All of your novels are based on historical events and explore big themes. In Caleb’s Crossing, it’s the clash of cultures and beliefs. Do you have an idea of issues you want to explore and then find the event to suit, or does the event inform the exploration?
It’s always all about the story for me. The themes just seep into the tale telling without any conscious thought. But I do think the stories from the past that attract me tend to be about people under stress, during moments of crisis or decision.
In an interview you said that your journalistic training meant that you threw words down on the page and then fixed them up later. The voice in this book, the young woman Bethia who befriends the young Indian, is perfect in expression and tone and is as one would imagine a young woman in the seventeenth century would write. This seems to belie the ‘throwing down of words’. Can you tell us – how you do find the voice?
Some days the writing is fluid, some days not. Those days, you go back to the ma- terial the next day, and revise and revise until it feels right. The voice for Bethia was more difficult than many because there is little written by colonial women or girls before 1750 that has survived, and my tale takes place 100 years earlier. I had a few shards of verbatim court re- cords, a few letters and so forth from the period, but not a lot. I had to create her voice from these scant raw materials.
The impact of Europeans on the indigenous society and culture seems peripheral to the American story. Do you agree, and is this something Caleb’s Crossing is trying to redress?
I would disagree with that. I think it is integral to the story, which doesn’t mean there aren’t the same controversies, the same labelling as ‘black armband history’ that we encounter in Australia when someone tries to probe first contact and the history of indigenous relations with European colonists.
The book’s main setting is the island of Noepe, now known as Martha’s Vineyard. Your descriptions of the natural surroundings are very vivid, but I imagine the area as much-changed. How did you do your research?
Not as changed as you might think. A third of the vineyard is undeveloped, which is one of the reasons I love it so. There’s a particular high point that I like to hike to, and from there you can see from one shore of the island to the other and not see a single man-made thing. It is true the woods are different now, as much of the land was cleared in the 1800s, so the forest is regrowth … but the beaches and the salt marshes, lagoons and ponds are little different to the way they would have been in the seventeenth century.
I saw your unashamed lobbying of US reviewer Ron Charles when you tried to get People of the Book considered for his ten best books of 2010. Are you going to try again?
Absolutely! But I think I’ll have to up the ante and threaten his kid next time.