Writing The Olive Sisters

What inspired you to write The Olive Sisters?
Some years ago my family experienced a ‘tree-change’ when we moved out of the city to a small but beautiful farm. Although only several hours out of Sydney, it was a world away.

It was a great for our young children but although their father and I embraced country life and loved the peace and beauty of our surroundings but we were both at something of a loose end. We were used to the pace, momentum (not to mention the income) of city life. Cursed with the notion that career-building and personal fulfilment went hand-in-hand and anything less seemed suspiciously like aimless pottering.

As we attempted to settle in, it was surprising to see how little currency our city skills had in the country, where people are generally more practical and innately suspicious of ‘Sydney ways’. As the novelty of our new life began to wear thin, we both went through a period of grieving the loss of what we now referred to as our ‘old life’ – finally understanding that it had gone forever.

Around about this time I happened to be traveling to Sydney on the train and sat opposite a woman, probably in her late fifties, who rather intrigued me. She had the look of a wealthy woman yet there was nothing specific in her attire to support that. We began to talk and she told me she was a cleaner. We discussed this for a while and finally she revealed the full story. The woman’s husband had been a shipping magnate and they lived in a waterfront mansion on Sydney Harbour. They had matching Rolls Royces. All was going well – perhaps a little too well, the pessimists among us would say – when one of her husband’s oil tankers somehow became caught up in a civil war and was stuck off the coast of Africa for many months. Cargo couldn’t be delivered, contracts were cancelled and, unable to sustain the accumulating debt, the business quickly began to topple.

The family went through one humiliation after another. Their house and cars were forcibly repossessed and their children swiftly ejected from private schools when the fees could not be paid. The woman had managed to secrete a little money away; she bought a tiny cottage out of Sydney and found work as a cleaner. The husband suffered a heart attack and a series of nervous breakdowns. He went to pieces both physically and mentally and never recovered. She described how he would often get out of bed and run out into the night, as if trying to escape the torment he was suffering. I felt compassion for that poor man and his shattered life but enormous admiration for his wife and the way she had dealt with the changes forced on her. I had the impression she was a much nicer person; stronger and even possibly happier than in her halcyon days.

I thought about that conversation for weeks and began to reflect on the extent to which work and wealth defines us. How our identities are much more linked to work than we would like to imagine, and the higher up the ladder you have climbed, the harder the fall is going to be. For many people, their work or business is not only the sole source of their affluence but also their social life. It’s the place they are respected and recognised as a person. I have a title, therefore I am. Take it away and what’s left? Often the only family they have is a disenchanted ex–partner and several children they barely know.

So, the underpinning of my idea was this: what if…a woman, who is highly successful in her field, loses everything that defined her place in the world but then discovers that she wasn’t who she thought she was anyway? How would that feel? How limited are we by our own perception of our identity and by the identities of our parents? Could she ultimately be freed by being forced to redefine herself? It was an idea I wanted to explore and so the plot began to brew and thicken from that point.

What was your objective in this story?
Adrienne, my main character, is a woman who had put down shallow roots. Her personal life as been sidelined by her career at the expense of her relationship with her daughter, Lauren.

My objective was to take away everything she knows and values  and see how she deals with that. I wanted her to be someone who is not comfortable in herself or even with herself. Someone who avoids any sort of self-realisation, who is resistant to self-knowledge.

The Olive Sisters is about home and belonging and how important that is to our sense of identity. In the past we defined ourselves by who our parents were and where we were born. Somehow we seem to have lost that and we’ve come to define ourselves by our work. As increasing numbers of people leave their birthplace and family to pursue work or a better life, we’ve become restless people with homeless hearts.

I’m not Italian but chose an Italian background and the metaphor of the olive grove, with all its history, as Adrienne’s ‘true’ home because I wanted her move towards away from the temporary pleasures and comforts of her life to more simple and sustaining comforts. My experience of Italian friends over the years is that regardless of wealth or poverty or geographical location, family remains the most important thing in life. Italians have migrated all over the world but they retain the same values of a rich family life.

Although I have tried to write this story in a way that’s fresh and easily digested, the underlying issues are important to me: family, love, honesty, taking care of each other, dealing adversity in a way that will help us grow stronger as individuals. Most of all understanding that life can be sweet but not all the time. That happiness can suddenly flare and light the darkest shadows and sometimes that moment is enough to make life worth living.

How long did it take you to write The Olive Sisters?
The plot came very quickly and the first page popped out easily but by the time I got to the third chapter I became mired in revision and trying to get it ‘right’. A year passed and I was still getting up a sweat on the third chapter. I had to do something radical. On New Year’s Day 2002 I sent three friends (who later became four) this email:
Having spent the last two years seriously procrastinating about embarking on my most ambitious writing project ever – yes, THE novel. I would like to invite you three carefully selected friends to be my muses. My idea is that I am going to start and complete the work this year and by the 30th of each month email you the chapter I have completed. I would like if possible to get feedback of what is working, what isn’t, anything that isn’t fresh and lively or is hackneyed, where there seem to be gaps or worst case where I have diverged off into writing complete crap. The idea is to make me accountable to do the work and with your feedback keep up the momentum and energy on the project. Let me know if you’re up for it or if it sounds like your worst nightmare let me know – that’s fine-it’s mine too. Happy New Year!

They accepted and off we went.

The muses read each chapter and responded with enthusiasm and criticism that kept me on track right through to the end of that year. It wasn’t easy and, although it worked for me, I’m not sure I would recommend it. It’s the equivalent of running naked in public. But hey! If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to bare your soul in public.

Was the transition from non-fiction to fiction difficult?
I had written my two previous non-fiction books as a result of being interested and curious about the subjects. Battles with the Baby Gods: Stories of Hope came out of my experience of five years of infertility. At the time it was a very private struggle, but once it was resolved, I began to ’fess up about what we had endured and was astonished at the response; there were amazing stories of both grief and joy all around us.

I woke up one morning and suddenly thought, Why do we do it? Why do women risk their lives to conceive? It was something I wanted to know about, and perhaps other women and men traveling the lonely road of infertility would too. And so a book was born.

After that, I was asked to write a book in a similar style about the family experience of Alzheimer’s disease which became Take Me Home: Families Living with Alzheimer’s. The research and writing of this book, strangely enough, coincided with my father telling me that he suspected my stepmother had Alzheimer’s. So we ended up embarking on that journey together. We’ve both learnt an amazing amount but his journey has been so much more difficult than mine.

The aspect of writing those books that I really enjoyed was telling people’s personal stories and trying to capture their individual voice, which, in many ways, is much closer to fiction than non-fiction. I look on those books now as practice for my real love – fiction.

Probably the most difficult part of the transition was that with a non-fiction subject there are a number of established approaches for organising the material within the book that give the author a manageable structure to work within. Fiction, on the other hand, is a blank canvas and a million tubes of colour. Worse still, the blank canvas appears every time you sit down to write. At first that was terrifying, but later (much later!) it became liberating and exciting. I have so much fun with a blank page these days it’s sinful!

What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book?
In the beginning, I think the idea of attempting to achieve my life-long dream was overwhelming. It was as though I had spent my life training to climb Everest and now I was standing at Base Camp thinking, Oh dear – what if I don’t have it in me to do this? It wasn’t about getting published; I didn’t even think about that. What if I don’t have what it takes to write a book that meets my standards based on forty-five years of reading some of the best writing in the English language? That little voice kept whispering, What if I’m not good enough?

I pushed on up the mountain and at the end of a year, with the moral support of my muses, I had produced a first draft, but I wasn’t happy. The next January I took the opportunity to do a week-long writing workshop with Bryce Courtenay at Camp Creative in Bellingen. It was something of a ‘boot camp’, with long days of writing exercises and sweaty scribbling into the long hot nights doing our homework. At the end of that week I had some new tools to build the book. I came home inspired, put aside what I had written and started again. Now I was feeling very confident about what I was doing. The new draft took another year to write and then another six months to rewrite – and, finally, I had something I hoped was worth reading.

What is the best writing advice you’ve been given?
Write what you can write and do it to the best of your ability. It sounds bleedin’ obvious but it helped me enormously. I had permission to stop measuring myself against all the writers I admired. I could not be any of the writers I admired – from Jane Austen to Barbara Kingsolver – I could simply be Amanda Hampson. Thinking about that, I finally understood that each writer has a unique style that appeals to different tastes and, like a wine, the flavour of a book depends on the earth from which it grew. Some books are for immediate consumption and others will mature and improve with time – like a complex and beautiful mature red. I realised that my ambition for The Olive Sisters was to create a crisp, full-bodied chardonnay with a hint of humour – delicious and satisfying. I like to imagine that women my age will enjoy it with friends and that it will lighten their lives and help them through changes we all inevitably face.