Boyd Anderson is an Australian author of historical fiction. He is a former creative director in advertising and won numerous awards for his work at agencies in Sydney, New York and throughout Asia, including Gold, Silver and Bronze Lions at Cannes.
In 1997 he co-wrote his first novel, Children of the Dust, with colleague Rory McCourt. Since then he has published four novels himself – Errol, Fidel and the Cuban Rebel Girls, Ludo, Amber Road and his latest, The Heart Radical. Based in Malaysia during “The Emergency” between government forces and communist rebels in 1951, The Heart Radical follows eight-year-old Su-Lin as she grows up amidst the chaos of war.
1. Tell us about your latest book.
The Heart Radical is essentially an exploration of the truth of the Jesuit saying about giving them a child for seven years and they will deliver the man. Its focus is the Malayan Emergency during 1951, interwoven with the experiences of two of its main characters who meet again later in life. By recalling that seminal time in their lives they attempt to make sense of it, and its influence on the people they have become.
2. What drew you to this particular time in history and inspired the book?
On a visit to my wife’s home town, Ipoh in Malaysia, we visited her father’s old law office, which had become a restaurant. She found the back wall was still lined with his bookshelves. This set her off on an extraordinary stroll down memory lane, recalling the relationship they shared. She had often talked of him (he was long gone by this stage), but never before so movingly and in such detail. It had me recalling Scout and Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. I started writing the first chapter that night. Her father went on to be the first (and only) Chinese Chief Justice of Malaysia. The book draws on his life, values and career for its inspiration, and is dedicated to him.
3. What is the appeal for you in writing historical fiction?
Creating characters and events that merge with historical characters and events is a fascinating pastime. As a writer, it immerses you in that time and place like a form of astral travelling. By contrast, speculative fiction, without actual characters and events to give me permission to believe, leaves me completely cold. Call it a right brain deficit (or left, I can’t remember which is which!), but even Lord of the Rings bores me.
4. How do you manage conflict between fact and fiction in your books?
I avoid reinventing the important events. That way there shouldn’t be conflict between fact and fiction. Obviously characters are invented and placed into situations where they did not actually exist, but the effect of their placement cannot alter actual events of record. In The Heart Radical for instance, all the characters are based on real people. The effect I am looking for is a fusion of fact and fiction, rather than a conflict, which allows a reader to enter a world which they can accept to be real. The conflict is then confined to the characters themselves, where it should be.
5. What’s your daily writing routine like? Do you have a set number of hours or words you stick to?
No. I know certain writers do this – Hemingway, for one, was a strict disciplinarian in this regard, if no other in his life! He wrote his set number of words every day, no matter what condition he was in. I only actually write new material when I am inspired to do so. Sometimes I may not write anything new for days, weeks, even months. On those days, and I work virtually every day, I research or edit, or work on something else. I find when the inspiration hits I can write 5,000 words in a day, sometimes more. And relentless research and editing make that possible.
6. What are you working on next?
The Return of the Running Dog: a story set in China, taking in the effects of the end of the Japanese War, the Communist Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and coming to a climax in the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Drama is conflict, and there is enough conflict in all that for drama on a vast scale historically, and equally on a personal scale. China is a fascinating place, and while economists may be enthralled by its rapid rise of late, what fascinates me more is the couple of centuries that created what is happening now.
7. What’s your advice to authors interested in writing historical novels?
Be alert to incidents or relationships that have escaped the gaze of history, and yet have anchor points to well-known events. Be accurate. Don’t reorganise historical facts, just use them. Make sure what you write is possible, given the true events. Immerse yourself in the time and place until you start dreaming about them in your sleep. Be prepared to spend 10 hours researching for every hour writing.
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