“I took the people, stories and books I loved, and added magic.” (The History of Mischief)
I am awestruck at The History of Mischief, Rebecca Higgie’s debut novel for young people (Fremantle Press). It has an engaging storyline and overarching narrative and a rich backstorybrimming with fascinating, often unexpected, historical information. The skill, complexity and magic of the interwoven storylines is absorbing and enjoyable but not fully appreciated until the final pages.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Rebecca.
Thank you! It’s lovely to be speaking with you, Joy.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I’m based in Perth. My background is in libraries and universities. I have a PhD in cultural studies and politics, and I’ve worked as a sessional academic at Curtin University and a researcher at Brunel University London. In my early 20s, I worked in the stacks of the State Library of WA, just like the character Kay in my book. I left academia some time ago to return to libraries (and to write!), and was the Library Officer at Guildford Primary until I took maternity leave in 2018. Guildford is a major setting in my book, and while I have always loved libraries and kids, one of the big motivations for applying for the job was being able to work in one of my book’s settings.
The History of Mischief is your debut novel. It certainly deserves to be published but we know that finding a publisher as a new author is extremely difficult. How did you manage this?
I was extremely lucky! When I won the Fogarty Literary Award, part of the prize was a publishing contract with Fremantle Press. When I was still writing the book, I submitted it to mentoring programs but got nowhere, so I wasn’t expecting to have much luck when the book was finished. When I did finish the book, I edited it, got feedback from friends, and then sent it in to the Fogarty. While the book itself took a very long time to write (12 years), the time between finishing it and getting a contract was only seven months.
This certainly isn’t normal and not what I expected. I have seen many friends wait years for publishers to get back to them. I would encourage those with finished manuscripts to keep going though: enter everything you can, send it everywhere. I never thought my book would even be read by a publisher, let alone win a prize. You will find a home for your story somewhere.
What is the Fogarty Literary Award?
The award is for an unpublished manuscript from a WA writer under 35. The prize is a publishing contract and $20,000 cash. It is generously funded by the Fogarty Foundation. Winning it was a surreal experience, and I am still shocked when I see the certificate sitting on top of my desk. It meant I could be something I always wanted to be: a published author. After over a decade of doubt, it was so nice to get some affirmation.
The cover of your book by Rebecca Mills is a wonderful reflection of its contents. Could you tell us about one or more of the elements it evokes?
I agree, Rebecca Mills created a wonderful cover! Let me tell you about the sparrow in the top right-hand corner. The sparrow represents a history set in London in 1895. London used to have such severe frosts that birds would freeze to windowsills and branches. Archie, our main character in this history, picks up frozen sparrows, holds them to his chest, and brings them back to life. This is a small part of his story, but it comes at a time when he feels he is losing everything he loves and values. He describes the warmth he feels in bringing them back as being that which can only be obtained from “a good whisky or true happiness.”
You take us to extraordinary places and times. What are some of the historical periods you delve into? Which did you particularly enjoy researching and writing about and why?
In The History of Mischief, we travel across 2000 years of history, visiting Greece, Egypt, China, Poland, France, Ethiopia and England. One of the histories I most enjoyed researching was the history set in 1870s France. Here, we witness a Paris under siege, where residents become so desperate for food that they descend into local zoos for meat. Balloonists take to the air to establish communication with the outside world, inadvertently founding the first ever ‘air mail’ service. I enjoyed learning about the creative things people did to survive, and how train stations were turned into hot air balloon factories. If you do some research, you can find detailed diaries from that time, as well as photographs of balloons and Christmas menus featuring elephant!
These stories are superbly linked together through the story of your young protagonist, Jessie. Please introduce her and her circumstances.
Jessie is a nine-year-old girl who is the only survivor of a car accident that has killed her parents. Her 20-year-old sister Kay is left with the responsibility of looking after her, which she finds hard to take. Jessie is bold and stubborn. Her grief makes her grumpy, sullen and distant at times. But she is also curious, clever, and mischievous. She is inspired by The History of Mischief and starts conducting her own mischief on those around her, including Theodore, her overly-cheerful classmate, and Mrs Moran, an odd elderly neighbour who vacuums her driveway at night. Ultimately, Jessie wants to escape her grief, and part of how she does that is through the History: researching it, enacting it, and searching for it.
Jessie and Kay live in Western Australia. Your book is universal but how is it also distinctly Western Australian?
One thing I’ve noticed about WA stories is that they are often rooted in the landscape. There is something about the natural elements that human beings cannot conquer here. I noticed this when I lived in London for a short time. The rain in London seemed quieter; I missed the fat noisy raindrops of Perth. While my book doesn’t centre around our famous beaches or harsh bush, as some WA stories do, the natural world still intrudes. The rain torments Kay, reminding her that her parents died in a car accident on a stormy night.
Augusta and the Margaret River region are also important settings in the novel. At the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse you can see the meeting of the Southern and Indian Oceans, and the region’s landscape is full of towering Karri trees and hidden sparkling caves. There is a lot of mystery and magic in a place where oceans meet and trees and caves keep ancient stories. I had to incorporate these things into my story.
What is intriguing about the house where they now live?
At the beginning of the book, the girls have just moved into their grandmother’s abandoned home. This old house has odd little statues dotted between the weeds and a fence covered in metal roses. The gate key is an ancient thing with the words “Property of A. Mischief” etched into it. Here, under the floorboards, Jessie and Kay find The History of Mischief.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the house is that their grandmother gave it to their father to sell long ago, but he never did. Jessie wonders why he never sold it, speculating that perhaps he was looking for The History of Mischief too.
You describe some spectacular libraries. Which would you most love your readers to experience?
In The History of Mischief, we visit magical places like the Ancient Library of Alexandria and the Reading Room of the British Museum. Yet, I’d still love my readers to experience the State Library of WA stacks the most, or any large library stacks. The stacks of national libraries are where secrets are held, where there are books so old we put them in cold rare book rooms to preserve them. I’d love my readers to explore the WA map stack, peek into the locked Battye compactus featuring banned books, and smell the off-honey aroma of decaying leather.
Jessie learns about the fascinating art of penjing. Could you describe it please?
Penjing is the ancient Chinese artform of cultivating miniature landscapes in pots using plants, rocks and sometimes pottery or figurines. Many people would be familiar with bonsai, which is a similar Japanese artform. The main difference between the two is that bonsai tends to focus on growing miniature trees, while penjing focuses on creating a landscape or ‘scene’. You can find many resources online and at your local library about penjing.
Jessie learns about penjing from one of the histories. Yingtai, a woman from China in 400AD, treasures her penjing which is a trident maple growing over a rock. This was an artform normally reserved for the wealthy, but someone special steals it for her. While the earliest recorded evidence of penjing is from the 700s, it was important for the story that she have this plant. This humble tree inspires her to be daring.
What does Jessie understand about grief?
When Jessie is asked what it feels like to lose a parent, she says, “It’s horrible. You die. But you don’t stay dead. You just become another thing. And it’s not a nice thing. It’s a sad thing. And it’s angry. And lonely.” Jessie understand grief as all-encompassing, a thing that changes what and who you are. She sees no way out, and certainly doesn’t see how anyone can help her cope.
Slowly, Jessie comes to learn that while losing your parents very young may not be common, grief certainly is. Everyone experiences loss and grief. Part of Jessie’s journey is accepting that there is life after loss, and that part of being human is feeling our own grief and helping others through theirs.
How have you incorporated music into the story?
Music is important in many small ways, from the somewhat inappropriate music at dance class, to the character Henry and his belief that, “songs are like books. They tell stories.”
The main way music is incorporated into the story is through Jessie’s classmate Theodore. Theodore loves K-Pop, and is always singing along to his favourite tunes. For him, the music is also a link to language, as he is a Korean-Australian and enjoys using his mother’s language.
Music was also important for me as I wrote the book. I’m not someone who can write and listen to music at the same time. I need silence when I work. Yet I still looked for songs to help me feel the melodies of Jessie and the histories. For instance, I found Halsey’s Control had this dark underground feeling that fit with the mood of the Polish history, and I always enjoying listening to Alemiye and Yihuna by Gizachew Teshome while working on the Ethiopian history. Yihuna was also the first song my husband Yirga sent me to introduce me to the music of his country, so it has a special place in my heart.
What are you writing next?
Currently I am very busy looking after my one year old son, but I do have another novel in my head waiting to get out. Often, my stories start with images and feelings. The next book features the following: blue whales swimming through cities, a hanged criminal and a world leader, immense longing and constant searching. This book will also involve a lot of research, so I don’t think you’ll see it on the shelves for a while.
What else have you been read recently that you would like to recommend?
I’d like to recommend Yuot A. Alaak’s book Father of the Lost Boys, which is a memoir about Yuot’s experience as one of South Sudan’s Lost Boys. He tells the story of his father Mecak, who led 20,000 boys out of danger during the height of the Second Sudanese Civil War. It’s a powerful book, full of sorrow, joy, humour and heartache.
I’m also re-reading Elizabeth Tan’s new short story collection Smart Ovens for Lonely People. If anyone wants a masterclass is amazing writing, hunt down Smart Ovens as well as Tan’s first book Rubik.
How can your readers contact you?
We really need to read The History of Mischief more than once to fully appreciate its artistry. Avid young readers will be enthralled, and also inspired to widen their knowledge and understanding, as they explore its depths and layers.
Thank you, Joy. It’s been so lovely talking to you. I appreciate you giving the book your time.