G.S. Johnston hails from Hobart, but now lives and writes in Canberra. His novels have been praised by readers for their complex characters, excellent historical research, and elegant prose. He’s an active member of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, and enjoys reading historical fiction as much as he enjoys writing it. He also loves animals, and in addition to his own, has been known to foster a pup or two. Sweet Bitter Cane is his fourth novel.
Here, he answers a few questions about writing, Sweet Bitter Crane and how he found that times may have changed, but some things never will.
You’ve said you work best in a vacuum. What about that appeals to your writing instincts?
Writing is a double-edged sword. It requires me to be relaxed but at the same time there needs to be a certain tension to get it done, some reason not to put another load of washing on when the going gets tough. I used to be able to work with music on, or even the radio, but now I need to concentrate on what I’m doing and that requires a tranquil environment. Without distraction, I can fall into the world I’m creating. I have a special place in the country I go and often if I’m on my own, the characters and I live together for a whole week. The secrets they tell me over a bottle of wine …
What – or who – inspired Sweet Bitter Cane?
Nothing I’ve ever written has come from one thing. Instead, it’s a long process of accumulating information about a subject or an event, and even this isn’t done purposely with the intention of specifically writing something but out of general interest. And this was definitely the case with Sweet Bitter Cane. In 1989 I bought a book of short pieces by Italian women who had come to Australia at various times in the twentieth century. One of these stories mentioned the Australian WWII internment of Italians as enemy aliens. I’d not really known of this, but over the years I heard and read more. So many, many years later when a neighbour told me the story of her parents’ internment, I knew something of the story. If I’d not had this prior knowledge and interest, maybe I wouldn’t have listened so well. But hearing the story of her parents was definitely the catalyst that started the actual writing.
The issue of migrants is as contentious now as it seems to have been in the aftermath of WWII. Writing of that era, what was most important to you to show in your writing?
The most frightening and important aspect I found in the research led me to the conclusion that nothing has changed. When I started the exploration, the same accusations against migrants – they’re taking all the jobs (but at the same time they’re lazy), buying the best land, they live isolated and refuse to learn English, they send money back to their countries – all these things were being said in Australian newspapers in the 1920s and 30s. And they are essentially being said now, unchanged. It’s frightening that we don’t/can’t/won’t see that the migrant is the best of an old country and a gift to a new nation. It’s impossible to be in Australia and not see the strength migrants have brought to the country. After all, unless you are a person of indigenous heritage, everyone in Australia is a migrant or descendant. How can you then draw limits?
Describe Amelia’s journey across the book in one sentence?
Amelia grows from a naïve girl to an idealistic young woman to a realistic woman.
What do you hope readers come away with after reading this book?
Amelia sets off on her adventure with a very firm belief in its trajectory. But this isn’t how her life unfolds. She then has to renegotiate with herself and those around her, reassess what she has, and remake herself with that. I guess the “moral” of the tale is to appreciate and find happiness with what you have rather than continually covert more and more.
Here’s where you can find GS Johnston elsewhere: