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AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET JULIAN LEATHERDALE

Julian Leatherdale’s first love was theatre. On graduation, he wrote lyrics for four satirical cabarets and a two-act musical. He discovered a passion for popular history as a staff writer, researcher and photo editor for Time-Life’s Australians At War series. He later researched and co-wrote two Film Australia-ABC documentaries Return to Sandakan and The Forgotten Force and was an image researcher at the State Library of New South Wales. He was the public relations manager for a hotel school in the Blue Mountains, where he lives with his wife and two children. Palace of Tears (reviewed here) is his first novel. You can find him on Facebook here.

Monique: Your novel, Palace of Tears, has just been released. Can you tell readers a bit about it? (Click here for an excerpt.)

Julian: Palace of Tears is a three-generation saga set in the Blue Mountains, a story of two families bonded by a past of passion, betrayal and revenge. In 1914, hotelier Adam Fox throws a birthday party for his son at his clifftop hotel, the Palace, renowned for its opulence and famous guests. The only person not invited is Angie, the girl from the cottage next door and the day ends in tragedy. A hundred years later Fox’s grand-daughter Lisa begins to unravel the mystery of “the girl who broke all our hearts”. The story weaves through the sparkling Edwardian and jazz ages and the darker days of two World Wars, saving its most startling revelation to the very end.

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Monique: What’s the feedback been like so far for this novel?

Julian: In a word, amazing. Readers and reviewers say they find the story compelling. They enjoy the mystery and secrets, especially the climactic twist that one reviewer called “a cracker of an ending”. They also love the vivid atmosphere of the hotel and the Blue Mountains, the blending of history and fiction, and the cast of strong women characters. Reviews have praised the book as “an impressive debut”, “fast-paced, addictive and enthralling” and “a tale lovingly told by a master novelist” – everything a writer could hope for.

Monique: What do you like most about Palace of Tears?

Julian: I loved the freedom this saga gave me to roam across such a broad canvas and tell a rich, dramatic story from the perspective of so many interesting characters. One reader recently finished the book with the comment “Oh boy, that was quite a ride!” That is the kind of pleasure and excitement I experienced writing this book which I hope it delivers to readers: that pure, heady joy of being transported into the seductive world of a story.

Monique: Which characters do you like the most in Palace of Tears? Which one did you like least?

Julian: I love Freya, the fierce and courageous German painter from the cottage next door who captures Adam Fox’s heart. She is a complex character: clever, passionate, angry, hot-tempered, a true survivor who takes terrible risks to protect her inheritance and her family. I also feel great tenderness for Freya’s daughter Angie, the girl at the centre of the novel’s mystery, who watches her cosy world crumble and faces daunting choices. There are ‘unlikeable’ characters, of course, such as Mrs Wells, the German-hating busybody housekeeper. But there are many moral shades of grey in this story. A reader nailed it perfectly when she said that the multiple perspectives “gave me a chance to understand all of the characters…I got to know their thought processes…and I felt their struggle.”

Monique: You’ve background includes a great deal of non-fiction history writing. What prompted your move into writing fiction?

Julian: I have always written some form of fiction ever since I was a child: short stories, poems, plays, songs. I studied theatre at university as well as history and, on graduation, wrote the lyrics for four cabarets (one was even performed at Downstairs Belvoir Street Theatre) and the book and lyrics for two musicals. I attempted my first novel in my early twenties but then worked in publishing and TV documentary writing popular history. Years later, I returned to fiction and with Palace of Tears found a genre that allows me to combine my passion for research and history with my love of imagination and story-telling.

Monique: You’ve set the story in ‘The Palace’ aka the Hydro Majestic in the Blue Mountains. What made the mountains and the hotel the perfect setting for Palace of Tears?

Julian: I have lived in the Blue Mountains for over twenty-five years and have often thought its dramatic but eerie landscape would make the perfect backdrop for a Gothic tale. When I planned to write a family saga, I knew I needed a building that would be haunted by memories and secrets. The Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath fitted the bill superbly. As the first spa hotel in Australia when it opened in 1904, the Hydro was the high-risk gamble of eccentric businessman Mark Foy. With its lavish parties and famous guests as well as its odd architecture and hydrotherapy clinic, the Hydro made a suitably magnificent and uncanny setting for the story of an obsessive hotelier and his wives, lovers and descendants.

Monique: What do you think of the refurbished Hydro Majestic?

Julian: I love it. I think it restores the hotel to its former glory with a sense of glamour and opulence that fits Mark Foy’s original vision. The hotel has also embraced its past with artefacts and photos on display as well as daily guided history tours.

Monique: You’ve also incorporated the treatment of German expats during WWI into the novel. Why did you decide to include this issue? Is there any personal background that attracted you to researching German internment?

Julian: In the 1990s while researching and writing TV documentaries, I came across the story of the internment of German-Australians during World War I. This little-known history shocked me so deeply, I have always wanted to find a way to tell it to a wider audience. It also connected well with certain aspects of the spa hotel story and brought into focus a powerful theme of the book: what does it mean to be Australian? As for a personal connection, there is nothing direct. Even so, for years my mother told me the story of how she dated the son of a post-war German migrant family when she was growing up in a NSW country town in the 1950s. Anti-German feeling was still strong in the town but that did not stop my mum. I adapt this story for my character Monika.

Monique: Where did your passion for history come from?

Julian: It probably started with my father’s stories of being a British soldier in the Second World War: the Blitz, D-Day and the post-war occupation of Germany. Sadly he died before I got to ask him for more details. When I was nine, my family lived in England and we visited stately homes as well as making a trip to Pompeii which made a big impression. I studied Ancient and Modern History at school and took history subjects at university. My first job on graduation was as a researcher, photo editor and staff writer on a 16-volume military history series Australians At War for Time-Life. I was hooked.

Monique: How do you carry out your research?

Julian: I love starting with photos to spark the imagination, probably a hangover from my days in picture researching. For this book, I read histories about the Australian homefront in WWI and WW II, aspects of local Blue Mountains history, and biographies of famous guests. The National Library’s newspaper archive was a gift of course. Local archives held an interview with Mark Foy’s grand-daughter, Mary Shaw, and I visited the National Film and Sound Archives for photos from the 1921 silent movie thriller filmed at the hotel. The hard part, as always, is knowing when to stop.

Monique: What are some interesting things you learned while researching this novel?

Julian: The German internment story is a revelation, of course. There were lots of other discoveries and I’ll mention two here. I had never heard of a ‘continuous bath’ before: a hydropathy treatment for mental illness in which a patient is suspended in a tub of warm water for hours and sometimes even days at a time. Fox’s wife is treated for depression this way. I also learned about V-mail, the US Army’s airmail system during the Second World War: to save weight in mail bags, letters were photographed and sent on microfilm and reprinted on small cards at the other end. Clever huh?

Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?

Julian: I began writing fiction again about six years ago and have a couple of manuscripts and several rejection slips in the bottom drawer. A definite highlight was being taken on board by one of Australia’s most experienced and well-respected literary agents, Selwa Anthony, who encouraged me to keep writing. And being accepted for publication by Allen & Unwin, my favourite publishers, was a dream come true!

Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?

Julian: Walk away. Take a break. Your judgement about your own work can be very unreliable and it is best to let the writing ‘rest’ for a day or more. And if things get really bad, there’s always my wife to talk to. She is also a writer and understands.

Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?

Julian: I sometimes get too wrapped up in the details when I am attempting to make a scene vivid. This is easily fixed of course. Cutting! Thankfully I had a very intelligent and unsentimental editor to watch my back.

Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?

Julian: That you know how to write novels once you have written the first one.

Monique: Which book are you reading now?

Julian: Dancing with Empty Pockets by Tony Moore – a history of bohemians in Australia.

Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?

Julian: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Tom Keneally, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

Monique: Which authors do you admire the most?

Julian: A.S Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Tom Keneally, Thomas Hardy.

Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?

Julian: I cannot bring myself to do that. It feels like an act of betrayal to the author.

Monique: Where in Australia would you take an overseas visitor?

Julian: The Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks for answering my questions, Julian.

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