Today’s guest is Annette Young. Annette is the cousin of a good friend of mine, and she is also a writer, which is wonderful. She’s written 2 absolutely beautiful – now, I’ve put ‘historical fiction’. Is that how you advertise your gorgeous books?
Yes, I seem to fall into that category.
– which are called ‘A Distant Prospect’ and ‘By Violence Unavenged’, and I will put links to them in the show notes, obviously. They’re very good. Annette also home schools her 4 boys – I’ve got that right, haven’t I?
Yes. And we’ll have a chat about that as well. She lives on the mainland, and if you’re not a Tasmanian, that means the big island of Australia. And we met in person for the first time when she came down to launch ‘By Violence Unavenged’, and that was really good and we chatted for ages and ages, so I’m really excited to be able to introduce Annette to everybody who’s listening, and to be able to talk with her again! So you’re very welcome, Annette.
So, first question I always ask everybody is: how did you become a Christian?
Right. That is quite a long story. Well, one thing is I was brought up as a Christian, even if nominally sometimes. And I had experimented through school. There was always the sense that God wanted me for something. There’s always been that thing. Even though I’ve gone through my agnostic phases and atheistic phases, there’s been – contradictory to my sometimes atheism – that, no, there is a God, and I’m here for something. The first big – I went to some Billy Graham things when I was in my early teens at high school, and that was quite inspiring but not very long-lasting. The really big one was actually at Cradle Mountain, when I was 17. I did the big walk across Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. And it was being out in nature, without any of the trappings of city life, and seeing that sun come up and sun go down, beautiful mountain sunsets… it rained most of the time, and after that we went to Wineglass Bay where we were camping. And that is when I had my God moment, that God existed. I can remember walking across that beautiful bay and thinking ‘Yes. God exists.’ And I had the words from Corinthians come, ‘but if I have [not] love, I have nothing.’ And that was it. God existed, therefore I had to do something about it. And it was as clear as that. And from that moment on it was ‘Yes. I’ve got to find out more. I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to work this out.’
So that was – the 1 Corinthians 13 ‘If I do all this but don’t have love I am nothing.’
Yep, that’s it.
When you say you experimented in school, I thought that was an interesting term. What did you experiment with?
(laughs) I think I was just questioning lots of things. So I’d go off to my friends’ fellowships and stuff like that, I would ask lots of questions. I was the kid who’d sit at the back of the classroom, leaning back on the chair, listening to everything, not necessarily contributing but then asking the really sticky question. I’d dip into the Bible now and then. I’ve always been a big history buff, so history lessons were quite fascinating. And I can remember studying the Reformation and being horrified by Calvin and Zwingli for destroying all the things that I loved, which is art and music and dancing and that sort of thing. And then being really taken by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and this ‘do all things for the glory of God.’ So it’s been up and down, up and down. Going to Billy Graham things, various things that would happen at school… so it was that sort of quiet experimentation, and lots and lots and lots of questions, as one asks when one does experiments. One asks questions.
And then you get to that point, and you say ‘Right, line in the sand here,’ and that happened in our beautiful nature here in Tasmania, so that’s pretty cool!
See, everybody, you need to come to Tasmania. It’s good for you. Actually I think that there really is something about nature being good for the soul, isn’t it? It just gets you back in touch with what’s really real.
So when did you decide to start writing?
Um, that was very late. That was while I was doing – I was in my mid-thirties, and it was while I was doing my PhD, or beginning work on my PhD. And I was doing some work on Charlotte Bronte’s early manuscripts, things that she wrote when she was a kid. I had the opportunity to live another person’s life, another person’s imaginative world, in writing out and preparing these works for publication. And I realised that she and I did the same thing: we had imaginary friends, and we lived out their exploits. And I thought at that point ‘Well, if she can do it, so can I.’ And I’ve always had this way of processing much of my life experiences through my imagination, and so I thought ‘Right. I’m going to harness what I’m doing and write a book myself.’ And it happened to be that I was doing a PhD in literature, and there’s no better way of understanding how a novel works than to actually sit down and attempt one yourself.
Yeah, that’s true.
And that is what happened. I never thought I’d ever be a writer. That is one of the last things I ever expected myself to be. So I really did fall into it, and it was in doing it that I really discovered something I could do. I’ve been able to do many things, but that was something that really was mine. It was the thing that I was meant to do.
Yeah, I totally understand that. I feel very similarly about it. That you just get ‘Oh, this fills that hole inside that I didn’t even realise was there and it makes me very happy to do this.’
Yes, yes yes yes. And to be able to connect with others through it, that was the most shocking experience.
A shocking experience. Because you’ve had that imaginative world, it’s been your very private world, you’ve really lived most of the time with your own thoughts and never really shared those things with others to a deep degree, and then to write a book where it all comes out and to have people connect over that, yes, it was very confronting. It was shocking.
Yeah, yeah, I can see that.
I continue to be surprised at people’s eagerness to respond. (laughs)
Yeah, it’s amazing, isn’t it? I know that a lot of us are quite introverted, you spend a lot of time sitting by yourself at your desk doing your writing and talking to yourself, in a way, and then to have other people read it and then respond to you with ‘Oh… okay!’
‘Are you serious?’ (laughs)
So faith is very important to you and writing is very important to you – how do those two things intersect in your life?
Oh boy. Well, they intersect very much. Writing is very much a manifestation of faith. And also that struggle in relation to faith. There’s a lot of that in it. Oh, how do I explain this? Many times in my life I’ve often felt silenced, in not being able to speak out as I wished, not being able to say the things I’d like to say, and writing gives me that chance to have my voice, to be able to say what needs to be said. Sometimes people don’t want to hear what you have to say. Writing gave me that chance to say the things that I want to say that sometimes… you know when you’re talking to somebody and you think ‘I wish I’d said that,’ or they don’t want to hear it, but they’re prepared to hear it in their own private nest when they’re reading a book. There’s something about that very private fact of reading where certain things can be said that don’t even have a place sometimes in the most intimate conversations. It’s a real moment for the soul, many times. And then with writing, very much in some ways – although I don’t write autobiographically – there is a spiritual autobiography going on, and some of the struggles of characters are things that I myself have struggled with, and had to come to terms with, and thought through or not thought through. Some things there are still questions. But yes, writing is very – that intimate part. Sometimes one is writing one’s prayer life out.
Yeah, I love that. That’s gorgeous. So you are home schooling 4 boys – how on earth do you find time to write as well as home school?
(laughs) Everybody asks me that question. It’s a juggling act. A lot of the things you do help them to learn for themselves, and also home schooling is wonderful because of its flexibility, that you teach each child according to their needs. It takes a lot less time than normal school would. Everybody thinks I school for 6 hours a day and then I sit down and write. Well, I don’t, I school for about 2 hours a day, and then the afternoons are free for everybody. So the afternoons are my writing time. So I’ll get down and do something of an afternoon, usually between about 2 and 5. Though I’ve had a sabbatical this year, I haven’t written anything at all! And decided to get back into it this month. Quite frankly I can’t bear not writing anymore! (both laugh)
I totally understand that. But your books – do you start with doing a whole lot of research, or do you start with writing things out and then see what research needs to be done afterwards? How does that work?
It’s a mixture. Depends on the topic. Look, you know the funny trails you can go down, and you end up checking as a writer, and especially with historical fiction you go down some really bizarre little trails. I start off with a story in mind, and then the research is done to flesh out the story, definitely. One thing that’s been really hard, that’s actually stopped me from writing this second volume is that the research is incomplete. But then I reminded myself that the research was very much incomplete with ‘By Violence Unavenged’ when I began it too, and I simply had to start with the story and then work in the details as I found out the details themselves, so there’ll be a lot of reworking. One goes hand in hand with the other.
It’s the story that’s important, isn’t it? Everything has to support the story.
That’s right. You’ve got to tell the story, and then the details have to support the story. With writers of historical fiction, it’s very easy to get bogged down into the historical detail and the historical circumstances, and they can start drowning the story. And getting that balance between character and emotion, fiction and then the circumstances in which that takes place is a very tricky one to handle. Especially when you’ve got readers with various degrees of knowledge. You’ve got the trainspotters, you’ve got the professors, who love that you treat their pet period or any period with the respect it deserves, and then you’ve got the persons who are completely ignorant of any of it, and they’re dipping into your book and all of sudden there’s this train load of German history coming at you at full throttle! (laughs)
So, in many ways, you’ve just got to leave the reader to deal with what they can manage or not manage, and just hope for the best!
Absolutely. To say that the first book that I mentioned, ‘A Distant Prospect’, is set in Sydney, but ‘By Violence Unavenged’ is largely in Vienna, and around the time of the beginning of the Second World War, yes?
Yes, just before.
Just before. So there’s probably quite a few people who have that as their favourite period, I would have thought.
Oh, it’s a fascinating period, but nobody – especially in the English language – nobody’s really done Austria. And Austria is fascinating. And it really… look, it was writing ‘A Distant Prospect’ and having to consider World War 1 from the non-Anglo perspective that really got me very interested in European affairs between wars. And my whole idea of history just changed so much with looking at things from that other angle. So, away we went, with Austria. And I think it helps, because we can become so comfortable in our own viewpoint, especially because we won the war. We ‘won the war’ in inverted commas – nobody wins wars. But that notion of ‘Well, therefore because we won we must be right,’ when that is absolutely not necessarily the case. And considering things from these different angles makes for a very interesting engagement, which can be – I think hopefully – quite life-changing. Certainly thought-provoking.
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s turn to home schooling: so why did you decide to home school?
Lots and lots of different reasons. First of all was my own school experience, which was less than desirable. Secondly because to be able to teach our kids in a way that they could learn a variety of things and not get stuck into a system. Thirdly was faith and morals, definitely, because of certain things being taught in schools, and I can imagine myself rocking up and going ‘You are teaching… what?’ There are so many things that happen in a school that are just so beyond what we can actually do that can be so harmful. And to have a certain degree – well, ‘control’… ‘influence’ I should say is probably a better word – over those things was very important to be able to give our kids a really broad, rich education, particularly with literature and history as well as the sciences, the arts as much as we could, to be able to give them a chance to develop their own interests, their own qualities, were all very important.
Are you part of a group of home schoolers around where you live that you get together? I know there’s groups like that here in Hobart.
Oh, there are a lot of groups everywhere. And constantly morphing groups. Yes, we’re very much… well, I sort of dabble around in a whole lot of things, but at the root of it I do like the Charlotte Mason approach. Charlotte Mason was a 19th-century educator, and the most critical to her was the education as a means to develop a life of virtue in a child, through the appreciation, deep appreciation, of the gospels, and history, of art, music, all the good things in the world. Nature, maths, art, sciences. But seen as a very whole and sound, rich, deep dynamic thing, but all contributes to the flowering of the human person. And that was ‘Yes!’. I don’t know whether I’m actually achieving that! (laughs) All these things are always a work in progress.
That’s absolutely right. School teachers are human beings just as much as mothers are human beings, so we’ve got to –
And children are themselves!
And children are, that’s exactly right. Each one of us is fallible, but each one has something to bring to the equation as well.
That’s right. But the integrity of the human person is just something that’s just so important, and that’s something that I do try and express in my writing as well as in life, that this is just so vital, our relationships, our person, who we are and what we are here for, is one of the most fundamental questions.
Yeah, absolutely. And a continual growth questions over life. I know that I’m asking that question and changing the answer about every 5 years or so! (both laugh)
That just reminds me of the Facebook post I put up this morning about the philosophers. ‘Who are we?’ ‘Philosophers!’ ‘What do we want?’ ‘Uhh…’
‘What do we want?’
‘Why are we here?’ (laughing)
Definitely. And you have the time! I guess that’s the thing, that in your home school – well, I guess in your daily routine, you have the time to ask those deep questions and think it through.
Yes, yes, yes. At least I do have the time to ask them, I don’t know whether my children ask them! They have to do maths. ‘Do you really want me to do that , or can I do something? And when are we going to make gingerbread men?’
And they’re the really big questions.
Cool. So when do you feel close to God?
When do I feel close to God? I go through my phases. When do I feel close to God? You know, possibly more when things go wrong than when things go right? You know, you’re going through those hard times and you just throw yourself at God’s feet. And those hard times happen actually quite a lot. So that happens often. It would be those times, yes, in prayer. There are times also, the funny things, things like the washing up, the kitchen sink, the clothesline. It’s those vacant times, those times when your mind is often free- doing the ironing – that you can actually go down and pray. Then I’ve developed a really renewed interest in reading the Bible. The Bible’s really come alive for me lately. At the moment I’m actually reading Mark’s gospel with my kids. And it’s been a really fascinating insight into Jesus’ public life and how we deal with other people. And seeing these messages come through, and these insights in to human nature, and some of the scurrilous characters. And it’s a human freedom. And Jesus’ respect with that has just been an amazing thing. You know, the leper that Jesus cures, and then he says ‘Show yourself to the priest,’ ‘as per Jewish custom, ‘but don’t tell anyone.’ And the fact that Christ commanded ‘Don’t tell anyone’ and he did, is so illustrative of our freedom. And God knew he was going to do that anyway. (lauhgs)
But to illustrate that he didn’t talk about our Lord because he was commanded to, but because he wanted to. And these sorts of insights have just been great. Today we read about Salome, and the dance before Herod, and John the Baptist’s martyrdom, and the head of John the Baptist is on the platter, and Max my 13-year-old just said ‘Oh… yuck!’ But the wickedness, you know, the wickedness, the conspiracy of the mother and daughter, and the king who was just so keen to please and to show himself off as being able to fulfil whatever he oathed, and not really caring what he did, it was such a boast, and it’s just so awful! That sort of love for the world compared to what Christ instructs the disciples before, of going out and preaching from every village and if they reject you, just shake the dust off your feet and continue on, and don’t worry about it. So it was just a fascinating juxtaposition, and coming into the Bible like that and especially doing it with kids has just been wonderful. So lots of food for thought there.
Absolutely. I was listening to a podcast where the guy was saying that good literature can stand being read over and over again, and I think if there’s any book that can handle that it’s the Bible. You read it, and you read it again next week something new is going to pop out at you, next year something completely different, so it’s amazing. It’s an amazing gift to us.
Mind you, I never would have admitted to that at the age of 13 or 14. Sceptical nonsense! Crap book! Sorry. (laughs) So in my maturity I am coming to develop more of a respect for it.
Too real, too real. (both laugh)
Okay, what’s one thing about God or Christianity that you wish everyone knew?
How good it is. Look, the fact that it’s so simple, really. It is so simple. That there only are 10 commandments and if we actually followed them life is pretty good. That when we trust in our Lord, that the graces that come from that trust are immense and wonderful. That there is a wonderful… that relationship we can have with God, and that God wishes to have with us. How special is that?
Yeah. It’s amazing.
And the goodness of life that comes, and such a positive, vibrant force. I think that’s what’s so shocking about Christianity, is the fact that it is so positive. And that this rooting on love, with faith, hope, and love together, is just so astounding. Because it is so natural to us to love. And the fact that that can be realised in all its fullness, finally in heaven of course, is just the most amazing thing.
Yes, I think we forget – I agree – just how good Christianity is. How good God is. Even the word ‘good’ gets taken and given a twist to stop it meaning what it actually means, but it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be a Christian.
Yes. It’s funny – my thirteen-year-old, the one who objected to the martyrdom of John the Baptist, we had a chat earlier about the Garden of Eden and the first sin. The ‘do not eat from the tree of Good and Evil,’ and why not? Really, because we couldn’t handle the consequences of it. The knowledge of evil for man was just more than he could bear, and God knew that in His goodness, but we did it. And it’s that corruption of our innocence, that shock… you know when children suddenly see something that is not very nice, and that scarring that happens upon them, and that’s what happened to us. We find evil just unbearable. And when we can’t decide between good and evil, because our understanding has been blurred, the difficulty we have, the tragedy that’s there… and it’s hear-rending, in a sense. But we write good books about it so it’s alright.
Everything is grist for the mill for the book. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today Annette, it’s been wonderful.
Thank you Ruth. Good to see you again.
Good to see you again! Even if not in person. And I will make sure – because I’m sure there’s so many people listening who want to read your books now – I’ll make sure that’s all in the show notes so people can find them and read them, because they’re excellent.
Thank you, thank you.