About the book
Stella Truehart Smith is searching for identity now that she’s a widow without realising that she’s been living a lie her whole life. Private detective Bendigo Barrett tracks her down for his mysterious client who requests information from Stella about Leo Smith, her father. Leo abandoned his young pregnant wife thirty-three years earlier for an adventurous life on a US confederate navy ship, the Shenandoah. The ship had docked in Melbourne in 1865 during the American Civil War.
What inspired the idea behind this book?
A number of things which all tie in with the question of research. I wanted to explore mystery and crime-solving in my historical stories. I wanted another real iconic event that occurred at one particular time in a generation to have far reaching effects on a generation later.
This one is lesser known. To discover that the American Civil War had touched Australian colonial shores was a great surprise to me; I don’t think I’d ever given any thought to the Confederate Navy fighting the Union Navy in the Pacific. But the Shenandoah was one of many such US ships, and it was the last to surrender after war’s end, the last ship to fire its guns in that war in 1865.
Forty-two colonial men who embarked on the ship in Melbourne under cover of darkness, were enlisted in the Confederate navy once the ship had left the wharf and was outside Australian territorial waters. The British were neutral in the war therefore so were their colonials; it was against the law to enlist.
What if one of those illegal enlistees had used the opportunity to abandon his new wife and unborn child and chase a life on the high seas?
Later, in 1898 when that child Stella is a grown woman, Australian Federation is just about done and dusted – all bar the shouting (in 1901). The road to our Constitution was paved by studying the constitution of the United States, a model of what not to exclude.
Private detectives in the day were not well-regarded people, and certainly the profession had a rocky start. Bendigo Barrett is just such a person, trying to support two sisters and make ends meet. He is tasked to find Stella and to find out what she knows about her father.
A great deal of information has come from Trove and the digitised newspapers of the day – oh, the indignant outrage of colonial editorial – and also from a wonderful book written by Terry Smyth, ‘Australian Confederates’, following those colonials, and others, who enlisted on the Shenandoah.
I was able to explore pawnbroking, the advent of the wheelchair, the effect of the US Constitution on the Australian model that was finally adopted, the non-existent voting franchise of the Victorian colony’s women and the fact that the South Australian female vote secured in 1894 directly influenced the wording of our constitution.
How does it feel to hold your book in your hands?
This is my sixth publication with HarperCollins and the feeling is the same – absolutely wonderful. It’s the magic that a story that lives in my imagination has become ‘real’. It’s always a thrill for me to see my story in print, produced by a world class publisher, and to know that I have readers who will enjoy the escape, be swept away by the adventure and perhaps learn a few interesting bits like I did. It’s many things to hold that book, none the least of which is to hold the tangible achievement of a lifelong goal.
If I looked at your internet history …
Let’s see now, what’s there at the moment: the effects of cocaine on nasal mucous membranes; when Huntington’s disease comes early; principal parts and sails of 19th century sailing ships; the Austin Hospital Melbourne; spinach and yoghurt flan; how to jam an accelerator cable; Locard’s Principal; 19th century lady detectives; sea diving women of Jeju Island, and the etymology of ‘okay’.
Does the creative process get easier with each new book?
Can’t say it does and I don’t want it to become easier. I love the battle, nutting out all the what-ifs.
The process is something I thoroughly enjoy, so I happily glide along with whatever comes my way. Although, three consecutive nights with broken sleep while the Muse considers her options can wear me out.
I’m learning how my process works. It’s not something I feel I control. I don’t want to stop those ‘ping’ moments coming to me in the wee small hours and train them to hit me during the day. Characters also speak, so I’ve learned to listen more. Weird?
What does become hard is finding an interesting topic to research that will be of interest. Iconic events in Australian history have been reworked in fiction over and over, so finding that nugget that might not be very well known is like gold itself—they’re there, perhaps just covered by layers of fusty archive files waiting to be discovered. Oh, the excitement!