Ep 193 How to use subplots to bring your story together. Meet Catherine Jinks, author of ‘Charlatan’.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 193 of So you want to be a writer: How to use subplots to bring your story together and commuters can enjoy stories from short story vending machines. Plus, how NOT to bury your lede. Meet Catherine Jinks, author of Charlatan: The Dishonest Life and Dishonoured Loves of Thomas Guthrie Carr, Stage Mesmerist, and more!

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Show Notes

So you want to be a writer Facebook group

Show Notes

How to Use Subplots to Bring Your Whole Story Together

Short Story Vending Machine

Writer in Residence

Catherine Jinks

Catherine Jinks is a four-time winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year award, and has also won a Victorian Premier’s Literature Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, the Ena Noel Award for Children’s Literature and an Aurealis Award for Science Fiction.

In 2001 she was presented with a Centenary Medal for her contribution to Australian Children’s Literature.

Visit Catherine’s website

 

Competitions

WIN: Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time”

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

So thanks so much for joining us today, Catherine.

Catherine

Thanks for having me.

Valerie

Now, this book Charlatan, and the subtitle is The Dishonest Life and Dishonoured Loves of Thomas Guthrie Carr, Stage Mesmerist, is obviously about Thomas Guthrie Carr. But if there are some people who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell us a little bit about what’s in the book?

Catherine

The book is structured around a court case or a committal hearing that took place in Sydney in 1868 in which a woman called Eliza Gray accused a man, Thomas Guthrie Carr, who was a stage mesmerist, of mesmerising her against her will and then raping her. And I used this particular case to construct a study of his life, as much as I could find out about it, because he was quite a notorious, an interesting fellow, who came to Australia in 1865.

And he was quite a celebrity in his way. He was a stage mesmerist and phrenologist and he went around performing everywhere. And he was just a piece of work. Just the most massive piece of work you could possibly imagine. And he was always in court, and he was always doing the wrong thing. So I just thought he was rather a hilarious character. And I was always intrigued as to whether he really did what he was accused of doing.

Valerie

And how did you discover him in the first place?

Catherine

It was a kind of odd thing. Because the thing is, he hasn’t been written about almost at all. He’s been mentioned in a couple of books back in the 80s, very briefly. I think there was one line mentioning him in a more recent book about mesmerism. But he’s just been forgotten.

And the reason I found him is because I was looking at something else for another book I wrote, which was a children’s book. It was a novel about a monster catcher in Victorian England. And for various reasons I was looking at baby farming, which was something that happened back in the 19th century, where a lot of women who had illegitimate children, or women who were domestic servants who couldn’t look after their children because they were live-in, they would send their kids to be looked after by some woman – usually a woman, sometimes a couple.

And they used to have large numbers of children, these sorts of people, looking after them. And they were paid to look after them, but they weren’t paid very well. And if they were paid a lump sum, which was often the case, the kids didn’t really stand a chance. They generally perished.

So I was looking at this one case in Woollahra, in Sydney, where a baby farmer had lost something like I think it was twelve children in eleven months. And she was charged with murdering three of them but never convicted. And one of the kid’s names was Elizabeth Cohen. And I was just looking her up and I noticed that she’d been given to this baby farmer by a guy called Benjamin Cohen, who was her grandfather. So she was obviously illegitimate. And the night before the inquest into her death, he committed suicide. And I was thinking, wow, this is weird.

So I was kind of looking into it. And I was wondering who was Benjamin Cohen? I was just following my nose out of interest. Who is Benjamin Cohen? Well, his brother Henry Cohen and he owned a place called Cohen Brothers Monster Clothing Hall in George Street. And Henry Cohen, I was looking at Henry Cohen, and he turned up as a witness at this trial of Thomas Guthrie Carr. Because Eliza Gray had been one of his employees. And that’s how I stumbled on it. In a really weird roundabout way. But when I started reading about the trial, I thought, this is really interesting. And I just kept on going from there.

Valerie

Wow. I think that’s fascinating. Completely roundabout way. And as you were saying, you were following your nose. But when you were following your nose, where were you following your nose? Was it this the internet, was this a state library? Where were you actually finding all these things?

Catherine

Interesting. Because this was basically, this was thanks to Trove. Trove is my god. Trove and Papers Past, which is the New Zealand equivalent. Because Thomas Guthrie Carr, he had one daughter and his daughter never had any children. And I did speak to his wife’s sister’s descendants, a couple of them. And they knew very little about him.

So basically none of his letters, diaries, anything like that has survived. So almost everything I got was from the newspapers. And the reason I managed to get as much as I did is because he was never out of the newspapers. And he was a huge and terrific self-promotor. And so every single thing he did he put in the newspapers. He would have been a great Facebooker. No, seriously! Literally, he just couldn’t turn around. If he did an operation, he would be in the newspapers. If he helped collect money for somebody, it would be in the newspapers. If he paid for somebody’s funeral, it would be in the newspapers. Because he was constantly telling everybody what he was doing.

So thanks to Trove, I pretty much was able, I picked up an enormous amount of stuff thanks to Trove. So that was pretty much what I did. There was one phrenological chart he’d done, which I managed to get from New Zealand. And there was the odd bit of, there were records in the police gazette because he was arrested and so forth. But very little else except newspaper.

Valerie

So let me understand this. You’re basically at home in your study, and you’re researching all of this stuff on Trove via the internet, and just coming upon, following your nose. Finding an article, going to the next article, and so on. Is that right?

Catherine

Yeah. That’s… Trove, I don’t know if anybody hasn’t used Trove, it’s a miracle. Because all you have to do is put in search words and every single article in every single newspaper, pretty much, ever published in Australia comes up. And so you can just follow that. You just have to think of different ways of putting those search parameters in. It’s amazing how many different words you have to use sometimes to try and get material. Because there was Mr Carr, Mr Guthrie Carr, there was Thomas Carr, there was TG Carr. You try all the different ways of doing it.

Valerie

So you follow your nose. You discover the trial via the baby farming route. And you discover the trial, and you start reading about Thomas Guthrie Carr and you think, this guy’s really interesting. Was it a Eureka moment? Did you think, I’m going to write a book about this straight away? Or how did it become a book?

Catherine

No, I think it probably took a little bit longer. It probably took, I thought, wow, amazing trial. Amazing trial. Who was this guy? And then I started to look up other things he was doing. And generally what would pop up would be reviews of his shows. And quite frankly, his shows were something else. I mean, they were incredibly rambunctious. You have people pretending to be mesmerised and chasing each other around the auditorium and being pricked with pins, and having their teeth pulled, and lots of boxing matches. I mean, there’s just no end to this weird stuff that was going on. So I just thought, wow. And at that point I thought, this is worth looking into. And I think I might have decided, right, this guy, I think I can get a book out of him when…

One thing I did find on the internet – which wasn’t on Trove, but was on the blooming internet, it’s amazing what’s on the internet! – was a published transcription. So basically a copy of a pamphlet which Guthrie Carr published when he was still in England. Because he came from England, he was a native of Newcastle on Tyne. He published one of the talks he gave in Newcastle on Tyne as a pamphlet. And it was quite a lengthy pamphlet. And it was attacking a pair of spirit mediums called The Davenport Brothers who had come over to England from America. And they were extremely interesting. And he went to one of their shows and thought it was a dreadful fraud. And he talked about it.

And it was just so lavish, and his writing style was so interesting, and I just thought, you know what? I reckon there’s a story in this guy. And so I did, I pursued him to Australia and I pursued him through New Zealand. And also the whole issue, even if there isn’t quite enough on him, the whole issue of mesmerism as a kind of performance, and phrenology as a performance, I thought there’s enough here that I think we can make something quite interesting out of this.

Valerie

So can you give me some timelines. Give me an idea, at this point you were exploring baby farming, and then you started researching preliminary for a certain period. Then you think that I’m going to write a book. Then how long did you spend researching, and how long did you spend writing? Take me through kind of the timeline.

Catherine

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and Trove, it didn’t take me nearly as long as you might think. It actually… I did have to schlep on down to the old Mitchell library. I’d already got my, I think it’s called a platinum card or something. Like, you get a fancy pants. There’s two grades of library card at the Mitchell, well, you know, the state library. And one of them is kind of also ran. And the other one, you have to provide identification, and then you can get into the rare books and all that. So I got into the rare books. But that card also gives you access to some really great international newspaper databases. So there was that, too.

But I did go down to the Mitchell to look at the police gazette which wasn’t on the internet. And I did try digging around in a few letters and so forth, Henry Parkes’ stuff. Just because Henry Parkes did encounter Guthrie Carr at one point. So I did a little bit of dabbling, so I spent a few days there, but not many. It was mostly on the internet. So that makes it much faster.

And of course, to be honest, I didn’t do all… Because this is my first non-fiction book ever. I’d done historical fiction before, but not non-fiction. So I did a lot of research, started the book, and then found that occasionally I’d have to duck out and do some more research. Because I think… Since then I’ve written another non-fiction. And I was more familiar with what I had to do, so I think I got most of the research done first. But this time I was still a little unsure of the process. And also, I had to wait on this New Zealand, I got this one phrenological chart from an Auckland library museum, and that took a while to get. They had to copy and send it, and they’ve obviously only got one and a half people doing everything, because poor underfunded things as usual. So it took a while to get. It was a fair few weeks before that arrived. So various things I had to follow up during the writing process.

But generally speaking, I would say the research, I don’t think I took more than about six weeks to do all that.

Valerie

Wow.

Catherine

Just because once I got the real bit between my teeth, before I started writing it was probably about six weeks. And then there was probably another two to three weeks of research in between all of that writing. I did also speak to the descendants. That’s Gavine and Maureen Robinson, and they were really helpful, particularly about his wife’s family.

Valerie

So in the main six-week chunk where you were doing the research, was it like full on that’s all you did? You were obsessed?

Catherine

Yeah, it gets a bit like that. In fact it’s far more… It makes me think of being, I don’t know, maybe a computer game player or something. Because you’re just sitting there following, particularly with Trove, looking at those endless stream of articles, you know. And then having to print them out. Because that’s what I did. I just printed enormous amounts of articles out and stuck them in folders under the different years, and all of that sort of stuff. I was probably doing it in a very clumsy and primitive way compared to a lot of academics, I don’t know. But it was just all I could, the only way I knew how. So I just kept printing out these articles and marking them up and printing out some more and marking them up. So that took a while.

Valerie

And so you have written countless children’s books. So had you at some point decided, I’m going to try something different? I’m going to do a non-fiction book for adults now? Or was this just accidental, a happy accident?

Catherine

This was, I think… Okay, I’ve done adult fiction before, adult historical fiction before. And I think initially, at the first moment, I was thinking, oh, this might make a novel. Because that wouldn’t have been out of the question, it’s happened before.

But the minute things started to get as weird as they did, because quite frankly it’s bizarre. A lot of this stuff, utterly bizarre. I think when I hit the testimonial – “Dr Carr removed my finger on stage today and I felt absolutely no pain.” I thought, this is way too good for a novel. This would be a waste if I used it on a novel. This is just stranger than fiction. I’ve got to do a non-fiction for this, this is just not, this is just… There’s so much here that people would just think, oh whatever, if it was a novel. But if it’s real!

Valerie

Yes.

Catherine

So, I think I probably initially thought, maybe a novel. But then I very quickly realised that if I was going to do it I should try and do it non-fiction. And frankly, it’s getting to the point where I’ve done a hell of a lot of novels. And I’ve just been, like last year, I had a bit of a dabble into script writing. And it just keeps things fresh to change. You know, I just like to do something a bit different. And this was fun.

Valerie

Yes. Because it is so bizarre, all the stuff he’s done, why do you not think, why do you think he was not more well known? Why do you think there was not more stuff written about him by other people?

Catherine

I mean, in a way, okay, he was a big fish in a very ephemeral pond, which is popular entertainment. It was a bit of an eye opener, this whole idea… What I discovered about popular entertainment then was not quite what I expected. It was so, I mean, for the stitched up old Victorian era it was so rackety and noisy and rambunctious, and the fluidity of the social set up. All these people from different classes all bogging in together to watch this guy. It was so interesting. But not something I knew about it. And I know a bit about Australian history, but this was not expected.

So that’s been a bit forgotten, too, all these weird people coming out to do all these interesting odd kinds of popular entertainment. I mean, a lot of the old actors and all that, they’ve been forgotten too. It seems like that because they weren’t solid important political socially significant all of that sort of stuff. Apart from the bushrangers. They might have just gone a bit by the wayside because they didn’t…

Because, let’s face it, to be honest, I had to admit to everybody, this is not, when I started writing this, I’m like well this isn’t going to change the face of Australian history because the guy contributed nothing. Except for a lot of enjoyment. But he wasn’t a good person, he was a real piece of work. And he just sleazed and fought, and he wasn’t nice, even. So I suppose that’s partly why. You know, he wasn’t, he didn’t contribute to this nascent nation much.

But actually when I was researching, what I found was that it did actually give me an interesting insight into the social set up. Like what I was saying about the racketiness. And even things like the fact that so many dirt poor working class people, like Eliza Gray who was a seamstress with seven kids, they went to court all the time. Constantly. I was so surprised. You know, I thought that was a middle-class thing, you go to court, because it’s so expensive I would have thought. But obviously it was a common thing. Which, you know, who knew? I didn’t. I mean, I’m sure there are academics out there who do know, but I just didn’t, it’s not a sort of commonly known thing. It’s just not what you expect somehow. And just a general kind of, I don’t know… As I say, the so-called stitched up Victorian era but my word, those people!

Valerie

So you spent about six weeks in the core research plus another two or three weeks doing some additional research. Can you give – I know it was a little bit interspersed with the writing, because it was the first time you’ve written this non-fiction kind of thing – but can you give us an estimate on the amount of time you spent writing the first draft?

Catherine

That was probably about… I’m very ashamed of the fact that my memory is shocking on this stuff. But I suspect I took about between two and three months, I suppose. Probably about that.

Valerie

And that was fulltime, where that was your full focus?

Catherine

Yes, full time.

Valerie

Or were you writing another children’s book in the meantime or something?

Catherine

No, I tend to focus on one book at a time, if I can. That’s why editing is so annoying. Because I’m focusing on one thing, and it comes in and you have to pull your brain out of that and go back to the old one.

Valerie

Yes. How did it compare with the gestation period of writing a children’s book, with the novels that you’ve written?

Catherine

I think… That’s an interesting question. Wow, that’s an interesting question. I think, actually, the prep time is probably a little longer. But sometimes when you’re plotting, like me when I’m plotting, and I get to a tricky bit and it can take me a few days before I’ll suddenly go aha! Click, click. This idea, and this idea, oh, got that, now we have to move on. So that can take quite a while to do that. And when I’m plotting, I tend to focus, I can actually go for days and days just literally listening to a lot of music and focusing on the story. Turning it around in my head, turning it around in my head, turning it around in my head. So it’s probably comparable to researching.

But researching is so much fun in some ways. But the thing is, what I found was, it was kind of, you say well how does it compare with a novel. And in a weird sort of way, novels are more work. What I like about this was, the story was there. And all I had to do was put it together the right way.

Valerie

Yes. So on that point then, you did a whole bunch of research, you put your printouts in the different folders, then obviously you do need to pull it together in a way that has a strong narrative. How did you decide how you were going to tell the story? How did you decide the order?

Catherine

Well see, that was really interesting. And I know, and it’s interesting because I’ve done one since then, again, as I was saying, which was far more linear. It was more of a classic go to whoa. This one, because I didn’t know much about his early life, because Carr is such a common name especially in Newcastle on Tyne. And he wasn’t making much of a stir back then, the way he was in Australia. So I thought, well, the really interesting thing here is this court case. Court cases are always fascinating anyway.

Valerie

Yeah.

Catherine

And this one was exhaustively described. Every little twitch of every finger. I mean, it was just a committal hearing! And it was five days of it, and huge enormous accounts of it in the newspaper, quoting people extensively. So I thought, this is probably… And it was the thing that he was probably most notorious for.

Valerie

The rape?

Catherine

He never shook off this particular court case. Even when he was old, people would sort of, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. In fact, there was a classic, this hilarious… When he died, somebody in the newspapers printed this funny little poem. And it was really funny. It was:

Alas he’s passed away from I

Pale death has drawn his stumps

Who used to mesmerise us

And manipulate our bumps.

Let’s hope that when he goes aloft

He’ll see the gate ajar

And hear the joyful cherub sing

“Roll in triumphant Carr.

We’d also like our bumps described.

Nay, do not look so red

We cannot compromise you for

We’re limited to head.”

So basically, even when he died, that was like a nudge, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, do you remember when he raped this woman. So I thought that’s his, that was his, that was the thing that he left on posterity, was this rape case. So I might as well use that as the structure of it, and then examine him in the light of… Basically, I’m asking myself, did he do this? Or didn’t he? Because he was never actually convicted of it.

And in answering that question, I had to explore his character within the framework of the court case, and then I can go back and look at all the other dreadful things he’s done, and work out whether he was bad enough to have done this, and so forth. So that’s the way I decided to do it, using the court case.

Valerie

And now you’ve said that you’re now writing or researching another nonfiction book. So have you got the taste for it now? Is this a new direction? Or will you still be doing both?

Catherine

I’ve done it, I’ve finished it, and then I thought, you know what, I think I’ll go back to some fiction now. But… I do have a… If it does okay, I mean I’d love to have a bit of a… A kind of a scam artist trilogy. Because this other one I’ve done is another oh my god piece of work, you wouldn’t believe. There’s so many of them, then. I guess it was easier then, because there wasn’t the communication that we have.

Valerie

And did you discover this one through your research of…

Catherine

Yes, I did. I stumbled on him while I was researching Carr. They were both performing in the same theatre, although they were slightly different eras. This guy didn’t arrive in Australia until after Carr was dead.

Valerie

And again was this a Trove treasure hunt?

Catherine

Yes, it was from Trove originally. Although, the one I’m doing now has been written about a bit more. But anyway. Yeah, it was just stumbling on him in Trove again. So I think… You know, that kind of… I mean, I love nonfiction that’s really easy to read like a novel. That sort of really good literary journalist nonfiction. I enjoyed reading it so much more and more as I got older, I think. And also, I think there’s more of it now. So I think that’s why I graduated to that, because I enjoy reading it so much, and found that actually writing it is quite fun, too.

Valerie

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book? And then what was the most enjoyable thing?

Catherine

I think the most enjoyable thing was just stumbling once again on another perfect example of how he always did the wrong thing and was always getting caught out. Because my default setting in this, I swear to god, it was, you’ve got to be kidding me. And then I would ring up my agent and say, “guess what! guess what! guess what he’s done now!” Because he just… It’s hard to explain. When you actually read the book, yeah, yeah, yeah. But when you actually… It’s like with a detective novel or something. When you’re actually uncovering all the clues and they keep on falling into the perfect pattern of an utter piece of work, it’s almost that he was dreamed up by you because he fits this profile, this character profile so perfectly. He never, ever does the right thing.

Valerie

I love it.

Catherine

It’s like some ludicrous baddie that you’ve dreamed up. It was so funny. That’s what I loved, actually. And the most challenging thing was probably… Probably the footnotes, no, the notes. Because it’s been a long time since I did my thesis back in my uni days. And keeping track of… Because I wanted to do proper notes, proper notes that if anybody was researching something else, they could go from my notes to the source, you know? So there’s pages of notes in here. And boy, the editing of those notes was the worst thing. The worse thing.

Valerie

The editing of the notes?

Catherine

Yeah. The editing of the notes. Because I put in all this stuff which I thought was there, and then she’d come back and say, the editor would say, the sub-editor would say, this, this, this, what about this, what page number here? Oh god! I’d missed a page number or I’d missed, like, there was something wrong, and I’d have to go back through all these pages of photocopies.

Valerie

That would be painful.

Catherine

That was the worst bit. That was that really grinding, detailed, nitty gritty miserable stuff.

Valerie

Right. Okay. And so you’ve written this other one. Are you now in the depths of writing another fiction novel? Or what’s happening right now?

Catherine

Yeah, I’m just doing that. That’s what I’m doing. Just a YA at the moment.

Valerie

Right. And can you tell us what that’s going to be about yet, or is it still brewing?

Catherine

Oh, no, that’s… Well, to be honest… This is again a weird little story, but last year – well, actually the year before that – but I was hired by a director to try and turn A Very Unusual Pursuit, one of my kid’s books, into a script. So I did that and it was a learning experience, because I’d never done that. And then boy, you realise that it’s different. It’s a whole different ballgame.

So then I thought, let’s train myself, let’s see if I can write a few by myself just to brush up, try and sort of hone my skills that I might have picked up. So one of the things I did was try and create a new, an original script. So I thought up this idea for an original script and I wrote it. But, you know, trying to get anything put up is really hard. But anyway, and then I thought well let’s not let it go to waste. Because it was rather a good idea. So let’s turn that into a book!

Again, another interesting different way of writing. Because it just keeps your interest going. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been taking my script and turning it back into a book.

Valerie

Okay.

Catherine

Which is what I gather what Graeme Stimson did for The Rosie Project.

Valerie

Yes. And finally, I have to ask, whatever happened to, because this all started with the research on baby farming. Did the baby farming ever turn into anything?

Catherine

The thing is, I’d already used baby farming in the sequel to A Very Unusual Pursuit, which is A Peculiar Plague. I’d already written about one of my characters, who’s a nasty baddie, was being a baby farmer and feeding the babies to boglers, which are monsters. So I’d already done that. But it was for the actual script that I went back to have a look at baby farming. Because I didn’t know if I should expand on it or what. It was just something to do with that. So in fact I had already used baby farming in something before that.

Valerie

And what do you find the most rewarding thing about writing?

Catherine

It’s changed, honestly. It’s changed. At the moment, what I find best about writing is that you can lose yourself in it. I mean, it’s always been a bit like that. That’s why I’m a writer in the first place. Because you create another world and you go into it and you don’t have to cope with this one. But the way it can keep you occupied, utterly – what’s that, they call it flow or something. Where your entire being is focused on a particular job and you look up and it’s three hours later. That’s an amazing gift to be able to have that. Because it’s really an amazing thing. So that is what I get out of it.

Also, because I’ve got a website, and before that I used to get letters, but some of the messages that you get literally break your heart. Like, it makes you weep. They’re so… And I’m doing this for my own enjoyment. But this is for me. I mean, I know I have an audience that I have to try and cater to, but it’s almost an abstract audience. And then somebody writes to you and says, “because of this book, I decided to become a computer person.” Or, “because of this book, I met my fiancé.” You know, all of this sort of stuff. “Because of this book, I never had any friends, but I read this book and now I have friends.”

Valerie

Wow.

Catherine

You just feel maybe you might have as much importance as… Like, most of the time you go around feeling a bit of a parasitical useless person, you know, compared with say teachers or doctors or people who really make a difference. And then when you get a letter like that you think, well, I’ve made a difference too. I have made a bit of a difference.

Valerie

I think so.

Catherine

It’s just such an amazing feeling. So that is another amazing thing.

Valerie

Yeah. I think you make a much bigger difference than you think. Anyway, on that note, thank you so much for joining us today, and for having a chat with us, Catherine.

Catherine

Thank you.

 

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