Orphan Rock Interview
Interview by Gwen van Montfort
1 March 2022
Question: What originally inspired the idea of Orphan Rock?
Dominique Wilson: My previous novel, That Devil’s Madness [about the Algerian War of Independence, set mostly in North Africa] had just been released, when Barry Scott, my publisher at Transit Lounge, commented that it would be good if my next novel was set mostly in Australia. I’d just read the biography of Louisa Lawson [Henry Lawson’s mother], and I really liked the way she had gone against the norms of the time, hiring only women for her press, and the clever way she had managed to overcome the Typographical Association of New South Wales’s attempt to impose a boycott on her journal, The Dawn, who used the excuse that such work was detrimental to women’s health. I thought a novel set around that time – Sydney in the late 1800s, early 1900s – might make an interesting story.
Question: What did you learn, about yourself, whilst writing Orphan Rock?
Dominique Wilson: Part of my research was focused on the social norms – the unwritten rules of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that were considered acceptable in Sydney at that particular time. Rules that told men and women how to behave, so as to provide order in society, and what happened when people dared to go against those social norms. And what struck me was how little anything has changed, and how my own reaction to certain rules and regulations echoed those of women who lived more than a hundred years ago.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Dominique Wilson: One of the interesting things about researching a particular time in history, is that there were people alive then who may now be recognised as historically important, but who at that time were just ordinary people going about their lives the best way they knew how. When I find such people, I like to include them in my novels, if suitable. So for Orphan Rock, there is Louisa Lawson who ran a printing press, Quong Tart, a Chinese man who spoke English with a Scottish accent, who opened Sydney’s first tea-rooms, and became one of Sydney’s most loved and respected characters amongst all classes, right in the middle of a time when workers were agitating against Chinese labour and the White Australia Policy was being drawn up. Some years later, you have Tilley Devine and Kate Lee and their razor-gangs, warring over their territories in the streets of Sydney. And in Paris, where some of Orphan Rock is set, you have Paul Poiret, at the time just a young man haunting avant-guard art exhibitions for inspiration, whilst dreaming of becoming a fashion designer. Read More [FEMALE.com.au]
Dominique Wilson on ‘Orphan Rock’
Deborah Crabtree for Books+Publishing
25 January 2022
Dominique Wilson’s third novel Orphan Rock (Transit Lounge, March 2022) spans generations and continents, following the life of a young woman living in Sydney in the late 19th century. Reviewer Deborah Crabtree said Wilson’s ‘meticulous research and attention to detail bring the past alive’; she spoke to the author about her approach to writing historical fiction.
Congratulations on the publication of Orphan Rock. It’s such an engrossing exploration of Australia’s past (both real and imagined). Can you tell us a little about how Orphan Rock came to be and what it is about historical fiction that attracts you as a creative form?
The idea to write an Australian story in a general sense came about from a comment my publisher at Transit Lounge [Barry Scott] made shortly after my previous novel, That Devil’s Madness (a novel about the Algerian War of Independence, set mostly in North Africa) had been published. Barry thought it would be good if my next novel was set mostly in Australia, so I took his advice. At the time, I was reading a biography of Louisa Lawson (Henry’s mother), and I liked the way she had gone against the norms of the time, hiring only women for her press, and the clever way she had managed to overcome the Typographical Association of New South Wales’s attempt to impose a boycott on her journal The Dawn by using the excuse that such work was detrimental to women’s health. So I started researching the history of Australia, and of Sydney in particular from around the late 1800s onwards, and slowly the idea for a story began to take shape.
I’m particularly interested in what I call ‘modern historical fiction’—i.e. from around the 1700s to World War 2 (as opposed to ancient history), and in particular from the time of the Industrial Revolution. It was a time that created many positive social effects, such as Edward Jenner inventing the vaccine for smallpox, an increase in the production of goods, which made them cheaper, and Louis Pasteur discovering bacteria, so that simple things like a midwife or a surgeon washing their hands before attending a patient meant people started to live longer. But the Industrial Revolution also had many negative social effects—work that had always being done at home in cottage industries was now being done in factories, with harsh and unsafe working conditions. Labourers and miners worked 14-hour days for very low pay (until unions were created), child labour increased, and women were paid half of what men earned for doing the same job. It meant an increase in wealth for the middle and upper classes, but not for the lower classes. These situations offer a lot of ideas for a writer.
For me, what’s particularly interesting about that time is that it was also a time when some people of influence were developing a social conscience, and writers in particular used their skill to make their readers (at the time, the middle and upper classes) aware of these conditions. So you have Victor Hugo in France writing Les Misérables, Harriet Beecher Stowe in America writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in England Charles Dickens writing books such as Oliver Twist. Interesting times! Read More
The Madness of War: Q&A with Dominique Wilson
February 2, 2016 by Good Reading Magazine
Dominique Wilson spent her childhood in Algeria before she and her family fled the country as it became embroiled in civil war. She is the author of The Yellow Papers, and her latest novel, That Devil’s Madness, switches between friends Louis and Imez in 1896 Algiers and Nicolette, an Australian photojournalist in 1974. We asked Dominique about her memories of growing up in a war zone and the discoveries she made while researching her novels.
You take your title from a poem by Robert W Service, and a stanza from the poem preludes the opening to your book:
When we the workers all demand
‘What are we fighting for?’
Then, then we’ll end that stupid crime
That Devil’s Madness – War
How does the poem and the title phrase in particular relate to the story and themes you explore in your new novel?
War is, to my mind, madness. No one wins – not the vanquished, and not the victors. Look at the Algerian War, which That Devil’s Madness is centred around – it lasted almost eight years, killed close to a million Muslim Algerians and some 80,000 French soldiers and civilians. When it ended, some 900,000 pieds noirs [French settlers] fled back to France as homeless refugees, and three times it took France to the brink of civil war. Even when it officially ended, still over 100,000 Harkis and their families [Muslim Algerians who had fought beside the French] were murdered by the FLN or by lynch-mobs who regarded them as traitors. And still peace didn’t come to Algeria. Now I’m not saying there is never a good reason to go to war – that, unfortunately, is a reality we can’t deny – but maybe demanding honest answers to ‘What are we fighting for?’ can stop some of this madness.
What memories do you have from your childhood in Algiers? At what age did you leave and under what circumstances?
I was ten when we left, after experiencing six years of that war. By that time, Algeria was like a pressure cooker about to explode, but you’d be considered a traitor by your own people for wanting to leave. So we pretended to be going on holidays – we left everything behind, taking only one suitcase. We went to Corsica, and from there applied to come to Australia.
‘The smell of warm honeyed syrup laced with orange-flower water in which street vendors dipped pastries, and the stench of exploding Molotov cocktails. Memories of a child, but still vivid all the same…’
I still have a lot of memories from that time – a strange conglomeration of contrasts. Watching the sky for the arrival of white storks in spring, watching a formation of Alouettes – those missile-armed, tadpole-like helicopters – flying overhead. I remember classes interrupted by a siren followed by a dash to the school cellar until the threat had passed, and the freedom of roaming the streets of Constantine after escaping the watchful eye of Fatma, the Muslim woman who was supposed to look after me until my sister or mother got home. Soldiers everywhere, the peace of public parks where I used to float origami paper boats in their lakes. People being frisked at random in the streets. The smell of warm honeyed syrup laced with orange-flower water in which street vendors dipped pastries, and the stench of exploding Molotov cocktails. Memories of a child, but still vivid all the same…Read More
Radio Adelaide Arts Breakfast 101.5fm
Saturday, 22 February 2014: 10.00 a.m.
The lovely Cath Kenneally, producer of the Arts Breakfast program on Radio Adelaide, invited me to talk about The Yellow Papers on her program. You can listen to this segment here:
‘Strangers in a strange land’ – An Algerian-born novelist muses on Chinese immigration and identity.
Linda Morris, Features writer: 30 March 201
Algeria was in the midst of civil war then. Wilson remembers the siren and the dash to the school basement, and the small-shell fire that lit the night sky in the mountains surrounding the beautiful ravine town.
A half-world away in Adelaide, Wilson would make up elaborate bedtime stories for her two daughters and hand-illustrate them. Looking back, her grandfather’s books were the beginning of her interest in illustration, probably in storytelling too. Read More
Issue 4, 2013
What sparked your interest in China?
I’ve always had an interest in other countries, in other ways of seeing and doing things, and China has such a rich history and culture, so it’s something that’s always been there. But what decided me to write a story set in China was two Chinese women I knew with totally opposing views of Australia. The possible reasons behind this interested me enough to decide to explore this idea via fiction.
The Yellow Papers is rich in historical detail. How long did it take you to gather material for this book, and what research methods did you use?
It took me about two-and-a-half years all up to research and write to a first draft standard. I started the research with a broad focus, narrowing it down to finer and finer details as the plot took shape—if you imagine a funnel, starting off broad and narrowing down, you’ll have an image of my research method. I used all sorts of things to build in my mind a picture of China at that time—books (both fiction and nonfiction, written both by Westerners and Chinese), documentaries, films, academic papers, diaries. I also spoke to a lot of people who had lived there during the latter time of my novel. Read More
That’s Shanghai! Magazine Interview
Andrew Chin [Arts Editor]
Your debut novel The Yellow Papers takes place in China and Australia and spans both countries’ histories over a few decades. Why did you decide to set the novel in China and as a writer?
The original idea came about because of two Chinese women I know who both came to Australia at about the same age. One loved Australia from the very beginning. She eventually married an Australian and established herself as a successful business woman. The other – a tertiary student of mine – hated it and could see nothing good in this country. All she wanted to do was go back home, and she spent many-an-hour in my office in tears. This contrast interested me greatly, because it’s something I’ve seen again and again – people leaving everything behind, sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstances, and having to cope with a totally new world, as it were. My own family was like that – we immigrated to Australia from Algeria when I was ten, to escape a country that had been in the midst of civil war for seven years. Some of us quickly settled into this new life, but others – my mother, for instance – never did. So what is it that makes some people embrace a new country, and others reject it? I decided to explore this via fiction. Read More
Dominique Wilson on making the leap from short stories to writing a novel
Australian Writers Centre Interview
February 28, 2014
Tell us about The Yellow Papers.
The Yellow Papers is a story of love, obsession and friendship set against a backdrop of war and racial prejudice, and it spans the histories of China and Australia from the time of just after the two Opium Wars until the Cultural Revolution. When researching possible material for this book, I wanted to focus on human issues – the human face, if you will – of how decisions made by States or Government affect the ordinary person, especially in time of war or civil unrest, and how people react to these circumstances, how they cope, sometimes against all odds.
What inspired you to write this novel?
Two Chinese women I knew, here in Australia. One loved this country, adapted easily and became a successful business woman. The other hated it – she could find nothing good about Australia, thought Australians two-faced and couldn’t wait to go back home. This contrast interested me, because I’ve seen both reactions in people new to Australia. So this was the initial germ of an idea – two characters with opposing views. Why did one adapt and another not? Why did they come here in the first place? And so on… Read More #writer #writerinterview #bookinterview