By Issabelle Breen.
G.S. Johnston is the author of three historical novels, Sweet Bitter Cane (2019), The Cast of a Hand (2015), The Skin of Water (2012). And a fourth novel set in contemporary Hong Kong, Consumption (2011). The novels are noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings.
In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels.
Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Canberra, Australia. He is treasurer of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.
Find more fabulous things at www.gsjohnston.com
Twitter at @GS_Johnston
About Sweet Bitter Cane
One woman. Two men. War. Tragedy. Love.
Twenty-year-old Amelia marries Italo, a man she’s never met. To escape an Italy reeling from the Great War, she sails to him in Far North Queensland to farm sugarcane. But before she meets her husband, she’s thrown into the path of Fergus, a man who’ll mark the rest of her life.
Faced with a lack of English and hostility from established cane growers, caught between warring unions and fascists, Amelia’s steady hand grows Italo’s business to great success, only for old grudges to break into new revenge. She is tested by forces she couldn’t foresee and must face her greatest challenge: learning to live again.
Sweeping in its outlook, Sweet Bitter Caneis a family saga but also an untold story of migrant women – intelligent, courageous and enduring women who were the backbone of the sugarcane industry and who deserve to be remembered.
The main character in Sweet Bitter Caneis Amelia, and she is strong and courageous throughout the book. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters with a different gender?
When I first heard the story of Sweet Bitter Cane, one of the most attractive things was it concerned an Italian woman in Australia interned in a concentration camp during WWII. This story of women internees has largely been left untold, dismissed as a mere bagatelle, far from the Wagnerian masculine operas of the war, completely ignored in recent non-fiction publications. This was exciting.
But it was the story of a woman. When last I checked I was a man. Amidst all the recent controversy of who can tell what stories, my first decision about who was going to tell the story was difficult. Could/should I tell it from a male perspective? This felt a slap in the face to the character, that she didn’t have the agency to tell her own story. After much consternation, I decided to bite the wiener and become a woman.
Writing, mostly, has to have characters of both genders. But not only that, often the writinghas charactersfrom a different time and socio-economic-religious milieu. Most often they are of a different sexual orientation and have grown up and live(d)in circumstanceswildly different to mine. And sometimes, the characters I write about are dead. How can I ever know what twenty-year-oldnaive Amelia thought when she first saw Fergus’s muscular legs bulging from his khaki shorts and felt flushed with a heat she couldn’t quite recognise? Indeed, how could I everhonestlyknow this even if the person was still alive and I could ask them?
So the question of writing is about imagining.
And to imagine effectively, it requires tactful research and observation. It’s the greatest thing of reading, being placed in someone else’s shoes. The writer has to work very hard to do this, regardless of who the character is. And genders share a lot of human experiences.
But there are female experiences I’ve not and can’t experience. I’ve never given birth or even been present at a birth. But I have female friends who have,and were prepared to discuss it in intimate detail, ready to read and comment on my writing.
So with this collage, I seek to arrive at a character, any character. I don’t remember Amelia being any harder to imagine than Italo or Fergus, who, perhaps, I have equally little in common with. I don’t have great legs.
I read with wonder James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The narrative is told through a young Afro-American woman’s point of view. Baldwin’s imagination made this convincing, for me, down to the most intimate details. Perhaps others would disagree, butI was inspired to think about what I would have to do to become a young, Afro-American woman living in the 1970s in Harlem. What a project that would be.
Previously in your past books, you’ve placed your setting in Europe. This time around it’s in Australia. What was it like researching about your home? Did you enjoy it more?
The Cast of a Hand and The Skin of Water were set in France and Hungary. I don’t speak French or Hungarian (beyond Egészségére), sothe primary research posed many problems. But I battled through with translating programs –whilstsome of the translations were nonsensical, I got a sense of things and then could approach translators for accuracy with what was important.
So, coming from these types of battles, researching Sweet Bitter Cane was a walk in a warm park. Apart from the fact the bulk of the research was in English, I can speak Italian which made reading other primary sources a breeze. In addition to this, Australia is blessed with a free resource that should be guarded with glee – TROVE. This gave me a freedom and ease I hadn’t experienced before, as I’d not found comparativesites in France or Hungary. In fact when I told a French librarian about TROVE, she raised her eyebrows and said, “Wow. And that’s for free?”
To be able to find copies of newspapers, like The Cairns Post, and read from my desk about day-to-day events, was enriching. For example, I spent a lot of time trying to gauge what Italian food products were available in Far North Queensland (FNQ) in the 1920s. I read through the advertisements in The Cairns Post for the various fruit and vegetable markets. But in addition to this, TROVE also gave me access to Australian-Italian newspapers and small Italian journals of the time. So I was able to read both sides of an issue, at my desk, cat on my lap.
One of the main things I enjoy o fhistorical fiction is my own edification. Before The Skin of Water, I knew next-to-nothing of Hungarian history. With Sweet Bitter Cane, in 1989, I first heard of the Australian WWII internment of Italians into concentration camps. The stories I’d read stayed with me, and I accumulated more, so when I heard this particular story, especially as it was the story of an interned woman, I was pre-armed. So, I don’t think there was quite the same learning curve I had to have with other projects. It’s just always good to know. I don’t think I have that pegged only to Australia.
In your writing, you’re very well researched in the settings and history. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
The possible research is endless. I guess the first stages are subliminal. As I said, the first seed of Sweet Bitter Cane was in a story I read in 1989. At that time, I had no expectation of ever writing a novel, let alone the number I have. But the seed held and germinated.Whilst I don’t want to get all weird and wonderful, once a person becomes interested in something, the world provides more. Maybe it’s that your antennae are up and more things become apparent. It’s an interesting question to ask yourself; what have I ignored today?
But I remember just after I’d heard the story on which Sweet Bitter Cane is based, I couldn’t sleep one night and turned the TV on at 3 in the morning, and there was a documentary on the Kanak people working on the sugarcane fields of FNQ. It seemed too much by chance not to respond.
The first pass of historical research is really to establish the “facts” of the time. So this involved sorting out the timeline of Italy’s development and rise of fascism, the perceived need for it, and its evolution intoWWII. Then I had to look at the events in Australia, the history of the sugarcane industry, the arrival of Italian migrants, their involvement onthe sugarcane fields, their participation with fascism and the arrests and internment into concentration camps.
Once I had these timelines, I had enough to start writing. But as the writing evolves, the need for the “breakfast of champions” evolves too – detail. And this is where the real research starts. How do you know what someone ate? What their house was like? But again, the world provides. I remember walking along the lovely shelves of Gould’s Book Shop in Sydney (may it rest in peace) and by chance finding a little book on Australian life in the 1920s. Details in this book fleshed out Italo’s house near Babinda and how they would have lived, at least, how the British Australians in the area would have lived.
Another great source of detail are small, often privately produced, memoirs. Sometimes these are not-so-well written but they contain small observations of daily life. For this reason alone, I urge people to write their stories and have them archived. And the search through these is hard – a whole book might give one useable detail.
If there are people still alive, even relatives, this is a boon if you can get to them and they agree to be interviewed.
And of course, if the budget allows, going to the places is unbelievable, walking the street your characters walked. But this requires funds.
In your book, you discuss the migrant experience of Amelia and her move to Australia. There is hostility towards her from the local community. Do you think there is still similar issues in today’s society? Is the experience in your opinion more or less the same? What’s your opinion on the migrant experience in today society.
Migration is such a hard thing. I had a brief moment when I lived in Italy and was preparing to come back to Australia. I thought, why am I leaving? And what hit me in the face was most unexpected – Australia. Despite all the gripes I had with it and the love I felt for Italy, I just couldn’t give Australia up. If I’d stayed in Italy, I would have lost something.
I can only imagine the forces that force people to migrate, either legally or “illegally”. To give up one’s country, the soil you grew from, is incredibly hard. And it means the migrant is generally made of stern stock, an asset, not an interdiction, to the adopted country.
Amelia, and the Italians in FNQ at that time, initially ran into problems with the British-Australian population through no fault of their own. They worked communally, sharing labour and resources. But once they became a visible success, this bred resentment. As Amelia observes, they were told they were different and not wanted, but when they formed a “ghetto” and were a success, they were criticised for that, for not assimilating. In post 1901 Federation Australia and post the White Australia Policy, the British Australians labelled the Italians the Olive Peril.
When I started the research, the most frightening thing was when I read Australian newspaper articles written in the 1920s and 30s, and only had to replace Italian with Iraqi, Syrian, or Iranian, and Catholicism with Islam, and I was essentially reading a modern-day article. In 1907, The Bulletin described the Italians as “bucolic, dull-witted, primitive and impoverished”. And yet, almost in the same breath, they were then accused of buying the best land, sending money back to Italy, and financially supporting fascism. It seems oddly contradictory to be successful and lazy.
At the end of the novel, Amelia’s daughter notes;
Would you hear such things today levelled at Italians and Greeks and Maltese? Perhaps in jest, as we gobble the pizzas and yiros and golden pastizzis. But this country holds little of its history; it relishes the palatable and scorns anything in need of stern mastication, sucks the jelly and leaves the bone.
Perhaps that’s an overstatement. But at the time of the novel, the Italian’s success had made them visible. Fascism just gave a point of attack. In the wake of the attacks in New Zealand, I can’t help but feel tolerance is enacted, intolerance just below the surface. And even that word – tolerance – is awful. I remember in the 1970s, the best I could hope for was to be tolerated. I remember even then wanting so much more than that.
I guess the “failures” of migration become obvious and fixated on. Australia’s greatest strength is diversity, and very broadly this is acknowledged and embraced. There are noisy pockets that don’t accept this. Migrants make their way in surprising ways which only adds to the sum of Australia.
In Sweet Bitter Cane, Amelia makes a strong friendship with Clara, whom she travels with to Australia. What do you think makes a good friendship?
Goodness. That’s an interesting question at this stage of my life. The friendship between Amelia and Clara is based initially in a commonality – they are both leaving post-WWI Italy to travel across the world to meet men they don’t know. They have both left their loved ones, have suffered and have invested hope in the nebulous future.
I love the image of them having only just met standing together on the boat’s deck and watching the Bay of Naples recede, not knowing if they would return, not knowing where they were going. How could that not weld you to someone?
But the friendship is sustained through acts of kindness. Even when their relationship is ruptured, it is through an act of kindness.
Novels are made of many stories. Recently, a friend reminded me of a story I wished I’d remembered when I was writing Sweet Bitter Cane. His parents were migrants to Australia, in 1958, from Hungary. How dislocated they must have felt on arrival, living in Villawood Migrant Hostel in a soup of foreign cultures and languages.
One day, they were walking through the centre and my friend’s mother, never one to hold back, said in loud Hungarian, “Look at that stupid woman cleaning her husband’s shoes.”
The woman polishing looked at her and said in Hungarian, “If you want to see a stupid woman, go and look in the mirror.”
There was a moment, a stand-off, and then they both burst out laughing and fell into a lifetime of friendship.
People often think of friendship as sameness. I don’t think I’ve ever really sought people who are the same as me. The main thing I find interesting is what is different.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a critique I haven’t been able to find something helpful in. If someone hates my work passionately, I’d be interested to hear, as long as the criticism was argued, citing references. The Skin of Water attracted one review TOO MUCH SEX. The person was American. I wondered if they’d actually read the novel, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old boy’s affair with an older woman. I was seventeen a long while ago, but I remember the rubric that too much sex was never enough. So I think she’d rather missed the point, also that Hungarians seem to have a much more liberal/realistic attitude to sex (even in the 1940s – I heard stories that made me blush), and that the sex descriptions in the novel weren’t soft-porn, as the manner the acts were preformed actually gave away what was really happening. Too subtle?
The trouble with reviews on Goodreads and Amazon etc. is that you can’t question the reviewer. Sometimes people will say something interesting, but it’s a bit vague what exactly they mean. And also, ironically, they feel attacked if they’re questioned. So, the review process isn’t really about dialogue. And there are those armchair historians who HAVE to disagree with a “fact”. And there are others who’ve suggested if they knew the story was based in fact, they would have enjoyed it more. I write novels. They’re not non-fiction. They have to involve imagination into other subjective positions. And novels have to adhere to the dictates of the novel’s genres. Facts often don’t. And whilst this doesn’t give licence to fabricate facts, often they have to be bent. And often there are no facts. Just cracks in history to be imagined into.
The only thing I hate is the glib: I don’t like that – or even – I like that. What’s the point?
Do you believe in writer’s block?
My main problem has always been blocking out the rest of life to write. So much of the day is engineered and rushed to give some time for writing. But when I write, I have to have a contradictory mix of relaxation and tension – I have to engage with the writing without distraction, but also know I only have a certain amount of time which makes me work effectively.
But often, I do get to a point in a manuscript and can’t see the way forward. Leaving it alone is good, maybe working on some other part. In a manuscript I’ve just finished, on the first draft, I got utterly stuck coming into the last quarter. I just couldn’t see what needed to happen, although I knew the ending. So I wrote the last two chapters and went back to where I’d got stuck, which was really edifying.
Starting writing Sweet Bitter Cane was difficult. It covers such a vast expanse of time and landscapes, and Amelia’s character had to change so much, grow up, become bitter and then sweet again. So it was hard to decide when and where to start the novel and what Amelia’s character would be like at that time.
But I had the transcript of a police interview with the character on which Amelia is based, an interrogation about her involvement with fascism. The document, and some other letters about it, repeatedly described her as a shrewd woman and that care needed to be taken believing her. I liked the idea of this woman being distrusted because she was shrewd and intelligent, untameable, laughable to cast these qualities as unfavorable.
But this was a clear example of the types of prejudices brought against Amelia, rather than her involvement with Italian fascism, per se. I thought it was a key to the character and so I wrote this scene first, more as an exercise for myself than anything, to help find the voice and her character. And it seemed easyto do, as the interrogation document had direct quotes from her, her voice. The scene is almost as I first wrote it.
As a writer what would you say are some common traps for aspiring writers?
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Adam’s Curse– W. B. Yeats
A lot of aspiring writers seem to think writing is easy, the pearls just flow off their fingertips to the keyboard. Maybe that’s true for some, but for me, honing the writingis plain hard work and requires SO MUCH repetition – down upon your marrow-bones.
And to make this revision work truly effective, there has to be a delicious dollop of self-doubt. I often don’t find this in other writers. One of my main fears is that people will stop reading. To this end, I’m cognizant that the plot has to be restless, tension has to keep rising.
But even sentences have to be peeled back. A manuscript I read recently used the word THAT 486 times in 38000 words. Sometimes there were six of them in one paragraph, none of them necessary. There are editing tricks that help move the reader quickly through and into the text,before they’re distracted by a million other things. In each instance you can say – it’s just one word, it doesn’t really matter – but when you sum them over a full manuscript, 10% of the manuscript’s word count can be discarded.
And you can’t write in isolation, although the act of writing requires that. A writer needs engagement with other writers, a writers’ group a splendid thing. Not only do you get feedback on a developing work, but you also get to read other people’s work. Often I see the faults in my own work much clearer in someone else’s. And you don’t have to be in a group of people with similar writing projects, in fact, I value reading genres I wouldn’t usually engage with. For example, speculative or science fiction is not something I usually read, but oddly through my writers’ group, I can see it’s strangely the same as Historical Fiction – both are constructing unknown worlds.
And read. Just read. All the time and anything. Don’t be a snob, read high, read low. Every piece of writing will show you something about technique, even if you don’t like it. And if you don’t likea piece of writing, burrow in and work out why. Have a forged opinion.
And as the little-known Victorian poetess Christabel La Motte succinctly said,
“A writer only becomes a true writer by practising his craft, by experimenting constantly with language, as a great artist may experiment with clay or oils until the medium becomes second nature, to be moulded however the artist may desire.”
A writer has to write.