WINTER READS The best books to cosy up with.
The journalist turns to her grandmother’s adventurous life abroad to inspire her first novel, The Shanghai Wife
Although the Bondi-based writer, 50, has worked steadily as a journalist for 25 years, she has long dreamt of writing fiction. Yet as a single working mum, she never found the time. “Life takes over,” she says, “especially when you’ve got kids, and you put your own desires on the backburner.” A novel-writing course gave her the push that she needed, and now she’s celebrating the release of her debut novel, The Shanghai Wife. Harcourt tells WHO’S Ruth Mccarthy how her tale unfolded.
What is The Shanghai Wife about? It’s the story of an Australian woman called Annie living in Shanghai with her husband who navigates up and down the Yangtze for a job. She’s an adventurous woman, which is unusual for that time in the 1920s, but she’s also running away from her past and escaping her life in rural NSW. She thinks she’s finding a home away from her past and a new place to belong but in fact she discovers she faces the same problems that all women of that time faced in terms of freedom and self-worth. She falls in love with one of the local Chinese guys, which was unacceptable at the time, then she gets involved with some gangs. She’s a rebel with a good heart and makes some naïve choices and errors of judgement that have an impact on all who she loves. What was your inspiration for the novel? My grandmother. She was a strong woman and didn’t want to live on a farm in NSW, so she took a motorbike—like my character Annie in the novel —and rode to Sydney and boarded a ship to Hong Kong. She was hassled by guys and my grandfather, who was one of the naval crew, protected her. They fell in love, married in Hong Kong and then went on to Shanghai. Did your grandmother talk much about her past? I grew up hearing all these amazing stories about 1920s Shanghai, and we have a lot of Chinese artefacts, but Grandmother died when I was 13 and Grandfather died when I was 2, so I know very little about what they actually did in Shanghai. Annie was certainly created with my grandmother in mind, but I had to let her go in order to let my character come to life. Like her, you left Sydney to explore the world. How much would you say you resemble her? The first time I travelled on my own, I was 16 and I went to China and Hong Kong with a girlfriend from high school. It was 1983 and we convinced our parents to let us go and I worked cleaning houses to finance it. Then when I finished high school, I travelled to Italy and studied Italian in Florence. Then I came back to Sydney but didn’t settle. London was calling, plus I had family there, so off I went. I worked there as a journalist and that’s when I met my first husband. We had our son, Oliver [now 23], but things didn’t work out so I came back to Australia with my son and we’ve been here ever since. I still travel though—i’ve always been curious like my grandmother. What is your most treasured memory of her? There’s so many! When we were young, we’d stay at my grandmother’s apartment in Double Bay for the night and she’d put a mattress on the floor beside her bed for us to sleep on. And, come bedtime, I remember looking up and seeing her dentures in a glass of water with her teeth in and thinking, “Oh my gosh!”—i was fascinated! She also had this Buddha statue and rubbing his tummy meant good luck. Every time we visited, she’d make us rub the Buddha’s tummy. So when did you decide to turn your grandmother’s adventures into a book? In 2011, I did a six-month novel-writing course
with the Faber Academy. That kick-started it. My story based on my grandparents and Shanghai has been lingering in me for so long. I knew that was what I was going to write about although I had no idea what was going to happen to the main character and didn’t map it out from beginning to end. It was really organic and I winged it, which is probably why it took me so many years.
You have two daughters as well.
Yes, when we moved back to Australia in the 1990s, I got back into journalism. Then I met my second husband, who was a farmer. We had two gorgeous daughters together, who are 10 and 11, but we’re divorced now and I’m a happy, single, working mum living in Bondi.
Who’s your literary hero?
Tom Keneally is, for sure. He was one of my mentors at the Faber Academy. I remember when I was at high school, I studied a play of his and I wrote to him asking if he would come and speak to us about it. He couldn’t because he was writing a book at the time, but he sent a taperecorded cassette talking about the play. Since I was a teen, he’s been someone I admire.
What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Persevere and don’t give in to your own doubts and fears. Days when you wake up and think, “This is shite, I should start over,” don’t! Write another sentence and power through it and the next day you’ll feel differently again. Also, listen to your own voice. You don’t need to pretty it up or make it sound more artistic—your genuine, true and honest voice will be the one that cuts through to your readers and breathes life into the words. That takes courage but you have to believe in yourself.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. It wasn’t published this year but it was recommended to me. I loved it for his ability to make me feel like I was living in 1600s Holland. I was engrossed and I loved the suspense woven in, too.
You’re already working on your second novel. Can you give us a preview?
It’s another historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy and again about a young woman who is pushing against the boundaries of her life and the expectations on her. I wanted to write a book about female characters that my daughters would admire and aspire to, so I’m writing fiction in a time in history when women didn’t have a voice and struggled with selfidentity and worth. My latest character is empowered and pushes back I’ve given her a voice for the time and what I want for my kids.
“From a young age, I was independent like my grandmother,” says Emma Harcourt. A street scene from Shanghai in 1927, part of the period covered in Harcourt’s novel.
“Look at the camera she’s holding and the detail on her skirt,” Harcourt posted of her grandmother Ilma (in Suzhou in 1926).
The Shanghai Wife by Emma Harcourt, published by HQ Fiction, RRP $29.95.