Louise Allan’s first novel, The Sisters’ Song, is out now from Allen & Unwin. The manuscript was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship.
I absolutely adored The Sisters’ Song. Set in Tasmania, it’s the story of two sisters and how music and motherhood break their hearts but bring them together. You can read my review of The Sisters’ Song here.
I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Louise a few burning questions on the blog today. Here’s Louise, talking about her own experience of motherhood, music and – of course – writing.
Interview with Louise Allan
Rebecca Bowyer: You have a medical career, a husband, four kids and two dogs. So tell me – why did you decide to write a book? And how on earth did you find the time?
Louise Allan: I wouldn’t have found the time if I was still working, but I gave up work as a doctor over seven years ago. I made the decision to relieve the pressure and stress on the family. I felt like I was on a treadmill from before dawn when I woke until I crawled into bed sometime around midnight. I was constantly running yet still always late, and I didn’t feel I was doing a proper job of either doctoring or mothering.
When I stopped work, I wanted something stimulating and fulfilling to do, so I enrolled in an online beginners’ writing course. I had no idea whether I’d like it or not, or whether I’d be good at it, especially because English hadn’t been my strength at school. But by the second assignment, I knew I wanted to write a novel.
Something within me loosened when I started to write and I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt before. At the same time, an annoying banging inside my head, one I’d been ignoring for decades, suddenly stopped.
I didn’t stop work in order to write, but stopping work gave me the time and space to start writing.
Rebecca: I was almost in tears by the end of the first chapter of The Sisters’ Song. Tell me about your research into the handling of mental illness in the 1920s.
Louise: I drew a lot from my medical training, which involved spending time on psychiatric units. I also read Medline articles on the history of psychiatry, and looked up photos on LINC that related to historic psychiatric hospitals and wards in Tasmania.
I found a chapter on the ‘History of Psychiatry’ by Dr Eric Ratcliff 1, a psychiatrist and historian in Launceston. It gave me an insight into Launceston’s past psychiatric practices, and showed the local stigma surrounding mental illness. For example, in the 1950s, when the first outpatients clinics for psychiatric patients were set up at the Launceston General Hospital, the clinics were held in a corner of the outpatients department with its own discreet entrance, which they shared with the venereal diseases clinics.
As I did many times while writing my novel, I drew on stories I’d heard growing up. The psychiatric unit in Launceston was named the Lindsay Millar, and the major unit in the state was at New Norfolk in the south. Both centres were joked about disparagingly, but also spoken of in very frightening terms.
My grandmother was admitted to the Lindsay Miller Clinic on more than one occasion. No one seemed to know her diagnosis or treatment—it was rarely spoken about and not discussed in detail—but I suspect she had depression. My mother used to take the time off school to look after her younger siblings each time my grandmother was admitted.
As a female doctor, I had many female patients with depression, and I’ve had my own battles with it. I had severe postnatal depression after the birth of my first child, and it was really only a couple of years ago, linked in many ways to the writing of my novel, that I discovered the root of it.
Rebecca: Grandma is such a wonderful character. Did all the scenes come from your imagination? I sense there might be a real-life anecdote or two in there!
Louise: Of all the characters in the book, Grandma comes mostly from my imagination. There are a few real life anecdotes in there, though. In 2010, I had a couple of conversations with my grandmother. She was 88 years old at the time and I knew she wasn’t going to be around forever, so I grilled her about her life as much as I could. She knew I wanted to write a novel and was really forthcoming—I think she was chuffed someone might write about her.
During the course of those conversations, she told me about her grandmother. Like Ida and Nora, my grandmother’s father died young and they went to live with their grandmother, their father’s mother. My grandmother spoke fondly of her grandmother, and said she never got angry at them, even though ‘we didn’t have halos around our heads’.
I used those details and made the rest up, adding in the interest in music and gardening because it added to and enhanced the story.
Rebecca: Judging by the exquisite descriptions of musical performances, I’m going to assume that you’re very passionate about music yourself. Can you tell me more about this?
Louise: Where do I start when trying to explain how much music means to me? It’s always been there, ever since I remember. One of my earliest memories is Johnny Farnham’s (as he was known then) voice and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ coming from the radio on top of fridge.
As a child, I learnt piano for seven years, but, unfortunately, as the pieces grew more challenging, my self-discipline and commitment to practice declined in an inversely proportional way. I’ve always regretted giving it up.
Although I sang throughout my childhood and wanted singing lessons, I didn’t have my first lesson until I was 36 years old. By then, I was too old to start learning seriously, missing the boat by a good decade. However, I did join the WA Symphony Orchestra chorus so I could play a tiny role in producing majestic music.
It was important to me that my children learnt music, and, remembering how lonely I found practice, I often sat with them while they practiced. They didn’t appreciate it in the way I’d hoped, as I actually made them practice! They might dispute it, but I think I helped! They all still play and sing, and a couple are pursuing music after leaving school. Between the four of them, there’s a clarinettist, a couple of pianists, three singers, and a violinist. They play duets and accompany each other now, which, as a parent, thrills me to watch and hear.
Although my mother played piano, I credit my father with my love of music. He was always buying new records, and, during my teenage years, he used to come to find me and we’d listen to it together. When it had finished playing, he’d turn to me and always ask the same question: ‘What d’you reckon?’ Of course I always loved it, too!
For me, music can express whole emotions, even with a solitary note. It’s cliché, but it does speak without words. Some pieces make me cry, and not just the sad pieces, but also the pieces that are so exquisitely beautiful it’s hard to believe they’ve been created by an earthly being.
I have long suspected that I write words because I cannot write music. So, when I started writing my novel, of course music had to feature.
Rebecca: Part II of this question – The rhythm of your writing is part of what makes this book sing to the heart so beautifully. Do you think there’s a relationship between music and literature?
Louise: I’ve written to music in writing workshops and courses, and the mood of the music always affects what and how I write. I often played music as I wrote the book—mainly the pieces that are named in the novel. I also played a CD of Tasmanian bird sounds, so I guess that’s music and song, too!
I think music and literature are related. The spoken word and song are on a continuum—prose becomes poetry becomes chant becomes song. When you combine words with melody, it’s incredibly emotive. Somehow, music and literature (indeed all the arts) bypass the logical, rational part of the brain and head straight for the emotions. I don’t know how they do it, but thank goodness they do.
Rebecca: Much of the story is set in my favourite Tasmanian city, Launceston. You describe the setting so vividly it makes me want to go back again and explore more! What made you decide to set your story there?
Louise: I grew up in Launceston, so I know it intimately. It’s the third oldest city in Australia (after Sydney and Hobart) and many of the historic buildings remain, so it’s quite beautiful. As a child, it seemed like a huge and bustling city, but now when I wander around, it feels tiny and quaint.
I wanted to set my novel somewhere I knew well, and, at the time of writing my novel, I didn’t feel I knew Perth well enough. Because it’s connected with those early and immutable childhood memories, Launceston feels like it’s part of me, embedded within my folds. There’s barely a building or street or path or park or river that doesn’t prompt a reminiscence. My kids return to Tasmania with me under duress, because I just drag them around all my childhood haunts telling them the stories associated with each one.
Rebecca: I want to read more of your writing! Can you tell us a bit about your next project?
Louise: I’m only about 25,000 words into a first draft of my second novel, so please bear in mind that anything I write here is subject to change. So far, my second novel looks like it’s going to be about women’s issues and gender roles again! It’s obviously something I care about.
In this story, there’s an older lady, Ruth, who’s in the advanced stages of dementia. There’s also her son, Doug, and her husband, Reg. As Ruth’s dementia worsens, Reg and Doug are forced become her carers, which they find hard as Ruth has always been the carer. The two men reflect on their lives and the things they could have done better.
That’s all I’ve written so far and the story’s at a standstill as I’ve been concentrating on The Sisters’ Song. I have plenty of ideas for the story and I’m itching to write more, but I need a clear diary. At this stage, I’ve pencilled it in for autumn.
About Louise Allan
Louise grew up in Tasmania, Australia, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing. She has had several short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.