The Rarest Thing- Q&A with Author Deborah O’Brien
The Rarest Thing
Dr. Katharine Wynter is a highly educated paleontologist; a smart, beautiful, young woman with her career and future ahead of her when something dark happens to shake her confidence. George is a mountain pygmy possum, considered to be long extinct and only recorded in fossilised form. The rarest animal in the world in 1966 is found running about at a Ski Lodge in the Victorian High Country and is transported to Melbourne and put into captivity to be studied. Katharine gets an equally rare opportunity to meet and be photographed with the little possum, by world renowned wildlife photographer, Scott King. When these three creatures meet, there sparks a chain of events that will change Katharine’s world forever.
Deborah O’ Brien delivers a novel with immense heart with The Rarest Thing. Katharine Wynter is so well developed as a character you feel that by the end of the book that you have made a friend. The 1960’s setting is incredibly detailed, and you can read in my Q&A with O’Brien below just how difficult writing historical fiction can be. The story of the real life ‘George’ is intertwined beautifully with fictional characters to create a story about love, hate, family, control, empathy, and self-discovery. A tale which warms the heart, but gives you enough twists and turns along the way to keep the pages turning.
The book itself is something very different and will make a great gift. The inside covers and the quirky little illustrations dotted throughout the book are a real treat.
The Rarest Thing is sure to be a popular hit from O’Brien, Australian author of one of my favourite books of 2015, The Trivia Man.
A great Christmas Book gift.‘The Rarest Thing’ (signed gift edition paperback or ebook) is available direct from Lomandra Press: www.lomandrapress.com.au
Want to know what it’s like to write historical fiction? Check out my very informative Q&A below with author Deborah O’ Brien!
How hard is it to write historical fiction and stay in the time zone? Do you find yourself accidentally mentioning a call on a mobile phone or certain words and phrases that would never have been used in the 60’s?
When you’re writing historical fiction, whether it’s set in 1870 like Mr Chen’s Emporium, or fifty years ago like The Rarest Thing, staying in the time zone becomes easier the further you progress into writing the book. After a while you become so immersed in the setting that it’s quite a jolt to return to real life in the second decade of the 21st century!
In writing a story set in 1966, it helped that I could remember the era, although not as clearly as I would have liked. As a child back then, I was more interested in TV shows and pop music than serious issues such as the Vietnam War.
During the writing process, I found myself constantly checking the details of everyday life. For example, could you ring Sydney to Melbourne direct in 1966, or did you need an operator? What shows were on TV on a Monday night? What coins made up the newly introduced decimal currency? Did beer come in cans or was it only bottles? Did pantyhose exist? And so on.
When it came to dialogue, I needed to capture the way people spoke in 1966 without going over the top with ‘Swinging Sixties’ expressions such as ‘fab’, ‘outta sight’ and ‘groovy’. So I immersed myself in mid-Sixties films and TV shows. That part of the research was a delight for me as I’m an ardent movie and television buff.
Were you wary about writing about Katharine’s ‘secret’ and how her response to it could be perceived?
Yes, there’s always some trepidation about writing storylines such as this. I find that any scene which is harrowing for the protagonist will also be harrowing for the writer – if only because I tend to become completely absorbed in the life of my protagonist, much like a Method actor ‘becoming’ the role they play. I decided from the outset that I would write those scenes in an understated way, rather than being explicit. Strangely enough, that approach tends to create a greater impact than confronting the reader with graphic details.
I had to hope that readers would understand Katharine’s response in terms of her personality and the times she lives in. It’s worth noting that back in 1966, there was little recourse for someone in her situation. Things of that nature tended to be swept under the carpet.
How did such a rare little thing as ‘George’ become the inspiration for your book?
A couple of years ago I happened upon an article about the endangered mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus). Tucked away in the article was a snippet of historical trivia – up until 1966 the species was only known from tiny fossils, and everyone assumed it was extinct. Fifty years ago, when a single living specimen was discovered, scientists named it ‘George’ and dubbed it the ‘world’s rarest creature’. That became the starting point for my novel and I was able to use the almost-extinct marsupial which came back to life as a metaphor for Katharine and her emotional journey.
The Trivia Man and The Rarest Thing both have seemingly normal characters who have interesting, touching and special stories to tell. How do you develop relatable ‘real’ characters and give them storylines which keep the reader hooked?
What a great question! When I was younger, I started (but didn’t finish) a couple of novels. The characters were cardboard cut-outs and the plots predictable and melodramatic. One advantage of getting older is that you tend to acquire the life experience necessary to write authentic characters and interesting stories.
Back in my cardboard cut-out days, I dreamt of writing sweeping sagas filled with powerful and glamorous characters. These days, what I find intriguing about human behaviour is the quirkiness and vulnerability. That’s why I tend to write characters who are square pegs – Kevin Dwyer from The Trivia Man, for example. I think most of us have felt like outsiders at some point in our lives and can identify with people like Kevin or Katharine.
In terms of storylines, I don’t plan my books, apart from an initial premise and some flexible guideposts. For me, writing is a journey of exploration and discovery. My characters lead the way while I follow close behind, madly tapping on the keys of my laptop, trying to keep up with them. Sometimes, of course, I have to rein them in, but generally I let them run free.
That approach might sound rather organic or even chaotic. And I suppose it is, but I always ensure there’s a strong structural framework to keep me in line. In The Trivia Man, for instance, each chapter is a week of the seasonal trivia competition, culminating in the trivia night itself. In The Rarest Thing, it’s the concept of a journey which gives the book its structure – on one level, the story is about a trek into the wild – the preparations, the trip and the aftermath. Running parallel is the inner journey of self-discovery.
Will you be heading back in time for your next book?
Absolutely! In fact, I’m already 10,000 words into a new novel, tentatively called The Fume of Sighs. Set in south-western France near Montpellier, it’s the story of Camille Dupré, whose life unfolds in alternate chapters as an eleven-year-old in 1930 and a grown woman in 1942.
Thanks for your insightful questions, Jo. It’s been a pleasure to answer them.