A re-imagination of the life of Cascade Brewery matriarch Sophia Degraves

We’re chatting with Anne Blythe-Cooper, teacher and author of the novel The Shape of Water. There’s quite a story to this one, so let’s get straight to it – Anne, can you tell us what it’s about?

“From India to Van Diemen’s Land, The Shape of Water follows Sophia, wife of charismatic and narcissistic Cascades brewer, Peter Degraves. Sophia endures shipwreck, privation and loss whilst living with the caprices of a husband who is frequently in debt and in prison.”

Wow, charismatic AND narcissistic! And of course Van Diemen’s land is better known as Tasmania these days – the book taking place two hundred years ago. Tell us more.

The Shape of Water is a tribute to all the unseen women of history whose lives have been undocumented and whose contribution to society is unacknowledged. The book’s premise is ‘what would it have been like to be Sophia?’ – attempting to imagine the inner life of a woman forced to travel to a new world, inhabited by convicts, indigenous, bushrangers, curious fauna and not a few of her husband’s enemies. Peter concealed many scandals … yet to this day he is lauded as a benefactor of colonial society and she remains unknown. The Shape of Water attempts to redress the imbalance.”

Okay, so we’re clearly dealing with a historical landscape based in a lot of fact here. Peter and Sophia Degraves were actually real people. So what compelled you to write about her?

“Sophia [had been] the subject of a film produced by a District High School. It was then that I decided to write a work of young adult (YA) fiction for my students. After years of research, however, the result was something quite different.

“Sophia became totally compelling on the day I discovered that she had lost three daughters whilst living alone on the mountain. I recall with clarity the moment that I drove down a Hobart street, grieving for this woman and her children. She became the story I had to write.”

It’s powerful when voices reach out from the past like that. However, there was actually very little of her life to go on – so how did you fill out her story? And did you ever doubt that you were telling the “right” story?

“The compulsion to find Sophia is the reason the book took 10 years to present to the public. Research is an exciting addiction, but Sophia still continues to elude me. The title of the novel reflects the process I underwent to ‘fill out’ the story. Her husband, her family, her times and her situation shaped Sophia. She inhabits the inverse space of those around her.

“I am not at all sure I have told the right story or even told her story at all. Perhaps, I have inadvertently told Peter’s. I do not know who the real Sophia Degraves was – Sophia’s origins are totally obscure – but I do know that Sophia received a good education and I do know that she suffered greatly. Peter was a difficult man in many ways, yet they continued to produce 20 children for 25 years. There must have been affection there. Either Sophia was not very astute or she was very forgiving. I chose to present her as the latter.”

The Shape of Water has been described as “no longer purely historical, but also not purely fictional”. How do you think it sits within the broad genre of “historical fiction”?

“This is a question which has caused me much angst. My original manuscript was full of footnotes because I wanted to reassure my readers that I had been scrupulous in my research. Subsequently, I was urged to abandon all pretensions to scholarly method and write something purely fictional.

“Having begun the work in the manner I described, I was loath to forsake Sophia’s real chronology in order to contrive a fictional structure. [Publishers] Forty South were happy to call the novel ‘imagined fragments in an elusive life’ and I like that description. I think I straddle literary and historical fiction.”

So let’s return to the present day. How did the writing process go? Did you have a routine?

“I am a teacher of English History and Music. I wrote the manuscript in 2007, which I call ‘the year of burnt dinners’.”

That’s rather brilliant.

“From 2007 to 2016, I was engaged in further research and editing. I have never had trouble writing and can write quite quickly – usually able to focus and get down to work without delay. Research can be very time consuming though. 2007 to the present, I call the ‘decade of rabbit holes’. There is a passage from the 2007 movie Becoming Jane which is appropriate:

Lady Gresham: What is she doing?

Mr. Wisley: Writing.

Lady Gresham: Can anything be done about it?”

Yes, it’s quite an affliction for many! So, this has been a decade of rabbit holes and burnt dinners. What’s next for you?

“I have written a YA novel which excites me greatly. Missing Places follows three teens on a geocaching journey. Geocaching, for those who may not know, is a world-wide phenomenon of treasure hunting with a GPS. I have adopted a structure whereby each discovery made by the main characters segues into another story detailing what occurred on that spot in the past. This is about local history. It is about acknowledging the land under our feet and where we belong.”

It sounds like an excellent way to teach history – something very familiar to you. So finally, what advice would you give to writers who are taking on the task of illuminating a lacuna in the historical record?

“Many records have come online in the last decade but it is still worthwhile visiting the British Library – just come well organised with documentation and be prepared to waste some time.

“At some point, you will have to bite the bullet and make an educated guess about those things you will never know. It is easy to be blinded by your presuppositions and loyalty to your main character. For example, Sophia may have been a truly awful person, but I have evidence that she was loving and long-suffering. She was most certainly lonely. I cannot know her mind but I know her times and I know that there is a certain universality of human desires and needs. Sophia could be any woman from any time or place who has had to struggle. There is a type of truth in how she is depicted even if it is not the truth.”

And on that truthful note, to find out more about The Shape of Water, Anne Blythe-Cooper, and those imagined fragments of Sophia Degraves, visit Anne's website.

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