Interview with Sonya Bates:
Sonya Bates is an author of many successful children's books, and now in May 2020 has released her debut adult novel, a thrilling mystery called Inheritance of Secrets, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Banjo Prize in 2018.
This book is twisty and fascinating, with an immersive historical thread and driving modern-day mystery that will keep readers guessing until the end. I absolutely loved it and highly recommend this book!
Here is our interview:
Sonya, can you tell us what first inspired you to write Inheritance of Secrets? And why you decided to write a mystery with two timelines, one historical and one present day?
The idea for Inheritance of Secrets grew out of a character – Karl Weiss, a young German soldier who migrates to Australia after WWII, and who was inspired by my dad’s history. Like Karl, my dad grew up in Germany in the 1930s when Hitler was in power. He would have experienced many of the same things Karl did when he was growing up – the Hitler Youth, the Reich Labour Service and then, like Karl, being drafted at the age of eighteen and sent to war. My dad was such a quiet, peace-loving person and I couldn’t imagine him being involved in such a terrible part of history. The character of Karl stayed with me for a long time while I worked on other things, and eventually I decided I needed to write something about this ordinary person caught up in terrible times.
I didn’t set out to write a dual timeline mystery. I’d originally set out to write a historical novel, a migration story. That was my intention when I started researching for the book. But despite knowing my main character, I didn’t know what his story was (other than that he would migrate to Australia), and researching didn’t spark any ideas. What it did spark was a sense of the potential for secrets and mysteries in the time period. Not just the big secrets – espionage and underground networks and such – but secrets held by ordinary people. People like Karl. When you are fighting to survive and your family and your life are at stake, you may do things you wouldn’t do under ordinary circumstances. Both good and bad. Things that you would want to keep secret, even from family. Secrets that could have dire consequences if revealed.
That was when I had the idea for the contemporary section of the novel. I saw the first scene, a young woman at the morgue on her way to identify the bodies of her grandparents, and I knew that the grandfather was Karl, my young German soldier, and that something from his past had come back to haunt him. I didn’t know what the secret was at that time, but I knew I could find out. I love a good mystery. And so my migration story became the underlying thread for a contemporary crime thriller.
The war years seemed like the perfect breeding ground for secrets – secrets that would have dire consequences if revealed – and thus the migration story became the underlying thread of a suspenseful contemporary crime novel.
With the historical thread, did you find it difficult from a structural angle to know where to place those chapters in the narrative? I feel like that would have been very hard!
To be honest, it seemed to come quite naturally. I wrote the first draft pretty much from front to back – writing both the contemporary chapters and the historical chapters as they came. The contemporary chapters were shorter and punchier, the historical ones more descriptive, and it seemed to work out to about three to four contemporary chapters to one historical one. It was a balance between moving the story along far enough in one section to capture and hold the reader’s interest and not losing the thread of the other section. I was also conscious of not revealing too much of the mystery in one section before the other, so that the reader learned first-hand about Karl’s experience in the historical section as Juliet was discovering more about him and his past in the contemporary section. There was a little bit of moving around in the editing process, but that was more due to changes in the contemporary section than because the placement of the chapters wasn’t working
Tell me about the research that went into this novel, your historical chapters feel so authentic, and I wonder how you managed to make them so detailed and realistic?
I’m so glad you enjoyed the historical section. I truly enjoyed writing it. Not having written historical fiction before, I have no idea if the way I researched is the way other more experienced historical fiction writers approach research or not, but my approach was to start broadly to get a feel for the time and place and the history of what was going on at the time. I didn’t do myself any favours in that regard as the historical section moves from Germany to Italy, on board the Fairsea and then to Sydney and finally Adelaide. And covered a time period from 1943 to 1950. So there was a huge amount of research. Once I had a sense of the period, then I started writing. I didn’t have much of an outline at all other than knowing that Karl would migrate from Germany to Australia, so I couldn’t go into finer detail until later. As I wrote each scene and chapter, I knew more about what details were required, so I would then research for the specifics. Photos, memoirs and personal histories were wonderful for this, as well as items like newspapers, maps, advertising, ship records and museums – seeing artefacts from the time. I was fortunate enough to go to Germany during the editing process, and not only visited a number of museums, but also went to Halle (Saale), the setting for the first historical chapter. Being able to walk the streets where Karl grew up, take the route he walked from the market square to the park where he says goodbye to Grete before going to war, was an amazing experience and extremely helpful in setting the scene for that chapter.
Can you tell me what your favourite moment of the writing and publication journey for Inheritance of Secrets has been so far?
If I had to pick one moment in time, it would have to be when I found out that the manuscript for Inheritance of Secrets had been shortlisted for the Banjo Prize. That was a definitive moment when I felt all the years of writing and researching and editing had been worthwhile and that my identity as a writer had been validated. Even if I hadn’t been offered a contract (and I am so glad that I was!), I had been recognised as a writer, and my manuscript had been acknowledged as worthy of the attention of a big publisher, and had the potential to be published. It was a big, exciting moment that I will never forget.
Is there anything about the publication journey for this book that makes you nervous?
I think anytime you let someone read your work, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. You worry about what they will think, whether they’ll criticize it. And publication is the ultimate sharing of your writing – it is available to anyone who chooses to pick it up at a bookstore or library or download it onto an e-reader. Don’t get me wrong, the publication of a book is a very exciting time, and the sight of my book on shelves in bookstores and seeing readers post pictures of it on social media has been amazing. I get a little thrill every time I see it out there. But it is a given that not everyone will like your book, and you know there will be some readers who don’t care for it in the end, so reading reviews can be a real roller-coaster of emotion. I try to tell myself that of course not everyone will like it, but it’s hard not to take it personally.
I believe Inheritance of Secrets used to have a different title. Why the change and how did you decide on the new title?
Inheritance of Secrets has gone through a number of titles, and they seem to reflect the different stages of development of the manuscript. Way back when I first had the idea for the story, and was researching and playing around with a few initial chapters, it was called ‘Oranges and Orchids’. This was a reference to Karl’s love of gardening, and a reflection on the historical novel I thought it would be. Once I had the idea for the contemporary section, however, it no longer seemed to reflect the genre of mystery/thriller that the novel had become, and so I changed it to ‘Blood in Oranges’, in deference to the fact that Karl had been murdered (no spoilers here, you find that out on the first page). That didn’t last long. It was pretty mundane, and once I’d learned more about why he had been murdered, it became ‘The Deeds that Haunt Us’, referring to the secrets of his past. This was the title for a long time. But ultimately I felt it was too staid and wouldn’t attract the attention of readers or publishers. So just before I entered it in the Banjo prize, I changed the title to ‘When Secrets Come to Light’ (I told you it went through a number of titles!). The final title was the result of a brainstorming session with my publisher, Anna Valdinger. The one we selected was her suggestion in the end, but I think it fits perfectly.
What is next for you in terms of writing projects? (I am also really interested to know whether, if you write another mystery / thriller, it will also have a historical thread within it, and if so, what time period are you focusing on?)
Yes, the novel I’m working on at the moment is another adult mystery/thriller. And it does have a historical thread, although I haven’t yet decided for certain what format that thread will have. It covers a fairly long period of time starting in the late 1950s. I can’t say much more than that. I’m still working on the first draft, and, given that I’m not a plotter, don’t know exactly what’s going to happen myself!
Thanks so much for your time Sonya! 🙂I loved reading your answers! So interesting!
Sonya Spreen Bates is a writer of adult and children's fiction living in Adelaide, South Australia. She was shortlisted for the inaugural Banjo Prize in 2018 for the unpublished manuscript for Inheritance of Secrets, and several of her children's books have been commended by CCBC Best Books, Resource Links, or the Junior Library Guild in the USA.
Born in Iowa City, USA, Sonya grew up in Victoria, Canada. She studied Linguistics at the University of Victoria before moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia to study Speech-Language Pathology at Dalhousie University. She worked in paediatric Speech Pathology for 25 years, first in rural British Columbia, and then in Adelaide, South Australia when she moved there in 1997, and currently works as a casual academic in clinical education.
Sonya’s first children’s book was published in 2003. Her short stories and novels have been published in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and foreign rights to her chapter book, Wildcat Run, were sold to a Chinese publisher. She started writing for adults in 2015 and her debut adult novel Inheritance of Secrets will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2020.