Last week Inga Simpson tagged me in the Next Big Thing, which asks authors to answer ten questions about their work. I’m looking forward to Inga’s debut novel, Mr Wigg, which will be published by Hachette in July, 2013. ‘Mr Wigg’ is set in 1970s rural NSW and features the delightful diversities of ‘cooking, cricket, blacksmithing, winegrowing, a magical orchard, and … the colour aqua’.
Frontispiece for ‘ The Birds of Australia’ based on a lithograph by Elizabeth Gould
1. What is the working title of your current/next book?
Elizabeth Gould: A Natural History
2. Where did the idea come from?
My partner rescued a ring-neck parrot from a tennis court and a couple of bird-loving friends lent us a book about how to look after your pet parrot. They also gave me a biography of John Gould, the nineteenth century ornithologist and book publisher who classified Charles Darwin’s famous finches. In 1830 John Gould began publishing luxury folios of bird lithographs, employing his wife, Elizabeth, as principal artist. Splashing his name all over the spine and cover, he gained most of the credit for his wife’s hard work, acknowledged in the fine print inside. In the late 1830s the Goulds, based in London, travelled to Australia to collect, describe and draw our bird species for the seven volume, Birds of Australia (1840-1848). Tragically, less than a year after Elizabeth’s return to England, she died in childbirth from puerperal fever. I closed Tree’s biography desperate to know more about Elizabeth’s incredible illustrations and tragically short life.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction. It’s a fictional memoir, narrated by Elizabeth Gould, detailing the highlights and struggles of her career as a nineteenth century natural history artist.
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Emily Blunt as Elizabeth Gould, Jude Law as John Gould–he was a charming rascal.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A Victorian woman’s adventures illustrating the New World’s charismatic birds. [Still fine-tuning this one!]
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
7. How long did it take to write your first draft?
About nine months. I’m now redrafting and revising.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I felt strongly that Elizabeth’s story needed telling. The more l delved into her life, the more her husband’s reputation appeared to eclipse her extraordinary achievements. It seemed important to move Elizabeth out of John Gould’s reflective glare. Elizabeth devoted five years of her career to illustrating Australia’s unique birdlife. ‘The Birds of Australia’ was a massive project, eleven years in the making, with 681 beautifully illustrated plates. More than 200 new species were described. Elizabeth is acknowledged for designing and lithographing 84 plates, but I’ve found evidence that she composed designs for many more. What would Elizabeth’s artistic reputation be, I wonder, had she lived longer?
10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
To write Elizabeth Gould’s fictional memoir I’ve carried out heaps of research–travelling to Kansas to view original drawings and designs; learning taxidermy–birds only–at the Queensland Museum. My next adventure will be to take a boat trip from Southport out to the continental shelf to photograph albatross and storm petrels up close. All of this, I hope, will give authenticity and texture to ‘Elizabeth Gould: A Natural History.’
I’ll now introduce the forthcoming round of Next Big Thing writers:
Carmen Leigh Keates is an award-winning writer working on a collection of poetry about watching Tarkovsky films. It just happens to be her PhD dissertation.
Zenobia Frost is a Brisbane-based poet, blogger and arts editor. Her books include Petrichlor and The Voyage.
Carmen, Michelle and Zenobia will be posting their next big musings next week.