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The jour­nal­ist turns to her grand­mother’s ad­ven­tur­ous life abroad to in­spire her first novel, The Shang­hai Wife

WHO - - Contents -

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.

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