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Those Faraday Girls

by Monica McInerney

 


MEET THE AUTHOR: JOHN HARWOOD

Dated: 18-Mar-2006

That's the spirit

By: Samela Harris
Senior Features Writer
Advertiser Newspapers Pty Ltd

John Harwood releases his inner eerie self, writes SAMELA HARRIS.

CROUCHING somewhere deep within John Harwood's psyche, a haunting of ghost stories was waiting for its moment. The time came as he eased away from 20 years as an English lecturer at Flinders University - and those lurking spectres materialised as The Ghost Writer, which is The Advertiser Big Book Club's March selection.

Harwood attributes those mind shadows of ghost stories to a 1950s childhood in Hobart, a place he found ``slightly sinister, Dickensian'' and ``like the setting of 19th century English ghost stories''.

Of course, he read ghost stories as a child. His father, Bill, a linguist with the University of Tasmania, and his mother, poet Gwen Harwood, kept a large library.

``I gravitated to one book in particular which was called A Second Century of Creepy Stories which had numerous terrifying stories, including James's Turn of the Screw in it,'' he recalls.

``I imbibed the classic ghost stories very young and they sank down somewhere waiting to surface.''

Harwood, who had graduated in Tasmania and won a scholarship to Cambridge before accepting tenure at Flinders, wrote assorted books and publications through his academic career - most notably a biography of little-known Edwardian novelist Olivia Shakespear who was first lover and then lifelong friend of W.B. Yeats.

When Harwood left Flinders in 1997, he was intent on writing full-time but not sure what he would write. And out came his first supernatural book, Repossession, the tale of a ghostly old house and the old lady who took care of it. Harwood was not happy with this effort and he put it aside - where it remained until he was cogitating once again on Olivia Shakespear and wondering if or how he could write a novel based on her life.

By transposing her genre of ``society novel'' for ghost story, Harwood realised that Olivia could be reborn as Viola Hatherley, a ghost writer whose work is forgotten until her great-grandson comes delving into his family history. Thus inspired, Harwood put his head down and, in five intense days, he wrote the first of the ghost writer's stories. And then he wrote more.

``As I wrote, I felt that this persona was liberating my writing as no attempt to write in what you might call my own voice had ever done before,'' he says. ``I was thinking these were the stories I really wanted to write, even though I was writing them in the voice of a woman who was supposed to be writing them 100 years ago.''

The other surprise, one which is not unique among fiction writers, was that he found himself being drawn into a phenomenon he describes as ``the pull'' of narrative.

``Stories or novels start off like sickly infants and if you neglect them they die very quickly. But once they have grown up a bit, they start to pull of their own accord,'' he explains. ``For the last 100 pages of the book, I knew where I was going but I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. So there was suspense for me . . . moments which were very compelling in the writing.

``In the story The Gift of Flight, I didn't know what would come out of the fog in the library until it actually appeared. Much later, you can reflect on where these things were lurking in your subconscious but, at the time, the doll child was as much a surprise to me as it was to my readers.''

These, says Harwood, are the ``unforgettable moments in the hard slog and gnashing of teeth'' that is a writer's lot.

Harwood researched The Ghost Writer's English setting, walking the routes his characters were to follow, choosing a spot in the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath which would suit the Gothic purposes of his grand old house - one he ``designed from cellar up'' from an amalgam of old English houses he had visited.

And he made rules for himself.

``Once Viola had finished a story, I was not allowed to change it to suit the frame plot,'' he reports. ``They had to be treated as if they had been genuinely found, as if they had all been published 100 years ago.''

Harwood spent three years on the book, writing full-time in a comfortable nine-to-five daily routine which he shared with his partner of 20 years, historian Robin Haines, who was writing her own book. Doctors at Sea - Emigrant Voyages to Colonial Australia was launched at Writers' Week.

Harwood posits that some may find their quiet routine at Victor Harbor somewhat dull. He finds it anything but.

``This was more fun than anything I have done for a very long time,'' he enthuses. ``The Ghost Writer has meant more to me than everything I have written by a long shot.''

Harwood is now completing The Seance - another quasi-supernatural suspense novel involving spiritualism ``and other strange Victorian occult sciences''.

Meanwhile, The Ghost Writer is selling well, especially in the U.S., and has been translated into German, Spanish, Russian and Indonesian. Not surprisingly, Harwood concludes: ``I am a lot happier as a novelist than I was in my latter days as an academic administrator