I’m really excited to have Karen Viggers talking to us today. I love her writing and The Lightkeeper’s wife brought out all sorts of emotions in me. Karen is an amazing person with all she manages to pack into her life – in fact over the few conversations we had, it was either her or I who had to keep running off, so they were always short!
Karen, a huge welcome to my blog!
Thanks Fleur for the opportunity to participate in your blog and chat to your readers. My second novel, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, has just come out in ‘B’ format, so this is a good time for me to talk about it. The book has been a bestseller for Allen&Unwin, which is very exciting for me. It is currently being translated into Norwegian, Italian and Slovenian. My mother wanted to go out and learn Norwegian, but I advised her to stick to English!
Here’s a bit about the story of The Lightkeeper’s Wife
Have you ever had the chance to stay near a lighthouse, or looked at a lighthouse and wondered about the lives of people who live or lived there? Have you ever considered the isolation associated with spending time in such a wild and beautiful place?
The Lightkeeper’s Wife is a moving story of love, loss, family and what we have to do to live the best kind of life.
The story opens with Mary, elderly and in poor health, living in Hobart. A letter is delivered to her house by someone she hoped never to see again. This visit and the letter prompt her to return to Bruny Island where she lived with her husband and family at the lighthouse for many years. She has things to do and make peace with before she dies. She carries a long-buried secret which now threatens to break free, and she has to decide what to do with the letter.
Back in Hobart, her decision to return to Bruny to die causes outrage with her daughter who wants her in a nursing home. But her youngest son, Tom, who has always loved the solitude and power of nature on Bruny, is more sympathetic. He’s struggling with the return to civilisation after over-wintering in Antarctica where he was a diesel mechanic for the Antarctic Division, also known as the Division of Broken Marriages and Shattered Lives.
As Mary’s health declines, both she and Tom must face their pasts in ways they can’t even begin to imagine. Mary finds that the script she’s written to the end of her life has taken a few twists of its own.
Inspiration for The Lightkeeper’s Wife
I have four jobs: I’m a mother, a writer, a veterinarian and a wife. But back in the 1990s, before I had children, I twice visited Antarctica to study crabeater and Weddell seals for the Australian Antarctic Division. My first trip was a seven week journey aboard the Aurora Australis (the Australian Antarctic research vessel) doing helicopter and shipboard surveys for pack-ice seals. We also captured crabeater seals on ice-floes to glue satellite transmitters onto their backs. During my second visit to Antarctica, I stayed at Davis Station for the summer, studying Weddell seals in the frozen fjords of the Westfold Hills.
Spending time in this vast and desolate wilderness was a profound experience, and it was difficult to return to normal life, even after only a short time south. I saw how people who lived in Antarctica were altered by it, and not all of it was good. It took me some years to work out how to write about the land of ice and snow. I wanted to tell people about the raw and intense experience of living in a small community down there, but also I wanted to convey the magical and stunning landscapes and the ways in which the ice can move your soul.
I love wild places and I like to experience the elements, even wind and rain and solitude. That’s also the reason why I visit lighthouses – they’re remote and isolated and beautiful. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live at a light station, especially in bygone eras before technology delivered the easy entertainment we have available to us today. The Lightkeeper’s Wife began as an exploration of isolation and how it affects people’s lives.
During the writing of The Lightkeeper’s Wife, I lived for a week in the lightkeeper’s cottage on Bruny Island off south-eastern Tasmania, and this was fantastic for my writing. I had already written the book, but it helped to spend time there so I could fine-tune the details. I wandered around the cliffs, sat and watched the light and the heaving sea, climbed the lighthouse, listened to the birds, stood in the wind. It was wonderful.
Living in such places seems romantic, but it has its hardships. I’ve read many books about lighthouses from all over the world. I’ve read about the construction of lighthouses, stories about the lives of people who lived at lighthouses during various historic times, and I’ve tried to submerge myself in how it would be to live in such a remote place in times past.
Ultimately, both Antarctica and the history of lighthouses formed the basis for the The Lightkeeper’s Wife. The story came first through Tom, who wrote himself with comparative ease. I have met people down in Antarctica badly scarred by their time south – they both loved and hated the place. It is out of their stories that Tom grew. Mary was much harder to get to know. As an older person, she had many layers and secrets and a much more detailed past that I had to learn. She also had many more complexities than her son, Tom. Although Mary was harder to become familiar with, I was very close to her by the end of the book journey. I felt great sympathy for her struggle to accept her past and to forgive herself for decisions she made during her life.
How I came to be a writer
I have always been a writer … in fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I received my first award for writing when I was in Year 2. In Year 3 I had a fabulous teacher who really encouraged creative writing, and in Year 5 I wrote a school play about convicts, which was performed at the school.
High school and University were different … as the work load increased I had less time for creativity, but I did keep detailed journals. When I graduated from Veterinary Science, I started writing poetry. The real trigger for writing novels was coming up to age forty. I had always wanted to write books, but I realised that if I didn’t start soon, I’d be eighty and still talking about it. So, with two small children at home still keeping me busy, I started to carve out time to write. My training ground in writing was doing my PhD which taught me about editing, completing a large writing project, and receiving criticism. Of course, science writing is very different to writing a novel, and I spent six months practising before I felt confident enough to start on fiction.
How my work and childhood have shaped my writing
I grew up riding horses in the Dandenong Ranges close to Melbourne. During my teens I was heavily involved in Pony Club, and it was while doing my certificates for Pony Club that I discovered a passion for learning about illnesses in horses and how to treat them. This led me to veterinary science. After graduating and working in mixed animal practice for five years, I discovered it’s not much fun trying to handle crazy, undisciplined kids’ ponies. It was about this time I began to develop an interest in Australian native wildlife through the Healesville Sanctuary where I often treated injured wildlife on weekends.
My experiences as a veterinarian have shaped my writing. I’ve been fortunate during my career to work with many species of Australian native animals in many wonderful locations. My husband is an ecologist, and given that we both like to be outside and to visit beautiful locations, it’s inevitable that this should turn up in my books.
I love animals and I enjoy talking to people, which is something you do a lot of as a veterinarian – in fact it’s about 90% of the job. These days, I still work part-time as a veterinarian. I like the ongoing relationships you develop with people and their pets. I also feel passionate about helping people to make decisions about euthanasia for their animals at the right time. It’s a very difficult thing to do – emotionally draining for everyone – and I aim to be as compassionate as possible. In our society, I think we keep ourselves very separate from death, instead of acknowledging it as part of life. Tackling life and death with grace and dignity are important themes in The Lightkeeper’s Wife.
How I find time to write
I’d love to be able to write a book a year, but life is busy and my family comes first. It’s easier now that my children are at school and I have four days to write. However, for me, good ideas take time to compost, so I’m always thinking about ideas for books.
Once I start putting things on computer, editing and re-writing etc, it takes me about two years to write a book. The first draft takes between 3-6 months, and then there is all the re-working. The fun part is the early creative phase, and then it’s onto editing, which can be a bit of a grind. But writing is a compulsion for me – I’m nicer to live with when I’m writing.
Is writing the second book easier?
I wish I could say that writing my second book was easier, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably harder. I think The Lightkeeper’s Wife is a more ambitious book than my first novel, The Stranding, and it touches on many facets of life which we all have to deal with. The main character, Mary Mason, is an older woman, and it took quite some time and effort to get to know her and to understand her depth and layers. She’s a strong woman, and she has worked hard to keep her marriage and family together, having turned away from other options. I enjoyed uncovering Mary, and I learned a lot about marriage from delving into her struggles and discovering why she took certain paths in her life.
The Lightkeeper’s Wife also encompasses the story of Mary’s youngest son, Tom, who is damaged from the loss of his marriage while he was away in Antarctica some years before. Tom was a much easier character to write. I quite like writing from the male perspective. My husband is useful when I write about men, as he often looks at things I have written and quietly says: I don’t think a guy would do that, or Guys don’t think like that, or Guys don’t speak like that.
What is important to me when I write a story?
When I write, I like to give my readers something to think about. Life is such a convoluted and complex thing, and we, as humans, are such wondrously intricate beings. I love to observe relationships and to think about the different ways in which we react to life’s challenges.
‘Place’ and landscapes are also very important to me. I find my spiritual centre in beautiful wild places: the sea, the mountains, in Antarctica. In my writing, I try to bring people to these places, to share with them my love for nature, and hopefully to encourage them to spend a bit more of their leisure time outdoors feeling the wind, watching the skies and listening to the birds. I think in our busy lives, we forget how to connect with nature, and therefore how to keep in touch with our real ‘selves’.
In The Lightkeeper’s Wife, I want my readers to feel the wind and taste the salt, to see the long grey light and the vast curving beaches, and to feel the sea rolling in. I would like my readers to feel like they have been to Bruny Island, even if they haven’t.
I hope you enjoy reading The Lightkeeper’s Wife. If you want to read more about my books, you can also visit my website: www.karenviggers.com.