Liberty by Nikki McWatters

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books Blog, Nikki.

Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?

Thanks so much for reading Liberty, Joy, and for these wonderful questions … here goes.

I am based in Terrigal, just north of Sydney. I love being a part of the YA writing community and have made some dear friends. Currently a writer friend and I are putting together a Central Coast writers’ group to offer each other support and encouragement. It’s easy to feel isolated as a writer so community is important.

I was swept away by your new novel Liberty (University of Queensland Press). What else have you written?

I’ve written two memoirs and Liberty is the second of a series of three books in a loose trilogy called The Systir Saga. Hexenhaus was first released in 2016 and Liberty will be followed by Saga in 2019. The books can be read in any order or as stand-alone books but work well as companions or ‘sister’ books.

How did you select the three story strands and protagonists in Liberty? Could you give an outline of each?

I chose the historical characters of Betsy Gray and Jeanne Laisne after extensive searching for girls who could fit my agenda. They were chosen because they were strong and courageous, standing up and out in times of conflict and raising their voices for themselves and the women who came after them. History has overlooked women’s stories of valour in favour of ‘hero’ tales and I wanted to lift these girls’ stories from the footnotes and shine a spotlight on them. In Liberty, Frenchwoman Jeanne Laisne leads an army of women against a hostile invading force in the late 1400s; Irish Betsy Gray rides beside her brother and sweetheart in a rebellion against the English; and Fiona McKechnie marches for peace and freedom in the anti-war movement in the late sixties in Brisbane.

Which are based on historical figures?

Betsy and Jeanne were real historical characters while Fiona is a fictional composite of some of the strong women in my own life (grandmothers/mother/aunts).

How have you used romance in the stories?

There is romance in each of the stories but I made sure that none of my girls were defined by the men in their lives. Each broke with the traditions of their time. Arranged marriage was the norm in France at that time but Jeanne wanted to marry for love. Betsy was in no hurry to settle into butter-churning and domestic servitude and Fiona wanted to ‘be’ a lawyer as opposed to her father’s hope that she might ‘marry’ a lawyer.

How do you show female powerlessness and oppression in these tales?

During each of the eras, women faced significant powerlessness and oppression. Women were largely seen as property or ‘helpmates’ to their fathers and husbands. My three characters feel suffocated by this and seek to break those bonds and assert themselves as individuals.

How do you highlight the power and agency of women in the novel?

Power and agency were not on offer to my three girls; they had to wrest it for themselves with great strength and determination. Each took the harder path and refused to let society dictate who they were and what they were capable of. They had to break some old rules to make way for new ones.

Female bloodlines are shown, even leading back to Jeanne d’Arc/Joan of Arc. Why have you included these?

The female bloodline, written in the mysterious Systir Saga book, a matrilineal family tree that spanned many centuries, is the life-force of Liberty and the other books in the trilogy. While there are actual historical female figures in this book, including Joan of Arc, it really is symbolic of the global sisterhood – a force that runs beneath the surface of movements such as #metoo. We have the liberties we do today because of women like Betsy and Jeanne and Fiona who raised their voices, which allowed those that came after to raise theirs.

All three protagonists have missing mothers and none want to disappoint or dishonour their fathers. Why these missing mothers?

My characters have no mothers in their lives. This is interesting because I think being raised by fathers shaped the girls, to a certain extent, but all felt compelled to make their late mothers proud of them and they sought to right the wrongs that had taken their mothers from them too early. In Fiona’s case, she wanted to attend university because that had not been an option for her own mother.

How does Jeanne query the predestination of fate?

Jeanne does question the concept of predestination. Her fate was to be ‘sold off’ and married to a cruel man she did not love because the Captain of her town made decisions about her life and not even her father could prevent that. Jeanne, as a poor peasant girl, felt miserable about not being able to make her own life choices and so she seized her moments when they presented themselves and managed to change her destiny. This is true for all of us. No matter how trapped we feel, we always have choices.

Betsy’s heroine was Mary Ann McCracken. Who is yours?

I love that you ask who my heroine is. I have so many. I actually do a daily visualisation and have an imaginary council of strong women that includes Michelle Obama, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Queen Elizabeth the First, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Malala Yousafzai. I know that sounds a bit wacky but it works for me.

Your novel title is ‘Liberty’. What liberty do you hope for?

I have a great desire for true liberty for women in our world. This would mean that women felt safe to walk at night; safe in their workplaces, schools and in their homes. Equal pay would be a reality and women would sit in equal measure in boardrooms, governments and in every walk of life. Women would be valued for themselves and respected for the great human beings they are.

What are you writing next?

I have just finished writing Saga, the third book where I introduce three new heroines. Hexenhaus has three women accused of witchcraft, Liberty has three warrior women and in Saga I have three young women who change the world through words.

Thanks very much Nikki and I greatly look forward to reading Saga.

Thanks Joy. I really loved your questions!

Nik x

Published by

Joy Lawn

Joy Lawn writes the YA literature column for the Weekend Australian and interviews authors for Magpies magazine. She judges the Prime Minister’s Literary awards and has chaired the children’s literature panels for both the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and Queensland Literary Awards and judged the CBCA and IBBY Honour (Australia) Awards. She specialises in children’s, YA and literary fiction. Joy promotes Australian literature here and overseas.