I’m so pleased to be interviewing Elizabeth Jane Corbett on publication day for The Tides Between because Elizabeth has always been such a generous supporter of Linda’s Book Bag and it’s lovely to be able to do something for her in return.
The Tides Between
She fancied herself part of a timeless chain, without beginning or end, linked only by the silver strong words of its tellers.
In the year 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bridie Stewart’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her childhood memories, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairy-tales to the far side of the world.
When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark, double meaning.
As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairy tales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.
An Interview with Elizabeth Jane Corbett
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Tides Between in particular.
Firstly, please could you tell me why you write?
I require a great deal of solitude to maintain my sense of equilibrium. Writing is a solitary activity in which I am able to become completely immersed. I journal as a form of meditation, I always write emails in preference to phone calls, I relate easily on written, social media platforms. Fictional words don’t always come easily. But if I persist I can sometimes write scenes that sing. That’s when I feel most alive.
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
I grew up with stories of a writer in the family – John James a Welsh historical novelist back in the 1960s – and ever since I got lost on a lonely moor with the famous five, I’ve wanted to write a novel one day. I did, in fact, try once as a child. I decided to write a horse book. Trouble was, I didn’t know much about horses, so I didn’t get far (an early lesson on the importance of research). I got serious again after my fortieth birthday – one of those what-have-I-done-with-my-life moments. I thought, If I’m going to write a novel, I’d better start, before it is too late. I’m still not sure if I’d call myself a ‘real’ writer – just a woman who had a mid-life crisis, wrote a few stories, and got lucky.
(Oh – you’re definitely a ‘real’ writer Elizabeth!)
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I started writing with a second-hand laptop and a desk we’d picked up off the side of the road and squeezed into the corner of our bedroom. Now, my husband and I live alone. I therefore have my own office. But when I am researching and plotting I like to sit at the dining room table. Generally, I start the day with social media in bed (around 8 am). I journal in my dressing gown and then read, plot, and write for the remainder of the day. My husband travels a great deal for work. When he is away, I work right through the day, eating on the job. When he is around, working from home, we always go out for coffee at lunch time. I stop to exercise around 5 pm. Then, I will often work on social media and administration in the early evening. I work casually as a librarian. So, I don’t follow this routine this every day. I could, though, given half a chance, quite easily.
The Tides Between is published today. How are you celebrating?
By blogging (as you do), having lunch with my husband and by repeating the words, my novel is published, over and over until they sink in.
(Yes indeed – your novel IS published!)
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Tides Between?
I am calling it an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth. Set almost entirely in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel, it tells the story of a young girl who has lost her father in tragic circumstances, a mysterious Welsh storyteller with dark secrets, and the ancient tales that will transform their journey.
I know that history is a large part of your life. Why are you so drawn to the past?
History was always my favourite in subject in school, perhaps it would have been, regardless of my life story. However, for me, my love of history has somehow become linked to my migrant experience.
I moved to Australia with my family when I was a five years old. My British parents knew little about their new home. They certainly didn’t know anything about Australian children’s literature. So, I read the books they’d read as children. Enid Blyton’s mysteries and school stories, Malcom Saville’s, Lone Pine Series, Arthur Ransome’s, Swallows and Amazon books. I also read classics like Black Beauty and Peter Pan and children’s versions of Dickens and Shakespeare. These became mixed up with tales of a place my parents called ‘home.’ A place that was somewhere in the past. I can still recall my jolt of shock upon learning that Anne of Green Gables was set in Canada and not the past-place my parents called ‘home.’ We returned to the UK just before I turned twelve and it was all real – the castles, the beautiful old villages, the traditions, the winding country lanes, the cream teas, the badgers, the woods, the wellington boots, the foxes, the bracken on the moors – everything I’d ever read about in books was real. I’ve never quite recovered.
Fairy tales are at the heart of The Tides Between. How important is narrative tradition in fiction do you think?
Fairy tales were not part of my original story conception. I actually started out to write an Aussie immigration saga. As I read books about the early immigration system, a young girl entered my mind. I called her Bridie. I knew she had lost her father in tragic circumstances. I had this idea that she would meet a creative young couple on the voyage to Australia and they would help her reconcile her grief. Initially, they were Irish. However, I was planning a trip to the UK (my first since childhood) and was relying on long, lost family accommodation (as we stingy Aussie’s are wont to do). I didn’t have any Irish relatives. But, mum was Welsh. Hmm…maybe my creative young couple could come from Wales?
I didn’t know anything about Wales – apart from Rugby and male voice choirs. Rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and, even if I could have invented a scenario in which a whole male-voice choir emigrated en-masse. I didn’t think a young girl would find it inspiring. Some quick research told me that Wales had a strong bardic culture. Hmm…maybe my Welsh characters could be storytellers?
Fairy tales and myths are of course early forms of storytelling. They fulfil the same purposes as good modern writing does – to entertain, to enlighten, to warn, to break our hearts open. I have read dozens of Welsh fairy tales, in the name of research, and a good number of books about the Welsh storytelling tradition. The highlight was being a course on Y Pedair Canc y Mabinogion – the four branches of the Mabinogion – in Welsh, while living in North Wales. I am far from being a Welsh fairy tale expert, simply a lover of Welsh tales. But my character is a poor Welsh miner’s son, so I reasoned he wouldn’t be an expert either. I also reasoned his versions of familiar tales would have been shaped by his life experiences.
Here is an excerpt from The Tides Between after Rhys tells the story of Llyn y Fan Fach – The Lake of the Small Peak – the tale of a fairy woman who married a mortal but returned to the lake after the man struck her three causelessly blows:
Bridie didn’t know how long she sat there after the story finished. An age it seemed—with her chest heaving and her hanky sodden, thinking of babies called home before their time, her dad’s long and bitter illness, his strange, turbulent moods, Ma’s even-now bitterness. She became aware of Siân’s soft humming, Rhys’ dark, considered gaze, the knot of onlookers drifting away. She sniffed, dabbing at her eyes.
‘Sorry. I won’t cry every time.’
‘No need to apologise, Bridie Stewart. There is no greater compliment to a story teller.’
‘But…Rhys? Do you think she wanted to leave?’
‘I don’t know bach. The story doesn’t tell us. Only that the maiden loved Ianto enough to thrust her sandaled foot forward and that she bore him three fine sons.’
‘But, laughing at a funeral, sobbing at a wedding? She wouldn’t have done those things, if she’d loved him.’
‘We don’t know why the Fairy Woman laughed at the funeral bach. Or indeed, why she sobbed at a wedding. Maybe she mourned for the bride, seeing problems others could not perceive? Maybe she grieved for her first life, the ones she’d left behind? But that doesn’t mean she didn’t love Ianto. Or that she wanted to leave him.’
‘I think it does. I think she hated him.’
‘Indeed, that is why you feel the story so deeply. You are not alone in that, Bridie bach. No doubt, Ianto asked himself the same questions. For they are the questions of the ages—how we tell a true story from one fashioned merely for entertainment. For in the plight of each character, we confront our heart’s reasons. Do not fear those reasons, be they ever so painful. Only promise you’ll write about them in your own version of the story.
You also teach Welsh. How does an understanding of another language help your fiction writing?
The Welsh language is another accidental side-effect of trying to write an Aussie immigration saga. In addition to learning that Wales has a rich bardic culture, I also remembered the Welsh had their own language. Mum was from South Wales and the language had been lost in her family but I grew up with a few Welsh words – Arglwydd Mawr! – Lord Almighty! Dere ’ma – come here. We also had a twt (small things) drawer in our kitchen. Once I decided to include a Welsh character in my novel, I knew I’d have to learn a little more about the language (in 1841 Welsh was still widely spoken in South Wales).
To my surprise, I found there were Welsh classes in Melbourne. I enrolled for what I thought would be one term. But I had no idea Welsh was so beautiful. One term became two terms, then three. Before long, I was totally smitten with language – the words, the sounds, the letters were like a soul-song to me. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student. I had four teenagers still living at home. I’d been rubbish at languages in school. It was enough to simply be in the presence of those ancient words.
We went through a difficult time with our youngest daughter. My writing ground to a halt. I found myself in a pretty dark place emotionally. My husband suggested, I need to get away for a while. We had lots of frequent flyer points. So, I decided to go to Wales. At some point, I came across a free online course called Say Something in Welsh. The tutor, Aran, was so encouraging. He told me I was doing well, that I would succeed, that I could become a Welsh speaker. His words were like rain on parched earth. I felt like an absolute failure in every other area of my life. So, I chose to believe him. And it worked. I now tell everyone I walked through that difficult time holding onto the tail of an ancient language.
So, Welsh has been a huge part of my personal journey. I have no doubt the cultural connection has given me a great empathy for my characters. But more importantly, I have found my way home. The Welsh speaking Elizabeth Jane Corbett is a different person to her English-speaking equivalent. She tells different jokes, has a different tone and perspective on life. She also understands the desperation of Welsh speaking communities whose world is slowly being eroded.
My four children have grown up and left home. I return to Wales often. On one occasion, I spent seven months working at Stiwdio Maelor, a writers’ and artists residence in North Wales. While living at Maelor, I came across the idea for my current project – a novel written from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife. I wouldn’t have come across the story if I wasn’t immersed in Welsh language culture. I have since grappled with whether I, an outsider, have the right to tell such a precious national story. On a recent research trip, I made contact with Welsh academics. In some instances, I sense they too are wondering: what is an Aussie doing writing one of our stories? Then I start speaking Welsh and I see their scepticism dissolve before my eyes.
You’ve had considerable success with your short stories (Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award). What were the similarities and differences in writing a full length novel this time?
I write very few short stories. Primarily because I don’t read them very often. I love the novel as a form and, if the book is part of a series, even better. My short story ideas have generally hit me hard in some way. For example, Beyond the Blackout Curtain was inspired by a World War Two memory of my mum’s. I had this oh-my-God-I have-to-write-that-story moment. His Own Man, was inspired by the tears prickling my eyes in an Easter parade in the country town of Beechworth. Silent Night was written while my daughter was living on the streets. I wondered what would be like to have a child run away, forever. How would that effect you emotionally? If I get that kind of visceral response, I am motived to invest time. But short stories are heaps of work, especially if they have an historical setting. So, mostly I save myself for the long form.
Given that The Tides Between is set in the 1840s, how did you go about researching detail and ensuring it was authentic?
I read books about the voyage to Australia and then combed their bibliographies for primary source material. Much of it has been digitised – diaries, letters, instructions for surgeons on emigrant ships, pamphlets on the immigrant experience. I spent loads of time in Covent Garden (my protagonist’s father was a theatre musician), slept on a sailing ship overnight, went underground in the Big-Pit Museum (my Welsh storyteller was a miner’s son), visited the sites of my Welsh fairy tales, learned a language… Did I mention I have a mildly (cough) obsessive personality? Research is the easy part for me. Getting the words down is tougher. I wrestle constantly with self-doubt and fall into a slough of despair every time I have a manuscript assessment. But once I hear those words sing, the thrill returns. I am also part of an extremely supportive writing group (I am, without doubt, the neediest member).
(I think many authors will recognise themselves in your answer there.)
The Tides Between has a cover that suggests the mystical pull of the moon to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
My publisher chose the cover images. However, the moon is apt. The title, The Tides Between, is a play on words. The characters are living between decks. They are also caught between their old life and their new life. Bridie the protagonist is hovering between childhood and womanhood. Tides as you know are related to the lunar cycle. Women’s menstrual cycles are also monthly. In addition, I hope the moon gives the cover a mystical feel. For there are ancient Welsh charms and folklore in the novel as well as fairy tales.
If you could choose to be a character from The Tides Between, who would you be and why?
I think I’d have to be Alf, Bridie’s stepfather. He is the sensible, unsung hero of the story. Added to which, I don’t make him suffer nearly as much as Rhys and Bridie. However temperamentally I am more closely attuned to the latter, who both feel life deeply. I definitely wouldn’t want to be Siȃn. But I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story.
If The Tides Between became a film, who would you like to play Bridie and Rhys and why would you choose them?
Rhys – a young Aiden Turner (if he could do a suitable Welsh accent), or Joseph Fiennes, or Rufus Sewel (all young and dark haired, Rhys is only twenty-one years old). But Wales is absolutely brimming with acting talent. So, I’d say, any young, slender, dark-haired, Welsh speaking actor would do nicely.
Bridie – Georgia Henley (from Chronicles of Narnia), or a young Emma Watson would work.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I mostly read historical fiction set in Britain. Edith Pargetter is a long-time favourite author, as are Sharon K Penman and Dorothy Dunnett. I love a bit of magic realism, such as that found in Joanne Harris’s, or Carol Lovekin’s books. Anything quirky, historical or mystical that is set in Wales. I also read some Australian historical fiction.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Tides Between should be their next read, what would you say?
A young girl, her forbidden notebook, a mysterious Welsh storyteller – no one will arrive unchanged.
Sounds briliant Elizabeth. Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.
About Elizabeth Jane Corbett
When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Celtic Club, writes articles for the Historical Novel Review and blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com. In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. An early draft of her debut novel, The Tides Between, was shortlisted for a HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Development Award.
Elizabeth lives with her husband, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne’s inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away.