Elsewhere Girls by Emily Gale & Nova Weetman
“Here in the future I can swim every day if I want to. As much as I miss my family, things are easier for me here. There are more choices.” (Elsewhere Girls)
I am excited to hear from Emily Gale and Nova Weetman about their collaborative middle-grade timeslip novel, Elsewhere Girls, and other things.
I’ve reviewed books by them both for the Weekend Australian.
They are a highly energetic pair and are regarded with awe and admiration for their work establishing and coordinating Authors for Fireys during and after the 2020 bushfires, as well as their other efforts in supporting the writing and reading community.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Emily and Nova.
Among other things, your collaborative novel Elsewhere Girls is about swimming. Are you swimmers? What do you like or not like about swimming?
We are both regular swimmers. Even though we don’t usually swim together, we do a lot of thrashing out of storylines while we swim laps and so we’ll often swap messages like “thought of this in the pool today” / “I’ll finish this chapter after my swim”.
We’re based in Melbourne, where pools have been closed a lot because of lockdown, but as soon as restrictions lifted we were at the front of the queue. The wonderful thing about swimming is that once you learn as a child you can get back into it at any time. It’s kind to body and mind. There is nothing like the satisfied, clear-minded tiredness that you feel after a swim.
One of the first things we did while researching Fanny Durack, the historical figure who inspired the book, was to swim at Wylie’s Baths in Coogee, formerly owned by the father of Fanny’s friend and rival Mina Wylie.
Please tell us about the fascinating swimming stroke, ‘trudgen’.
We tried to demonstrate this at our book launch and unsurprisingly it’s quite difficult to do that in heels on a small stage! Trudgen is a scissor kick with overarm strokes and was named after an English swimmer. Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie mainly swam trudgen and breaststroke until they learnt the Australian crawl in 1911.
Why have you set this story in Sydney?
Fanny Durack grew up in Surry Hills, Sydney, and trained in Wylie’s Baths in Coogee. Mina Wylie’s father, Henry, was in the ocean baths business and he controversially allowed mixed bathing. At the time, the NSW Ladies Swimming Association was firmly against allowing men to even attend swimming carnivals when women were competing, and this was one of the reasons that Fanny and Mina had such a battle to get to the Olympics – the other main reason being that the Olympic committee didn’t want to pay for them to go.
As well as swimming at Wylie’s Baths, we visited the pub where Fanny grew up as one of nine children, we did the journey that Fanny would have had to do to get to training, and we took the train to a few other ocean baths where she would have competed while she was making her way to becoming the first Australian woman to win gold in swimming.
How have you incorporated true history?
The story is a body-swap as well as a timeslip. Through our modern character, Cat, who travels back to 1908, we were able to explore life for a young, white, working-class woman. Through other characters we were able to show different experiences, such as Mina Wylie who had a more comfortable upbringing in Coogee, and family friend Arthur whose heritage is Chinese.
Fanny Durack and her sisters were all involved in the lively swimming carnival scene in Sydney but they also lived above a rowdy pub with sawdust on the floors, where fights broke out and political meetings were held; we wanted to show the kind of life they had – there’s a scene involving an armed robbery that is based on something that really happened at the Durack’s pub. We spent a year combing through newspaper articles to check our facts and inform our story.
Cat allowed us to playfully show how a modern teenager would survive early 1900s food, transport, conversation, domestic life, clothing, and so on. Meanwhile putting Fanny in 2020 allowed us to do something that you don’t see so often – a character from the past experiencing the kind of lives our readers lead, seeing things for the first time that we all take for granted. It was the perfect device to dive into historical changes accurately but also in a light and often funny way.
If you’re happy to say (no worries if not) – who wrote which character and how did you decide who wrote who?
Our lips are sealed but we can say that it was just one more example of the very easy writing relationship we have – one of us had a strong desire to write the modern character slipping back in time and the other really want to write Fanny Durack slipping into the future, so there were no arguments.
With two of you writing, how did you compose the story in Elsewhere Girls – mapping out most of the plot or reacting to what the other wrote?
We researched Fanny Durack’s life together and plotted the main story. Then we wrote the book like a series of letters: you’d receive a chapter, and then you’d carry on the story and send it back. Even though we knew where the story was heading, it was delightful to receive a chapter and see the unique touches that had been added, the sub-plots playing out and minor characters coming to life. It was an organic process even though we had the plot in our heads. Elsewhere Girls developed naturally from start to finish and it was such fun to write.
There are many differences between their lives. Could you each tell us about one that is important or of interest to you?
We are both interested in that period of a young person’s life when they start to claim agency, start to make their own decisions, figure out what they want independently of their families or other outside pressures, and plan their futures. Both Fanny and Cat explore this agency in the book and despite their situations and lives being very different – Cat is only thirteen in her own time, whereas Fan is a few years older in 1908 – they share that pivotal moment of learning about what matters to them by experiencing someone else’s life.
How do you hope readers are enlightened and empowered by Elsewhere Girls?
We set out to write something that was funny and feminist, so we hope that readers are entertained and that they feel inspired and uplifted by the struggles that women overcame 100 years ago in the pursuit of their dreams. It would be ideal if readers wanted to find out a little more about Fanny Durack and her rivals, and to appreciate that a working-class Australian woman defied two powerful establishments and gained huge public support through newspaper coverage because she was determined to get to the peak of her sport and represent her country at the 1912 Olympics.
Are you planning, or open to, another collaborative work? If so, please tell us more.
Yes, we are. We love working together. We always send each other drafts of our own work anyway, so writing together feels like an extension of that. The book we’re working on next is again inspired by an Australian woman; someone we feel that modern readers would like to know more about.
Many authors are writing middle-grade books now, even authors who have been known for their YA. Have middle-grade books taken over from YA? Why is MG so strong at the moment?
Perhaps the Australian market has remembered more recently that the 10-14 readership is hungry, sophisticated, and beautifully open-minded when it comes to exploring fiction – this may have become a lost for a while because YA was busy making a lot of noise and had great support from an adult readership as well. Our own YA characters have generally been at the slightly younger end, no more than 16, whereas YA as a category seems to have grown more in the other direction, with fantastic novels about finishing year 12 or being in the first year of university. And meanwhile middle-grade seems to be having a boom, catering for the older tweens and young teens, which is wonderful to see.
Please tell us a little about something else you’ve worked on together.
We organised the Twitter auction Authors for Fireys during the summer of 2020, which raised over half a million dollars for firefighters and related charities. That took us completely by surprise. We were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from the wider Australian literary community as well as the national and even international press. It was so much bigger than us and we were just really proud to be in the background working away on it with three other authors who turned out to be incredible with unwieldy spreadsheets (Anna Whateley, Kelly Gardiner and Judith Ridge).
During 2020 we made a set of 10-minute videos which together form a creative writing course aimed at students aged 9-14. It’s been used in many homes and in schools across the country, both remotely during lockdown and now, happily, in classrooms.
Thanks very much for your responses, Emily and Nova, for your books and for your pivotal role in the Australian literary community.
All the very best with Elsewhere Girls and your other work.
Nova has written about The Edge of Thirteen, her other recent book, for PaperbarkWords.