6 questions: Sandra Leigh Price’s “The River Sings”

When a new book comes along, we like to leave a trail of breadcrumbs (or coffee beans) out – leading authors straight to our interview questions. And this week, we’ve lured Sydney-based author Sandra Leigh Price to chat about her new book, The River Sings. (Sandra’s 2015 debut novel was The Bird’s Child.)

Hi Sandra. Oh, um, just put the breadcrumbs in the pile over there with the others. Thanks. So, can you tell us about The River Sings?
The Rivers Sings is about a small girl, the apple of her father’s eye. A small wooden doll. Romany ways. The power of an ancient river. A house with its own tide. The strength of a mother’s love.

“London, 1825. Born the same day as the young princess destined to be queen, Eglantine has an altogether different path ahead of her, strewn with the glittering waste of her father's ambitions. Her mysteriously prosperous father, Mr Amberline Stark, coaxes her to follow in his footsteps, making picking pockets a delightful parlour game which they play in their fine house by the Thames.

“It is only when Amberline is caught and transported as a thief to the penal colony of Australia, that Eglantine has to grow up and fend for herself using her only skill. Reluctantly, the thief's daughter becomes a thief, until a chance meeting gives her a window on a new way of being, and the opportunity to strike out into a new and untarnished world.

The River Sings is a story about birth and death, love and sadness, love knots and cut ties, quicksilver and shine, old worlds and new beginnings.”

Sounds intriguing. But let’s come back to “Romany” ways – can you define this for us?
“Well, the correct term I suppose would be ‘Romany’ or ‘Roma’ (and not to be mistaken with ‘Romanian’), to describe the nomadic peoples of Europe, but in the 19th century, the word ‘gypsies’ was used. Originally as a derivation of the word Egyptian, though in all probability the Romany were (through research into the linguistic roots) immigrants to Europe from India in the 1100s.”

You mention an Australian connection – and this book was in part inspired by your own convict ancestry. Can you explain to us what drew you to write about a gypsy convict in particular?
“I feel that in many ways Australia hasn’t confronted the reality of its convict past; that we are lost in representations of the idea of a sort of larrikin heroism around the idea of having a convict in the family tree. But this should only be a starting point. At its base there is the trauma of family separation of those lost and those left behind.

“There are many versions of the convict story that are neglected by the view of the ‘larrikin hero’, such as those from a different cultural, political, personal background. For gypsies, they are mostly erased in the convict records. Gypsies are usually only discoverable by their occupation listed in court records, such as basket-maker, hawker, horse dealer, tin-man, or dealer. One of my convict ancestors shared one of these occupations. Also, after the first draft of The River Sings I read Great Expectations and was struck by the romany sub-text of Magwich and Molly that Dickens employs.”

 We don't hear a lot about gypsies in Australia (unless someone’s naming a florist shop or new-age clothing store). How did you go about researching them?
“The gypsies that were transported to Australia were forced to assimilate similarly as were Jewish or Catholic convicts – traditional ways of life were not accommodated within the Penal colony. The information was sparse, so I kept my research parameters tight.

The Gipsies' Advocate; Or Observations on the Origin, Character, Manners, and Habits, of the English Gipsies by James Crabb (1832) was a great source of information. Also I looked at representations and prejudices toward gypsies in a wider social context, i.e. young Princess Victoria’s relationship with the gypsies camped around Kensington Palace – a mixture of patronising curiosity and delight. I also researched Romany traditions and superstitions as way to get a window into that world.”

Okay, let’s step back a moment and look at your writing routine. Do you have one? What's your typical day like?
“It involves coffee. In an ideal world when working on a book I like to write longhand under the influence of coffee in a café, as I’m yet to have a room of my own. After that I usually head home to type it up, but end up only doing a little as I loathe typing up my handwriting. There is also the danger of hating what I’ve written as I’m looking at it too soon, so I don’t pay it any attention as I type it up. I usually then do some research reading. I dream of the technology advanced enough to accurately transcribe my handwriting to text.”

That would be marvellous! Finally, if you could go back to before you started writing your first novel, what advice would you give yourself then?
“That the only true pleasure, the only way forward is to focus on the writing itself. Publication and publicity are a blessing and so important, but in this age when the writer themselves has become content to equal the book they’ve written, this can be challenging. So I remind myself constantly, writing and writing alone is where the true joy is.”

Good advice! If only transcribing were also a joy…

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