Happy New Year! I hope you all had a nice holiday and are looking forward to a rewarding 2019.
I’m starting the new year with an interview with award-winning historical fiction author Wendy Dunn. Wendy is also a poet and playwright.
Linda Covella: Welcome, Wendy!
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
Wendy Dunn: I wanted to write since I was eight, many, many years ago. Why did I decide to be a writer? The simple answer derives from my lifelong love of books and reading. I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t read, or did not seek out books. My own life journey has made me realize eight to ten seems the age many people feel the tug of their life’s calling. I won a poetry prize at ten, a memory I still treasure to this day, but it was a long, long time before I garnered any other writing awards. When I was sixteen, I had a go at a fantasy novel. While the novel was terrible, I had a lot of fun imagining a world with magic and dragons, doing family trees and maps, and it pushed my love affair with writing into a lifelong obsession.
But my life’s journey hasn’t involved just writing. I married at eighteen and had my first child at nineteen. By twenty-four, I was the mother of three young children and studying for my Bachelor of Arts. Completing that, I then decided to go into teaching. Because I am passionate about creativity in all its forms, I added another diploma to my Diploma of Education – a Graduate Diploma in Arts Education. It was a wonderful, life changing course which really encouraged my own creativity and provided the push I needed to get on with writing Dear Heart, How Like You This?, my first Tudor novel. By the end of the course, I had completed the first draft. I was such an innocent then; I didn’t realise how much work is still needed after completing the first draft. But even in its early life publishers looked at Dear Heart with interest.
LC: You have had quite a journey up to this point!
What is your writing process: where do you write, how often do you write, are you a full-time or part-time writer, do you outline or do you plot as you go, etc.?
WD: I believe writers are always writing, even when they are not writing. I am constantly amazed at what must be going on in my subconscious. Even though I am not aware I am thinking deeply about something, I will dream about it, and then it pops out like Athena emerging from Zeus’s head (but without the need of an axe), fully formed as a story on the page.
Do I write full-time? I wish. I am like most writers in Australia – where the average income for a writer is no more than $13,000 a year. I have had only one year in my writing life when I have earned the average – and count myself as lucky for that experience. I work as a sessional tutor at Swinburne University, the university where I gained my Masters in Writing in 2009 and my PhD in 2014, not only to sustain my fortunate First World life, but also support my writing life. I am more fortunate than many writers because my employment sees me mentoring and teaching aspiring writers. My tutoring work is what pays for an annual two week writing retreat, which helps me move forward with my novel writing. Next year, I am swapping the retreat for three weeks of field research in the UK and a week in Spain. Of course, teaching is a calling in itself, and a very demanding profession. It is always an immense challenge to find the time I need to work on my own writing projects during the university year. But I have now started my break, and have to the end of February to catch up. I do have a study to write. I regard it as my sacred place to write my novels.
Am I pantser or a plotter? Nowadays, after years being an organic writer, I am both. Completing my PhD, when I had three and half years to write a novel and my scholarly dissertation, meant staying on track – and that entailed plotting out my PhD journey, and plotting out my novel. I discovered then I can complete a novel in two years if I have a plot in place. But I construct fiction inspired by history – so history gives me a timeline for my story. I decide on a character to narrate my story through and then spend the first draft working out the heart of the story.
First drafts are always for my own enjoyment, and give me the chance to experiment. For example, writing the first draft of The Light in the Labyrinth, my young adult Tudor novel, I experimented with including an angel narrator to lead the reader through the story, similarly to how Mark Zusak used Death as a narrator in The Book Thief. But I emerged from the first draft realising the angel voice was more of a device for myself. The angel was a way to get me back into the story. I began the second draft by killing off the angel and let Kate Carey, the narrator of this novel, take control of her story.
LC: Where do you find your inspiration for your stories? Do you draw from your own experiences?
WD: I am inspired by paintings, my love of the Tudor period, little known people from the pages of history. For example, the inspiration behind Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters came from a footnote in a book of academic essays about Isabel of Castile. This footnote introduced me to Dońa Beatriz Galindo (1465/75?–1534) I– a woman who lectured at the University of Salamanca, and taught not only Katherine of Aragon, but also Latin to Queen Isabel, the mother of Katherine.
Of course, I tap into my personal experiences for the construction of my stories. The prisms of gender, class and society shape my writerly identity. Completing my PhD opened my eyes to how I use historical fiction as a way to tell my own story, a woman who has experienced oppression. But sifting my own story through the context and distance of history also separates me from my story and changes it into something new, a different substance entirely; the story of my historical people.
The end result must always be recognizable as a work of historical fiction.
LC: Who is one of your favorite characters from your story(ies), one that you enjoyed creating and writing about, and why?
WD: OMG – this is like asking a mother to name their favourite child. I enjoyed writing all my characters in my published works – if I had not enjoyed writing them, I would have stopped writing. My passion for my historical people is what drives me as a writer. I must say I have a particular soft spot for Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, the narrator of Dear Heart, How Like You This?. Writing that first novel affirmed me as a writer by showing me I could indeed complete a novel.
LC: Do you incorporate (or inadvertently find) any of your own personality traits into your characters?
WD: Yes – I do recognize I have done that, especially afterwards. Beatriz Galindo, the narrator of Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters, is a passionate educator, like I am. Tom Wyatt, like me, wants to make sense of life, and the nature of love. But I constructed Kate Carey, the narrator of The Light in the Labyrinth, with the help of the diaries I kept from my teenage years.
LC: Do you find your stories are more plot driven or character driven? Please explain.
WD: Character driven. The best and most magical writing times for me is when I become but a scribe to my characters.
LC: Did you read much as a child?
WD: I was a sickly child, which meant spending a lot of time in bed. I escaped that imprisonment by reading. I have always loved books, and cannot remember a time when I did LC: How important do you think reading is for writers?
WD: I believe the old adage “we are what we eat” can also be revised to “we are what we read.” To be a good writer we need to read because reading is the huge generator of what feeds our writing. Reading is the other side of writing. For me, reading books will always return me to writing.
LC: Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books? What draws you to them?
WD: So many good novels, and writers! But I particularly like novels with a good heart – novels which leave me with hope, stay with me, make the reading experience worthwhile.
Writers who inspired me to start my journey as a writer of historical fiction include Rosemary Sutcliff, Winston Graham, Robert Graves, Margaret Irwin (loved her series on Elizabeth I), Rosemary Hawley Jarman and, of course, Dorothy Dunnet. I also love the deeply spiritual novels of Elizabeth Goudge.
LC: Anything new in the works?
WD: I am working on the sequel of Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughter, which will conclude my story about Katherine of Aragon.
LC: Good luck with that and all your writing. It was a pleasure having you today, Wendy!
Obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since childhood, Wendy J. Dunn is the author of two Anne Boleyn novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters, her third historical novel, was published with Madeglobal in 2016. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter – named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne. She’s also the grandmother to an extraordinary two-year-old boy. She gained her Doctorate of Philosophy (Writing) from Swinburne University in 2014 and is a Writing tutor in their Writing Program, as well as the proud Managing Editor of Backstory journal and Other Terrain.
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