Lisa Forrest, author of Inheritance
Tell us about your latest creation…
My latest creation is a YA fantasy novel set in the circus called, INHERITANCE. I started my career as an author of YA fiction but my last book, BOYCOTT (a non-fiction account of the controversial months before the 1980 Moscow Games when PM Malcolm Fraser tried to stop Australia from attending the Games; I was 16 and captain of the women’s swim team), had been quite a gruelling experience and I knew that if I was going to write another book I really needed to write something fun!
As a teenager, I liked the stories of Trixie Belden and her teenage team of super-sleuths, the Bob-Whites and I was keen to head in the direction of mystery-and-adventure-with-friends. Then I interviewed John Flanagan. We (my son, husband and I) loved his Ranger’s Apprentice series. Since the series had been inspired by John’s son it got me thinking: my own son was too young at the time to inspire a teenage series but my niece, a circus girl who lives in Wollongong, had just crossed the teenage ‘threshold’. At the time she was a reluctant reader so I started researching with her in mind. I discovered that our word circus came from the Latin word of the same name which was Romanised from Greek word, kirkos, meaning circle or ring. So I started playing with the spelling of the two words, circus/kirkos and threw into the mix the first circus in Rome, Circus Maximus, and began to imagine an ancient circus troupe called the Cirkulatti, always led by a woman, known as the Eminence, who it was said could whisper to the minds of her audience. Her powers – and those of her troupe – were so coveted by rulers of the various civilisations that they honoured the ascendance of each new eminence with a piece of jewellery, which together became known as the Curios of the Eminence.
What if my Wollongong circus girl had one of these curios and people were after it? Who might they be? Perhaps the Cirknero, the dark side of the Cirkulatti who were not content with supporting the throne but instead wanted to control it? If my Wollongong circus girl had the curio did that mean it could help her overcome those who are chasing her? And if she’s in possession of a curio, does that means she’s linked to the eminence – or possibly destined to be the next eminence?
At first I’d intended to write a fictional eminence. Then, reading E.H. Gombrich’s, Little History of the World, I learned about Theodora, empress of the Holy Roman Eastern Empire in the mid-500’s, who ruled as an equal with her husband, Justinian. She, apparently, rose from the circus to be Justinian’s wife, and during her lifetime was a hugely influential and important figure. The coincidence was too perfect.
So, INHERITANCE is about a girl called Tallulah who’s always known she’s different – she has the gift of communicating without speaking, a secret she shares only with her childhood nanny, Irena. But, when she joins Cirque d’Avenir (which she thinks is just a local holiday circus school) she finds she isn’t the only one with a special gift. As she gets drawn further into the Cirque d’Avenir ‘family’ she discovers a world of dark ancient powers and centuries-old greed that requires her to call on all the skills Irena taught her – as well as the protection of a mysterious cuff her nanny left with her for safekeeping.
But what is the secret power of the cuff – and why are men willing to die to possess it? Tallulah has always understood that being different is dangerous – but will that stop her from accepting her true inheritance?
Where are you from / where do you call home?
I grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney. I now live in the inner city but we still spend a lot of time on the north side – the beaches are the best!
When you were a kid, what did you want to become? An author?
My first ambition was a small one – to swim for Australia at the Olympic Games!
I joined Dee Why Ladies Amateur Swim Club when I was 8. My younger brother wanted a fibreglass surfboard but Dad said he couldn’t upgrade from the foam Koolites we rode until he could swim 400m. He joined Dee Why Men’s, got his name in the results section of the local paper, The Manly Daily and not to be outdone I followed him down there the next week. Apparently, I cried all the way to the 25m finish line of my first race (a sort of combination dog-paddle, over-arm freestyle) but it mustn’t have been too distressing because I was down there again the next week. That winter, as Dad took me to Killarney Heights once a week to learn to do freestyle with my face in the water, Shane Gould, Gail Neal and Bev Whitfield saved Australia’s sporting pride at the 1972 Munich Games by winning 5 gold medals between them (Australia won a total of 8). Shane was 15, Gail and Bev were 17 (back in the 70’s we still thought that 16 was the age girls ‘peaked’ at). A few weeks after Munich, Gail Neal arrived at my primary school with her gold medal. That was all the inspiration I needed. I made the calculation: in 1976 I’d be 12; in 1980, I’d be 16. Even better I’d be in Year 11. Since Mum’s big thing was education I thought she’d be happy that I could squeeze the Olympics in between my School Certificate in Year 10 and my HSC in Year 12. The timing couldn’t be more perfect!
I eventually started my international swimming career when I was 14. The first trip I went on, to the Commonwealth Games in Canada, included a four week training camp in Hawaii prior to the Games, and the possibility of an extra few weeks on the other side of the Games – if we swam well enough – for the World Championships in West Berlin. I won a silver medal at the Games in the 200BK so I was away for a total of 12 weeks. So I was on the other side of the world for long periods of time and I suffered from homesickness very badly but my parents only had the budget for me to call
home once a week. That’s when I started to write. In the days before email I wrote letters like books. It was the journalists who travelled with the Australian team who recognised I was a ‘writer’ and suggested (since I was always talking to them about my favourite footy team, Manly) that I should be a sports reporter when I retired. I worked for more than fifteen years as a broadcast journalist/presenter before I had the confidence to tackle a novel.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?
INHERITANCE. It’s my fifth novel – so I expect it to be better than anything I’ve written just because I’m more practised! But the scope of INHERITANCE is also just so much more ambitious than
anything I’ve written in the past. I’d never written fantasy – but that turned out to be just one of the many challenges of this book. Turning the idea of an ancient magical circus troupe reforming in modern times into a narrative meant I quickly had a grand saga on my hands that included magic, mystery, history, and family (the Cirkulatti is an extended family), not to mention battle scenes, all interwoven with the most important element of YA fiction: relationships, and a hint of romance. Just getting to the end of the story, I felt, was an achievement in itself!
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?
I do have an office in my house and it is chaotic. But I didn’t write a lot of INHERITANCE in my office. During the creation of Inheritance I had so many serious doubts that I could pull it off I had to switch a few things around. I normally exercise when I first get up (at 5.30am) but since I didn’t get to my desk until I’d got my little boy off to school (after 9), there were just too many hours to convince myself that I wasn’t imaginative enough to write such a book. I knew that the Crown Street Grocer, in Sydney, where I got my first coffee of the day, opened when I got up so I explained my problem to Joe, the owner, and being the generous soul that he is, he welcomed me in. Every morning I was on his doorstep at 6am with my laptop. His early morning customers were very respectful – probably because I was there most days for more than a year working on my book, they realised it was taking all of my concentration! So if my head was down they didn’t disturb me but if my eyes were up and wandering they were friendly and encouraging, which was really helpful. And hours later, when my battery had run out, the voice of doubt could find no purchase in my mind since there were a thousand or more words added to the book.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?
I cover a wide range because I try to keep up with the books my son reads – he likes to talk about them with me, although he’s scooted way ahead of me now with Feist’s, Magician – as well as the popular YA stuff like The Hunger Games, Melina Marchetta’s, Finnikin series, and anything Margo Lanagan writes. Plus there are the adult classics that I don’t think I’ve read enough of!
Because there aren’t enough hours in the day when you’re a writer as well as mother and wife, I’m a big fan of audio books. Right now I’m listening to Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – the magic is beautiful and but sinister at the same time. Before that I was listening to Campbell Scott read For Whom the Bell Tolls – the story of Robert Jordan’s doomed mission to blow up a bridge in the mountains near Segovia. All the way through the book I knew it was doomed but Hemingway’s words, his characters, drew me on so that when the fatally injured Robert Jordan finally said to Maria, ‘we will never go to Madrid,’ I wept as if it was a complete surprise! I don’t remember the last time I’d shed so many tears over a book.
I’ve had a magic realism phase, a Jeanette Winterson phase, an Ian McEwan phase, an F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald phase, read Possession, by A.S Byatt, a number of times, and loved Madeleine St John’s, Women in Black – who wouldn’t like a book that has a heroine who changes her name from Lesley to Lisa when she went for a job in the a department store (a lot like David Jones) in the late 1950’s, because Lisa sounded more sophisticated!
I read a lot more non-fiction when I was an interviewer; not so much now but I will always read anything David Marr has written. He’s a dear friend and one of the most brilliant people I know.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?
I’ve written already about the influence of Trixie Belden and her friends.
When I was younger I had an illustrated picture book called Children of the World that I read over and over – I was a bit disappointed when I began my international swimming career to find that there weren’t young girls and boys in Hawaii, Canada or Germany dressed in the national costumes like I’d seen in my book! And I loved a collection of ghost stories called, Shudders and Shakes.
Mum always said that the only way she could get me to school every day when I was little, without crying, was the promise of a Golden Book at the end of the week. When I got older she included a book among my Christmas presents and there was usually a story as to why she chose it for me. Shudders and Shakes had been one of those; so was the The Thorn Birds – Mum heard an interview with Colleen McCullough on the radio. I was barely 14; I read it in about two days! And she gave me a gorgeous edition of My Brilliant Career that was illustrated with all the costumes from the movie. I was a teenager during the years of the great Australian mini-series so I read (and loved) A Town Like Alice, and, 1915, and All The Rivers Run (actually my geography teacher loved that book so I also read it because she recommended it for the descriptions of the meandering river). I liked historical fiction like Exodus by Leon Uris and, thrillers like The Bourne Identity and the gentle story-telling of Maeve Binchy’s, Light a Penny Candle.
At school I loved To Kill a Mockingbird (I recently listened to Sissy Spacek narrating it and I can’t recommend her reading enough) and Pride and Prejudice, of course. Hated Tess of the D’urbervilles – it’s got to be said!
If you were a literary character, who would you be?
Trixie Belden, Scout Finch, Sybylla Melvyn, or Elizabeth Bennett. Do they need explaining? Although, we’ve just read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and I rather like Tiffany Aching – precocious and brave and true, all good qualities for a girl.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?
Well, not surprisingly (sorry), I mostly hang out with my husband and son.
I was almost 39 when I had Dex, I had no intention of getting married let alone having children, but my best friend was diagnosed with an awful cancer and given no time to live and suddenly I thought ‘what are we here for?’
After a very fulfilling life of my own, I’ve been happy to let Dex lead me down paths (in his completely obsessive way) I would never have gone without him: sea creatures (particularly the really ugly creatures of the deep), dinosaurs (particularly the ugliest and including the swimming reptiles), insects (particularly the enormous spiders, dragonflies and millipedes of the Carboniferous period), cars (particularly the supercar of this century, the Bugatti Veyron – we searched London for one when I was there to work at the Olympic Games last year and finally found a bright-yellow Grand Sport spider at a dealer in Berkeley Square; we were all in awe) and, of course, the world of fantasy fiction. I would not have written INHERITANCE, I’m sure, if he wasn’t in my life
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?
Very hard to narrow down a favourite! But I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I eat a LOT of salad in order to earn my cake. Chocolate cake, cheese cake, orange and poppy seed cake, lemon and coconut cake, red velvet cake … I like them all. And a piece of cake goes very well with a macchiato (with a sprinkling of chocolate on top). Although, I’m also quite partial to a glass of Sangria.
Who is your hero? Why?
I’ve had different heroes at different times in my life. I’ve mentioned Shane Gould and Gail Neal when I was a young swimmer. Madonna was a hero for a long time. I was on holiday in the US – actually
on my first visit to New York – when the True Blue album was released and Madonna appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair completely transformed from the early NY downtown boy-toy we’d known, to the sleek, platinum-blonde diva that marked the next phase in her career. Her transformation appealed to me because in my own, post-swimming career, I’d been trying desperately to move away from ‘the swimmer’, to extend my range as a journalist beyond sport, and I’d finally got a break. I was on holiday because I’d left my job as ABC sports reporter/presenter/commentator and when I got home I’d be taking up my new position as a roving reporter on The Midday Show. If Madonna could do it, so could I. I was with her through the brilliant Ray of Light album, and on the next album, Music, her song, What if Feels Like for a Girl, spoke so perfectly to experiences I’d had in early relationships when I was at the height of my post-swimming/media career. But she lost me when she started to doing weird things to her face. I may be naïve, but I’m trying to hold onto the belief that a woman’s magnificence can transcend a few wrinkles. My Nan, who passed away a few years ago now, is someone I’d like to emulate as I age. She stayed very modern in her attitude all the way to 96; she didn’t have much, materially, but was rich in common sense – a commodity we suffer from a chronic shortage of these days.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?
Time is short, and the choice in entertainment, for the consumer is massive, so getting, and holding, the reader’s attention is probably the biggest challenge.
Ideally, a good story, well told, should do that. But getting attention in a saturated market is tough. And does ‘well told’, these days, mean faster-paced, or offering a respite from a world that is already
fast-paced? I’m not sure there is one winning formula. My favourite movies are the screw-ball comedies from last century; fast-talking, wise-cracking, clever, often professional people were popular entertainment when the world moved at a slower pace and women, more often, stayed at home. Remakes of those movies for me are slow-moving and pretty dull – more often an insult to our intelligence compared to the originals, but people flock to them.
Ultimately, I think we’ve got to write the stories we’re drawn to and hope that others will be drawn in too.
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