September 19th 2006
Island writer's first novel set for launch
It has taken ten years to complete but, this weekend, Magnetic Island resident, award winning journalist and Head of James Cook University's Journalism program, Lindsay Simpson, will see her first work of fiction, "The Curer of Souls" launched during the Write up North writers' festival.
The title refers to the name given to chaplains in the 19th century. Simpson draws from Shakespeare who differentiates between the curer of bodily ailments and the curer of souls (the chaplain). The heroine in the novel also cures souls in that she lays ghosts to rest."
Simpson's story was triggered following a visit to the old convict church at infamous Port Arthur. As a successful crime writer and Chief Police reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald she learned at Port Arthur that there had been a suicide pact between two convicts while one was digging the trenches for the foundation of the church.
"I became immediately interested," she says.
This led to the discovery of the inquest papers in the Hobart archives. There she found three nineteenth century diaries: a Governor's wife, (Lady Jane Franklin wife of the Arctic explorer Sir John) a Commandant (the longest serving Commandant at PA, Charles O'Hara Booth and a storekeeper (Thomas Lempriere who spoke five languages and in the novel becomes the convict chaplain and whose job it was to cure the men's souls).
"They all lived and wrote at around the same time the murder happened in the church. The diaries contained fascinating detail but ten years later, I was still trying to tell the story using fact.
"I've written six nonfiction books and my 15-year career as a journalist meant facts were my tools of trade. In the end, I turned to fiction.
"I discovered my heroine while standing holding one of Lady Franklin's original diaries at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge where her 2000 or so diaries are housed."
That is not to say the heroine was Lady Jane Franklin. In fact, Simpson claims, "She's not the heroine as I got to dislike her so much after reading six years' worth of her diaries. However, the heroine is the stepdaughter of Lady Jane and daughter of Sir John. He did have a daughter who was stepdaughter to Lady Jane.
"Lady Jane also had an 'erstwhile companion' who was niece of Lady Jane so my heroine, Lydia, is a composite of both of these. Lady Jane's escapades, based on much of her diaries, come across when Lydia discovers her diaries after Lady J's death so it's a literary mystery."
To date Lindsay Simpson's best known book, Brothers In Arms - about the Milperra bikie massacre, is due to be made into a movie next year by Martin Brown, co-producer on Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet.
Crime is, it seems, what continues to draw Simpson to the keyboard. "There is crime in the (Curer of Souls) book - a kind of whodunit - with many convicts being murdered under the nose of the authorities and no-one knowing about it," she says adding,. "But in the end the murders became one strand in the plot rather than the central part.
"I used the diaries to interrogate what was happening in the same way you might use an interview as a journalist. Only problem was they had all been dead for more than 150 years so I couldn't go back to ask more questions or verify facts. Diaries, as we all know, are not always truthful, so I used fiction to map the silences."
So what is it about crime that attracts this author? "I'm actually teaching writing crime at JCU," she says. "The details of a particular crime always create interest for me. I am fascinated, like the Agatha Christie approach, on why people do what they did, ie. what motivates them to commit murder, but also the circumstances that led up to that murder. Unlike Christie I am more interested in the realistic portrayal of crime rather than the cosy detective story - but a combination of both is good."
Simpson is keen to shed light upon previously little-known and clearly disturbing Tasmanian history. She is adamant about her novel providing a strong historical insight. "Kate Grenville once said of The Secret River that she's just a writer. That's tantamount, in my view, to saying you're just a housewife. I spent, in all, about 10 years researching the period. The book uncovers paedophilia in Point Puer, the boy's prison (Puer is latin for boy) and the prison was the first boys' prison in the western world predating the Isle of Wight by four years. Convicts were employed as overseers. There is proof, but not in the traditional texts, that the boys were victims of the transportation system and often abused by their captors. There were, at one stage, up to 700 kept in a promontory. Most were petty thieves."
Historically she has other, bigger fish to fry. "I challenge the notion that Sir John Franklin was the 'gallant Sir John' of the history books. In one of his expeditions to find the north-west passage, he set off at the wrong time of the year against all advice and most of the men perished. It was the same on the Franklins' journey to the west coast (known as Transylvania) where they left too late in the year; he abandoned the government of the colony and they all almost died."
As for the challenge of switching between journalism and fiction, Lindsay Simpson says, "I'm really enjoying fiction. It took me a decade to feel comfortable making things up, but interestingly my little writing group in Tasmania often preferred the bits I'd concocted rather than the factual bits. If you read the book, the parts that appear to be manufactured are probably true and the parts that seem to be factual are fictionalised. They say truth is stranger than fiction."
The author expects the book will appeal to a variety of readers including, "the 40 something woman," - the one in this book gets her man. Gays may also find the book of interest. Two of the main characters are Point Puer boys and the Commandant is latently gay and homophobic.
Evolution is also a major theme. "Lady J and Lempriere, who have an unrequited love affair, are both natural history collectors and, in the novel, end up collecting for Darwin as the book is set prior to publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin also visits Van Diemen's Land in 1836 in real life," says Simpson.
As for her next work it seems that crime is again the key, "I'd like to write a memoir/biography of Robert Grant, my great-great grandfather who was in the Scottish highlanders (Simpson was born and lived for the first ten years of my life in Scotland). He was apparently murdered while burying the dead after WW1 leaving behind his wife and five children (my grandmother, Lydia who I named my heroine after in The Curer, was one of them). I'd like to write a factual whodunit - he died of head injuries in an alleyway and one of my aunts who lives in the Shetland Islands has researched a lot of the history."
The Curer of Souls will be on sale from this weekend at good bookshops as a paperback with a recommended retail price of $32.95
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