Must-have resources, great tips, competitions and more... join our community today!
Sign up
writer-Ep102-artwork-1000

Ep 102 How walking can make you a better writer. And Alexandra Joel, author of “Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story”.

podcast-artwork In Episode 102 of So you want to be a writer: Online writing tools for writers, writing habits to avoid, how walking can make you a better writer, and things that make editors stop reading your manuscript. Meet Writer in Residence Alexandra Joel, author of Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. Plus: can living in a country where English isn’t the main language affect your English writing skills, and more.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

65 Online Writing Tools For Writers, Bloggers & Authors

13 writing habits that are making you look bad

To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker

Ten things that make an editor stop reading your manuscript

Carly Watters, Literary Agent

Writer in Residence

Alexandra Joel

Alexandra Joel is the author of Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story and Parade: the Story of Fashion in Australia, a social history detailing the development of fashion.

She is a former editor of the Australian edition of the international magazine Harper’s Bazaar, and of Portfolio, Australia’s first magazine for working women. She has also been a regular contributor of feature articles, interviews and reviews to a number of national and metropolitan publications including The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine.

Working Writer’s Tip

Do you think living in a country with a foreign language can be problematic for writers who write in English? What about being published in Australia if I live overseas?

Answered in the podcast. 

Competition

Jack the Ripper

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

Share the love!

writer-Ep102-artwork

Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thank you for joining us today, Alexandra.

Alexandra

Thanks so much.

 

Valerie

Now, let’s just start with for those who haven’t read your book yet, Rosetta, can you tell us what it’s about?

 

Alexandra

Rosetta is the story of my scandalous great grandmother, who was the family — not just a secret, but a mystery. I knew nothing about her when I grew up, neither did my mother, neither really did my grandmother.

 

Rosetta lived in Melbourne at the turn of the century, and if you could imagine her, she was the granddaughter of a convict made good, very respectable, married to a respectable gentleman, she had a five-year-old daughter and then she met a man called Zeno the Magnificent and she ran away with him.

 

Valerie

Goodness. He must have charmed her.

 

Alexandra

He was a fortune teller, and he read her palm. The building in which he read her palm is still there today on Swanston Street in Melbourne. I have stood in the street and looked at it, it’s just around the corner from Chinatown, because what I haven’t said is that Zeno was in fact half-Chinese. So when she ran away with him, not only was it enormously shocking, because she had left her husband, she had left her child, but she had run away with a man who was Chinese, and that in Edwardian Melbourne was seen as beyond the pale.

 

Valerie

Wow. So, when did you discover this? How did you discover this if you mother didn’t really know much about it and your grandmother didn’t really know much about it?

 

Alexandra

Well, I guess in order to tell you that what I have to tell you is that Zeno and Rosette completely reinvented themselves. He said he was a Japanese professor of medicine, she said she was American. They set off for the UK. He set up rooms, he came the toast of the town, he became the go-to doctor with absolutely no training whatsoever. He did everything from prescribing medicine, which he also created in his own laboratory, laid hands, told fortunes, had séances. They became the toast of the town, they became extraordinarily well-connected with Duchesses and Dukes and princesses. But, she never saw her child again, and that child was my grandmother.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Alexandra

And all I heard when I grew up from my grandmother was, “My mother didn’t want me. She ran away and left me.”

 

So, it was a terrible thing, it affected her deeply, as you would imagine. It affected my mother, her daughter, and it affected me. But, after… we never asked, we never asked, she didn’t know anything. There was no point in going there. But, when my grandmother died my parents got the death certificate, and there on the death certificate was the name ‘Rosetta.’

 

My father decided — my father was an old journalist in the ’20s and the ’30s, he said, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this. Who was she?” And that’s what began the story. That’s what began the search.

 

Valerie

Yes. Your father first started the search and then you decided to turn it into a book? How did the idea for the book, you know, come about?

 

Alexandra

Well, he became immersed in this extraordinary story, because all of these incredible things had started to immerge that, of course, nobody had any idea about. This glamorous exciting life of adventure that they had romping their way across Europe with various royals and members of the aristocracy. He was, as you could imagine, extremely engaged.

 

One day he came into my room, I remember he was sort of waiving these documents, and he said, “Al,” which is what he called me for short, “Al, your great grandmother’s story was incredible. There’s a book here. You must write it.”

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Alexandra

And that was a long time ago. That was back in the ’90s.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

 

 

Alexandra

I was involved in — I was editing magazines, I was writing other things. I was training… I had, you know, to bring up a family. All of these things sort of happened, but the story wouldn’t go away. And I knew no matter what he discovered I had a feeling there was more to it, that there was even more than he knew about.

 

And I guess one day the stars aligned and I thought… also being a parent yourself and looking back, you become conscious of what’s gone before. And, on the one hand her story was amazingly wonderful, glamourous story about an independent woman who took the world on, who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, that was willing to break every taboo and every convention, but on the other hand a very dark thread ran through it.

 

Valerie

When did you take those papers out of the drawer? When did the stars align and make you think, “OK, now is the time.”?

 

Alexandra

Well, that’s a really good question because although I started writing it a couple of years ago, it took a couple of years… it took ages, actually before I could do it. And the reason was I felt torn. I think I felt almost a sense of, perhaps, disloyalty to my grandmother, the child she left behind. And I felt very torn because half of me was completely fascinated by this, you know, incredible woman, this amazing unconventional glamorous woman who, you know, was on first name terms with Empress Eugenie, and the Duchess of Rutland and so forth.

 

On the other hand I was appalled. The other half felt, “What sort of a monster leaves their five-year-old daughter and never sees her again?” And, I found it terribly hard to reconcile these two things.

 

That’s what held me up until one day everything fell into place.

 

Valerie

And what fell into place?

 

Alexandra

I realized I had to stop — I guess I had to stand outside that family focus and draw on my training, because although I had one career as a journalist and editor, I went onto retrain as a psychotherapist and I conducted a psychotherapy practice for a decade. And I thought, “OK, the only way to do this is to leave all judgement behind and just get to know this extraordinary woman and try to understand what motivated her, try to understand what it meant to be Rosetta in Edwardian Melbourne. What it meant to be married off at 18 to a much older man, what it meant to be a brilliant, daring, beautiful woman who wanted more. And to try understand what it could have been like for her.”

 

In reading the book I think you can see, I still struggle with that, and I was very honest with the reader. One part of me was understanding how trapped she felt and what she wanted in her life, and what it was like to meet a man who said, “You can be whoever you want to be.” But, the other part of me was still struggling and I guess continues to, with how does a woman do that?

 

Valerie

She went to the other side of the world, basically, how did you go about researching what went on and recreating that life? What were the key things you did to do that?

 

Alexandra

Well, first of all I was quite lucky because my father had — and this is many years ago, this was back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he had tracked down several people that knew her and interviewed him, and he had left transcripts behind. So, I had those transcripts, which were really valuable, mainly because most of those people have now passed away.

 

I had an extraordinary collection of letters that were written by Europe’s great and good. I did a lot of reading. I spent a lot of time on the internet, and I went to the places that she went to. I went to all the places she lived in in Melbourne, the places she was in in Sydney. I went over to the UK and I also went to the South of France, and that was probably the most exciting of all.

 

Valerie

And so did this become a full time project for you? Or did you do this while you were doing other things?

 

Alexandra

No, that’s a very good question too. No, I was actually like a woman obsessed. And I think… I think that’s part of the stars aligning because my kids had become adults. I had recently closed my psychotherapy practice. A number of things I had been working on had finished up and I thought, “This is the time I’m going to do it.” And, the story became so engrossing and also so complex, because at the same time as following her life I was following what was happening in my grandmother’s and my mother’s life to make sense of it all.

 

I had to work for long periods of time, so literally I would get up in the morning, I’d have breakfast, and I would go to my computer. Frankly I couldn’t wait. Half the time I was still in my pajamas at lunchtime.

 

I thought she was on my shoulder. It was honestly — when I tried to imagine what it would be like to be Rosetta, to know those people, to be in those places, it was as if a movie was kind of running my head, because I was dying to know what happened next. I had to write it down.

 

It’s sort of like in order to read the book I had to write it.

 

Valerie

Yes! I love that.

 

You’d wake up, you’d go to your computer, sometimes lose track of time, you might be in your pajamas until the middle of the day. Tell us then about — did you have a routine where you did certain things in the morning, or wrote certain things in the morning and did research in the afternoon? Or did you have any — while you were writing this did follow any kind of structure or aim for a certain word count or anything like that?

 

Alexandra

It wasn’t word count that I was aiming for, but I did have the shape of her life. I did have a chapter… I did have a chapter outline, which got dramatically jumbled up by the end, as these things do.

 

But, I had a diary and I would write in my diary, “This is the week I’m going to write about this section, or this scene…” you know? I’m going to… I don’t know write about Wonderland City, or I’m going to write about meeting Empress Eugenie in the south of France, or, you know, one of her adventures. But, I would actually diarize it in, not an electronic diary, but in a real life diary and I would pin it up and say I might allow a week for that, or a fortnight for it.

 

But, if I got to the end of that fortnight and I hadn’t finished I would just sort of have notes, but I would move on. I wouldn’t stay, you know, sort of perfecting it and rounding it out. I’d just get it down, because for me it was really important to get the whole shape of the book, you know, to get the whole story. That’s what I mean, it was just compulsion, “Look, I can’t spend any more time about this bit because I want to know what happens next!”

 

And of course the great thing with writing is you can always go back. I knew I could go back, I knew I could build on it. I knew I could, I don’t know, improve the writing. I knew I could add bits in, but I had to get that narrative down.

 

Valerie

Wow, so you mentioned that you have background in journalism. I certainly remember 22, 23 years ago, I did work experiences in the offices of Gore and Osment, and in Boundary Street in Rushcutters Bay.

 

Alexandra

Oh, goodness.

 

Valerie

Yes, does that take you back?

 

Alexandra

Yes, yes.

 

Valerie

And I believe at the time you were the editor of Portfolio.

 

Alexandra

That’s right.

 

Valerie

Which was one of the first magazines for working women.

 

Alexandra

It was a pioneering magazine in Australia.

 

Valerie

It was… it was. And I loved it.

 

When did you decide that you wanted to become a journalist? Just take us back to when you decided on that first career.

 

Alexandra

Well, I had always been interested… I guess my dad had kind of grown up on the papers. I mean he was a copyboy at the age of 14. He literally grew up on the papers. But, he always said to me, “Don’t be a journalist, it’s no place for a woman. Don’t be a journalist.” And I went to university, and in those days there was no such thing as media and communications courses. So, I did an honors degree in government, but I specialized in media, but it was in the political aspects of media. That was sort of as close as I felt I could get.

 

So I started to work more on the government/legislative side of media, because things like FM radio were very new then, and there were all sorts of television initiatives happening.

 

But, it just kept nagging away at me. I’d been a part of a group that was applying for an FM radio license, and I did that. And then I kind of thought, “You know, this is really not satisfying me. I want to write.”

 

And so I just looked at a range of magazines, in those days Australian Consolidated Press, which was owned by Mr. Packer was the big thing, but also Fairfax had a very strong magazine group. And, I mean it must have been where fools rush in, but I just started to write and I started to submit.

 

I found my work was accepted. I’ll never forget, oh god, that feeling when you have your first check and you want to frame it, you want to stop people in the street.

 

I was actually too inhibited, and because I was doing this sort of government work I didn’t want people to know that I was doing it. So, for years I wrote under another name.

 

Valerie

Oh!

Alexandra

So, I kept on doing the other work, and I was also working in a family company, which had media interest, but not as a journalist, as an executive. I kept contributing to all of these magazines.

 

In the end… then I wrote a book. I wrote a book which was on the history of fashion in Australia, which was a social history really told through dress and identity. And by that time I had been writing a lot for Harper’s Bazaar, probably one, two, three big pieces each issue. And when Fairfax kind of collapsed and Consolidated Press bought the Fairfax magazines they asked me to edit Harper’s Bazaar, which was terrific. So, I did that.

 

And from there I went on and edited Portfolio. Then I did another book, and about then I decided to have a change in career.

 

Valerie

Was Portfolio around before you were editing it?

 

Alexandra

Yes, it was. Yes, it was around for a number of years before I took the chair, and at the time it was pretty revolutionary because…

 

Valerie

There was nothing like it at all.

 

Alexandra

There was nothing like it and the fact is that mainstream media, business pages, business magazines did not give any profiles to working women, didn’t deal with any issues that might pertain to working women, didn’t offer a platform to working women. It sounds extraordinary now, because I like to think that since Portfolio did such a good job that there was no longer a need for a magazine like that. And maybe today people think, “Oh, that’s kind of quaint,” but in those days woman didn’t have a voice.

 

Valerie
Yes.

 

Alexandra

And they really needed one, and this was a means to give it to them.

 

Valerie

Obviously you have this background in journalism, you can write. But, writing articles is very different to writing a book. There’s much more instant gratification with writing articles, sort of, because it’s much shorter. It doesn’t take you two years to write an article or whatever.

 

What did you need to change in your approach to writing in order to sustain the period it would take to write this much, much longer story?

 

Alexandra

There were two things I did… because I wasn’t terribly confident and I thought I might be kind of lonely, you know, locked away in my little room, I joined a writing course on memoir and creative fiction. And that was great because that gave me a writing cohort. I did give me a group of people to see each week and to check in with over a period of two or three months.

 

That was a big help.

 

But, really more than that… I know it sounds crazy, but I was just dying to read the book.

 

I had a friend, a very good friend that I had for many, many years, and I kind of felt like we were sharing it together. Like, I was dying to… it was sort of like a book group of two. I was dying to read it, and so was she. So, it was a bit like, you know, the way Dickens would sort of write a chapter… not that I’m comparing myself to Dickens, but he would write a chapter and it would be published every couple of weeks and then he’d write another chapter and it would be published. Well, that’s what it was like with my friend. Sometimes I’d literally give a hard copy, sometimes I’d email it and say, “Here’s the next bit… here’s the next installment.” And it was gorgeous to have an audience.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Alexandra

It was gorgeous to write for somebody. And it was also probably really good to have another voice saying, “Come on, I’m dying to know what happens… what did she do?”

 

Valerie

So if you became a woman possessed and obsessed in this period, now that it’s written, it’s out there, do you find yourself twiddling your thumbs and kind of going, “Well, what do I research now?” Or, “What am I working on now?”

 

Alexandra

Oh no, not at all because this book has had such a quick turnaround. I only signed with Random House in September. And I hadn’t actually even finished because I still had a chapter missing… I had to say, “Look, I’ve got this bit that I realize is important that I’ve got to do, the only problem is I’ve got to go the Rivera…” it sounds like such an improbable line. So, they kind of… they did a half-edit and I responded to that and then I beamed over and went to these amazing villas and places I needed to go to. Came back, wrote that, then they did the other half edit.

 

And so it sort of went into production really quickly. So, I didn’t really have much time to think, but I think I’ve got the bug, Valerie, because I’ve… I’ve already come across another extraordinary story which is also about a family secret and a family mystery.

 

Valerie

Your family secret?

 

Alexandra

No, no… no. This is actually a whole other family.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Alexandra

Partly because of that this book is going to be a novel, although very much based on the true extraordinary story. I can’t wait now to get going on this one.

 

Valerie

Wow. OK. Is this one going to take you to the Rivera or somewhere even more exotic?

 

Alexandra

Well, this one will take me from the far West New South Wales to Paris.

 

Valerie

Wow! That’s a hard life, isn’t it?

 

Alexandra

Oh, I know! I know!
Valerie

The things you need to do in the name of research.

 

OK, so have you already started working on that?

 

Alexandra

I have… well, I haven’t put pen to paper, but I have started the interviewing process and the collecting of material. And, yet again it is a story about a family. It also has a fair component of glamour and pizazz. But, it too has a very dark thread that runs through it. I guess maybe that shows two half of my life, one is editor of Harper’s Bazaar and the other is really down in the trenches as a psychotherapist, because you know behind the beauty, behind the adventure there is very often a very dark and sometimes a bitter tale as well.

 

Valerie

It sounds like you really enjoy telling that tale.

 

Alexandra

I do. I do.

 

Valerie

Alright, and on that note then, thank you so much for your time today, Alexandra.

 

Alexandra

Oh, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you, Valerie.

 

 

Mar 30, 2016 Podcasts Australian Writers' Centre Team

Written by Australian Writers' Centre Team

Comments

Free ebook just for you

Crime. Murder. Espionage. Mystery. And much more in our free ebook A Month of Murder and Mayhem. Launching in August!

Fill in your details below to receive it as soon as it's ready.

Enter our latest giveaway!

The Writers' Room
Podcasts
Q&As
“Writing
Student Successes
Competitions
The Blogosphere
Writing Jobs
Gifts for Writers




Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

Follow us on Instagram

  • Weekend todo list  WRITE
  • Tag someone who would love to spend big! Enter throughhellip
  • Long live books
  • That chance is yours for the taking
  • What a beautiful desk to sit and write writingspace
  • Them fighting words