I wasn't always a writer. I used to be a lawyer. I spent my days in the city, rushing between courtrooms, drafting affidavits and briefing barristers. Then my father got sick and told me his holocaust story; a story that he'd kept hidden because he wanted to put his past behind him.
That story changed everything. The telling of it was the beginning of our friendship.
It was also the beginning of my writing career, because after I'd written about my father's tragic, brave life in The Tattooed Flower, I couldn't go back to being a lawyer. I couldn't do anything but write. I'd discovered that, apart from loving the experience of getting to know my father, I enjoyed listening to the details of other people’s lives and reconstructing those lives on paper.
So I quit the law and started to write. Children's books, features for newspapers and, after re-enrolling in university to improve my craft, two collection of stories, All You Need is Love, a portrait in words and pictures of fifteen diverse Australian women and their remarkable paths to motherhood. Twelve very different Australian couples featured in my next book, Smitten, an intimate exploration of enduring love.
Much as I loved dipping into other people's stories, when I thought about what I'd like to write next, I found myself drawn back to Auschwitz and my father’s stories. I guess I wasn't ready to let him go. Writing The Wrong Boy, a Young Adult novel about a young Jewish pianist from Budapest whose life is turned upside down when her family are sent to Auschwitz allowed me to revisit his story and pass on his warning never to forget. It was also the only way I knew to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again – by trying to understand it, and the best way to do that was by giving my readers a character to care about. Not millions of Jews - just one - a girl their age with the same fears, insecurities and longings.
It was a steep learning curve, moving from interviewing people to imagining them into existence, giving them a voice and a personality, having them laugh, cry, love, starve and sometimes die. But I was hooked.
A chance meeting with an elderly Holocaust survivor who was put to work in Auschwitz's elite Horse Commando led to my next novel, Alexander Altmann A10567 about an emotionally withdrawn boy and a damaged horse who heal each other.
The novel that I’m writing now is set in Africa. I’d always written what I knew and wanted to step outside my experience. In writing holocaust fiction I’d drawn on my father’s story and the stories of the survivors I’d grown up with. With, I am Change I’m exploring something new, something that haunts me. 200 million girls in developing countries wake up each day and don’t go to school, their education disrupted by poverty, household obligation, child marriage, gender-based violence and a deep-seated culture favouring boys’ education. I am Change is my attempt to incite an army for change by giving my readers a character to care about; a girl to inspire them to speak out for those who have been silenced by their fathers, brothers and husbands, their religion and culture. A story to get girls into schools and keep them there.
Lilian, my main character, comes from a poor village in Uganda. I didn't know what it felt like to live without shoes or schoolbooks, so in August 2015 I travelled to Kampala to speak with young Ugandan girls. I went to their villages, visited their huts, walked to the wells where they got water and visited the dusty schools where they learned to speak English. They told me about selling their bodies to pay for schoolbooks and forgoing meals to pay for excursions. Some had been given as wives in exchange for cattle. A lucky few were on scholarships. All of them wanted, more than anything, to learn.
So I let Lilian learn, let her struggle, sometimes brutally, to gain an education. Like the girls I interviewed, Lilian had learned to shrink herself to fit her culture’s expectation of what a girl is. A girl is not meant to be smarter than her brother. A girl is not meant to go to school or enjoy her body or decide who to marry. I made Lilian want all these things. Kept at home to cook and dig the garden, I had her steal her brother’s books and teach herself to read and write, the stories she wrote at night her only respite from the cruel reality of village life where men beat their wives without fear of punishment and girls were ‘cut’ in purity ceremonies that left them scarred.
My hope, in writing this novel, is to create a character who will inspire my readers to be agents for change. With your help we can see an end to lost hopes, wasted potential and classrooms emptied of girls.