Ever since she was a child, Alli Parker knew she wanted to tell her grandmother’s story. Nobuko “Cherry” Sakuramoto had married Gordon Parker in Japan after World War II, and the couple had to fight to bring Cherry to Australia during the years of the White Australia Policy.
“I'd wanted to tell the story since I was eleven years old and even then I knew that I needed to wait until I was a better writer to do this story justice,” Alli told us. Although she had been writing for film and television for several years, she knew that she needed different skills to write Cherry’s story as a novel. That’s when she turned to the Australian Writers' Centre.
“The Write Your Novel course allowed me to write my novel in six months! A huge achievement, especially as I was back working full time on a TV series when I did it!”
That novel has now been published by HarperCollins as The Foot of the Cherry Tree.
“The most beautiful thing about it is that I'm an author forever now. I wrote a book and it was in bookstores and anyone can access it if they want to read it. That can never be taken away from me,” Alli says.
A better chance at success
Alli had been working in TV script departments for five years in various roles when the industry was shut down during the pandemic. Alli decided to use the unexpected downtime to explore new projects.
“With no work, I realised I had an amazing opportunity. I finally had time to work on my own writing. I'd been working on a screenplay for my passion project, a film based on the story of my grandmother, the first Japanese war bride to arrive in Australia, and turned back to that. As I started another revision, I considered the feasibility of getting the project produced. It was expensive – a period drama set in post-WWII Japan and Melbourne, with scenes based in the ruins of Hiroshima – and epic. And I knew it would take 10 years at least for me, at my current career level, to raise enough money to feasibly do it. But there was another option in the back of my mind. A novel.”
Alli was worried that she hadn’t written prose for over a decade, having been focused on screenplays. She decided to follow the novel writing path at the Australian Writers' Centre, starting with Creative Writing Stage 1, then moving on to Novel Writing Essentials and capping it off with Write Your Novel.
“I wanted guidance, I wanted to learn and grow and be better so I could hone my craft and write a beautiful book to do justice to the story of my grandparents. The AWC had a range of courses, it was accessible and didn't cost a fortune. I figured it was a good place to start.”
Alli most appreciated the feedback from her experienced tutor, which helped her to identify issues early in her writing process.
“It was useful that the courses were broken down into easily digestible modules. That allowed me to properly analyse the work we were given, to consider and apply it to my submission every round. But the most useful thing for me was the tutor feedback. Having someone with experienced eyes read my work, break it down for me and highlight the flaws I didn't know how to look for helped me to refine and strengthen my work as I moved through each week.”
Researching the story
Alli had already spent a few years on-and-off working on a script version of her grandmother’s story, trawling through the online newspaper archive Trove, transcribing old ABC radio interviews and researching at the Victoria State Library.
“I started to build a timeline of events and spoke to members of my family about what they could remember – either their own memories or anecdotes they'd heard later. I wrote a terrible first draft of the screenplay, a better second draft and an even better third draft. I had interest from a production company and they fed notes into it, then ultimately passed.”
That’s when she realised that the best chance to get this important story out into the world was through a novel.
“It's a story about how love broke the White Australia policy. It was too important to let languish somewhere. If I got a book published, the screen adaptation would simply be a bonus. I wrote the first draft of the novel in six months, adapted from the script, using the framework of the AWC course to help me stay accountable, and working on a television series full time.”
At the end of her Write Your Novel course, Alli’s tutor tweeted about how moving she had found the manuscript. Alli retweeted the post which caught the attention of Catherine Milne, Head of Fiction at HarperCollins, and an offer soon followed.
“I was in a Zoom meeting, working on another project, when I got the email. I saw the subject line – Congratulations on your first book deal – and I immediately put my phone back down and tried to pay attention to the rest of the meeting. Once I got off the call, I read the email to make sure it was real, then I lay on my floor for a while, trying to process the fact that HarperCollins was going to be publishing my book. It was probably around then that I started crying, or I might've cried after I rang my mum to tell her. Either way, there's been a lot of crying. And I think there will be a lot more!”
A powerful moving novel
At the Foot of the Cherry Tree is a novelisation of the true story of Australia's first Japanese war bride, Alli’s grandmother, who moved to Melbourne after World War II.
“My grandfather, Gordon Parker, volunteered at eighteen years old to serve in the Occupied Forces to resettle Japan post-war, as he never got a chance to fight. On his first day there, he meets Nobuko “Cherry” Sakuramoto, a sixteen year old survivor of the atomic bomb. Despite strict anti-fraternisation rules between the Australians and Japanese, the two of them become friends and fall in love. As Gordon's service comes to an end, he decides he wants to bring Cherry back to Melbourne as his war bride. It's then he discovers the White Australia policy won't let her into the country as she's from a non-white, non-European background.
“Before he returns to Australia, the pair get married in a secret Japanese ceremony so they can call each other husband and wife. But soon after Gordon returns to Australia, Cherry discovers she is pregnant and is surrounded by other women who have also taken up with ex-enemy soldiers and have never heard from their so-called husbands ever again. She holds faith that somehow Gordon will be different.
“Back in Australia, Gordon must convince his family to support his marriage and faces the formidable task of convincing a war-scarred and xenophobic government to change their policy and allow Cherry and their children to come home.”
It is a powerfully moving novel about faith, trust, and the power of a love that alters history.
“The novel explores some fairly polarising themes and so to be able to handle them in the way I wanted to was a really incredible experience and I'm so grateful that I get to do this, to have the honour of telling my grandparents' story and preserving their legacy for years to come,” Alli says about her experience of working with HarperCollins.
Alli continues to juggle writing projects across TV and fiction and is constantly thinking about stories – even at the gym. She believes that staying diverse, and learning the tools of the trade, are key to a long and successful career.
“An AWC course is one piece in your toolkit,” she says.”Read books, attend writers' festivals, listen to podcasts. Continually challenge yourself to improve your craft. Analyse the books you love and figure out why you love them. Then write on instinct. I plan my stories, I plan my beats and scenes but there is always room to play. And the more craft knowledge you ingest, the sharper your instincts will become and the better your work will be. Get yourself the best tools to work with and you'll be an incredible writer.”
Courses completed at AWC: