Ep 253 Meet Eleanor Limprecht, author of ‘The Passengers’

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In Episode 253 of So you want to be a writer: Meet Eleanor Limprecht, author of The Passengers. How US listeners can get their hands on a copy of The Mapmaker Chronicles book 4. Join us for Unblocktober, where we cast aside any writing roadblocks and get back on the path to success. Discover how to develop a writing community and more.

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Show Notes

Shout out from Cgelme from Australia:

I love this podcast, it is so inspirational! The varied interviews are fantastic and sometimes I find myself pulling over where I can to scribble notes or write an outline for a story! I am a sales rep so it does end up being a bit distracting (in a good way) while I’m going from client to client!!! Val and Al are just awesome – easy to listen to and extremely relevant even listening to the 2014 episodes in 2018! Brilliant, fabulous, sensational!!!! Love your work – keep it up

Links Mentioned

Purchase The Mapmaker Chronicles – Book 4 – US Buyers 


How to Develop a Writing Community: A Tale of 2 Launches – Guest Post by Debra Tidball


Writer in Residence

Eleanor Limprecht

Eleanor is a writer, constant reader, writing teacher, critic and mother-of-two. She was born and raised in the US, Germany and Pakistan but now lives in Sydney, Australia.

Her first novel, What Was Left, came out in 2013 with Sleepers Publishing.

Her second novel, Long Bay, was released in 2015.

In 2018 her third novel, The Passengers, was published by Allen & Unwin.

She has had short fiction, book reviews, feature articles and essays published in lots of places. Eleanor is on the Board of Directors at Writing NSW.

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Interview transcript


Eleanor Limprecht is the author of three historical novels and many short stories, poems and essays as well as being a writing teacher and critic. Her first novel, What Was Left, came out in 2013 with Sleepers Publishing. Her second novel, Long Bay, was released in 2015. Her third novel, The Passengers, was published this year by Allen & Unwin. Welcome to the program, Eleanor.


Thank you so much, Allison. Thanks for having me. And I'd just correct one thing is that my first novel wasn't actually historical. So anyone who's looking for historical fiction, it's more of a contemporary fiction read.


Oh, that's interesting. Okay, I'm sorry, I got that wrong. So it's two historical novels and one contemporary novel. Which is interesting that you've made that switch. So we might talk about that. I'm going to add a question to my interview, just so we can have that conversation.

But first of all, let's talk about that first novel then. How did that actually come to be published?


It wasn't actually the first novel I wrote. I have done a Masters in Writing at UTS. I'd been working on a novel for a few years. And then that was interrupted by having my first child. And then I went back to work on the novel.

And I actually became really compelled by another idea, which was when John Howard was the prime minister, and there was a woman who left her baby at the hospital in Melbourne. She abandoned her child. It was on Mother's Day in 2007, and he said, how could any mother do that?

And that just happened to be the day that I had my first child. And I was alone in the hospital, because my husband couldn't spend the night, and I'd fractured my tailbone during labour and I was having a really tough time. And I thought, how can he criticise? He doesn't know anyone's individual experience. How can he criticise that?

And so I wanted to write a novel, I decided, about a woman who does leave her baby. And about why that would happen. So that's what my first novel's about, is about a woman who leaves her baby. She leaves her baby with her husband, but she has a lot of things she's dealing with, including post-natal depression.


So while you're raising your newborn, you're writing about a mother who left her baby. Which, I can, honestly speaking, I have two boys of my own and I adore them, but I know that there are moments in that first year when you're at home by yourself where I reckon it's a very rare woman who wouldn't have that feeling of – I could just go now. If I left now, no one would ever know.




Yes. So perhaps John Howard needs to think about that.


Absolutely. Yeah.


So how did you do that then? How did you juggle that newborn and writing that first book?


Well, I actually didn't write it until my daughter was four and my son was two because it just took me that amount of time to get it organised and to feel… I was still working on that first novel. I had the idea for this one. I was still working on the one that's in a drawer now. I had the idea for What Was Left. And I was just looking for the time to write it.

And then I sort of decided, because I was doing some journalism, which was originally what I worked as, as a journalist. I was doing some freelancing and I thought, I'm going to freelance every alternate day and hire a nanny in the mornings for five days a week and freelance every alternate day and write every alternate day. And I wrote the novel that way.

And I thought the freelancing was paying for the nanny, which it probably just did. So it wasn't very lucrative, but it saved my sanity. So it was worthwhile.


All right. So you found a home for that novel with Sleepless Publishing. How did that come about?


I did originally have an agent and they were trying to sell it. And the major publishers said, oh, we really love it but it's very dark. The subject is very dark. And so she, this agent that I had, said oh maybe it's not the right thing. And I said, well, what about smaller publishers? And at that point, we parted ways because it wasn't going to be very financially beneficial for that agent.

So the first small publisher I sent it to was Sleepers Publishing. And I still remember when I got the call from them saying “we love your book and we want to publish it.”


Wow. Brilliant. Because that is something I think that people do overlook, isn't it? That often smaller publishers will actually take bigger risks on manuscripts, in a funny sort of way, than a larger publisher will.


Yeah. Absolutely. And I was lucky that, I mean, I still think back on it and think how lucky I was that the first small publisher that I sent it to loved it. Because I could have easily gotten… What's the word? Put off by rejection at that time as well. But they are willing to take a risk, to look at something that might not be super commercial but that is a story that isn't out there that needs to be told, too.


Okay. So with your second published novel, you kind of changed direction a little bit there, didn't you? So do you want to tell us a little bit about what happened with that book? It's called Long Bay.


So I live in Maroubra, which is to the south of Sydney, south eastern beaches of Sydney. And I live pretty close to Long Bay Reformatory. And my brother in law was working there at the time teaching art, as well. So I was quite familiar with it. And I think he said to me that, did you know it used to be a women's reformatory? And I didn't.

And I started to look into it and I was really fascinated by that. And this was at the stage where my first book had gone to the publishers but wasn't out yet. So I was looking for something to distract me from worrying about it as well.

And so I saw out at the Western Sydney Records Centre there were some books of letters from Long Bay Women's Reformatory. And I thought, wow, that would be amazing. Letters that the prisoners sent. It wasn't that, of course. When I went out there, I drove an hour out there. And it was actually really bureaucratic letters from the prison's comptroller.

But in that book of letters there was a letter from the comptroller to the Randwick Women's Hospital. And they were saying, please take this prisoner and send her back to us when she's had her baby. And I thought, oh, wow, you could have a baby in prison? Did you get to keep the baby? What was she in prison for in the first place?

And my curiosity was really piqued and I started to look into it. And it turned out she was in prison for manslaughter. And she had been an abortionist and she'd done an abortion that had killed a woman accidentally. And then she actually was pregnant when she went to jail. And she had her baby and she kept her baby with her in jail, as well.




It was such an interesting story and I really wanted to write about it. And I had this question – can I write this as non-fiction? Do I write this as fiction? Then it turned out there was sort of fragments of things, but there wasn't enough to write it as non-fiction. So I was compelled to write it as fiction to fill in those gaps, because there were a lot of them in her life.


So when you get a spark of an idea, you're obviously quite a curious person in the sense that you wonder, and you head out to have a look at the records, etc. When you get an idea for a story, where do you begin writing something? Are you a planner? Are you doing a whole lot of research in advance? Or are you someone who takes an idea and starts to work through it and write it as you go?


That's a good question. I think I've changed a little over time. I am a researcher, definitely. I love to read everything I can find about a subject. Particularly a lot of social histories and that kind of thing. And go places and look at things.

But I'm not a planner as far as the novel structure. Because I think that inhibits the characters from deciding the direction, a little bit, that the novel will go in.

With Long Bay, my second book, it was a little different because it was based on someone's actual life. And so I did have somewhat of a structure. But I also had to put all of my research aside a little bit with that. Because I had to let the character come to life in my imagination, too. So I think I'm not a planner because I need that looseness in order for my imagination to take over.


Okay. So with both Long Bay and The Passengers, you're dealing with a lot of historical detail. Are you stringent with those factual details? Or is your focus always going to be on the story?


I consider myself stringent with detail in that I never change dates of battles and wars and things like that. But I do, I have found that I'm more flexible than some people in that I do let the characters… Like, I will change that a day that a ship possibly left because it might work in with the story better that it leave on that day in the character's journey. And it is fiction, at the end of the day.

So I find the emotional truth to be really important. However, it has to be accurate in that I'm not going to allow telephones when there weren't yet telephones. And I love the kind of detail of what things were called and the words that existed that no longer exist, and the things people ate and what they listened to. So I just want all of that. Even if I don't use it in the book, I love to find it out.


So you've got a whole encyclopaedic knowledge of this stuff. Are you researching that before you start to write? Or are you kind of doing some of it as you go?


I used to… And this is something I've changed a bit. I think with Long Bay I did a lot of it before I wrote. Partly because that was part of a Doctor of Creative Writing, too. And it was the structure that suited me at that time.

Also, I didn't know much about that period. And I felt like I had to learn so much, so I did spend a long time researching first.

But lately I've found, with The Passengers and with the novel I've started now, I might take a period of research and then I'll start writing. And then I'll go and fill in some of those research gaps and then I'll go back to writing. So I mix it up a lot more now for these two.


Did you find the switch from contemporary fiction, which was What Was Left, to Long Bay, was it difficult to do from the perspective of not just switching your own mindset, but with your publisher? Because sometimes if people bring out a book, and then you suddenly change directions, the publisher will be like – well, wait a minute. Because we've established you here and now you've moved on to something different.

Was that part of the process for you at all? Or were they, being a smaller publisher, happy to go with the direction that you had chosen?


That's an interesting question, too. I think if I was with a larger publisher I would have had that struggle. I was lucky I was with a small publisher and they were really lovely publishers. I encountered no hesitation from them, really. They were interested in it, too, even though they hadn't really published historical fiction either.

So I look back on it now and think, yes, I really didn't think about the commercial implications of my audience or my readership or anything like that. And they didn't push me, too, either, which was lucky at the time. And a really nice thing, too.


So with your third novel, The Passengers, you're back in historical fiction territory, so it's obviously an area that has resonated with you. It's something that you wanted to do again. Why do you think that is? What was it about this particular story that drew you to tell this story?


To me it's always a connection of the personal. So some story that has to resonate with me. And then I'm fascinated by untold stories. I feel like they're almost like little mysteries from history. That rhymes. It sounds terrible.


I like it.


Mysteries from history!


Sounds like a branding term to me.


It does. And they're not actually necessarily mysteries but they're just stories that haven't been told. And they're whole swathes of experience which we don't read about. And they're often female experiences, because we don't often read about that in historical texts, from those periods of time. I'm just fascinated by those.

So with me, with The Passengers, the personal experience was that I moved to Australia for love when I was in my early 20s. And I knew nobody. And it was one of those things where I'd met someone and I thought, let's give this a go.

And when I started to read about war brides and I hadn't really known that there were so many of them from Australia that moved to the US. There were around 15,000 of them during World War II alone, who married American soldiers and moved to the US. And I thought, they did that. But they did it with even less. They had no way of leaving once they got there without great expense and trouble and shame, in a sense. They had no way of calling their family and speaking to them. And a lot of them couldn't go back home for many, many years, even just to visit, because the expense was so great.

And they also hardly knew, often, the men that they had married. They knew them during the time of great passion and a time when the world seems to move at a much faster pace. And then they were sort of stuck in ordinary life in the late 40s, early 50s in the US, with this man and often his family. Because they were often living with their in-laws.

And all the freedom they'd known during World War II, where they'd worked and done interesting things, and made big steps as women in jobs women hadn't worked in before was taken essentially away from them, and they were told to work in the domestic sphere and to leave the jobs for the men.

So all of that was so interesting to me. And so rich in experience. And I also felt like I could put myself in those shoes, as well. With the research, of course, of that time.

And I was incredibly lucky in that there were war brides, there are war brides from World War II, Australians who moved to America who are still alive and who can tell their stories. So I met a few of them. Went to the US and that helped a lot with the research, as well.


I can imagine. So with this new book, you've moved to a larger publisher. You're now with Allen & Unwin. Can you tell us why and how that happened?


Yes. So sadly Sleepers Publishing closed their doors. They didn't get funding, in those funding cuts from various arts funding bodies. And they had to stop publishing. And as I was feeling sad about that they said to me, well, you should get an agent. And this is a chance for you to open to a wider readership, too.

And I thought, okay. I can see that. So I did get an agent. And then there was interest from several publishers for the manuscript of The Passengers. And I ended up going with Allen & Unwin with Jane Palfreyman as an editor, because I felt like she really had a lot of interesting things to say about the book and idea and I really liked a lot of the books that she published as well.


And you're obviously working on a new book at the moment. That will also be with Allen & Unwin?


I don't know! That was a single book deal. It was a contract for one book. So if they're interested in it, it will go to them first, of course.


So we will all cross our fingers.


I like not having… I like being free to write what you like when you need to write it. Excuse my dog. Sorry.


It's okay. We're all over dogs here. We love them. My dog is currently snoozing on the couch as we speak. So I totally get it.

Now, do you ever feel that your role as a critic – because you do write reviews of books, of other people's work – do you ever feel it interferes with your own writing? Do you ever have that sense of knowing that others are going to be critiquing your work and that that somehow hampers you? Or not?


I've dialled back on my reviewing a lot in recent years because of that. I think because it does… I think when I began to review books, it was many years ago before I'd had anything published, when I was working as a journalist, and I just read a lot so they offered me books to review and I said, sure.

And I think I was probably harsher than I would be now, because I know the lived experience of being an author who has books out, as well. So I probably am not always… I'm probably more generous now as a reviewer than I was back then. I also think… There are books that I absolutely still do love to review and review on my blog, as well.

And I've got to say more what I find hard to adjust with my own creative work is teaching. So I think that that can take a lot out of you, and can drain you to a degree where you maybe don't have as much left for your other work as you did.


As you'd hope.


As you'd hope, yeah. And I wonder how other writers find that balance, too, I think.


Yeah. I think that most people who teach would agree with that. Because I think that once you are managing, wrangling a class of students of any age, when it comes to writing, you're putting out an enormous amount of energy. And an enormous amount of thought process. And I think it does interfere with what you create for yourself. I think most people would agree with that.

Something else that I find does also hamper the creative process sometimes is the promotion of your work, which is part of the authorial life these days, as we know. What kinds of things do you do to get your books out there? And do you actually enjoy that side of being an author?


Yeah. It's another good question. I think I worried about this more in the past. I've tried to sort of stop worrying about it, a little. It's impossible to totally stop worrying about it. But I do occasionally write blog posts. I try to be in a community of writers; whether that's being active on Twitter and supporting other writers or doing things like that.

But how much promotion? When it's time to promote a book, I do make myself available. And I know that it's going to eat into whatever creative time I have. And I try to think, well, how lucky am I that people want to hear about my book? That is true. And I also consider myself really lucky to be able to write. And I know that those things feed each other.


So true.


So I do, when I'm doing interviews or things like that, I think, this is pretty amazing. There was a day when I would have dreamed about doing this. And rather than be frightened by it or resent it because it's taking away my writing time, I should put my energy into enjoying it.

So I do often feel like I do enjoy it now. But I think sometimes also there's this resentment of anything that takes me away from my writing time. Which is hard to shake.


Yes. I hear you on that. Speaking of things that take you away from your writing time, you have two children. Do you ever find it difficult… I know what that's like. Do you ever find it difficult to juggle that family life and the work of being a writer?


Yes. Of course it's difficult at times. But I also think it feeds into the richness of my life, too, in so many ways. And a lot of my writing is about, I can't deny that a lot of my writing is about motherhood and about family relations, grandmothers and granddaughters, and mothers and daughters. I'm fascinated by those things.

And I think part of that fascination came from becoming a mother. As I said, part of my fascination, the impetus for my first book, was that John Howard saying, how could she? And me thinking, well, how can you judge, either?

So I do think that they make my life much richer in that way, as well. And I probably wouldn't be writing about the things, some of the things which fascinate me without that.


All right. Well, we're going to finish up today with our famous or infamous (depending on your perspective) top three tips for aspiring writers. So perhaps you could hit us with your top three.


Okay. So I think my first tip is to find the time to write. My first tip is that you have to sit in that chair and just sit there. And sometimes stare out of the window or not go on the internet – that's obvious. But you have to sit there sometimes and inspiration will eventually come to you. And part of it, for me, is just the sitting. I think that's a tip. Or the walking. But the being along with your thoughts is really important. And that's a big tip for me as a writer.

Another one is to be prepared for rejection. And to be steeled for it, in a way. I think writers are all pretty sensitive souls. And that rejection, it's getting through it is what successful writers… I think that it's the thing that people who have success as writers is they're able to get through that rejection. Whereas a lot of people probably give up and don't keep persevering. So persevere through the rejection. That's my second tip.

And my third tip is just always read, I think. Because that is to me even more of my lifeblood than writing. I just have to always be reading. And when I'm always reading, I'm always finding new things that inspire me to write, as well. So I read voraciously and super widely. So I couldn't imagine life without books. Lots of them.


Fantastic. That's why your Twitter handle is NeedToRead.




So you can follow Eleanor on Twitter @TheNeedToRead. Which pretty much sums it all up for us. Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate your making the time to have a conversation with us.


Thank you so much for interviewing me. And for your lovely questions. And for dealing with my bad rhymes. Which obviously I have a few of.


I love your rhymes! Fantastic.

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