Pamela Hart on ‘A Letter from Italy’ and Australia’s first female war correspondent

Pamela Hart is the author of children’s fiction, epic fantasy, crime fiction, children’s poetry, and has worked as a scriptwriter for ABC Kids. The author is now investigating wartime Sydney through characters inspired by real people. Her latest novel, A Letter From Italy, follows Rebecca Quinn as she leaves Sydney for the battlefields of Europe. Pamela tells us about Australia’s first female war correspondent, Louise Mack, how she went about evoking the idyllic Mediterranean coastline in the midst of war, and how she stumbled across historical records of The Sound of Music‘s Lt Von Trapp.

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Your previous two books, The Soldier’s Wife and The War Bride, were both set in Sydney during World War I. What about this setting is attractive for you as a novelist? Do you have any personal connections to this time and place in history?

The Soldier’s Wife was partly based on my grandfather’s experience of being wounded at Gallipoli and repatriated to Australia, so that’s why I started writing about this period.  Of course, I had to do a lot of research, and I kept finding new stories I wanted to write about!  There are so many great true stories to use as a jumping off point, I couldn’t resist going on to write more.

Is there anything that people would be surprised to discover about Sydney’s role in World War I?

Well, the war was run from Sydney, from the Victoria Barracks, and most people, I think, would assume it was run from Canberra. But the operational centre of the AIF was (and still is) Victoria Barracks.

Sydney was also a major ship building centre during the war.  Cockatoo Island produced many ships during the war and before, including one of the ships featured in A Letter from Italy, the HMAS Warrego.

Where in Italy are we taken in A Letter from Italy, and how did you go about evoking the idyllic Mediterranean continent in a time of war?

Most of the book takes place in Brindisi, in the south, but we end up in Venice.  ‘Idyllic’ didn’t exactly describe Italy at that time. First of all, the book is set in November and December 1917, so it’s very cold (the weather during that time was particularly bad). And, because of the war, there were food shortages.  So one of my characters has to do some shady deals to get the flour to make pasta with!  Venice was very near the front line at this time, and had been bombed, so it wasn’t the pleasure capital we think of today. That’s one of the things that interests me about historical fiction; it shows you a new light on things you thought you knew.

I’ve been to Italy a few times, and drew on my memories of that, as well as, I have to admit, on Google Earth and Trip Advisor!  But also on contemporary accounts, especially by naval officers.

The chief naval historian, John Perryman, was absolutely wonderful in helping me access information.  Very few people know that the Royal Australian Navy sent a flotilla of ships to help blockade the Adriatic Sea – to stop Austrian U-boats getting through to the Mediterranean and sinking ships there. I found it fascinating to think of these Australian men so far from home, and I was very excited when I found out one of the Austrian submarine commanders they were fighting against was Lt Von Trapp (yes, he of The Sound of Music!).

Was there a particular article or snippet of history that sparked the idea for A Letter from Italy?

Two things. When I was writing The Soldier’s Wife and The War Bride, I read a lot of the contemporary newspapers, especially the Women’s Pages of The Sydney Morning Herald. I was struck by the feminist editorials on the Women’s Pages – they felt very ‘modern’. Some of them could have been picked up and put down into a newspaper opinion column today and they’d read as though they’d just been written (which is a bit depressing when you think about women’s rights). I later found out that the editor who wrote those pieces was Louise Mack, who had been a war correspondent.

When I was discussing writing a story about a woman war correspondent with my friend Vicki, who used to work at the Australian War Memorial, I said I wanted to write about the Navy because its WWI story has been mostly ignored in fiction. She told me about the Otranto Barrage, which the Australian flotilla I mentioned earlier was involved in maintaining.

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Historical author Pamela Hart

What piece of research yielded the most information about Louise Mack?

Her own books! She was a prolific writer – but the one in particular which was relevant was her A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War.  It describes in great detail her time as a war correspondent in Belgium, reporting from behind enemy lines.

It’s free on Project Gutenberg, by the way. Here’s the link: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35392

What parts of Louise Mack’s personality and life did you prescribe to your lead character, Rebecca Quinn? And which parts of the character did you imagine?

I imagined Rebecca to have had quite a different early life and education – Louise was a clergyman’s daughter (and of course was a different generation; in 1917 Louise was 47, twenty years older than Rebecca, and a seasoned journalist). I wanted Rebecca to be proudly feminist at quite a young age, as Louise was during the War, so I gave her a suffragette mother who had encouraged her to go to University and to work, although most women of her class didn’t work.

What I took from Louise was her determination to succeed at her career and her thirst for getting the story.  There is a scene in the book where Rebecca hears shelling in the distance and is desperate to find out what is going on herself, rather than relying on the reports of others.  That is taken directly from Louise’s description of her own feelings.

It’s also true that, although married, Louise appreciated a good-looking man!

What would it have been like to be a female journalist and war correspondent in the midst of World War I?

Louise Mack was pretty much the only female correspondent who actually got out there and went to the front lines, and even she only did it once. Most of the women who were sent to ‘cover the war’ were Americans who were reporting on the ‘home front’ in England. Women working in munitions factories, how mums at home were coping with rationing, that kind of story.

On the other hand, it was hard for anyone to be a war correspondent – some journalists were arrested by authorities for being near front lines, and there was only one accredited war correspondent from Australia at the beginning of the war (CWE Bean). Other journalists had to work without any help from the military. Later on in the war (as when this book is set), the authorities had recognised the importance of keeping their populaces informed, but they still held very tightly to information – as in Venice, towards the end of the book, where all press stories had to go through the censors.

There were press conferences, but women weren’t allowed in… which is the beginning of my story.

Which historical fiction authors inspire you?

Oh, that’s hard. Hilary Mantel, obviously. Mary Renault. Sophie Masson, both her medieval books and her YA stories, like her new Jack of Spades. I also love non-fiction about the past, like Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons, which is about Robert Louis Stevenson’s family business of building lighthouses! Kate Forsyth’s books are wonderful. I’m a big fan of Bitter Greens and can’t wait for her new one.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently undertaking into World War I Cairo?

I’m reading a lot of diaries written by nurses and orderlies who worked in Cairo and nearby. Cameras had just become easily portable, and some of these women took fantastic photos. One of the most useful research books I’ve found is More Than Bombs and Bandages by Kristy Harris, in which she describes the actual work the nurses did, what they thought about it, and their relationships with doctors, orderlies and patients. A fabulous book.

Can you share with us a favourite paragraph or teaser snippet of A Letter From Italy?

This is from just before my two main characters meet….

Sandro turned from inspecting the memorial plaque on the wall when he heard the faint whisper of skirts, his fingers still touching the words, Alessandro Panucci Requiesat in Pace.

A woman, praying before the altar, standing straight and tall. Sunlight from a rose window above the tabernacle caught her face, so that she was standing in a nimbus of light, her profile pure and clear. She looked like an angel, but angels didn’t cry, and the shaft of light caught the tears on her cheek. Sandro was struck by that curling in his gut that happened whenever he was presented with real beauty – not of the woman, but of the whole scene. Some perfect balance of elements that called out to him like the note from a bugle, which grabbed him by the throat and demanded to be immortalised.

What a shot. Could he catch it? He only had the little pocket camera, and it wasn’t good in low light, but maybe … If he asked her first, the moment would be gone. Ruined. He would have to shoot first, and ask later.

He leaned against the pillar to steady himself and set the frame with infinite care. The click of the shutter was loud and sharp, echoing off the rafters.

She started, turned and saw him…

 

A Letter From Italy Review

Pamela Hart (who has also written under the name Pamela Freeman) is no stranger to literary triumph. Her fantasy work has won her an Aurealis Award while her first historical novel, The Black Dress: Mary MacKillop’s early years, earned her a NSW Premier’s History Award in 2006. Her most recent novels,  The Soldier’s Wife and The War Bride, provide an intriguing take on Australian history (with a dash of romance thrown in).

Hart’s latest release, A Letter from Italy, takes us to Brindisi, Italy, where journalist Rebecca Quinn works with her husband, Jack, reporting on World War I’s military developments for Australian newspapers.

But when he abandons her for Albania, Rebecca discovers that her competence is questioned and she must draw on her strength if she wants to continue forging a legitimate career as foreign correspondent, independent of her husband. With the help of Italian American photographer Alessandro Panucci, she might just be able to succeed.

Inspired by real-life Australian foreign correspondent Louise Mack, Hart has seamlessly blended history with fiction to create a captivating and romantic tale. Rebecca and Alessandro are strong-willed and broad-minded, in stark contrast to their contemporaries. With such a strong historical focus, Hart could have easily got bogged down in a censorious stance, becoming preachy and critical of those who condemn Rebecca and Alessandro. Happily, that is not the case here; her voice is genuine, engaging and clear.

Their journey takes us beyond the parameters of their class, as the two become united in their fight for their individual independence. That, at its heart, is what makes this book work. Every page had me enraptured in the threads of their tale, locked in the throes of battle and chanting for their victory.

With romance, history and a heroine daring to step beyond rigid social standards, what more could you want?

5 stars – Hachette, rrp $29.99

Review by Jackie Smith

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