despatched to a remote sheep station and into the care of a cantankerous old land owner. His tales of those early years in Australia and the stories of thousands of migrant children sent from Britain to Australia played a big part in the crafting of the novel.
Black Bones, Red Earth was an emotional story to read – I can only imagine it was so much more emotional to write.
Yes, it was emotional on many levels. My mother’s story obviously stirred personal emotions; the thought of any small child being wrenched away from home and into care is awful to imagine let alone your own mother. How does a child of four understand why she’s been abandoned? Then, there’s the thousands of child migrants who were sent away across the world under the pretense of going for a better life. Some were orphans but many had been given up by parents who felt they could no longer cope, or unmarried mothers shamed into giving up their children. The children were often told their parents and siblings were dead. They were raised in homes and institutions, were often treated cruelly and subjected to abuse. The treatment of Aboriginal children and adults was even worse. The Australian government policy of separating families, sending children to live on missions and forcing them to abandon their culture was absolutely shameful. These true events play deeply into the novel and caused a great deal of emotional turmoil during the writing process.
How did your contact with the Aboriginal community shape the novel and your understanding of First Australians and their history?
As I said previously, once writing begins, the story takes on a life of its own. New characters enter the story and, being set in the Australian outback, it was inevitable that Aboriginal characters would emerge. Sensitive to cultural aspects and the need for authenticity, I began to research and sought help on Indigenous issues. It wasn’t long before I realized how little I knew about indigenous Australian culture and the true history of a country I have come to call home. The more I learned, the more upsetting I found the stories of a people overtaken by white settlement and discriminated against in their own land. At first I found it difficult to get help with my research; there is a natural distrust in Indigenous communities after years of inequality and repression. Eventually, I was able to sit with Aboriginal Elders and hear first-hand accounts of life in the fifties, during which time the novel is set, as well as their stories going back in history. Of particular help was Gundungurra Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, who allowed me to sit with her week after week of my research. Aunty Val was raised on an Aboriginal mission by order of the Aboriginal Protection Board. She told of a life which denied her basic rights and kept her a virtual prisoner until laws were changed in the sixties. “They wanted to breed the black out of us,” she told me. Aunty Val went on to get a university degree – though it took her into her fifties to achieve it – and worked in promoting Aboriginal health and welfare until she retired from active employment. Her work in health and education earned her the Order of Australia in the Australia Day honours. It’s stories like Aunty Val’s and others like her that feature in the novel, many of which are true accounts of real events.
We’ve seen protests around the world with the Black Lives Matter movement. They must resonate with you in Australia and the issues depicted in your novel.
Definitely. Recent events in America have brought Australia’s own racial issues to the forefront. Protests have highlighted the ongoing problems with racial inequality, particularly in rural and remote parts of the country where there have been 437 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991. A Royal Commission (a major public enquiry) set up in 1987 to investigate deaths in custody resulted in over 330 recommendations for change. Thirty years later only a very few recommendations have been acted upon. It’s just not acceptable. The Indigenous population makes up 2.8% of Australia’s population, yet statistics show they make up a fluctuating rate of around 20% of all deaths in custody. It’s a complex problem but one that can be addressed if the government committed to the solutions already recommended in their own report. Many of the core causes behind the high percentage stem from poor healthcare, lack of educational opportunities, poor prospects for employment and substance abuse. Like most remote and rural communities around the world, the exodus to city living has left those most vulnerable behind. Aboriginal Australians have spent the years since colonization being brought to their knees and dominated (where have we heard that before?). Now, when it suits us, we expect them to get up and get on with it. Perhaps there will be progress after the protests but it’s up to us all to make sure it happens.
The protagonist in Black Bones, Red Earth, struggles with her faith; how does her story relate to your own?
My own spiritual journey is a lot like Katherine’s in the novel. My faith wavers from time to time but is always there behind me, propping me up. Mum was a devout Christian. I’m one of five children and she brought us up as such. I followed my three older brothers into the church choir and had to attend three services each Sunday. Mum did a lot of work for the church and for the Church of England Children’s Society. Now, of course, we know why she was so passionate about that particular cause. But, as I got older, I began to question my faith and the church itself. I stopped going because I felt church was too focused on literal interpretations of faith. I saw this kind of battle between religions, each promoting their brand at the expense of another, and it made me shy away from it. I think anyone can find God in their own way without having to claim they have the only true franchise on the story. I believe you are just as likely to find God in a synagogue or a mosque as in a cathedral in Rome. Personally, I now find my faith everywhere and in everything. I don’t need a church to help me connect. I’ve had my struggles in life but I’ve been blessed to have Angels watching over me and guiding my faith.
Please visit Lee Richie’s website for monthly blog posts and to learn more about Lee and his books.
Would you like to be featured, too? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org!