Between the Sleepers

Between the Sleepers is a wrong side of the tracks love story with a twist.  Beginning in the time immediately preceding the Second World War, it follows the story of a working class artist named Winston Keller who falls in love with Sarah Willis, who is the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Winston not only has to battle the differences between their social classes, but also the feud that has raged between the two families for a generation. When World War II breaks out, Winston enlists, and finds himself working on the Thai-Burma Railway after Singapore falls. Meanwhile, back home, Sarah struggles to break free of the pressures her father has put on her to be the perfect daughter.

Between the Sleepers is a 100 000 word historical fiction novel set in Fremantle between 1937 and 1945. It would suit readers who enjoy the works of Deborah Burrows, or The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman.

Behind the book...

I have always written things. As a child, I had my own publishing house which was based out of my bedroom. It was called Emco Publishing, and it even had its own logo. I would write these long short stories and get my Mum to help me bind them with a machine that she’d actually bought to use for work, though I think I got the most use out of it. I started with a story that I had written at PEAC. It was dystopian science fiction with an environmental twist. Somehow I got it into my head that I needed to have a story from each genre in my little kit, so I wrote more; a detective story, a supernatural romance set at a boarding school—I forget most of them. They all had covers that I had drawn myself. I wish I knew what had happened to them... lost in a move perhaps.

As a teenager, I wrote a number of ‘novels’. One of them I even sent to Fremantle Press—I would have been 15—and it made it through the first round of readings but was ultimately rejected. I’m very glad they rejected it now as it was a silly romance novel which involved two sisters swapping bodies and learning to understand one another as they tried to live each others’ lives. There was magic involved, in that one of the sisters’ bosses actually turned out to be the Devil. I could not have sustained writing in that genre for long.

One day in Year 12, I was listening to an album that I had got on a trip to Japan. The album was called The Compound and the band was called Search/Rescue. I was listening to this, and doing my history homework—history had surpassed even English as my favourite subject by then, even though my teacher was absolutely terrifying—and inspiration struck. I heard a narrative in the progression of the musical tracks and I hurried to write out the rough points of the story that I heard. For the first few drafts, the novel was called The Compound. Perhaps because we were studying World War Two, I made this my setting, and I chose Fremantle because it was one of my favourite places to go. That structure that I plotted out from those musical tracks didn’t even make it through the first draft, but I was hooked. Since then, I’ve loved being able to write my way into the past, and see beyond the mythology that we sometimes attach to particular time periods—like World War Two. I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of what life would have been like back then. I wanted to time travel.

I remember reading Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog for the first time around about the same time as I started writing my book, and feeling like I'd just witnessed someone doing magic. There have been many books since that one that have captivated me, and made me wish with every part of me that I had written them, but The Shifting Fog was the first. I think I became a historical fiction writer the day I read that book.

I've been known to describe Between the Sleepers as what would happen if Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog had a book-baby. In writing Between the Sleepers, I've tried to be mindful of the deep reverence Flanagan showed for his subject matter and the scene setting and characterisation in Narrow Road, as well as integrating some of the romance and magic of The Shifting Fog.

The view of Katharine Susannah Prichard's writing room
from the cabin where I stayed in 2014.
Part of this book was written while I was Young Writer in Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in 2014, and the most recent reworking of the manuscript has been done as part of a mentorship with WA Writer, Annabel Smith. An earlier draft of my novel was appraised by Deb Fitzpatrick, who wrote that ‘the strengths of this manuscript are many; the clever use of dialogue to reveal characters and keep the pace ticking along is perhaps my favourite. The authentic detail you populate your scenes with is another. You are also adept at describing ghastly events…’

Between the Sleepers is not a family story—I don’t think any of my relatives were in the Second World War—but I did get an eerie sense of serendipity when I told my Grandma that I’d chosen to begin my book in 1937 and she said that was the year she was born. There are certainly elements of me at different stages of my life in the book; for example, Winston’s relationship with his parents is based on the good relationship I have with mine, and Sarah’s love of acting comes from my interest in drama in high school and Uni. But the rest is research, because I love finding the stories in history, and using a narrative to make sense of the past.

1 comment:

  1. Malina Douglas4/11/2018 1:30 pm

    Hi Emily,
    It's inspiring to hear what you're working on these days. I love historical fiction too, and would especially like to read some historical fiction set in Fremantle because there's not much around. I'd be interested to read how you've integrated some of the romance and magic of Shifting Fog. Looking forward to hearing reading your work!


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