A few weeks ago, I posted my review of ‘Inheritance of Secrets’ by Adelaide author, Sonya Bates (she’s originally from Canada but I think we should claim her as Australian ;)). I enjoyed the book so much (please Hollywood types, make this a movie), that I got in touch with Sonya’s publicist at Harper Collins and asked for an interview. Sonya said yes to answering my questions so I’m very pleased to share our interview below…
NLK: What made you enter the Banjo Prize competition? (n.b. being one of the shortlisted entries for the Banjo Prize was how Inheritance of Secrets was acquired by HarperCollins)
SB: Really good timing is the short answer! But, seriously, I’d almost finished the editing for Inheritance of Secrets, had sent it around to my beta readers and was starting to think about looking for a publisher. I knew how difficult it was to get picked out of the slush pile, having done the rounds many times with my children’s writing. I thought about trying to get an agent first – harder to get than a publisher, I’d heard, but worth a shot – and sent it to a couple of people based on friends’ recommendations. They were both very encouraging, but neither were prepared to take me on at that time. This was late 2017. I fiddled around with the manuscript a bit more (there always seems to be something more you can do), then in early 2018 HarperCollins announced their new prize for an unpublished manuscript of commercial fiction – the Banjo Prize. I wasn’t sure it was ready, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get the manuscript seen. I knew of other writers who’d been published that way – either winning or being shortlisted in a manuscript competition. And if nothing happened, I could start the publisher rounds a couple of months later. It didn’t take much thinking, really. The opportunity to get noticed by a big publisher like HarperCollins was too good to miss. I did one last perusal of the manuscript and sent it off.
NLK: You’ve written a number of children’s books, can you tell us about switching to writing for adults? What was the biggest obstacle and how did you approach it?
SB: The biggest hurdle was overcoming the idea of writing something so long, and having the confidence in my own ability to commit to something that big. It was really daunting initially, and that’s probably why it took me so long to get started. But the idea just wouldn’t go away, and eventually I realised it was something I had to do, and that I really wanted to do it. Yes, it was a big task, but I needed to tackle it like every other piece of writing I’d done – bit by bit, scene by scene. The words add up eventually. I found, in some ways, writing for adults gave me liberties I didn’t have with writing for children. With such a huge word count, I had much more room to explore ideas in greater detail. Writing for children can be quite difficult, trying to fit everything you want to say into a small number of words. Your writing has to be tight. There’s no room for overwriting. It can be difficult, too, in children’s writing, to explore issues or themes at a level that children can understand. This wasn’t an issue in writing an adult novel. In the end, I realised that writing was writing and all the skills I developed writing for children were what I needed to write Inheritance of Secrets.
NLK: I personally loved some of the action-packed fight scenes in Inheritance of Secrets, how did you approach writing those scenes?
SB: That’s a good question. Needless to say, it wasn’t from personal experience! Firstly, whenever I write a scene, I try stay in the point of view of one character so that the reader experiences the scene only from what that character can see, hear, feel and touch. And I made a conscious effort to do that in those scenes. So the reader doesn’t necessarily see the assault coming, but might hear a thud behind them, and feel a blow or the force of being knocked to the ground. I tried to put myself into the head of the character and think about what it would feel like, and what sort of injury might have resulted. Blood? A broken bone? A swollen eye? How would that impact or impede the character’s ongoing action? Another thing I was conscious of was not overwriting the scene. The action was quick, and so the writing had to reflect that. Short, punchy sentences or phrases, stream of consciousness, one thing happening after the other, the sensory nature of it. To me, a fight scene didn’t have sensible logic and grammar. Not from the point of view of the untrained naïve characters I was writing.
NLK: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing historical fiction?
SB: Having never written any historical fiction before, possibly the most challenging aspect was getting past the idea of what I thought historical fiction should be, and how I thought it should be written. I initially wanted to write a purely historical novel, and in my head, I was imagining it written in a certain way. I struggled with that for a long time, even after I’d decided the idea was worth pursuing. Eventually I had to let go of my preconceptions, let the ideas for the novel speak for themselves and let my own voice, or rather the characters’ voices, shine through.
The research was also a daunting prospect and I was really worried about not making it authentic. As a novice to writing historical fiction, I soon discovered that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I initially made some assumptions that further research disputed, or my beta readers questioned, and I quickly realised that I couldn’t take anything for granted. In the final drafts, I was checking and double-checking everything, and probably still missed some. But as time went on, it was the ongoing nature of the research that was the ultimate challenge. I didn’t start out with a plot, so my initial research was quite broad. As each scene evolved, it required further research into the fine detail that makes a historical scene come to life. And each piece of research seemed to lead to another question. This continued throughout the editing of the book. A new scene required a whole new set of research. Every edit made small changes which then required more research. Some of the research was fascinating, some of it tedious, but it was all worth it. Many of my favourite parts of the book are in the historical section.
NLK: Can you tell us a little about the research you undertook to write Inheritance of Secrets? Did any surprises emerge during your research?
SB: I found the research for Inheritance of Secrets quite fascinating, especially the memoirs, diaries and letters that I read about life in the 1940s. It was a real insight into the time period, and, knowing that my dad had grown up then, a small look at my own ancestry. My research started broad – enough to get a sense of time and place – then focused on the people of the time, their experiences, thoughts and ideals. This helped me to get into the minds of my characters. As the story unfolded, the research became narrower by necessity, to fill in the small details. In 2018 I went to Germany and was able to walk the streets of the city where Karl and Grete grew up and visit the park by the river where they said their good-byes. It was an amazing experience and really helped to put it all in perspective.
There was a fair amount of research for the contemporary section of the novel too, which is set in 2009. Adelaide and modern society – especially technology – has changed a lot since then. And then there were the crime aspects – think blood spatter patterns, surveillance techniques, crime scene investigation, police procedure etc. I did as much research as I could, and then threw the tricky questions at my consultant. Is this possible? Probable?
Any surprises? Lots. My knowledge of the WWII era was pretty limited before I started, and each piece of information was a new discovery. But one thing that stuck in my mind was a series of letters from former German POWs to the farmers they had worked for in America as POWs during the war. Conditions were terrible when they returned to Germany, and food rations severely restricted. Many of the American families sent food and other goods to the former prisoners when they heard how bad conditions were in Europe. I’m not sure why this should be a surprise, but the compassion and generosity towards men who had been the enemy only a short time previously really humanised it for me.
NLK: Who’s your favourite crime author? Why?
SB: It’s hard to choose just one, but if forced to pick, I would say Jane Harper. Her work is so atmospheric and her characters so authentic, a natural extension of the setting. She unrolls the mystery in an understated way, and lets the reader figure things out. I really admire her work.
NLK: Can you please share a little about your writing journey?
SB: Like quite a few other writers, I started writing seriously when my children were small and I was on maternity leave. It was a time when I was doing everything for everyone else, and needed something for myself. I saw an ad in the paper for a correspondence course in writing for children and signed up. This was in the days before online courses, and the package came in the mail – a big binder full of content and writing exercises and assignments to send in each week. I did my assignments and sent them back in the post and waited for my tutor to mark it and send it back again. What a tedious process it seems like now, but it was great fun. I had my first short story published while I was doing the course, and soon after had a chapter book accepted for publication with an educational publisher. It was very encouraging and I thought I was on my way! Of course, it’s not that easy at all, and it was a long while before I had anything else accepted. But it was enough to keep me going and I kept writing and kept sending things off to publishers. I had one more chapter book published here in Australia, and then was lucky enough to get picked up by Orca Book Publishers in Canada who have published four of my chapter books and four high interest/low reading level books for middle grade/young adults. It was during this time that I had the idea for Inheritance of Secrets. I kept on with the children’s writing while the ideas percolated in my head, but once I’d made the decision to write it, I took some time off both from work and children’s fiction to spend some dedicated time writing the first draft. That was in 2015. It took another couple of years of editing off and on before I submitted it to the Banjo Prize and was offered a contract.
NLK: What’s your favourite aspect of the writing process?
SB: I love the editing process. Taking something raw and making improvements, expanding, cutting, changing; watching it grow from something rank and ugly to something beautiful. I think that’s why I find it so difficult to write the first draft. It’s hard not to go back and rework it.
NLK: What advice do you have for emerging authors?
SB: I know this isn’t original, but if writing and being published is something you really want to do, make time for it and be persistent. It’s more about hard work than talent and like anything worth doing, you can’t expect to be successful without practice. Find a way to hone your skills. Read. Take online courses or workshops, read writing books, join a critique group. Read some more. And write. And do something I wish I’d done years ago … believe in yourself. If you’re writing, then you’re a writer. Own it.
About Sonya Bates
Sonya Spreen Bates is a writer of adult and children’s fiction living in Adelaide, South Australia. She was shortlisted for the inaugural Banjo Prize in 2018 for the unpublished manuscript for Inheritance of Secrets, and several of her children’s books have been commended by CCBC Best Books, Resource Links, or the Junior Library Guild in the USA.
Born in Iowa City, USA, Sonya grew up in Victoria, Canada. She studied Linguistics at the University of Victoria before moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia to study Speech-Language Pathology at Dalhousie University. She worked in paediatric Speech Pathology for 25 years, first in rural British Columbia, and then in Adelaide, South Australia when she moved there in 1997, and currently works as a casual academic in clinical education.
Sonya’s first children’s book was published in 2003. Her short stories and novels have been published in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and foreign rights to her chapter book, Wildcat Run, were sold to a Chinese publisher. She started writing for adults in 2015 and her debut adult novel Inheritance of Secrets was published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2020.