Welcome to The Never Ending Bookshelf Jane. Before we start, I just want to say how breathtaking and stunning Elegy was. It’s been a while since a book has taken me on such a rollarcoaster as this one did; I was hooked from the very first page!
Thank you so much for your time, Jess, and for reading Elegy. I’m delighted you enjoyed it.
For those who haven’t had the chance to read it yet, could you give us a quick pitch on what readers can expect from Elegy?
In essence, Elegy is a story about love, not just romantic but in a larger sense. There is a word, fraternitas – brotherly love – which I believe is as much key to the book as any of the romance. The novel is magical realism because, while it draws on well-known myths and legends, and contains an element of fantasy, it remains a very contemporary novel, centering on five young characters whose lives become fatefully entwined when new-girl, Jenny, moves to town. There are some surprises, not all of them happy ones, but I believe that it’s a story of hope rather than tragedy, of surrendering to destiny while rising to challenge it, and of celebrating what it is that makes some of us more than human. At least, that was my intention!
Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for and creative process behind Elegy? Was it the characters that first spoke to you or did the narrative come to you fully formed?
The inspiration, like most ideas, sprang from a totally unrelated source. I was watching a teen drama with my (then) fifteen-year-old son, and I remarked how similar all love stories seem to be. That germinated into the possibility of a single enduring love story, fated to be replayed over and over. After that, it was a case of working out who these characters were, not just in their present-day incarnations, but their origins too. It’s strange how characters come to be. In Elegy’s case, Gabe and Caitlin were incarnated immediately, down to the smallest details. Even their names never changed. The mysterious Michael took a little longer to figure out. And I never understood why I’d called Jenny by that name until I wrote the scene where Michael has his first vision of his past life as Lancelot. Then it suddenly became clear. Sounds silly, I know, but it’s true. I think the characters very much shaped the story, rather than the other way around.
The book is set in the fictional small rural town of Kincasey, Australia. Was it a deliberate choice to set this book in Australia despite the exotic appeal of mythology? Did you find it challenging to set the narrative here?
It was very much a deliberate choice, for two reasons: first, why not set a novel that is steeped in ancient classical mythology in Australia? It seems to work for the Americans. And second, I have a small property in country Victoria, so a lot of my inspiration for the setting came from there.
Creating such a uniquely Australian town like Kincasey with all its larger than life country personalities must have been a lot of fun. Did anywhere you have visited or people you know find their way into its creation?
It was huge fun. Much of the description of the landscape and the farm came from personal observations, but the town and its characters are entirely fictional. Which made it easier, in many ways, because I could really let myself go, and make these people bigger than the setting itself, so they became caricatures of themselves. I do think country towns worldwide are all much the same, so it was just a matter of magnifying the best as well as the worst to create Kincasey and all its inhabitants.
In recent years there has been a surge of mythology based books published. What do you think it is that draws reader and authors alike to these stories time and time again? What is it that draws you in and fascinates you so much?
Such a great question! I love mythology, and I grew up on a diet of Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Norse and Egyptian legends. I also studied Ancient History and Latin at school. I love the complexities of ancient religions, the attempts by people trying to make sense of their world. And I’ve always been fascinated by the borrowings of gods by successive civilizations; as though the cosmos is some kind of huge religious bank from which we can withdraw the next set of idols. So all those years of fascination went into the writing of Elegy, although I do admit to the deliberate twisting of some stories! And perhaps, knowingly or not, others feel the same passion, which is why we keep returning – in literature and in films – to these tales. They’re not just representative of our past; they are our present, and will figure in our future too.
You cover a lot of mythology and it’s representation in Elegy, and thus its clear that you’ve done a lot of research into various mythology stories. Were there any stories that you came across that you would have loved to work into the book, but they just didn’t fit?
So, so many! In earlier drafts, the references to Michael’s and Cait’s origins were much more obscure. Later I was persuaded to expand on them a little, which I’m glad of now, but I had to be careful not to confuse, so it became a matter of less is more. I would have loved to include some Nordic references, but there simply wasn’t room. So I stuck mainly to Greek and Persian (though I did sneak in an Egyptian one) and, of course, paid homage to Lancelot and Guinevere, which isn’t mythology per se, but probably should be!
As a massive mythology lover, I have to ask, do you have a favourite mythological figure/God? And if you could be any one of them, even for just a day, whom would you choose and why?
Definitely, and huge spoiler alert here! Prometheus is my all time favourite, because he sacrificed so much for humankind, and was made to endure such a terrible punishment. It was his nobility, in the face of the rather petulant Olympians, which always struck a chord with me. And, of course, poor Pandora, the much-maligned mother of men, who was blamed for the world’s woes, and who was reincarnated later as biblical Eve. I think in some ways, I was subconsciously trying to right (or write) the wrongs done to these two. But if I had to choose a single mythical character to be for just a day, it would be Heracles, who is embodied by Gabe in the book, because he was the ultimate hero – though also not without his flaws.
Elegy is a high stake book for a number of reasons. Not only are most of the characters in their teens dealing with everything that comes along with high school angst; but there are also a lot of serious issues and matters spotlighted: true love, family dynamics and matters, adultery, alcoholism, individuality vs. community mentality, bullying, mortality, self worth, and issues plaguing the agricultural sector, and simple life and death. Were you conscious of all of these themes when writing, or did they slip into the story unnoticed?
A bit of both, I think. Some of it was very much a conscious effort, especially the family dynamics of the Websters and the Lawsons, and also the relationships within the school, and the bullying. But some if it arose from a simple need to offer explanations: why Jenny’s family had moved to the town, why Cait made the decision not to leave earlier, why Gabe was so supportive of his sister and step-brother. These were either unconscious workings, or they came later, as a way to provide snippets of back story without clubbing the reader over the head with it.
Elegy is a really remarkable book that unfolds before the reader’s very own eyes, in the sense that a lot of the back story and knowledge is withheld from the reader by the characters themselves and the narrator. Was this a deliberate choice? And how did you jungle the timing of each crumb and every reveal? Was it a natural progression or something that snuck in with each draft revision?
I wrote the first draft of Elegy in eight weeks (a lot of early mornings!) and the majority of it remains as it was written then, although it’s been edited many times since. In the original draft, the whole thing was in first person, five different voices, and it was a total nightmare. So that had to be changed. And, as it did, other things began to creep in – Casey’s story revealed itself, so he became a more compelling figure; the relationship between Jenny and Sophie was expanded; Jenny’s parents’ past came to light; and the quiet, but lovely, relationship between Barb and Jim was also given more emphasis. Definitely an evolution of ideas and scenes, some of which remained in the final draft while others were unceremoniously cut.
And Lastly, what are you working on now?
It’s been busy couple of years, so I’m actually taking a little break at the moment, before I get back to writing my third book: the sequel to Watershed, which was published in July this year. I would very much like to write another YA book at some stage – perhaps between sequels I’ll find the time!
Thanks for chatting with us here at The Never Ending Bookshelf.
You’re welcome. And thanks so much for asking such wonderful questions!
In a small Australian town, the most epic love story in history is unfolding . . . again.
Everybody knows everyone in Kincasey, and nothing ever happens. That’s what Jenny thinks when she moves there – until she meets the mysterious Michael Webster.
But when Michael gets into a fight with the town bully, long-held resentments simmer to the surface, loyalties are tested, and Jenny finds herself the centre of attention. Her situation isn’t helped by a deepening friendship with Michael’s stepbrother, Gabe, or her jealousy of Gabe’s beautiful but aloof sister, Caitlin.
Caitlin is the only one who knows the terrible truth: this isn’t the first life she and Michael have lived. They have a destiny to fulfil – and it’s time for Michael’s powers to awaken. But what use is power if it can’t give you what you most desire?