In search of pirates, tides and underground tunnels with Australian author Kelly Gardiner

“Writing about a place or a culture that is not your own.”

 

godess
Cover: HarperCollins

Isn’t this the most beautiful book cover you’ve ever seen? But in addition to that, GODDESS is a fabulous novel, written by Australian author Kelly Gardiner. 

As I followed Kelly on Twitter, it seemed as if she was on the road all the time: tweets from her trip in search of Sappho’s poems, from Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain, from Sydney, Melbourne, Varuna … that author seems to travel a lot!, I thought. Turns out, Kelly is a great believer in walking the ground, tramping the hills or streets or buildings of the setting. It doesn’t look or feel as it did in the past, she says, but you can enrich the reader’s experience by filtering the world you see and smell and hear through the layers of research, and creating a greater sense of place.

So I interviewed Kelly Gardiner — about how to get the most out of your stay on location, and why you need a sturdy pair of boots.

 

Barbara: What was your favourite research trip, and why?

Kelly Gardiner: I once travelled to Malta in search of pirates.

My first novel – part of a trilogy for young readers – was set in these islands in the Mediterranean Sea during the wild years of Napoleon’s rise to power and his great battles with Nelson, in the dying days of the great conflict between the Knights of St John and the navies of the Ottoman Empire and the many rogue fleets of pirates and privateers that caused havoc on land and sea.

The manuscript had been accepted, but my months and months of research to that point had been entirely desk-based – from the other side of the world. I knew I had to see the setting for myself.

I set off to Malta with a comprehensive list of facts to be checked and places to visit, distances to pace out, museums which kept specific artefacts I needed to see for myself, and high expectations. 

I was beside myself with excitement the entire time. Malta’s history is incredible – stunning prehistoric sites, wave after wave of invaders and cultural influences, and intact medieval cities and fortresses of incredible beauty and power. Its natural setting is superb, and I spent a lot of time on the water gazing up at cliffs and castle walls.

 

Have you ever experienced a meeting or discovery that seemed like a miracle? What happened?

Kelly Gardiner: Yes, back home at my desk I had planned and drafted an entire sequence of events that took place in secret underground tunnels beneath the old cities and forts around the Grand Harbour – imaginary tunnels, invented only to get my characters out of a predicament of my own making.

Once on site, I jumped on one of Malta’s charming 1950s buses and headed to Vittoria, where my imagined tunnels where supposed to lead off the dock. I wandered past the site of the old slave market and infirmary, under the great fortress walls, and discovered … secret underground tunnels!

Happily, I had a tiny torch with me, so I squeezed through the iron grate and headed off into the dark – only to emerge in a car park. But the tunnels were old, and the cities – it turned out – sit on top of dozens of carved passageways, warrens and culverts used for escape and shelter from early modern era to World War 2 bombing raids.

L0019026 Malta: view of the port. Etching by M-A. Benoist, c. 1770, a Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Malta: view of the port. Etching by M-A. Benoist, c. 1770, after J. Goupy, c. 1725. Engraving with Etching By: Joseph Goupyafter: M-A. BenoistPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Malta: view of the port, 1770. 
Etching by M-A. Benoist. Image: Wellcome Library, London. Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

 

Can you describe any particular moment(s) when seeing the setting with your own eyes profoundly changed the way you related to your protagonists, or enabled you to understand their motives more fully? 

Kelly Gardiner: I had written a confrontation between my young protagonists and French soldiers, set in the cathedral in Mdina, based on the story of a young boy running to the top of the spire and ringing the bells to call the people of Malta to rise up against Napoleon’s army.

But when I stood in front of the cathedral, looking up that that spire, and walked the quiet back streets of this ancient city, I experienced a fierce empathy with many of my characters: the girl trying to make her mark in a male world; the hopeless young nobleman who experiences one moment of glory; his gentle mother, isolated behind those high stone walls; the people in the streets; and the French soldiers leagues away from home and left here by their great commander.

 

What’s your favourite device to use while documenting the setting of your novel? Your mobile phone, audio recordings, photos, your journal?

Kelly Gardiner: A sturdy pair of boots.

I am a great believer in walking the ground, tramping the hills or streets or buildings of the setting. It doesn’t look or feel as it did in the past, but you can enrich the reader’s experience by filtering the world you see and smell and hear through the layers of research, and creating a greater sense of place.

I also take a lot of photos, so a decent camera with zoom is essential, and I take a small laptop with me so that each evening I can sort out and file the photos and write up any notes.

 

Any tips or hints on what you would do differently next time?

Kelly Gardiner: Check all your assumptions. On the Maltese island of Gozo, I paid a fisherman to take me out in a boat through a crack in the cliffs which I’d already featured in one of the novel drafts. I asked him how he got through the opening when the tide came in.

He just looked at me and said, “There are no tides in the Mediterranean.”

Of course, intellectually I knew that, but my subconscious is utterly Australian and used to the Pacific Ocean, so I hadn’t bothered to fact-check.

It’s these cultural assumptions – major and minor – you don’t even know you’ve made that can undermine your credibility. It’s particularly important when you’re writing about a place or a culture that is not your own, or trying to convey the world views of people in the distant past.

But the details matter too. I can’t tell you how many times I’d had my pirates talking about waiting for the tide or missing the tide in my first drafts.

I had to scurry back to my hotel and scour the manuscripts. 

I always remind myself of that day in a bright red boat, on a ridiculously blue sea where there are no tides.

 

Photo: Kelly Gardiner
Photo: Kelly Gardiner

Kelly Gardiner’s books include the ‘Swashbuckler’ trilogy for young readers, and the young adult novels Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, which was included in the prestigious White Ravens list by the Internationale Jugendbibliothek.

Her latest book is Goddess, a novel based on the life of the seventeenth century French swordswoman, cross-dresser and opera singer, Mademoiselle de Maupin.

Kelly Gardiner always publishes a log connected to her research work, when she writes. Find her GODDESS log here, and her general research log here.

Twitter: @kmjgardiner

Facebook: Kelly Gardiner

Website: kellygardiner.com

Kelly’s most recent idea is “Unladylike”, a podcast about women and writing, together with Adele Walsh. “We will talk with women”, Kelly announced, “about writing and reading, and particularly about process: the thinking, planning, plotting (or not), research, drafting and editing that writers do.” The podcast will start in June 2016, but you can already read more about it at unladylikepodcast.com.