interview with deborah o’brien

Deborah O’Brien, author of “Mr Chen’s Emporium”

As most of you would know, I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Mr Chen’s Emporium, the debut novel of Australian writer Deborah O’Brien by Random House Australia to review, which you can read here. What you may not know is that part of being sent the book and taking part in a ‘blog tour’, I had the opportunity to interview Deborah about the book. The interview didn’t happen in person, it happened through email, but I loved the answers to her questions and I’m extremely excited to read more of her work. Quite simply, Deborah is a delight. I find myself identifying with her quite a lot, not only in how she writes, but what she writes. I am strongly driven by grief and loss and through reading Mr Chen’s Emporium and interviewing Deborah, it is obvious that it is an influencing factor in her writing. I also identify strongly with character-writing over plot-writing. Keep reading to see the interview. 

1.      Why did you decide to set the story in two different eras?

By using a dual narrative set in the 1870s and the present day, I was able to explore the nuances of social change, particularly as they apply to women, in areas such as education, childbirth, courtship/dating and marriage. At the same time, I could highlight the universal constants which remain in place, no matter what the era – love and loss, grief and renewal, and that most pernicious of human failings, prejudice and intolerance.

2.      What was it about the Gold Rush that interested you?

The Gold Rush period resonates with me on a personal level because I live on the edge of a former gold town. I’m literally surrounded by history. I love the boom-time buildings with their parapets punctuated by Grecian urns and the verandahs festooned with iron lace. Echoes of the Gold Rush era can be found everywhere, particularly in the landscape. You can still see Chinese ‘water races’ (channels) not far from where we live. And even the little creek, which runs at the bottom of my garden, would once have been panned for alluvial gold.

For a novelist, the Gold Rush is the perfect historical backdrop, providing so many ingredients for a fascinating story. In MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM, I’ve focused on the relationship between Chinese settlers and the white colonials. Although we hear a lot about the goldfields, we only see the actual diggings on one occasion two thirds of the way through the book. That’s because the story is told from the point of view of the townsfolk and is centred on Millbrooke itself.

 3.      Is there a reason why you chose to set “Mr Chen’s Emporium” in a fictional town?

I wanted to create a typical Gold Rush town rather than a specific one – an ‘Everytown’, so to speak. That’s why I’m delighted whenever readers or reviewers tell me that Millbrooke reminds them of their own town – whether it’s Berrima or Beechworth, Gulgong or Young, Braidwood or Ballarat.

It certainly helped that the old gold towns of NSW and Victoria have so much in common – their architecture, the climate and the setting. That made it relatively easy to create a fictional town which still seemed authentic. As for the actual buildings, I had fun collecting and adapting them in my imagination from among my favourites scattered across the various towns I’ve visited. Before I started the book, I even drew a little map complete with tiny sketches of the buildings. One day I might post it on my website. Then again, that would give people a specific image of Millbrooke and they might not identify with it so much.

4.      Was there any significance behind the names of the characters?

I chose Amy for my 1870s heroine because it was a very popular girls’ name in the mid-nineteenth century. You need only look at the number of ‘Amys’ in the popular literature of the time – Amy Dorrit (to whom Amy Duncan refers in the book) and Amy March, for instance. Angie, on the other hand, has a contemporary sound to it. The two names were close enough to suggest a connection between the two female protagonists, yet different enough to avoid confusion.

I didn’t even think about the meaning of those two names until I’d finished the manuscript. And then they seemed loaded with significance. Amy, of course, means ‘beloved’ and has French origins, so it’s particularly fitting for that character. When I realised the meaning of Angie’s name, I went back and rewrote some sections of the book including the passage at the end, which involves a love letter. It was never something I planned from the outset – more like an afterthought. It turned out to be a nice little surprise for the reader too.

In choosing the other names in the book, I had some help from a girlfriend who loves researching names and helped me come up with a number of them for the 1870s’ storyline. I also spent hours trawling the old newspapers of the era, courtesy of the National Library of Australia’s invaluable Trove website. Actually, it’s a wonder I ever got the book finished, considering my addiction to those newspapers!

5.      The book speaks about and, I feel, is focused on dealing with significant loss. Is this something you have experienced in your life and have you drawn from personal experience?

Loss is indeed a recurrent theme in the book. I’ve experienced two tragic losses in my life where there was absolutely no warning. Those episodes left me racked by ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. And whenever I said goodbye to someone close to me, I secretly feared I mightn’t see them again. It was a time of insecurity and distress.

Grief is something that can disorient you to such an extent that you can lose your way, particularly if you find yourself caught up in avoidance and denial. That’s part of the problem for Angie. On the surface she seems okay, but then we see her making choices that we might consider to be dubious and out of character. Should we condemn her for those choices? Or do we understand that she’s still suffering from a traumatic loss she hasn’t come to terms with? That’s up to the individual reader to decide.

6.      I read in the Q&A at the back of the book that there will be a sequel, are you planning just the one or multiples? What will it explore?

That’s an interesting question, Monique, because I’ve just finished writing a modern-day sequel where we meet Angie in her second year in Millbrooke and it’s more tumultuous than the first. I’ve been pondering another book set in the mid 1880s when Amy is thirty. At the moment it’s only living in my head, and I have a couple of other manuscripts underway, so it mightn’t see the light of day. At least not for a very long time.

7.      How did the idea for this book come to you?

The genesis of the book lies in the stories my grandmother used to tell me about growing up in the old gold districts of central-western NSW. Those tales lived in my imagination for decades, so it was no surprise that I finally chose to write about a girl from the past. Then, in the early 2000s, my husband, son and I fell in love with a little cottage on the outskirts of an historic town. Within weeks we had bought it and I had become what is popularly known as a ‘blow-in’. That gave me the premise for the book: ‘two women, one Gold Rush town, then and now…’

8.      Would you describe yourself as a character-based or plot-based writer?

I’m definitely a character-based writer because I let my characters lead the way. By definition, a plot involves planning and I don’t do that. I begin with a concept and let the story evolve from there. I love the sense of discovery that comes from allowing the narrative to unfold, driven by the psychology and actions of the characters.

9.      Do you have a schedule that you stick to when it comes to writing or do you just write when you can?

I would love to be able to work unencumbered by interruptions and domestic chores, but it rarely happens. My favourite place to write is at our little country cottage. If I’m there on my own, I can get a lot of work done. There’s no landline and it’s located at the end of a lane that nobody seems to know about. On the downside, I often become so involved in the writing process that I miss meals. Whenever there are other people around, I don’t get as many words written, but I do eat regular meals, mainly because I have to cook them for everyone else!

Thank you Deborah for your wonderful answers. It was a pleasure dealing with you.

Picture supplied by Random House.

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