Joy Rhoades: Author and Londoner, The Woolgrower's Companion
The Woolgrower's Companion bubbled away for over ten years while Joy pursued a busy career in law and lived in a number of major cities including Singapore, Tokyo and New York. I asked her what was key in bringing her work to fruition and what kept her passion for the book alive during that decade?
"It's an open secret among would-be writers that writing is not a hobby, like footie or tennis. It's a compulsion. An 'affliction' one writer friend calls it. And that's exactly right. So for the years I worked on the side on the book, I couldn't not write. I just kept at it, here and there, when I could. Scratching that itch."
The main character in the book, Kate, finds unexpected strength as she encounters hardship. I asked Joy how difficult was it to explore a strong female character so far away from our modern experience - a rural woman who lived during the 1940s?
"You've spotted what was the hardest aspect of the book, for me, when I first started writing. I had to get into the head of a woman who has no agency. That sounds easy, but little power as we have, we still have so much more power than women in the 1940s.
I had to understand all the constraints on Kate, all the assumptions that went into her raising, and all the accepted norms she saw and observed every day. But I wanted her to awaken, to throw off some of those bonds. To do that, she had to face great adversity, adversity that had to threaten her and the people she loves. Then, I could both write Kate, and cheer her on when she navigates each new ditch in the road."
The Woolgrower's Companion also tells the story of Daisy - an indigenous woman who works as a forced domestic. This was an extremely painful thread within the story. Getting this story right was important to Joy. I wondered how she worked with indigenous leaders to make sure the storyline was told with accuracy as well as dignity and sensitivity.
"It's important to me that I carry out my research--and that I write - with sensitivity and respect. That was especially important when researching for the Aboriginal Australian characters.
As I began to research to read and talk to people, I became ashamed at how little I had known of this part of Australia's history. I was also guided by a number of Aboriginal Australians, academics and other experts, and, with their help, I have learned so much. And I continue to learn.
I especially wanted the character of Daisy and her happenings, to be accurate, as well as respectful and sensitivity, as this was critical to me, a mark of respect in a way. I continue to be so grateful to the Aboriginal Australians, especially Kerry Reid-Gilbert, a poet and activist, who was my chief guide. It's a life-changing thing, to start to understand more and better. I am so grateful."
The story brings to life so much wonderful history and it was easy to imagine the level of research required to bring it to life with authenticity. I asked Joy if she ever regretted writing historical fiction for her debut novel and how she balanced research with creative inspiration.
"I had no idea how much research I would do! I was inspired to write a novel, entwining many of the family stories I had grown up with. My grandmother spent almost all of her 102 years on her family's sheep property on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. And I wanted to set my novel during WWII, so that the great issues of life and death and liberty might be part of the force for the story.
It took a great deal of time, reading, developing story lines, talking to historians, tweaking subplots and so on, to get to where I needed to be. But almost without exception, I found historians both willing to help and very generous with their time. They want novelists to get things right."
Unlike Kate who chose to remain on her farm, living abroad has been an important part of Joy's life. I asked her what opportunities had arisen through travel for her.
"I was born in Roma, a small town in western Queensland, but I've lived and worked all over as an adult: the UK, Asia, the US and now London again. The late, wonderful Anthony Bourdain said, 'If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can.' That's my sentiment too.
I hope living in so many places has taught me to try to be respectful of cultures. Essentially, we're all alike, with loves and kisses and parents and family. I hope that invades my writing, my respect for people. Love of people, really. Good eggs, generally."
Joy's deep connection to rural Australia is evident in this book. I was curious to know how being away from home crystallised her relationship with Australia.
"The Sydney Morning Herald wonderfully ran a terrific review of the Woolgrower's Companion when it debuted in Oz, and emphasised the nature of expatriate fiction.
I wrote all of the book from outside Australia, even though it is set in Australia and is a very Australian book, I hope, in that it tackles the status quo.
So being away from Oz, living away, definitely colours the way I see 'home.' And that's good and bad. I'm sure I romanticise aspects. But I hope I can be more objective too, from afar."
As a young child, Joy fostered dreams of being a writer yet her mother had encouraged her to pursue law. After working in law and publishing a book to fantastic reviews, I wondered what career advice, if any, Joy would give to others. Should people follow their heart or follow their head?
"Gosh. Write but keep your day job!
Writer incomes are plummeting. The UK Society of Authors recently reported a 42% drop since 2005, with only 40% of authors able to make a living . The Society President, Philip Pullman, is campaigning for a more equitable share of the pie.
It's reported that publisher incomes are stable and if anything, trending up, slightly. I do think initiatives like Unbound (the crowdfunding publisher) and Patreon (also where writers and artists can crowdfund their work) are changing things. But we're nowhere near seeing what that sustainable future will look like.
So for now, writers: write, but keep that day job. Go down to three days if you can, so maybe you can keep your health insurance and keep a pension. If you want to be an artist of any kind, you have to be madly creative and madly hardheaded.”
Many Australian women will make a career transition or pursue multiple careers. Given Joy had had experienced success in both law and writing, I asked her what had been critical in achieving in such different arenas.
"There's a lot of cross-over between law and fiction, in terms of core people skills. Building a strong, supportive network is critical: bloggers and writers who'll be willing to accept your novel for review; wonderful indie and other bookshops who're willing to read a debut author and then support them if they like the book; libraries willing to host events; journos willing to listen.
And I knew how to start that network, from my time as a lawyer. So how? By helping out.
It sounds trite, but it's always been important to me to return a favour, fivefold, whether as a lawyer or a writer. Saying thank-you when someone helps, when you get a great review; reviewing new books for other debuters; contributing to writer networks: supporting litfests when they're kind enough to invite you, and even when they're not 😉; reviewing a manuscript for a newbie, if you can. Y'know? Help in, help up, help out.
It's probably partly my small town roots but I think it's such a universal way to live. I didn't realise when I was a kid because my parents worked so hard, for so long, through droughts and recessions and all kinds of stuff. But I was incredibly fortunate with my lot in life. And they did this. They were always helping people, where they could. Now, it's certainly what I try to do. Help.
London is home for Joy. I asked her for a heads-up on her favourite literary parts of London.
It's funny but I like 221B Baker Street (although that number on Baker Street doesn't actually exist, of course).
The whole Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thing always grabs me, probably because they were the first 'grown up' books I read as a kid. I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson seemed a bit thick, tbh 😉
Given the success of The Woolgrower's Companion, I wondered what was coming next for Joy.
"Wonderfully, Penguin Australia has just commissioned the sequel to The Woolgrower's Companion. So I'm working on that now. I'm talking to wonderful academics and other experts. Great stuff. And I continue to teach creative writing workshops at libraries round London: RBKC, Hammersmith & Fulham, Lambeth Libraries and Westminster Libraries.
I really enjoy it and the students seem to as well, as they keep coming back :) Follow me on social media to find out where next! Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Social media also means I am in touch with readers, which I love. And writing! I'm always writing. And I'm planning to start a podcast. Lots to do and a sequel to finish!”
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