Anne McCullagh Rennie
author of Under Southern Skies
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born and raised in Cambridge England, the second of three children. My father was a University Don and Senior Tutor of Queens College Cambridge, my mother was a lecturer in Health at Homerton Teachers College, Cambridge. As a child I was naturally musical. We had our own family orchestra, dad played cello, mum viola, my sister and I played violin, younger brother cymbals, friends joined in playing piano, horn, oboe. My father also played piano and wrote hilarious poems and musical skits which we performed in our drawing room with friends. At other times we sung arias from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. It was in this environment that I sung my first solo.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Aged twelve I couldn’t wait to follow my elder sister to Westonbirt School, in the Cotswolds, the posh English boarding school my parents had chosen for us. Its claim to fame: It was on the short list of four schools considered for the Queen and Princess Margaret to attend. My greatest ambition there was to become a school prefect – Member of The Parlour’. As a Member of the Parlour you were presented with a grey tie instead of the standard maroon, given various responsibilities and duties and invited into The Parlour – a sitting room used only by school prefects. Imagine my excitement when at the end of year eleven I was voted into The Parlour as Second head of my ‘House’.
Aged eighteen my dream was to become an opera singer. My idol was Dame Joan Sutherland. I listened to her records, read her biography avidly and heard her sing at London’s Convent Garden Opera House. I was fortunate in having talented music teachers and went on to study music at the Royal College of Music, London and the Akademie für Musik, Vienna. On my return to England I became concert manager of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London, and BBC Training Orchestra, Bristol. I always believed I would fall in love, get married, have a family and live happily ever after. Because that’s what you do.
Aged almost thirty things weren’t looking good. Then, on the ski slopes of Austria, I met Jim Rennie, a dashing Australian Naval office. We dined at the local hotel and danced well into the night. At the end of the second evening together, wearing unsuitably high heeled boots, I struggled to walk across the icy path. Immediately Jim swept me up in his arms, carried me across the snow, set me gently down at my apartment door and asked me to marry him. Three months later we were married and living in Australia. It was the best decision of my life.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I was useless at sport and unadventurous. Since marrying and moving to Australia I have skied with my husband and children all over the world, sailed down the east coast of Australia in our Catamaran Bestseller, learned to glide and won a State Two-seater gliding championship. In Under Southern Skies my heroine Cate is determined to fly solo in the family Cessna before her eighteenth birthday. I know the fear and elation she felt.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
I grew up in a house filled with books as well as music and where authors were revered. Our family read Shakespeare’s plays in the evenings and my father took us to performances put on by undergraduates staged in the cloister courts of Queens’ College Cambridge, which made them all the more dramatic. And we attended the May Week Gilbert and Sullivan opera productions. It was a great early education. As a young adult I wept buckets over Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but my favourite hero and heroine have to be Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Verdi’s opera La Traviata inspired me to call my hero Alf in Under Southern Skies. When I need to feel the surges of happiness and grief for my heroine Cate, I think of Verdi’s glorious soaring brindisi, sung by Violetta, the courtesan in love with Alfredo, and the haunting aria as she sings of her tragic yearning knowing she can never have a life with him.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
In 1988 with the support of Brash’s music store, I staged the ‘NSW 21Piano Salute the Bicentenary’. It involved two of Brash’s grand pianos and nineteen uprights, 1200 children, parents and music teachers, was registered as an official Australian Bicentenary Event and was the culmination of my years teaching Suzuki Piano to children aged upward of two years old. When it was over, I realised I needed a career change. ‘If you could choose anything, what would you want to do?’ asked my husband Jim. ‘I’d love to be able to write novels, the kind I love to read – ones you curl up with and can’t put down till the last word. I love this country so I would want my stories to have a strong Australian setting and a good Aussie feel,’ I replied. ‘Well, give it a go! Start writing,’ said Jim. So I did!
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Under Southern Skies is my fifth novel. While I drew on my classical music experience for my second novel Song of the Bellbirds (sold over half a million copies), set against the wheat fields of Queensland and the opera houses of Europe and America, for Under Southern Skies, told against a backdrop of the vibrant world of Australian Country Music and the dramatic beauty and terror of the Outback, I was inspired by Australian Country music singers including Slim Dusty, Kasey Chambers, Sara Storer, Troy Cassar Daley, Lee Kernegan and John Williamson, the energy and excitement of the Tamworth Music Festival and the Golden Guitar Awards.
(BBGuru: The publisher’s blurb – Cate Perry’s future couldn’t look brighter. She’s learning about life on the land, and has just completed her first solo flight over the vast Northern Territory cattle station she calls home. And she’s falling in love – with handsome, gentle Alf. Then a tragic freak accident changes Cate’s life forever.
Grief and shame drive her to Tamworth, where she meets the talented Nat and quickly stumbles into a singing career. But fame beings to take its toll, and just when Cate least expects it, Alf steps back into her life. Will Alf and Cate face up to their feelings, or forever live with the consequences?
Lyrical, passionate and heartwarming, Under Southern Skies is the uplifting story of a young woman determined to make a life for herself in the sweeping Australian outback. From the dusty cattle stations of the Northern Territory to the vibrant Tamworth music scene, this lively, engaging novel perfectly captures the spirit of the land.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope readers feel satisfied they have enjoyed a great read of a book they ‘couldn’t put down until the very last word’; to feel inspired by the courage and strength of my hero and heroine and the way they tackle adversity and to have the courage to go after their own dreams; for readers to want to experience firsthand the beauty of the Australian outback and songs composed and sung by our talented country music artists. And of course…pass Under Southern Skies on to a friend and search for my other novels.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
English novelist Jilly Cooper for her ability to make you race through her stories. She makes you laugh, cry and fall in love with her delicious spicy characters and you become engrossed in her world. Nevil Shute’s – A Town Like Alice a gripping story woven against an enthralling background, filled with strong lovable characters continues to remind me to make my plots compelling. I admire the way Penny Vincenzi builds a story from a single incident and brings unconnected characters and non-fiction and fiction events together to explain her premise. I think that is very clever. Her novels really are indulgent gollops of pleasure.
I was inspired by Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds to write stories set in the Australian Outback. Having been born and raised in England and Europe I guess that was a bit of a cheek on my part, but then I started listening to my inlaws, (Jim’s mother was born and bought up in Lightning Ridge and Walgett, his father in Yass), asking questions and talking to people living on the land. After a family holiday in England where I was greeted by a London local with: ‘You’re not from these parts are you?’ I realised I had changed. Over the years I had absorbed the Australian culture and become an Australian. On top of that I had my own real life experiences in the Outback that I could draw on to build credibly stories. Yet my English and European experiences continue to enrich my novels. Deciding to write Outback sagas started a wonderful quest for knowledge that I am still on with this my fifth Outback family saga.
My goal has always been to write stories with a strong Australian theme and backdrop that are a great read you can’t put down, and make you laugh, cry and be inspired. I would like to be published in many languages. My novels have been well received in Germany, Austria and Switzerland so I would love to win the Corine Weltbild Readers prize by being voted their most popular author of the year. To know my novels have contributed significantly to the international growth and success of Australian Popular Fiction.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
A: Know which book you want your book to sit next to in the bookstore shelf. This way you will know the market you are writing for, the appropriate length for your book, number and length of chapters, styles of writing, how your book will look and which publishers and agents to approach. Publishers want ‘more of the same but different’. You want your book to sell. But do not fear, there is plenty of room to manoeuvre and your book will remain unique because your style of writing is yours alone.
B: Be able to describe your book in ONE sentence. Why? Because this way you will be coherent when talking to a prospective agent, publisher or reader, busy people who are invariably in a rush:
My ONE sentence: Under Southern Skies is the uplifting story of a young girl determined to make a life for herself in the sweeping Australian Outback.
C: Add another sentence to set the scene more vividly: From the dusty cattle stations of the Northern Territory to the vibrant Tamworth music scene, lively and engaging, Under Southern Skies perfectly captures the spirit of the land.
Q: So, what’s your latest book about?
A: Set against the dusty cattle stations of the Northern Territory and the vibrant Australian Country Music scene, Under Southern Skies is the uplifting story of a young girl determined to make a life for herself in the sweeping Australian Outback.
See what I mean?
E: The most valuable piece of advice I have received:
If you can say it in less words do so!
Good luck and keep writing!
Anne, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, was published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.