Today we welcome Anna Westbrook to Booklover Book Reviews to share with us how she came to write her debut novel Dark Fires Shall Burn.
AND thanks to Scribe Publications, we have a paperback copy to giveaway.
Dark Fires Shall Burn is inspired by a true event; the 1946 unsolved murder of eleven-year-old Joan Norma Ginn in the cemetery that is now Camperdown Memorial Park. I happened by chance to read about her death, leafing through a Pictorial History of Newtown whilst waiting for a coffee one day, almost a decade ago. The details of the killing were lurid. She had been raped and strangled, with her own cardigan used as a straitjacket. Crank letters taunted the police and family. Rumours ricocheted around the community that an American serviceman was the perpetrator, that a group of delinquent teenagers were responsible, and, stranger still – that the killer was a man dressed in female drag. Newtown became, in the words of an alderman, “a ghost town after dark”.
Whilst my imagination was already churning, it was not until reading the article that I became aware that the public outcry over the Ginn murder had led to the closure of the cemetery, (the third-oldest colonial burial ground in Sydney), and that the gravestones – but not the bodies – had been relocated to a much smaller area around St. Stephen’s church and walled off. I thought about the park in which I had spent so many hours, blithely unaware I was picnicking with longnecks directly above the remains of thousands of people. How long are our graves even our own? I wondered. What does ‘memorial’ mean? Or, more tellingly, who gets remembered?
I began to think about how to write a story that could satisfy a reader about a crime that was never solved. It made me angry to think that whoever killed Joan went unpunished and I remembered a quote from Aeschylus: “This is the law: blood spilt upon the ground cries out for more.” Sydney was a wild place in 1946, with sly grog and rampant criminal syndicates, and it buckled under the strain of the wave of returned soldiers – many of whom were broken men who took out their trauma on the women and children around them.
Did he really get away with it? As a fiction writer, that was my point of departure, and yet I felt a fidelity to the character in Dark Fires who is based on Joan. I was determined to make her more than just a plot device. I wanted to make the reader feel something for her, giving her all the texture and nuance and passions of an eleven-year-old whose childhood had been dominated by the Second World War and who likely looked toward a brighter horizon. What would she have seen and loved at the pictures? (National Velvet, Lassie Come Home…) Read under the covers with a flashlight? (The Magic Faraway Tree, The Naughtiest Girl in School…) I thought about her whilst sitting in the diminished cemetery in St. Stephen’s shadow as I watched a cracked tomb exhale and inhale a colony of bees, as I glanced up to see a pair of sleepy tawny frogmouths in the tree branches above me. Joan had lived only yards away. Did she wander through here? How could I, in some small way, remember her.
Urban legend tells of a number of ghosts in that cemetery: a colonial soldier watches the stars through a telescope, a pair of star-crossed lovers pine, a jilted bride wanders. Attracted always to the macabre and the Romantic I keenly dug up this trivia. But my novel is neither Romantic nor macabre. It hinges on the stories of two young people, drawn together by the murder, who are trying to make sense of a changing world – fallible and adult – that is stained by cruelty and indifference. I wanted my Sydney of the 1940s to be a foreign land yet instantly recognisable, a half-remembered dream; dark, crude, beautiful, and brash.
Sydney, 1946. Eleven-year-old Frances and her best friend, Nancy, are growing up in the doglegged streets of Newtown and into a world they do not understand. It is the aftermath of World War II, and thousands of damaged soldiers have returned to their homes, bearing the psychological scars of battle with them.
Meanwhile, in the seediest part of the city, fifteen-year-old Templeton lives amid bootleggers, gangs, and prostitutes with his sister Annie and her friends. Threatened by Annie’s abusive lover, the nefarious Jack Tooth, they are forced to seek protection from a Darlinghurst madam: the once-powerful grog runner Dolly Jenkins. Soon, Templeton is drawn into an enigmatic underbelly of violence, sexuality, and secrets.
When Frances witnesses a shooting one night, these two worlds become inevitably intertwined. Templeton and the girls must grow up quickly and confront the darkness in the lives of those around them.
Dark Fires Shall Burn is a superbly atmospheric, powerful debut about justice, vengeance, and the power of grief.
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About the Author, Anna Westbrook
Anna Westbrook is a Sydney-based writer and critic. She holds a PhD in creative writing and lectures at New York University Sydney. She was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Literary Award at the age of twenty-one, and has also been a recipient of an Australian Society of Authors mentorship (where she worked with Fiona McGregor, author of Indelible Ink) and an Australian Poetry Poet in Residence award. Her work appears in publications in Australia, the United States, and France. Dark Fires Shall Burn is her first novel.
Dark Fires Shall Burn Reviews
To celebrate the release of Anna Westbrook’s DARK FIRES SHALL BURN the lovely people at Scribe Publications have offered a paperback copy for giveaway to one lucky reader.
- Australian and New Zealand mailing addresses only
- extra entries for spreading the word via Twitter [+2] and Facebook/Google+/Webpage [+4]
- extra entries for registered participants of the Aussie Author Challenge 2016 [+1 for challenge commitment and +1 for each review link submitted to date as part of the challenge]
- entries close midnight 11 June 2016
- the winner will be randomly selected and must respond to my email requesting their mailing address within 5 days otherwise their prize will be forfeited and another winner selected
SORRY, ENTRIES CLOSED – Winner announced HERE