Frequently Asked Questions
Warning: Spoiler Alert! Come Back after you have read the book. Seriously. Don’t spoil it for yourself.
Where did the inspiration for Seldom Come By come from?
The inspiration for Seldom Come By came from four parts of my life:
- One northern summer in the 1990s I spent two months holidaying Canada. Part way through my travels I encountered a thin, flighty woman with intense blue-green eyes whose mystery followed me home and into the pages of my third book, Come Full Circle. In trying to unravel Gene’s story, I went back to her childhood. I saw her wonderful family and her parents who had a special, all-encompassing love. And those parents were Samuel and Rebecca.
- I spent most of my childhood growing up on a farm in rural Queensland. At night you would walk outside and not see another light. You’d look up at the stars and with no urban lights to compete with you’d marvel at just how superlative the cosmos was. The Milky Way, the Southern Cross, The Big Dipper, Alpha Centauri and Venus. Lights in the darkness. They were the signs that you were part of something grander – an infinite world – and at times you’d feel a tinge of longing and of regret – that you were missing out on something intangible.
Years later I lived in New Zealand at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound in another beautiful, remote location. I could look down the Sound and see the Wellington Picton ferries round Diefenbach Point, coming and going, and that sense of the world is out there and I’m missing out returned to me. From there came the idea of a teenage girl seemingly trapped in a place experiencing those same emotions and longing for life.
- The third inspiration came from Paullina Simons and her magnificent Bronze Horseman series. For years I had shied away from the romance category but in her amazing tour de force I discovered a novel that was not a romance per se but an epic, adventurous love story – like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and Sara Donat’s Into the Wilderness – the kind I love to read and as it transpires, love to write. For me The Bronze Horseman is about young love triumphing over impossible odds in the most egregious circumstances and that is a theme I wanted to explore in my novel.
- The fourth area came from Newfoundland itself, which you can read more about below.
Why did you choose Newfoundland as the setting of your novel?
I have always enjoyed reading Canadian novels and not long after I read The Shipping News I became good friends with a Newfoundlander – Leah – who continued to spark my interest in Newfoundland and its outports. I chose Newfoundland as the setting for Seldom Come By as it has this sense of being on the edge of the earth, of the harsh environment adding to the difficulties of life, yet icebergs representing something magical, a sign of lightness in darkness. In 1993 I trekked to Makalu base camp – the fifth highest mountain on earth – and there I definitely got a sense of being on the edge of earth, of the harsh, windswept, extreme snowclad environment, yet the majestic towering peaks somehow making it all worthwhile. Newfoundland can be a cold, windswept, landscape for several months of the year. In winter life is not only sealed off by ice but also oppressive fog that prevents you from seeing and hearing the things we take for granted. In this type of compound the highlight of Rebecca’s life was Spring when the icebergs drifted into view. The light in her darkness. As Samuel was her light.
Newfoundland also was devastated during WWI. In the battle of the Somme (in 1916) the country suffered a casualty rate of 90 percent. Imagine the best of your country’s men dying in vain in war? I think this would have been heartbreaking for such a small country. Yet, later due to their efforts at Ypres, King George V bestwowed the title ‘Royal’ Newfoundland Regiment upon the unit – the only time during the First World War the honour was given – a grand testament to their spirit and courage.
Two other reasons for setting my story in Newfoundland: Newfies really do have lovely lyrical accents and have you ever tried Iceberg Vodka from Newfoundland?
Have you been to Newfoundland and seen the icebergs?
Sadly it’s all ahead of me. Part way through writing Seldom Come By I moved to Hong Kong and my sister called me up after she had been to Paullina Simon’s Road to Paradise book launch to tell me that Paullina said: “You have to go to a place before you can write about it.” In a perfect world I agree. I will probably get feedback from Newfoundlanders as testament to the fact. In the absence of visiting what I did do was track down a copy of a rare book: More Than Fifty Percent. Woman’s Life in a Newfoundland Outport 1900-1950. (See nothing has changed!) It was a godsend. I also did copious research on icebergs and then when my friend Leah read a first draft, she said to me: “You know the thing with icebergs is sometimes you can feel them first before you see them as the drag this mass of cold air with them.” They what?! None of my research had uncovered that. And courtesy of Leah I had my opening line.
Does Second Chance exist?
Second Chance is a fictitious island in the midst of Iceberg Alley that I placed off the coast of Fogo Island where Seldom Come By and Little Seldom are located. I chose to create a fictitious island so it could have the geographical features that I wanted for the purpose of my story. All other towns mentioned in Newfoundland are real. The fictitious town of Deception was drawn from images of Twillingate and Salvage.
Was it hard to write the medical aspects of WW1?
In the early days of researching the novel I came across the Canadian Medical Association Journal – every monthy issue dating back to 1908 is online. Thank you CMA J This gave me an incredible insight into what was happening in Canada during the war but also Europe and helped ensure the medical details were as accurate as I could make them. It also helped with the language. For example ‘doctors getting a commendation for their cool head in battle’ really was a phrase of the time.
Why did you set your story during WWI and why did you make Matthew and Samuel doctors rather than soldiers?
I wanted my story to focus on doctors in the war zone, rather than soldiers as to me that was more novel. There are great stories on soldiers in WWI – Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. I didn’t want to go there and risk my story being bogged down in the war – for the war is only part of the story..
I chose WWI because in many ways WWI was more horrifying than WWII (until the atom bomb was dropped). Lethal mustard gas was a feature of the war, choking and blinding its victims. Antibiotics and penicillin were in their nascent stages and blood transfusions only became a feature of medical treatment in 1918. I though this presented an added level of foil for my characters.
I wanted war to be a feature of the novel because the danger of war heightens everything. People have less time for pretenses – life, love and death are elemental and this is what drove Samuel’s proposal when he visited Rebecca in 1917. With the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One fast approaching, I thought there would be interest in reading books set in this period with characters that are modern and adventurous in their own way for that time.
War also highlights male cameraderie and loyalty. My male characters are brothers who are deeply loyal towards each other and one is a close friend of John McCrae, Canadian physician and author of the famous poem, In Flanders Field. This is one of my favourties poems and I was delighted to be able to bring him into the novel.
Were any of the characters based on people you knew?
Huh! Funny, but when my sister read the first draft she feared that she would be portrayed as Rachel and was hugely relieved that there were no strong family resemblances. Some of Samuel’s uncertainty with what he wanted to do with his life I know well. I lie down next to it every night J Some of the minor characters were inspired by people I know and some of their mannerisms and features I borrowed. For example Samuel’s amazing eyes belong to my friend Margarita who is actually a blonde South African. But in the main they are figments of my imagination.
What war events actually happened?
All of the war events actually happened with the exception of Samuel & Wyatt’s RAP being over-run by Germans on that date, though it’s possible that that could have happened. Certainly
German stormtroopers – groups of three attackers – were part of the German offence in 1918 and they carried with them the first widely used sub-machine gun, the MP-18. In the first half of 1918 the Germans made great advances on the battlefield after very little gains in preceding years. All of the postings and battles Matthew was involved in happened. John Mcrae’s involvement in the war, his poem, his promotions and his death happened as written. The bombing of Hospital City happened. Three Canadian nurses were killed and: “Two doctors (Canadian), rushing to help, were caught by a bomb. One was killed and the other wounded.” This was reported widely throughout Canada and Newfoundland because of the moral outcry over Germany bombing Hospital City – considered a no go zone. The medical developments in Canada after the war and people are factual.
You talk about Signature moments and emotional connection being so important to you as a reader and a writer. How are these delivered in Seldom Come By?
I studied filmmaking as part of my communications degree and were I to have my life over again I think I would pursue a career as a director. I am inpired by landscapes and cinema that has a certain je ne sais quoi. For me these are almost pavlovian experiences. Say the name of a film and I will immediately picture its most breathtaking scene. The English Patient – Kip and Hana riding the ropes gazing at the paintings in the chapel. Out of Afica – Robert Redford and Meryl Streep flying in the biplane over the savannah. The Piano – Ada playing the piano (of course) while Flora cartwheeled on New Zealand’s west coast.
So in my writing I wanted to have moments that would be equally memorable, uplifting and dare I say, cinematic. Samuel and Rebecca’s first kiss in the cave of the iceberg. The night he proposed to Rebecca in the Nightingale under a vault of blue indigo, surrounded by twinkling water. The night they first made love under the upturned tender draped in two old sails. And Samuel’s journey into the Canadian Shield and his spiritual encounter with a she-wolf one still starlit winter’s night. Those are the veins of elation and enlightenment running through the story.
So for me, one aspect of a signature moment is definitely heightened emotion. As the reader you are so invested in the scene that you are there. It is happening all around you and it is happening to you. So those scenes become inprinted in your emotional memory bank. And while I love the grandeur of beautiful settings they do not necessarily have a monopoly on making a book memorable. What is paramout for me is this simple fact: You will always remember the books that make you cry. And in most cases, you will remember exactly where you were when you read that very passage that made you you cried.
With Seldom Come By I set out to make people cry. And cry they have. Without giving it away, they cried at the end of ‘In the beginning’. They cried and cried in ‘Revelations’. They cried in ‘Exodus’ and ‘Lamentations’ and ‘The Promised Land’. They cried where I cried writing a scene and much to my delight they even cried where I didn’t. I have heard Paullina Simons quote Robert Frost: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.’ It is so true. Writing can be such an emotional roller coaster. Somedays I’m like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.
Spoiler Question 1
Why did Matthew have to die?
I know. I know. I’m sorry. Believe me that was a very difficult scene for me to write. I was right there with them. I have brothers. I had a grandmother who lost her brother at Ypres in 1917. To show how excruciating and devastating the war was I had to show it on a deeply personal level. To honour those men and their sacrifice we had to love them like brothers, like lovers and then mourn them like they were our very own.
Matthew’s death paved the way to depict through Samuel just how afflicted the young men were who returned from the battle field, their palpable suffering. Home was not the refuge they longed for – because home no longer equalled their band of brothers – in Samuel’s case, home was not home without Matthew. Samuel’s loss was also amplified by his inability, despite his medical skills, to save his own brother.
On another level, Matthew’s death also paved the way for Jonathan to be such a healing part of Samuel and Rebecca’s life.
Spoiler Question 2
Wouldn’t Samuel or the gynaecologist be able to tell Rebecca had had a baby?
Not so. I called in the expertise of my paedetrician cousin on that as it was a question I asked my self. Much to my relief she advised that indeed in some instances it is nigh impossible to tell if a woman has ever carried a child or given birth.