Golden Hope: An interview with Johanna Nicholls

Set in the gold-fields and back roads of recently federated Australia, Golden Hope follows equestrienne Clytie Hart as she travels with the roving Wildebrand Circus. Historical author Johanna Nicholls – who worked as Head Script Editor of ABC TV Drama – tells us about the vivid dreams that delivered her characters, her shocking experience at a circus as a young girl, and her newest villain: Vlad the Knife-Thrower.

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You’ve said that as a child you found Australian history boring compared to the more colourful and epic histories of Europe. And yet, Golden Hope is an Australian historical novel set in Victoria’s Gold Triangle in 1901. What made you change your mind about Australian history?

At school the lacklustre Australian history books I laboured through seemed devoid of women’s voices, apart from a passing glance at Elizabeth Macarthur and Mrs Macquarie (unlike excellent history books for today’s generation). It was my Dad, Fred Parsons, a theatrical comedy writer, author, English by birth and a great storyteller, who fired my imagination – ‘Australian history is unique, unlike any other country on earth.’ In my Grandma Rosie’s bush cottage in Blackwood, Victoria, Dad’s gold rush tales came alive about Captain Moonlite (sic) the bushranger who lived a double life as a lay preacher; colourful women like the notorious courtesan Lola Montez who was showered with gold nuggets when she performed her exotic Spider Dance for the diggers on the goldfields. At 12, I began spinning bedtime stories about a fictional bushranger to my cousin Max. I tasted the heady power of creating a story that could make people laugh, cry and want more. It is to the memory of Max, who witnessed my birth as a storyteller, that I dedicated Golden Hope.

Your main character, Clytie, performs in the Wildebrand Circus as a ‘daring equestrienne’. How did Clytie enter your imagination?

Clytie Hart came to me in an extraordinarily vivid dream. I had gone to sleep wrestling with the problem of choosing one of several ideas for my next book, following Simon and Schuster’s publication of my three Australian historical novels set in different Colonial eras. In this dream I stood on a lonely bush road, watching a girl driving past a signpost marked Ballarat – in a circus wagon painted with an illustration of two equestriennes on horseback, ‘Daring Dolores and Little Clytie.’

The dream image cut to two young soldiers in old-style uniforms, their kit bags slung over their shoulders. They were marching along a bush track, locked in argument. One was suffering from amnesia. He angrily demanded why had he been conned into acting as a go-between. I was startled awake. A circus troupe and volunteers in the Boer War – Australia’s ‘forgotten war.’ I was convinced these were the characters in my next book. I had no choice but to follow wherever they led me.

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Author Johanna Nicholls

Is the struggling Wildebrand Circus in your book based on a real circus that roamed Australia in the early 1900s?

I inherited my Dad’s love of circuses. I knew that for centuries circuses had been a highly popular form of entertainment – their feats of daring and imagination crossed all language barriers. World famous circuses toured the Australian colonies and N.Z. long before the Gold Rush and there was a circus present at the scene of the Eureka Stockade. I based Clytie’s fifth-generation Hart family on the many circus dynasties that spanned centuries, and I drew circus legends into the fabric of Golden Hope, including Aboriginal circus star William (Billy) Jones, long celebrated for his extraordinary athletic feat of leaping over the backs of twenty-four horses placed side by side.

While writing a dramatic scene in Golden Hope, I remembered my experience of terror as a five-year-old when taken by Dad to Wirths Circus. The glamorous elephant trainer was taking her bow when she slipped directly in the path of the elephant – he made a sudden move towards her. The audience screamed. My father held his hat over my face in an attempt to shield me from the sight – but I was thrilled to see the brave circus hands race into the arena – armed only with chairs as they pushed the elephant back and allowed the girl to take her final triumphant bows.

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Who is Vlad the Knife-Thrower?

All my novels contain at least one major villain, ranging from fictional to historical, (e.g.The Lace Balcony’s Patrick Logan, notorious Commandant of Moreton Bay Penal Colony). One of Golden Hope’s fictional bad men is Vlad the Knife-Thrower, former star of the Russian Circus who is Clytie Hart’s abusive stepfather. Readers will be forgiven if they think I named him after Vladimir Putin or the medieval monster Vlad the Impaler.

Clytie, in the tradition of circus children, was trained in all the circus arts, as well as by her mother in their mother-daughter daring equestrienne act, so Clytie’s expertise in knife-throwing led legitimately to an unusual scene at a Women’s Suffrage meeting.

Your book opens with an excerpt from Henry Lawson’s ‘Break O’Day’. How has Lawson influenced your work?

I always pre-fix each ‘book’ within my novels with a quotation or poem. I had long wanted to feature an Australian poet, but had never found lines that were appropriate to the story. I read every single Lawson poem, determined to find the perfect lines for Golden Hope. Lawson’s bush ballads were widely popular by the Federation era, so it was natural that they are recited by Rom Delaney. This wild young adventurer, being a foundling, knows little of his forebears, so models himself on his hero Lawson, and boasts like Lawson does in one of his poems, that he also has ‘a dash of the Gipsy blood’.

I was also fascinated by the uneasy relationship between Lawson and his mother. Louisa Lawson published her son’s first work, and is celebrated as Australia’s first female editor, owner and typesetter of Dawn. This newspaper, advocate of women’s issues, gained worldwide influence – and in Golden Hope ignites Clytie’s attraction to the fight for women’s rights. 

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How did you go about imagining Australia in 1901, a nation just born?

This is an interesting question. It required a multi-faceted research journey. I began with only a sketchy knowledge of the times, but I moved mentally and emotionally into the era, haunting libraries and second-hand book shops to build up my own reference library. I read every book I could lay hands on, history books, biographies from Melba to Arthur Conan Doyle; diaries and letters by Australian Boer War volunteers; memoirs including the respected Boer General Ben Viljoen; historians’ and war correspondents’ conflicting accounts of the blame for the death of Australian volunteers at Wilmansrust inthe Transvaal. Some books might only offer a few relevant pars – but these were excellent insight into how one of my characters would react to an event or social condition seen from their ‘contemporary’ perspective. I must pay tribute to the wonderful research treasures in Trove; photographic collections and cartoons of the era, and Sydney’s fabulous Power House Museum.

At the end of two years writing Golden Hope I felt I had one foot in the Federation era, one in 2016.

What forms of research were the most valuable while writing Golden Hope? Did you discover anything that shocked you?

All of the above were valuable, but particularly the generosity of historians and experts in different fields: the arts, medicine, the Boer war. A network of film historians led to the storyline of Major Joseph Perry, the Salvation Army’s pioneer filmmaker, whose extraordinary body of work in his Limelight Division was achieved years before Hollywood was invented. The National Film and Sound Archive gave me generous viewing time of Perry’s films, including the official half-hour film of the massive public celebration of Federation in Sydney’s Centennial Park, on 1st January 1901, in which 10,000 marching troops from all over the Empire, politicians and the nation’s first Governor-General took part.

Yes, I was shocked when exploring many aspects of the era’s laws, the fight to improve working, living and health conditions won at great cost by ‘forgotten’ pioneers – advances now taken for granted as our birthright. For me the challenge was to dramatise events, make them immediate, entertaining and human – seen from the perspective of a small town excited by the idea that the new nation of Australia is playing a role on the world stage – and to guard against their reactions being coloured by modern hindsight and contemporary political correctness. Golden Hope’s characters aren’t modern but Clytie, Finch and Doc Hundey are modern by the standards of their era.

Shocked I was by simple things: salesgirls in department stores worked for low pay six days a week 10 hours a day, unable to sit on a chair even if the store was empty. Contraceptive advice was given by doctors at the risk of being struck from the Medical Register. A woman could be gaoled for wearing male apparel. No cure and little effective treatment for diseases like T.B., syphilis; the high rate of infant mortality. More men died in war from enteric fever and typhus than enemy bullets. A suicide could not be buried inside the cemetery.

You’ve worked extensively in television. What’s it like moving from a form of storytelling that relies heavily on the visual to one that relies exclusively on text?

From my first job as a copygirl that led to being trained as a cadet journalist, I have worked alternatively between two careers, magazine journalism, specialising in three-part biographies – and in television as a researcher and Production Assistant. Later, following a long, creatively rewarding career as Head Script Editor of ABC TV Drama, I decided to follow my dream – to write Australian historical fiction. Everything I have ever learned from journalism and television has been invaluable in creating historical fiction. From childhood I have been intensely visual – I drew complex stories in pictures long before I learned to read and write. I can honestly say I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. Once I get my teeth into writing a novel, I have only to stare at a blank computer screen and scenes begin to unfold as if I’m watching a movie. My readers tell me that reading my books is like watching a movie – they are so visual. Yet I do not write pages of descriptive prose that I admire in other authors’ work. I ask my characters, their dialogue and their personal vision of the world, to speak for me.

What are some standout Aussie books that you’ve read recently?

Having been wedded to research books related to Golden Hope for the past two years I am excited to be free to read books for pleasure in a wide range of styles. It was a great escape for me to read the beautifully researched, charming, satirical Du Barry Hotel by Lesley Truffle; at my bedside I have a pile of Australian books I can’t wait to read. These range from the satirical thriller Black Teeth by Zane Lovitt, and his previous work, The Midnight Promise, winner of the Ned Kelly Award; Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, that the cover proclaims as Australia’s No 1 New York Times Bestseller.

I am always on the lookout for books for my young grandchildren. On a recent visit to Ballarat I bought Eureka Stockade by Marion Littlejohn and Australian Federation – One people, One Destiny by Net Brennan – both a clever balance between the factual and the visual.

My gift to friends’ new babies is always their first book. I love Kissed by the Moon, by Alison Lester, rightly called Australian Children’s Poet Laureate. And to a child with a newborn sibling, I’ll give Our Baby, an endearing book by Margaret Wild and Karen Blair that is warm, funny and light years away from sibling rivalry.

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Will fans of Ghost Gum Valley and The Lace Balcony be in for a similar or quite different reading experience with Golden Hope?

I hope readers will always expect the unexpected – as in life! All my novels explore very different aspects of Australian history. Yes, they have certain aspects in common. A strong, complex love story at the core; fictional characters who interact with or are influenced by historical characters; a strong sense of mystery, a crime – and revelations based on character.

The story of Golden Hope, like all of my novels, is revealed from both female and male points of view.

Above all I pay tribute to what I see as Australians’ most endearing and enduring characteristics – our peculiar sense of humour, our survival instinct, our mateship. I truly hope we never lose our unique sense of identity, never forget the people who made Australia the land we inherited.

Golden Hope by Johanna Nicholls is published by Simon & Schuster, rip $32.99.

 

 

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