Bestselling Australian author Belinda Alexandra’s new novel is about secrets, affairs and scandal in a small coastal town in the 1950s. Highlights finds out Belinda’s inspiration for The Mystery Woman and how she became a storyteller in this exclusive Q&A for Club Members
You have written eight bestselling novels but decided to make The Mystery Woman a classic mystery rather than a historical saga. What sparked this new direction in your writing?
There comes a time in every writer’s life when that “other” novel yearns to come out. I have loved writing my big historical sagas but another genre, the classic mystery, has always appealed to me.
My mother was a huge fan of black-and-white Hollywood mystery films, such as Laura, The Third Man and the works of Alfred Hitchcock, which we used to watch them together when I was a child. These movies didn’t rely on blood and guts to thrill their audience, rather they were mysteries of the human mind and full of atmosphere, suspense, and a sense of foreboding. I loved their elegance and the way they said something profound about the human condition.
I felt it was the right time in my career to write a classic mystery of my own and to portray more psychologically complex characters in a smaller setting and timeframe.
The novel’s glamorous main character, Rebecca Wood, has fled to a small (fictional) town, Shipwreck Bay, to work as the postmistress and escape a scandal involving a politician in Sydney. What themes were you exploring through her character?
I chose to set the story in the 1950s because of the contradictory view society held of women. On the one hand they were expected to be attractive and appealing to men, but on the other hand they were stitched-up moral arbiters of society.
During World War II women were given greater roles and freedom in society but those roles and freedoms were taken away when the men returned. I wanted to show a woman whose spirit longed for a bigger, bolder life, but whose mind was held captive by the social conditioning of the time, which was that it was better to be married and unhappy than independent and happy.
I think Rebecca’s struggles to define herself, regardless of social pressures, makes her more heroic than a character who simply appears on the page as a fully formed feminist.
Your other novels have been set in exotic locations around the globe, including Shanghai, New York, Paris and New Orleans. Which features of the Australian coast did you want to illuminate?
The NSW South Coast represents the powerful elements of nature, with its majestic mountains and forests running down to the wild ocean.
Shipwreck Bay is a whaling town and its citizens have no appreciation or sense of wonder about the natural world around them. As far as they are concerned, it’s there to be exploited. (In the 1950s the whales were on the brink of extinction due to whale hunting).
I believe a book should do more than entertain us. It should provoke us to think about our own lives. We might judge the citizens of Shipwreck Bay harshly, but in how many ways are we doing the same thing?
Shipwreck Bay’s main industry is whaling. Do you think readers will be surprised that Australia was still exporting whale oil in the 1950s?
Yes, because we are now leaders in whale conservation and eco-tourism and a lot of people are surprised by the fact that Australia was whale hunting up until the end of the 1970s. It’s important to understand our past so we can look at ourselves in the present and learn.
Most Australians consider themselves nature lovers and are proud of their country’s natural beauty, but we have one of the worst land clearage and extinction rates in the world. Even one of our most iconic animals, the koala, has been brought to the brink of extinction by our activities.
I hope every Australian will come to consider themselves a conservationist in the next few years. We can’t afford to always be looking the other way.
One of your characters, Stefan Otto, represents a “lone voice in the wilderness”, someone who speaks out about an injustice. Do you think fiction has the power to change people’s attitudes towards contentious issues such as whaling?
I believe stories are extremely powerful teachers. As we explore the characters’ inner worlds, we think more deeply about our own. A book can’t tell people what to think (those sorts of stories don’t work so well) but a book can provoke thought, and the chance to see and feel things from different perspectives. Examining ourselves in comparison to characters can be the start of change.
You write on your website that you were born with a “storytelling gene”. Can you tell us a little more about your parents and how they influenced your first novel, White Gardenia?
Both my parents were great storytellers. My mother would enthral my brothers and me by recounting her exotic life growing up in Harbin and Shanghai as part of the Russian community, and my father would make us laugh with his tales of his larrikin youth and experiences as a volunteer lifesaver on Sydney’s eastern beaches. I learned to tell a good story by listening to them, and that includes knowing how to keep my audience in suspense and tell my stories with expression and feeling and with the right details.
The idea of White Gardenia first came to me when I started researching my mother’s family history, from the time my grandfather fled Russia during the Revolution to my mother’s immigration to Australia.
The Mystery Woman is a great holiday read. What authors or genres do you like to read?
I love to read all sorts of fiction and non-fiction. My favourite authors are Daphne du Maurier, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. But I do love contemporary authors too. I’ve just finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Home Fires by fellow Australian author Fiona Lowe.
For non-fiction, I read absolutely anything that piques my interest, from the history of Prague to how to communicate with your cat! I like to look at the returns trolley when I go to the library to see what other people are reading for non-fiction. I pick up all sorts of interesting backgrounds and hobbies for my characters that way!