Suzanne Daniel is a journalist and communications consultant who has also worked for ABC TV, the Sydney Morning Herald, the United Nations, BBC (London) and in crisis management and social services. For the past twenty years she has served on community, philanthropic and public company boards. Suzanne lives in Sydney with her husband and family. Allegra in Three Parts is her first novel.
Today, she answers Booktopia’s 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 grew up in Yowie Bay, a bushy suburb on the outskirts of Sydney, and spent many weekends and holidays at our family farm in the Hunter Valley. My grandparents had a home not far from us overlooking South Cronulla Beach, so essentially my childhood let me explore the best of the Australian environment: the bush, bay, beach, and country. My mother’s three sisters, her dearest friend, and their families all lived nearby too, so I was part of a large clan. It really felt like I had many mothers and multiple places to feel at home. Looking back now I realise just how very lucky I was.
At the age of twelve I went to Kincoppal-Rose Bay Convent as a weekly boarder, which meant sleeping over at school during the week and coming home for weekends. It was the best of both worlds and full of friendship and fun. I didn’t realise at the time just how much I was learning. The nuns especially seemed to teach in a way that gave us ‘something for now and a lot for later’. I continue to draw from that pretty much everyday.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I started high school we had to write a little book about ourselves, which included a section at the end outlining what we wished for our future. I still have it today so can tell you with certainty that at twelve I wanted to be ‘either a journalist or a commercial artist’. The first option was strangely prophetic and the second, considering I can’t draw to save my life, was completely unrealistic.
By eighteen I was less certain. I made a half-hearted application for an ABC cadetship before rushing off to our version of ‘schoolies’. Not surprisingly I wasn’t successful. Instead I went to university without a clear plan, but by thirty, after studying economics and law I’d gone back to option one, studied journalism and was actually working at the ABC. Hopefully they’ve shredded my first application. Looking back this all sounds kind of neat but it was certainly anything but strategic.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was eighteen I thought I could ‘just wing it’ and jumped in to most things underprepared. I know now that approach has – at best – patchy success and anything worthwhile takes huge effort and consistent application.
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?
Not long after I started writing Allegra in Three Parts I bought a painting by Australian artist, Terry Pauline Price called “Fishbowls.” I connected with it the moment I saw it because it features a young girl, by a creek in the bush, who seemed to capture some of the qualities I imagined for my protagonist, Allegra. It hangs in my bedroom so it was the first thing I saw each morning during the years of my writing. When I woke up she there waiting, encouraging me to write her into life, in a new form.
My novel, with its notes of magical realism, also features Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, so listening to his music started as research but over time it became more a source of inspiration.
Allegra in Three Parts is set against the second wave of the women’s movement and one of my favourite scenes is where Allegra’s grandmother, Joy breaks into singing “I Am Woman” around the kitchen table with her friends from Liberty Club. This song, celebrating female empowerment, was released by Helen Reddy as a single in 1972 and quickly became a number one hit. It was a call to action for woman throughout the world and has since been an enduring anthem of the women’s liberation movement. I now play it often and sing it out loud.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I don’t think there were innumerable artistic avenues open to me. I can’t draw, paint or sculpt and I’m not very good with anything technical. The best I have are thoughts and words, and I wanted to try my hand at getting them onto a page in a way that might be of interest to others and give readers meaning and joy.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Allegra In Three Parts is set in North Bondi during the 1970s and the second wave of the women’s movement. It’s told through the voice and perspective of Allegra, an eleven-year-old girl being raised by her two ‘larger than life’ grandmothers, Matilde and Joy. They are next-door neighbours but polar opposites. Hungarian Holocaust survivor Matilde instils discipline and duty and has definite ideas about the course of her granddaughter’s life and what she should study and achieve. Meanwhile, free-spirited Joy has become a women’s libber, signing up to Liberty Club with her penny tortoise Simone de Beauvoir. She wants Allegra to embrace the sisterhood and live her true essence. Joy keeps every tear she’s ever shed in little glass bottles that she dates and labels, often inviting Allegra in to ‘dust her emotions’.
Allegra’s father, Rick, lives out the back in the flat above the garage, effectively pushed out by these two strong women. Her mother is off the scene and the reveal for that occurs with fever-pitch drama into the novel. The three adults remaining cherish Allegra but they don’t speak to one another so she’s left to orbit their three adult worlds. The story is quirky, humorous and employs magical realism, as well as re-imagining some historical events. I interviewed scores of woman and many men over the years it was written and while it deals with serious issues it is ultimately uplifting.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I love to think my readers will not just enter Allegra’s world but also her heart and her mind. She is a young person on the cusp of adulthood who can be endearingly naïve one minute, and staggeringly wise the next. It’s a coming of age story, which will hopefully chime with people of all ages.
I hope readers will understand what family conflict does to a child and their emerging identity, especially when that child still loves all the adults who love them. And even though the adults in my book have their various flaws, I hope readers will ultimately care about all of them and understand each of their perspectives.
Finally, I hope readers will cheer on the sisterhood, appreciating the challenges, efforts and camaraderie of the second wave of the women’s movement. I wanted to honour the feminists before us and encourage those coming through to press on and march forward. And here, I include men very much too.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Although it took me many years to research and write my first novel I’m aware that I had a dream run in getting it published. My agent, Catherine Drayton, managed to get a number of great publishers in Australia bid for my book and I’m thrilled to be now with Pan Macmillan. It was also picked up by the wonderful people at Knopf (Penguin Random House) who will publish it in early 2020 in the US and Canada. I don’t have the folder full of rejection letters writers often speak about and quite frankly I don’t know that I would have had the grit to keep going in the face of endless rejection. So, the writers I admire most are those that do, and as we know many of them have gone on to have stellar careers.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’ve spent much of my career working with the aim of building a more just society, through journalism, social services, ethical investment, education and philanthropy. I’d like to think I could also do that with novel writing. Studies have shown that literature has the power to foster empathy. It can undermine prejudices and stereotypes taking us out of ourselves and making us more open and mindful to others.
Right now, I do need to get on and write my next novel, the one I’ve been signed to do for Pan Macmillan. The one everyone calls ‘that difficult second book’. Yikes!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Live fully, curiously, whole-heartedly and courageously. Then you’ll have something to write about. That’s just as important as mastering your craft.
If you think you have a book in you… make it your job to get it out of you. I’m a big fan of a daily word-count goal. I shot for 600 words I could bank every writing day. It works magically, almost like compound interest. It makes you sit down at your desk, fuels momentum and then starts working for you.
Thank you for playing!
Allegra in Three Parts
Eleven-year-old Allegra shuttles between her grandmothers who live next door to one another but couldn't be more different. Matilde works all hours and instils discipline, duty and restraint. She insists that Allegra focus on her studies to become a doctor.
Meanwhile free-spirited Joy is full of colour, possibility and emotion, storing all her tears in little glass bottles. She is riding the second wave of the women's movement in the company of her penny tortoise, Simone de Beauvoir, encouraging Ally to explore broad horizons and live her 'true essence'.
Allegra is left to orbit these three worlds wishing they loved her a little less and liked each other a lot more. Until one day the unspoken tragedy that's created this division explodes within the person they all cherish most.