Roslyn’s top tip for aspiring authors: Be critical of your writing and be prepared to knock out sections that are not working – be ruthless, and not self-indulgent. Your writing will benefit from this enormously.
Roslyn Russell is a historian and curator who operates a consultancy which undertakes historical and museum projects. Roslyn has written books on Australian history and literature, including Literary Links between Australia and Britain (Allen & Unwin, 1997), Ever, Manning: Selected Letters of Manning Clark 1938-1991 (ed.) (Allen & Unwin, 2008), and The Business of Nature: John Gould and Australia (National Library of Australia, 2011).
Museum exhibition development has taken Roslyn to Barbados, where she has worked on two major exhibitions – the Museum of Parliament and National Heroes Gallery in Bridgetown; and Exchange: A Place of Mystery and Discovery for the Central Bank of Barbados. She collaborated with Alissandra Cummins and Kevin Farmer in compiling Plantation to Nation: Caribbean Museums and National Identity (Common Ground Press, Champaign, Illinois, 2013). Barbados also inspired her novel, Maria Returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Bobby Graham Publishers, 2014); and Barbados: More Than A Beach (2011) (free on iTunes).
Why do you write? For two reasons: one prosaic, one not so. I often write books that have been commissioned, for example, High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia was commissioned by the National Library of Australia, which also published another book of mine, The Business of Nature: John Gould and Australia (2012).
On the other hand, I also write books on subjects for which I have a passion. My first novel, Maria Returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Bobby Graham Publishers, 2014) was inspired by my love of the novels of Jane Austen and my experience of working in the Caribbean nation of Barbados, where I gained a much greater understanding of the nature of slavery and its immense contribution to underpinning the wealth of many British families, including the fictional Bertrams of Mansfield Park. I am currently working on a novel about another of my interests – small museums and their collections, and the people who work in them.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Actually, I can’t imagine not writing – everything I do, in my personal and professional life, involves writing, including books, museum exhibition text and reports on museum collections. I would be an entirely different person if I were not a writer.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? I have to say that I haven’t had many problems, mainly because I usually write commissioned history books, and have been fortunate enough to have had them published by mainstream publishers such as Allen & Unwin, HarperCollins and the National Library of Australia. My first novel was produced by a small publisher, but I have never tried to break into the mainstream of published fiction. That would be another challenge again.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Being caught up in a subject and enjoying planning and visualising how it should be written. I have spent many productive hours plotting the next chapters of my novels or historical works while on long plane flights or during long-distance car travel. It is the best use of this otherwise ‘dead time’ that I know of.
—the worst? I’m sure everyone says this – writing to meet a deadline.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? Probably not take on as many writing projects at the one time, and learn to say ‘no’ a bit more. But I am not good at taking my own advice – every project sounds interesting and too good to let go.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? No matter how hard you try to encompass all evidence and viewpoints, and how many disclaimers you make, people will always misinterpret you if they want to, and tell you that you should have written your book differently. Don’t be surprised and upset if and when this happens.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Just start writing – you can always go back and refine it later, but it is important to get those first thoughts down and then it will begin to flow.
National Library of Australia
‘The rats I frighten away by throwing books or anything hard at the spot at which they commence their gnawing,’ wrote emigrant Janet Ronald in her journal kept aboard the Invincible in 1857.
Packed in cheek by jowl with fellow passengers and crew, life on board the ships transporting convicts and free settlers from Britain and Ireland to Australia in the nineteenth century was rigidly defined by social class: lower-class passengers dined on homemade concoctions of mutton fat pudding and preserved potatoes, while those traveling first-class enjoyed elaborate multi-course dinners, including fresh meat, slaughtered on board.
Navigating the social mores on these giant floating microcosms was only half the story. Amid the chronicles of flirtations and hijinks, odours and rats, nineteenth-century diaries capture tales of despotic captains, disease and domestic discord. From those sailing under servitude to emigrants seeking a new life, the people who braved the journey changed Australia.
The book is available here.