Thanks to Wendy J. Dunn, I recently got in contact with GA Whitting, an award-winning author and Melbourne native. I was intrigued from the moment she said her book is titled Pickle to Pie.
I enjoyed taking the time to get to know GA, and I hope you will as well.
Hello and welcome to Fiction Scribe. Tell us a little about yourself.
Hi Jaime. What a question. I hardly know where to start, however, my writing biography more or less says it all. I was born in Melbourne in 1941, left school at fourteen, became a hairdresser, married and raised two sons. At the age of fifty, returning to study as a mature aged student, I obtained my VCE, which led to a BA at Monash University and an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. As I write this, I have to smile. I never planned any of this. It just sort of ‘happened’.
Q:How did you get into writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I’d always liked writing and once I won a pair of downhill skis in a ‘one hundred words or less’ competition. That was the full extent of my writing career. I didn’t start writing seriously until 1997 when I needed one last literature unit to complete my BA The only subject that fitted into work and family commitments was Fiction Writing. I was terrified to put pen to paper and as for reading out loud, forget it. However, by the end of the term I knew that I had found a passion that would sustain me for the rest of my life.
You mentioned to me your book, Pickle to Pie. I have to ask – where did the title come from?
One of the main metaphors within the novel is cooking. Many sections have Grossmutter and Fredi in the kitchen baking cakes and making German homeopathic remedies. Later, when the main character, Frederick Fritschenburg marries Mary their preferences at mealtime reflect the clash of two cultures. To me, Frederick is a man caught between the Sauerkraut and pickle culture of Germany and the meat pie world of Australia. Hence the title, Pickle to Pie.
Q:What genre is Pickle to Pie?
I’m not sure. It’s based on fact, veiled in fiction and is about, among other things, a boy, his great-hearted German grandmother, some healing and a man caught between two cultures. Can you suggest a genre?
Q: Now that is an interesting answer. When you originally wrote the book, did you set out to write something that wasn’t easily classified by one genre?
I didn’t even set out to write a novel. It started during that fiction-writing course at University. I wrote a short story based on my father’s life and was amazed when it was highly commended in the Judah Waten International Short Story Competition. This gave me the courage to keep writing. That story became the basis of this novel.
Q: What is it about the German Australian experience that draws you?
It has been a labour of love. It began with the discovery of a shoebox full of German/Australian postcards. Most of the messages were written in Old High German. On translation they revealed my hidden heritage and I began to wonder about all the other children of German descent growing up in Melbourne during the last century. And, as usually happens, I found myself talking to others about their experiences and discovered, that like me, their family name had been changed before they were born and that they too had a feeling that there was something to be ashamed of, some past family history that needed to remain buried. However, it was only a month ago that I fully realized that writing the novel has been my way of dealing with these issues in my life and today, having researched and written about a tumultuous time in German/Australian history, I am now at peace with myself. I am finally comfortable in my German/Australian skin.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book?
Only a first time novelist would attempt to cover an entire century that had two world wars and a worldwide depression. However, it didn’t seem a mammoth task because I researched as I wrote. If I needed information I would start with the Internet until I found an authentic source. This could be a book, article, or government publication on the subject. For instance, when I needed information on German immigrants in Australia I found, on the Internet, many articles and books by Ian Harmstof, who did his PhD on the subject. I contacted him and found him to be an insightful person who generously shared his research. This was a turning point, not only for the historical accuracy of the novel but also personally. A friend, who is a nursing sister, helped with medical research. At the same time, via the many libraries at Melbourne University, I had access to all the major search engines, academic journals, theses, newspapers etc. And by nature I am a gleaner (someone who walks through the paddocks after the crop has been harvested and ‘gleans’ whatever she can find), such as the fragments of messages on the postcards, small clues in newspapers and the oral histories that so many people were sharing with me. All this comes under my heading of research
Q: Your novel co-won the 2006 International Ilura Press Fiction Quest. Can you tell us a bit more about the competition and what that was like?
I am so lucky to be with www.ilurapress.com They are a new independent publishing firm that is quite unique, the members of the team are all writers. Can you imagine the joy of having people who understand the writing process, who are considerate and nurturing, in charge of publishing your book? They produce a literary journal titled Etchings featuring essays, art, photography and poetry from writers from Switzerland to Kuwait. To provide an avenue for, as they puit it, ‘Creative writers whose work deserves a receptive and willing audience,’ and to launch their move into publishing novels, they ran the 2006 Fiction Quest. My tutor at Melbourne University sent all her class an email outlining the details and I hastily posted a copy of Pickle to Pie. When told that the manuscript was short listed, I hardly dared to breath. Pickle to Pie had made it to many shortlists but had always just missed out. After much nail biting and hovering over the phone I was overcome with relief when told that the manuscript had won, that this time the story would be published.
Q: What was it like winning an award for your writing?
To co-win (the other author is from the UK) the Ilura Press International Fiction Quest was an unbelievable, delicious experience, because the award was a publishing contract and $5,000 advance. It took a week for me to come down to earth but now I hug it to me, because I know that this story about alienation and dislocation that I’m so passionate about will become a book. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands and see all the old rhymes, recipes—one for tomato jam— quirky customs and postcards preserved in print.
Q: Was winning an award ever a personal writing goal for you?
Not a personal goal. It’s all about the story. I firmly believe in getting your work out there and getting published. A great way to do this is via competitions and anthologies, etc. It’s a bit like buying a tattslotto ticket. You have to be in it to win it.
Q: Your book is going to be launched at Melbourne’s Writer’s Festival on August 25th. How are you feeling about that? Would you have ever imagined yourself at this point, preparing for your book launch?
I am so excited and scared at the same time. All I ever thought about was getting the book published. I’m not sure what will happen and it’s taking me out of my comfort zone, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I feel that it is a great honour that Ilura Press have arranged to launch Pickle to Pie during Melbourne’s premier writing festival.
Q: You mentioned your book was also short listed for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, but even after that you had to deal with rejections. Did the awards help keep up your confidence through the rejections?
Definitely. A shortlisting, or award, shows you that other writers feel that your novel has worth, and is a valid project that appeals to others. It gives you the confidence to keep going. To not abandon it to the bottom drawer. And being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s award meant that I could attend the Academy Award style evening at the Sofital Hotel in Melbourne. Just to be there with my writing buddy, Wendy Dunn, was the most amazing experience and one I will remember for the rest of my life.
Q: I find all of the authors I interview have a lot in their lives that seems to make writing a near impossibility sometimes. How did you and how do you have time to write?
How does tapping away at this keyboard at 3am sound? I know that it’s crazy, but if I have a project on the go I find that I have a couple of hours sleep then it will niggle at me until I get up and start writing. Of course I end up sitting here bleary eyed, in my flannelette pajamas and thick ski socks. It’s not a pretty sight
Q: What are you currently working on?
A story titled ‘Hens Lay, People Lie’, ‘about two women, two cultures, one dream. In 1975, at the Burke and Wills dig-tree in outback Australia I met an older American poet. For thirty years our letters have criss crossed the globe. Mickey is now ninety and lives in Arizona. This is the story of our friendship.
Q: Are there any authors who inspired/inspire you in your writing?
Oh, yes. Sally Morgan’s down to earth book My Place about an aboriginal girl growing up in Australia made me realize that I didn’t have to be ‘literary’ to write a story, or need to dress it up in fancy words. All I had to do was to simply tell it as it was. Other books that influenced me were, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Hugo Hamilton’s The Speckled People, Markus Zuzak’s latest, The book Thief, and all those academic theorists we studied at University. All have their place. I find that other authors can inspire, delight or simply inform our writing.
Q: Do you have a muse? If so, who or what is it?
I’ve never really thought much about the source of my inspiration. I’m not quite sure where the stories come from. I just know that I get carried away with an idea and simply can’t let it go until it’s completed. That can take three weeks or ten years. I can move away for a while and write other things, but the characters refuse to leave and I always come back to them. Like Mickey’s story, and for years I’ve been working on a children’s tale about supermarket trolleys. It’s all fleshed out and my husband is now quite used to me asking him to stop the car while I jump out and snap a photo of an abandoned trolley in an unusual setting. I’ve told him to tell everyone that I’m a lunatic and he’s looking after me.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to writing?
Oh, yes. I feel totally guilty, and it is a self-indulged pleasure to steal time when I should be ‘gainfully employed’. Like leaving the housework to sit here in my room, surrounded by my writing life and tap away between shopping, while dinner is cooking or even at 3am in the morning. If I’m tired, I find a huge cheese sandwich in whole grain bread keeps me going.
Q: What are your dreams for your writing?
I want to record the stories of ordinary people. To reveal the narratives that are left untold. This can take the form of biographies or they can be a meld of fact and fiction. There is a quote that sums it up for me and I can’t remember who wrote it, ‘I know not all things and only sing songs of mind and memory’.
Q: Do you have any advice for writers in general?
To write anything and everything. The most amazing stories can begin their life on tiny scraps of paper. Don’t confine yourself to one genre—unless you have found your own personal niche. Experiment. Write plays, nonfiction, essays, letters to the editor, but write with compassion. The more you write the more you realize that everyone has a story to tell. And once you have completed a story, find it a home. Kiss it on the cheek and send it out into the wide world with your blessing. Let it have a life of its own.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for having me here, Jaime. Sometimes in the rush of life we don’t take the time to sit and think about our hopes and dreams. This interview has made me focus on my life as a writer: to look back at where I have been and to look forward to where I am going. What a wonderful passion to have. When I try to explain it to some of my friends I say, ‘Just think of writing as my form of golf.’ I’m always trying to improve my handicap and if I manage to collect a couple of trophies along the way it’s great but the most important thing of all is, that when I’m writing, I’m happy.