Sonya Bates is a Canadian writer who has made South Australia her home since 1997. She studied linguistics at the University of Victoria before obtaining a Masters Degree in speech-language pathology. When her two daughters were young, she started writing for children and has published several children's books. Inheritance of Secrets is her debut adult novel, which was shortlisted as an unpublished manuscript for the inaugral Banjo Prize in 2018.
First of all, Sonya – thanks so much for taking the time to have a chat about your newly released crime thriller, Inheritance of Secrets.
I have to say, I was captivated by this book from the first page and I loved the dual timeline that switches between Adelaide in the present-day and Europe and Australia in the post-war era. The historical sections, particularly, come to life on the page – can I ask what sort of research you did and where you found such varied and detailed information?
It was a long process to research for this book, and it took me down a lot of rabbit holes. I started out broad – reading historical books on the times, memoirs, online sources – and then, as the writing progressed and I needed more detail, narrowed the search. This included newspapers, maps, diaries, letters, oral histories, photos and passenger lists to name a few. I visited museums and I went to Germany and walked the streets of the city where Karl and Grete grew up. I talked to people who’d lived in Adelaide in the 50s, and sent specific questions to experts when required. I watched movies and read novels set in the time – perhaps not very scientific, but very enjoyable! I’m happy to hear you think all that research paid off.
Did any of your research uncover things you weren’t expecting and then altered elements of the plot?
Many times, some in bigger ways than others. I learned early that I couldn’t make any assumptions, but I often wrote first and then fine-tuned the research after. I hadn’t plotted out the whole novel, so couldn’t do it any other way. I had to write the scene to know what research needed to be done. One big thing comes to mind. Early in the writing, I had placed Karl on a different ship – one which travelled from Italy to Sydney in December 1948, not 1949 – only to discover that Germans weren’t being accepted into Australia then. I had to find another ship and rewrite the scene (and the rest of the historical section of the novel) so that it took place a year later.
The two sisters who feature in the book are very different from one another. Juliet appears to be sensible, independent and forced into a situation in which she’s obliged to take charge. Lily has had a more troubled past and continues to struggle with her life. Which of the two women did you most enjoy writing about and why?
Juliet is definitely more like me. A sensible person thrown into very unusual and dangerous circumstances. So I could identify with her and write her quite easily. But Lily was fun. Things came out of her mouth that were totally unexpected. She did things that seemed self-centred and irresponsible, but ultimately her heart was in the right place. It was fun watching her grow.
I understand it was your dad’s background in the German military that planted the seed for this story. Was there anything about that story that immediately made you want to write it as a crime/mystery?
No, my dad didn’t have any secrets lurking in his past, not that I’m aware of anyway. And he didn’t share much of his experiences anyway. It was a combination of what I did know and my musings about what those experiences might have been like, both as a child and an adult moving to a new country, which led to the fictional character of Karl. I knew I wanted to write about Karl, but I didn’t immediately know it was going to be a mystery. I’d imagined it would be a purely historical novel – a migration story or family saga. But as I was researching, the time period seemed the perfect breeding ground for secrets, both big and small. And I love a good mystery. In fact, most of my writing contains at least some mystery or suspense or adventure. I think it was seeing the potential for secrets in the war and post-war era that sparked the idea for the first scene, where Juliet is at the morgue going to identify the bodies of her grandparents. I knew the grandfather was Karl, and that he’d been murdered. I knew that something in his past was coming back to haunt them all. I just needed to figure out what that was!
This is your first published adult novel…but is it the first adult book you’ve written or do you have other manuscripts squirrelled away?
Yes, this is the first adult novel I’ve written. Other than a couple of short stories and non-fiction articles, all of the manuscripts I have squirrelled away are children’s or YA. I have started a new one, though, and it’s also for adults. I’ve loved the experience.
Did the passenger ship, The Fairsea really exist? The scenes on board the ship are very vivid – were you able to access real life accounts of immigrants’ journeys on such ships?
Yes, the Fairsea did exist. She was a post WWII migrant ship and made several journeys between Europe and Australia with displaced persons under the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) from 1949 to 1951, including the voyage from Naples to Sydney in December 1949 that I’ve placed Karl on. Of course his experiences and the people depicted in the novel are entirely fictional. I did a lot of research on migrant ships – immigration stories of passengers’ journeys and general ship conditions on migrant ships, newspaper articles etc – although it wasn’t all specific to the Fairsea. And photographs, passenger lists, specifications and history of the ship itself. It all came together to create those scenes on board.
The cover is a very striking one. Did you have any say in the design of the book jacket or was that solely in the hands of the publisher?
I was asked very early in the process if I had ideas for what I’d like to see on the cover. Being a newbie to the publishing world here in Australia and in adult fiction, I had no idea what to suggest. I did let them know what I didn’t want, though. Honestly, I was happy to let the design team do their thing. They’re the professionals, after all. Once everyone on the publisher’s end was happy with it, they did ask for my thoughts and approval, then they tweaked it a bit based on my suggestions. I think the result is brilliant.
This has been your first experience of being published in Australia (though you’ve had children’s books published in North America). What have been the highs and the lows for you? Has anything surprised you?
The highs were definitely being shortlisted for the Banjo Prize in 2018 and then being offered a contract with HarperCollins. Even if I hadn’t been offered a contract, being shortlisted was a real validation of myself as a writer. The lows? I’m not sure there have been any, except perhaps the anxiety of wondering how the book would be received once it was out in the world. We all want readers to like our books. Years of our lives go into them. At least that was the case with Inheritance of Secrets. It’s like sending your child out into the world for people to judge. A scary proposition.
Can you tell us what your writing routine is? And are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. Typically I know the beginning and I know the ending and have a vague idea of what might come in between. The middle bit often changes as I write, though. Scenes don’t always go as I expect, and sometimes the characters take over and lead me down new avenues. When I’m working on something, I try to treat it like a job. I usually head to my desk by 9 at the latest, check that there aren’t any urgent emails, and then work on my current project for the morning. Some days I’m more productive than others, and as I’m still juggling writing with speech pathology at least part of the year, there are days I get nothing done at all. Deadlines definitely help keep me motivated.
Finally, anything you can reveal about what comes next for you?
Nothing concrete. I am working on something new – another adult mystery – but it’s early days and quite honestly, between promotion for Inheritance of Secrets and COVID-19, I’m not getting much done on it right now. But soon. The ideas and the characters are there. I know the beginning (in fact I’m 30000 words into writing it) and I know the ending. The rest will come.
Inheritance of Secrets is published by Harper Collins Australia and is available as a paperback from all good bookshops. ISBN: 9781460757857
(also available as an ebook)
If you want to find out more, head to Sonya's website: