Wendy James’ fifth book The Mistake was released to critical acclaim in March this year. Her first novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book, making her one of only five women to win in that category since 1996. Though set over 100 years apart, the two books share common themes of how women’s choices and aspirations, particularly with respect to motherhood, are shaped by class and gender politics.
I had the pleasure of meeting Wendy at She Kilda in 2011. I admitted to not having heard of her nor read her books and was surprised when she told me about the Ned Kelly Award. In my defence I gave birth to my daughter the year Out of the Silence was published, entering a black hole with respect to reading that took the better part of two years to emerge from. But I also wondered whether Wendy’s debut novel had been given the attention it deserved.
When the chance came up to review a couple of crime novels for Radio National last month, I put a call out to see whether any Sisters in Crime had new releases due out around then. Wendy alerted me to The Mistake, which I read and subsequently raved about on the radio and internet. I was inspired to bump Out of the Silence up to the top of my reading pile, though baffled when I could only buy it second-hand, on-line from overseas. How is an award winning novel barely seven years old allowed to go out of print — or at the very least not available as an ebook? For that matter, as a history of the suffragette movement cleverly packaged as a crime novel, why isn’t Out of the Silence on the school curriculum?
Apparently if The Mistake does well, Out of the Silence may be re-released. Given the great reviews for The Mistake, here’s hoping that’s the case.
Meanwhile, Wendy kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog, indulging my interest in and admiration for her and her books.
Out of the Silence mixes characters from real life — like feminist suffragette Vida Goldstein and working-class country girl Maggie Heffernan — with fiction, producing a novel that is compelling and informative. How did you come across these characters?
I’d read about Maggie Heffernan in books and articles about 19th century Australian women’s history. Her story has been written about fairly frequently; it’s almost a case study. I’d read about Goldstein in other contexts as well, because of her work for the suffrage and also as a pacifist, but the unexpected connection between these two veery different women was immediately exciting. So many things that interest me about the nineteenth century (and ours, too) — in particular issues surrounding class and gender — could be explored using a compelling real life story.
You refer to the Lindy Chamberlain case in The Mistake in exposing the media’s role in shaping public opinion. Were there any other real life cases or characters that inspired the novel?
The novel’s initial inspiration came from the story of Keli Lane, the water-polo champion who was recently convicted of murdering her infant daughter, Tegan. Tegan hasn’t been seen since she was discharged from hospital with her mother in 1996, and despite extensive police searches, authorities have been unable to locate her. Lane herself maintained throughout the period of investigation (though her story changed) that the child had been adopted out unofficially. The case is certainly sensational, but it was the attitude of some media — including various internet sites — that really struck me. The focus was all on Lane’s perceived “character” — promiscuous, secretive, ambitious, a liar — rather than the available, and completely circumstantial, evidence. Like Chamberlain before her, Keli Lane was found guilty in the court of public opinion even before she went to trial.
I was also very interested in the way the media and the internet treated the parents of Madeleine McCann, the child who was abducted from a Portuguese hotel room a few years back now. The McCanns came under a certain amount of suspicion, as well as a great deal of criticism, not only for leaving their children unattended, but for their subsequent behaviour. Kate McCann, her mother, in particular, was treated very badly for not behaving as a griving mother is supposed to behave — she was too cool, too composed for people’s liking. The Booker Prize winning author Anne Enright even wrote a piece for the London Review of Books called ‘Disliking the McCanns’ which was pretty shocking. It’s hard to summarise, but it was clear that her dislike for them, for pretty spurious reasons — looks, speech, religious beliefs, perceived attitudes — drove her suspicions. It was very cold-blooded, and very unsympathetic. It left a rather nasty taste in my mouth. Lindy Chamberlain was appalled by this very obvious media bloodlust — seeing parallels with her own situation — and came out publicly in Kate McCann’s defence.
Both Out of the Silence and The Mistake have plots involving missing, possibly dead babies. Disturbing themes, especially for anyone who’s a parent. As a mother of four, are these themes about giving voice to your deepest fears or exorcising murderous fantasies?
Maybe both? No, I expect it was partly giving voice to very deep fears, but really my own experience of motherhood has been one of relative ease (and pleasure, too, I have to add!). I had a roof over my head, a partner, enough money to survive, I could still work and study, I wasn’t some sort of social pariah. I was interested in was looking at how much harder it would be to love and nurture and protect a child if all that physical, emotional and social scaffolding wasn’t in place… What happens to the maternal instinct if there’s nobody looking after the mother?
While Out of the Silence is set at the turn of the twentieth century and The Mistake over one hundred years later, both books have central female characters — Maggie Heffernan and Jodie Garrow respectively — with simple aspirations to be a wives and mothers. Both are sympathetic characters, though you inflict terrible anguish on them. Are you subconsciously punishing them for their pedestrian aspirations?
Not at all! I hope by the end of The Mistake, Jodie’s aspirations are explicable — that her background explains her desires. I’d like to think I’ve challenged these sorts of assumptions — what’s wrong with a family and community oriented life, anyway? Maggie’s different, of course, she didn’t ever have the sort of opportunities that someone like Jodie had — her choices were limited because of her class and sex : marriage and family, with a fair bit of domestic drudgery thrown in; or low paid domestic drudgery for someone else.
The Mistake has lawyers, criminals, a trial by media, an inquest and assorted criminal activity, but it’s not a police procedural or a detective story. Do you think of it as a crime novel?
I’ve been wondering about this a bit myself… I think that The Mistake, like both Out of the Silence and Where Have you Been, is essentially a crime novel, if you regard a crime novel as being simply a novel where the narrative focus is on a crime. Perhaps the narrative emphasis is slightly different to what’s expected in the genre – in that it’s not so much the revelation or solution to the crime that’s the central thing (though this is still crucial), but the consequences of the crime itself on the family and the suspected perpetrator.
***Updated 28 March 2013: Very happy to learn Out of the Silence is now available as an ebook. I trust this brings Wendy James a new generation of fans.***
See also Wendy’s terrific article for The Hoopla, Of Murder and Mercy.