author interview

Pamela Hart and The Desert Nurse

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Hello again, Pamela, and thank you so much for sparing the time away from writing whatever masterpiece is coming up next and joining me for another interview.

You’re so kind! Always a pleasure to chat with you, Lou!

Pamela Hart has just released The Desert Nurse through Hachette Australia, a heart-wrenching tale of an army nurse in World War I.

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Throughout the novel, Pamela, time and time again, you encapsulated a procedure or an experience so perfectly it was like you’d studied it first-hand. For example Will’s calmness at gunpoint, being a ‘bloody good distraction from pain’. Or Evelyn having ephedrine on hand for the already unconscious soldier with a punctured lung. Or the envy Will remembers feeling about the King’s Cadet Corps and his follow-through to wondering how many of them he might have stitched up.

You obviously put enormous research into every word and emotion?

Um… I’m not sure how to answer that. I certainly put a lot of research into the actual medical treatments, etc. A LOT. The emotions… they come out of the character rather than the research, I think. Obviously, if you come across a description of how people felt in a certain situation and it’s always the same, then naturally you use that.

But, to take your example, Will watching the Kings’ Cadets comes straight out of my own experience of being an asthmatic kid who wasn’t allowed to play sport, and how I felt watching other people do it. And then, once I’d imagined him doing that and gave him my emotions, the adult me immediately added in the fact that the research showed that boys from cadet corps did very badly indeed in WWI – they were generally made subalterns, and that group had the highest casualty rate of any rank. I gave Will that extra thought to remind myself and the reader that those boys paid a high price for their fitness.

So I guess it’s a mixture of research and imagination.

Given this amount of research, imagination, and personal recollections, how hard is it for you to ‘kill your darlings’ when you’re redrafting?

Oh, I’m a happy murderer of darlings now! I used to be more precious, but I’ve found it’s very liberating to be prepared to throw out an entire storyline or change a huge part of the plot.

I know you’ve read A Letter from Italy – in the first draft of that, Rebecca’s husband Jack was dead and she was a widow. He only came back to life in third draft… so I’m absolutely okay with making major changes to the story- as long as it makes a better book.

Do you have a fave lost segment, one that was particularly hard to kill?

Not from this book. But there was a sequence in The Soldier’s Wife, where I showed Ruby (the wife) going down to the docks to wait for her husband’s hospital ship to come in, and then following the ambulances up to the 4th Repat Hospital in Randwick. I was very reluctant to get rid of it, because you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find out where that bloody ship came in! I had done so much work to find out, it was very disappointing not to be able to use it. But it was slowing the story down without giving anything back, so it had to go.

(But, if you’re interested, you can read it here: http://www.pamela-hart.com/extract-from-tsw/)

I will do just that!

What about places? You captured my exact feeling, that same electricity I felt when I first set foot in Egypt, in a single sentence: ‘this was Egypt, the land of Bible stories and pyramids.’ What’s your secret there – have you travelled to either Egypt or Beersheba?

No, I’m afraid not! The descriptions were a mixture of the diaries and letters written by nurses and doctors and soldiers at the time, and contemporary newspaper articles and photos. With a tiny bit of Google Earth thrown in. We’re very lucky that the Australian War Memorial has digitised so many of the diaries and letters, so we can read first-hand accounts.

And my husband was an archaeologist in Jordan for several years and travelled widely in the Middle East, and he was very helpful for things like scents and sounds.

I know you also teach writing, so what advice can you give to writers who are trying to encapsulate the sense of a place they’ve never seen, to give it that extra oomph?

I advise them to think about two things:

a) make sure you hit all the senses, not just the visual (because the visual is what’s easily accessible from far away, but when you’re there, it’s often the odours and the weather and the textures which make an impression), and

b) get as many first hand reports as you can, if it’s an historical setting. The cumulative impressions from all those reports will sink into you and then you can bring them all together – and insert how your character reacts. Because in the end, it’s all about the character’s experience.

Of course, if you’re completely imagining a fantasy world or another planet, you have to put in more imaginative work, but that’s a whole course in itself (which I also teach at the Australian Writers’ Centre!).

That sounds like quite a creative course – I’ll have to look that one up!

Last time we spoke you told me you like to write about parts of WWI that people don’t know about and you mentioned the Gallipoli story was an oft-used setting. I’m stoked you chose Palestine as your location as it lives inside my own heart alongside some intense emotions, but what made you choose the Beersheba theatre rather than, say, the Eastern Front? 

Was it entirely due to your grandfather’s service or were there other factors involved here?

In The Soldier’s Wife, which as you know was based on my grandfather’s experiences at and after Gallipoli, the main male character’s life is saved by good nursing (as was my grandfather’s). While I was writing that, I realised I wanted to write a story honouring those nurses, who saved so many lives. The Desert Nurse is that book.

So I knew the first part of the book had to be about Gallipoli, and Cairo (which was where my grandfather was when he was, in the terms of the telegram sent to the family, ‘dangerously ill’). Then I had to choose the location for the second half.

Although many people have heard of the 4th Light Horse, very few people realize that the war went on in the Middle East after Gallipoli. Our national story tends to follow the men from Gallipoli on their journey to France, and get mired in the mud there. So I wanted to show that this theatre of war continued and was the site of just as much heroism. Beersheba, of course, is a classic moment in modern warfare but I don’t dwell on that so much because it’s not really relevant to my characters.

I had another reason for staying in one place. It was easy to move Evelyn around because she was in the Army – but William wasn’t, and wouldn’t have been allowed the same freedom to work in an Army hospital in a more regimented area. We know it happened in Egypt because of Agnes Bennett, who was a real doctor and who became the first woman captain in the British Army! She literally turned up on the station at Alexandria as the casualties from Anzac Day were coming in, just as it’s portrayed in the book. I knew that if they would accept a woman at that moment, a man with a bad leg was a shoo-in! But getting him actively involved in another area would have been much more difficult.

Speaking of women being accepted, it seems to me that stories featuring women’s roles in WWI are not as prevalent as those focusing on the men’s (whether fact or fiction) and particularly on the front line.

Did you find this in your research as well – was it harder to locate records and relatives or are the answers there for the asking and – shame on us – we are just not asking?

I think women’s roles in WWI are becoming better recognized – but frankly, it’s also a matter of sheer numbers! There were many many more men involved in the fighting than there were nurses or administrators or even munitions workers.

Also many of the best stories about women aren’t associated with the fighting – women moving into ‘men’s work’, women discovering they could stand on their own two feet while their man was away, women forcing the rules to change simply because the men weren’t there (for example, the requirement that a man co-sign a lease was dropped during the war). But these are often not classified as ‘WWI stories’ because they don’t involve fighting.

But given that, I have had no trouble at all in finding out what I needed to know (although sometimes it’s been tricky research). The information is there if you know how to look for it. And the War Memorial has been as assiduous in collecting the women’s stories as the men’s, I’m happy to say.

There’ve been some great books – if any of your readers are interested, I can heartily recommend Dr Kirsty Harris’s book, More Than Bombs and Bandages, which was one of my research gold mines.

You discuss some detailed surgical procedures but there’s only one word I think I need to say: orchidectomy! Thank you for teaching me a new medical term AND inspiring me to look up the etymology of orchids! Was this a serendipitous encounter that you decided you just had to include? Because if so – amazingly done. It was seamless, justified, appropriate, and, I think, quite a male thing to think. Not to mention gutsy.

Lol. This came from two things – one, it’s such a great word! And two, a friend of mine who was a soldier told me that the first thing men do when they wake up after being wounded is clutch their genitals to make sure they’re ‘intact’. So I thought – what would a doctor who has treated these men think was a suitable punishment for a horrible man? And there it was.

Thank you Pamela, for bringing Evelyn to life and for filling in more of Rebecca’s, Harry’s, Jimmy’s, and Arthur’s lives.

It’s been an absolute pleasure interviewing you again. 

Thank you, Lou. Always a pleasure for me! I love your questions – you always ask me things no-one else thinks of!

The Desert Nurse pic 2

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