Researching became addictive for author Sheryl Gwyther when writing Sweet Adversity. Read about her writing journey.
I didn’t set to write Sweet Adversity as an historical children’s novel set during Australia’s Great Depression. Rather, this story began almost nine years ago with one of those useful half-asleep dreams on the edge of waking – and I saw her, a young girl in a grubby pinafore fleeing along a dusty road with her companion, Macbeth, a Shakespeare-quoting cockatiel. The dream ended before I knew what the girl was running from – but I knew she was angrier than a box of bees, and she was scared.
The Shakespeare link I understood … the night before, we’d been cleaning rubbish from my elderly mother-in-law’s garage. In a white-ant chewed box destined for the tip sat a faded antique copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. This beautiful gilt-edged book had belonged to her mother, an actress in a travelling theatre troupe in the late 1800s.
It was only a short step to put my dream runaway-girl in an outback orphanage in the middle of the worst year of the Great Depression. The only child of travelling Shakespearean actors, Addie McAllister is feisty, vulnerable, loyal, funny, talented and at times opinionated – not a wise thing when you live under Matron Maddock’s iron rule.
Researching the era proved addictive. I’d been reading Wendy Lowenstein’s Weevils in the Flour– a brilliant work about the Great Depression in Australia. But as the story developed my research turned to obscure things like … could a woman own a Buick car in the late 1920s? How did the motor start? What music was popular in 1930? Was the tetanus vaccine available for children in Australia in 1930 (no, it only became available in 1939 for war-wounded soldiers). What games did children play? How much was a loaf of bread, and could you make butterfly patty cakes from weevilly flour? Did the new ‘moving pictures’ spell the end of vaudeville? And how could I capture thephysical landscape of the 1930s outback towns and Sydney?
At the National Library, I researched the Great Depression’shidden storiesas well as other significant historical content – the unfinished Harbour Bridge; the tragic Rothbury Mine lock-out. I read people’s recollections as children of the Depression – those from rural areas where families bartered home-grown food, and those from poverty-stricken cities.
Some children worked in conditions reminiscent of the early 1880s … some ran away to avoid being put into institutional care. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how simple it would be for vulnerable children to disappear. And in this mix of humanity would be those brave souls who stood up for others less able to … like Adversity McAllister would.
I also dug deep into my own trusty book of Shakespeare’s quotes. Sweet are the uses of adversity, from his play, ‘As You Like It’,gave the book its perfect title. And soit was for my protagonist, Addie. Facing adversity leads her through isolation and life-threatening danger, but she’s strengthened by loyalty, friendship and her dream of becoming a Shakespearean actress.
Finding a way to delve into the minds, hearts, speech and actions of those who lived in 1930, then using it to create a story with characters to thrill, entertain and inspire young modern readers was both a challenge and a joy … but, as Will Shakespeare once wrote, All’s Well That Ends Well.
Sheryl Gwyther is an award-winning author from Brisbane, Australia. Her first children’s novel, Secrets of Eromanga was published by Lothian Books/Hachette Australia in 2006.
Her chapter books are also in many Australian schools and across the globe. Sheryl’s short stories and plays are found in Australia’s The School Magazine, Ireland’s The Looking Glass Magazine and New Zealand’s Junior Journal, and most recently, a new Chapbook of children’s flash fiction, Seven Tales.
Sheryl’s awards include two Australian Society of Authors’ Mentorships, two May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowship Residencies; and a 2015 Work-of-Outstanding-Progress Grant from SCBWI International (the first non-American to win) for her manuscript, Sweet Adversity.