Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Cass.
We met almost by coincidence at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival although I had heard about you through a mutual friend and had already read and admired your debut novel, The Promise Seed.
The Promise Seed (UQP) is your first published novel. How did you get published – an agent or through the slush pile?
I have been fortunate enough to have had a rather exciting path to publication. The first major encouragement was in 2012 when, through the Brisbane Writers Festival’s program ’20 Pages in 20 Minutes’ I was given 20 minutes of one-on-one critique and advice on the first 20 pages of the manuscript with Farrin Jacobs, then an Editor at Harper Collins UK. The following year, I submitted the completed manuscript to the Queensland Literary Awards, and was shortlisted in the Emerging Author category. As part of the prize, I was awarded 25 hours of mentorship with an experienced editor. I was lucky enough to be connected to Judith Lukin-Amundsen. Her thoughtful criticism and questions played a huge role in strengthening the structure of the manuscript and readying it for submission to University of Queensland Press, who then offered me a contract. Madonna Duffy and the team at UQP have provided me with incredible support and advice along the way.
So…no agent OR slush pile!
What is the significance of your title, The Promise Seed?
Each child is born innocent and vulnerable, entirely guileless. Each child is born full of promise. How that child develops depends on so many factors – physical environment, social nurturing and community support. What sort of adult that child grows into depends on the opportunities and love and care that are devoted to his or her growth – much as with a seed that will not sprout and grow without the right environment. Many of us are so lucky in the circumstances of our birth – we are born into a country without conflict or poverty; or born a gender or race that is ‘socially acceptable’; or have advantages and opportunities available to us that we accept as our right in the natural order of things. So many children do not have those advantages, and their promise is stunted before it really has a chance to grow.
Where are you based and how does this impact on the setting of your novel?
I spent my childhood in Stanthorpe, and I live and write in Brisbane. The Promise Seed is set for the most part in south-east Queensland. The sense of place is quite important in the novel because the old man feels a strong connection to the places of his youth. They are inextricably linked to the events of his past and the memories of his family.
For the boy, the sense of peace and calm he finds in the old man’s garden counterbalances his mother’s peripatetic lifestyle; it feels more like ‘home’ to him than the series of shifting houses and relationships to which she has exposed him.
You portray both an old man and a neglected (and worse) young boy. What inspired these characters?
The Promise Seed is very much driven by the two main characters. I recall quite vividly the day I sat down and wrote the first few pages – the old man’s voice was very strong in my head – and those pages have changed little from that day to this finished publication. The old man was perhaps a conglomeration of many elderly people I have known and respected in my life: my grandparents (I still have one grandmother alive, who is 107!), elderly neighbours, and others in my community. I find it fascinating to consider the lives these people have led, throughout world wars and other conflicts, depressions, and the many societal changes that have become commonplace as the years have passed. I think we sometimes forget the richness of the lives they’ve led.
The boy is also representative of the many children like him, who grow and develop despite the lack of love and care they should be afforded. Many years ago, I was a volunteer for Crisis Care, the after-hours section of the Department of Family Services, and I have no doubt that this has informed this aspect of my writing, along with topical issues such as the Child Protection Commission, and current investigations into institutionalised abuse. I strongly believe that how we care for and protect our most vulnerable is a mirror that reflects our society’s empathy and compassion.
How do these two connect in the novel?
The boy creeps slowly into the old man’s garden, and eventually into his heart. They connect through simple pursuits – gardening, playing chess, chickens – usually through the old man teaching the boy about these things. Older people have a lot to offer young people; even if they don’t have specific skills or talents, they are able to impart the wisdom of the life they’ve lived and the experiences they’ve survived.
Conversely, young people can offer older people youthful enthusiasm, naivety, and open, unsophisticated trust. Children can remind their elders of what it is like to be genuinely excited in the world.
Despite their differences, the lives of the old man and the boy intersect through their common experiences of betrayal and abandonment, and through their shared trauma. As the story progresses, the similarities between the past and the present become more apparent.
Life can be very hard. What would you like to see childhood as being?
This is an interesting question; it appears quite simple but is actually very complex, because of course the goal posts shift depending on who you are talking about. If you consider children in developing countries, I would most like to see them provided with clean drinking water, shelter and safety, and enough food and medical care. Those would be the priorities. In countries like Australia, we often take those needs for granted (although of course, we do still have families who struggle, particularly Indigenous children who still lack some of those basic provisions).
But in general, if we move beyond those primal needs, I would like to see all children be provided with the intellectual stimulation and support to engage their critical thinking; I would like children to feel safe and secure in their family and within the relationships they have with the adults that surround them; I would like childhood to be a place that nurtures tolerance, compassion, empathy and an acceptance of difference. I would like childhood to be a greenhouse for all those seeds of promise that are born every day, an environment where each child can learn, love and flourish, and grow to become a happy and well-adjusted adult member of our society.
I would like to see more insight into the needs of our children, and how they can be enabled to get those needs met, whether that’s through their own families, through external circumstances, or even through coincidence.
Your writing is assured, and lyrical in parts. Could you quote a few sentences or extract from the novel you are particularly pleased with and tell us why?
This extract actually follows on quite nicely from your previous question:
‘I thought about the luck of the draw in where you’re born, and where you end up. You draw the short straw, and what shred of hope do you have of a normal life? If you’re born someplace with none of the advantages that others take for granted, how do you get along in life? And if you don’t know any different, how can you hope for something better? How can you have a shot at what’s possible if you don’t even know what’s possible?
The families I saw around us gave off the simple comfort of loving and being loved. Of having the security to hope and the confidence to dream.
My sister had no chance to hope. No opportunity to laugh and grow and play. To love, to mourn, to take risks, to try. And my wings were clipped early too. No choice in the matter.
The boy…what does he hope for? Where does he dream? How high will he fly without someone to show him the way?’
I think this encapsulates one of the themes of the novel – the chances life gives us, and what happens if life snatches them away.
How else do you spend your time?
Well, I have six children, so that answers that question!
I cherish spending time with my husband and our children, and with our lovely circle of dear friends. And I love to read!
What have you enjoyed reading?
I am a voracious reader and also write reviews on the books I’ve read, which I publish on my facebook page. Some of my recent reads by Australian authors which I have thoroughly enjoyed are ‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop, ‘In the Quiet’ by Eliza Henry-Jones, ‘The Strays’ by Emily Bitto, ‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sophie Laguna, ‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane, ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by ML Stedman, ‘This House of Grief’ by Helen Garner, ‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld, and ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, by Richard Flanagan. Some of my favourite authors are Kate Atkinson, Rohinton Mistry and Boris Akunin.
So many books, so little time!
All the best with your new book and thanks very much, Cass. Your responses are generous and thoughtful and reflect the high quality of your writing.
It’s been a pleasure talking ‘writing and reading’ with Boomerang Books. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate!