Q: Tell us a little bit about the history behind the book. How did you come to learn about it? How did you decide to write about it?
Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, I read Robert Hughes’ masterful 1986 nonfiction book The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding. This inspired me to apply for a six-week Rotary fellowship to Australia. The experience was life-changing; I encountered a society that – much like America – was only beginning to come to terms with its complex history of racism and oppression. Thirty years later, the plight of the 19th-century female prisoners sent from Britain and Ireland to populate a new land – and the Aboriginal people whose way of life was destroyed when colonists landed on their shores – is still largely unknown. As with my novel Orphan Train, I wanted to shine a light on a significant moment in history that has been essentially hidden in plain sight.
Q: The story is largely about Australia’s history, but much of the book takes place in London and on the ocean. How did you strike the balance in place and setting?
As I thought about the predicament of the women sent to Australia on convict ships, I realized how crucial it was to show the arc of their stories from the beginning. Few of these exiled women ever returned to their places of origin. What was it like to be sentenced to seven or fourteen years in prison to “the land beyond the seas,” as Australia was known, given that it was, for almost all of them, a life sentence? What was the process of transportation like? How long did it take for cold, hard reality to sink in? I wanted readers to experience what happened at every step along the way. The four-month voyage was not just a transition from one place to another; it was transformative. It was when these women realized that they were no longer English or Scottish or Irish; they were on their way to becoming new citizens in a new world.
Q: How did you come to choose the characters who lead us through the novel? What was the importance of including Mathinna’s story? How did you decide where to begin and end each character’s arc?
From the beginning, I envisioned this novel as a passing of the baton from one convict woman to the next, to the next – with the real-life story of an Aboriginal girl providing vital perspective on the British invasion of Australia. Each woman’s story ends with a moment of reckoning.
The Exiles begins with Evangeline, a young woman of little means who comes to London from the provinces to become a governess. Evangeline is educated but naïve; she is as surprised as the reader when she ends up in the notorious Newgate Prison. Through her, we’re introduced to the street-smart Olive, at Newgate, and the Scottish waif Hazel, on the ship; their life experiences are more typical of convicts sent to the Cascades Female Factory in Van Diemen’s Land. The story of the Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, intersects with Hazel’s about two-thirds of the way through the book, and both expands on and contextualizes the convicts’ experience. In the final chapter of the book, the story flashes forward more than two decades to reveal what happened to Ruby and her mother after transportation to Van Diemen’s Land – renamed Tasmania to elude the so-called “convict stain” – ended.
Q: This is your third historical novel. How was the research and writing similar to the work you did for Orphan Train and A Piece of the World? Did you feel a different weight of responsibility in writing about a country not your own?
In her New Yorker piece titled “Just the Facts, Ma’am,” Jill Lepore writes, “Fiction can do what history doesn’t but should. It can tell the story of ordinary people. It’s the history of private life, the history of obscure men.” I realize that this is what I have done in my three latest novels: Orphan Train tells the story of immigrants in destitute circumstances; A Piece of the World is about an ordinary woman, Christina Olson, living in rural Maine, who became the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s best-known painting; The Exiles is about poor women exiled from their homelands. In these novels, writing about people, real and imagined, whose stories have not been told, I was determined to get to the root of who they were, to explore their experiences in a way that felt rich and full.
My latest novel is always the hardest book I’ve ever written. I hope that means I’m setting myself increasingly difficult goals. But the research for these all of these novels has been time-consuming and intense; the writing was painstaking. Even when I’ve done a massive amount of research before I put words on the page, I always write my way into needing to learn something new: the cloth used for uniforms at the female factories, for example, or how scurvy was treated on convict ships. These granular details may not end up in a final draft, but I want to be aware of them as I’m working. For The Exiles I did a great deal of research about Newgate prison in the nineteenth century, but it was an offhand detail I discovered after finishing a draft that brought the section alive for me. A particular tallow made of animal fat was used for candles in homes of the poor and in the dark hallways of prisons. It was cheap and had a low melting point; it dripped in puddles and smelled terrible. I went back and wove in this detail.
Writing about cultures other than your own is fraught and complicated. I did feel a particular weight of responsibility in writing about Australia – and even more so in writing about Aboriginal people. The convict women endured terrible hardship, but their experience paled in comparison. I consulted, and shared my work, with a number of people who know far more than I do, including a retired professor who has written or edited 33 books on the history of Tasmania and is herself descended from convicts, and an Aboriginal historian who traces his ancestry back to the Trawulwuy people of northeast Tasmania.
Q: Themes of literacy, education and opportunity, particularly for girls and women, run through the novel, and through much of your work as a whole. Is that something you seek out when you are looking for a new subject?
In her New Yorker essay, Jill Lepore goes on to write: “Who are these obscure men? Well, a lot of them are women.” Recently an interviewer asked why, in my later novels, I write only from the female perspective. I told him that lately I’ve been preoccupied with stories about people who have historically been on the fringes of society, whose stories have been unnoticed or obscured—and many of those people are women. Throughout history, women kept journals and wrote letters, but few were writing books. Researching the story of Australia’s convicts, I found a trove of contemporaneous accounts written by men about their experiences. Few by women. Literacy, education and opportunity are everything.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Well, I hope readers will find the story riveting, of course! And I hope they might – as I did – learn something new. It’s not widely known that women were essentially sent by the British government to Australia as breeders and ended up populating this wild land. They left Victorian England—one of the most stratified societies in history, where the slightest slip of your accent determined which social class you were in—and moved to Australia, where none of those rules applied. Once they became freed of their literal shackles, these pioneer women could become whatever they wanted to be. They created a whole new world.
This narrative is in marked contrast, of course, to that of the Aboriginal people, whose story of colonization is similar to our American history (for good reason, as both countries were originally British colonies). While I fictionalized her story, Mathinna was a real person who was taken from her people and then abandoned. Opportunity for some does not mean opportunity for all.