Song of Australia – Stephen Crabbe historical fiction author interview
Life on the Australian home front during World War One.
The World War One centenary has many authors writing stories to illustrate that time. As I’ve been writing about life in the Midwest United States 100 years ago, it’s been a pleasure to discover other authors writing about the home front in their own countries.
One of those is Stephen Crabbe of Australia. His novel Song of Australia weaves three connected stories. German-Australians were the largest minority group in the nation as the country joined the British Empire to fight against Germany. As in the United States, people of German descent faced sudden hostility by their neighbours and the government. Meanwhile an adolescent boy who believes Christianity is a way of peace questions how he can worship with people who believe God wants him to fight – and perhaps die – in the war. Amidst the suffering caused by adults, gifted child-musicians find a way through music to help the world heal.
I invited Stephen to share the ‘story behind the story’ of Song of Australia.
What inspired you to write this story?
I don’t think I can narrow it down to just one thing: a number of factors all seemed to coalesce. However, at the core was the memory of my childhood piano teacher. Her passion for music and the development of the talents of young people was extraordinary, but it was a few decades later that I realised this. By then, of course, it was too late to thank her. I mention this in the acknowledgements section of my book—and my hope that her spirit will live on through the stories I tell.
How did you approach the research to understand the attitudes toward German-Australians during World War One?
Apart from recalling stories I heard from older relatives in childhood, the research was almost exclusively online. There are certain very helpful websites devoted to German-Australian history. I found old newspapers the most stimulating. In them I read reports of parliamentary debates and law court sessions (published almost as verbatim transcriptions in those days), letters to the editor, and sometimes accounts of an incident the day before. All this gives a sense of being right there listening to conflicting voices in the community of 1914-18 South Australia. Isn’t it remarkable to see all these old newspapers now so readily accessible online!
It certainly is. Research and writing can turn up much we don’t expect when we start out. What did you learn in the process that surprised you?
I was taken unawares by the variety of characters leaping out of the bush to claim a part in the story. I had never been conscious of most of them before drafting, and they would try to lead my story on new journeys that one book just could not contain. I had to be so ruthless in throwing these characters into the cupboard! There they had to stay until I had another book to accommodate them. Some of them are now allowed out to play in my new work in progress.
You studied piano. How did your own music experience come into play in writing?
As I reflected on the memories of my childhood music education, I could use my adult experience as a music educator to find new perspectives. The psychological theory of multiple intelligences, for example, gave me the idea that one individual could know the world and communicate with it principally through music, while another would rely on language or mathematical logic or another cognitive modality.
One theme of Song of Australia is the power of music to heal. Please share your thoughts on that idea.
We humans can hear long before we can see: our first aural experiences are in the womb, and the complex brain-wiring that occurs as a result is established at birth. Research shows, for example, that the new-born baby can not only distinguish its mother’s voice from others, but also recognise specific tunes heard before birth. Music can thus invoke that sense of security we felt when snugly nursed in the womb. Music—and especially singing—binds people together in a way that vision does not. It can create bridges of understanding that have nothing to do with logic and language. Research is now indicating that our ancestors developed language only after they could sing, because the mechanisms and techniques of song are the building blocks for linguistic development. So music can connect us with our deep past and with each other, both as individuals and as a species. This is healing.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
For one thing, that sense of renewal, as if they’ve had an excellent holiday trip to a very interesting exotic place. I will be gratified if the renewal comes from not just a few hours of mere escape from the daily grind, but from living the possibilities of a different way of perceiving life. I also hope that Australians in particular will consider our nation in at least a slightly new way.
What’s next for you?
My work in progress is a novel featuring the main characters in Song of Australia, still during World War One on the South Australian home-front. With a couple of new major characters, they continue to grapple with some of the same issues and confront some new problems as well. It’s only in the initial stages, but the structure of this narrative is already looking more complex than Song of Australia. And it will be a longer book.
Thanks for joining us, Stephen.
Stephen Crabbe was born in Adelaide, South Australia. His ancestors—Scottish, German and English—were among the earliest colonists from 1834 onwards.
Stephen studied classical pianoforte from the age of five until his late teens. He read widely in English and loved to explore all other languages. Eventually he became a school teacher and eventually specialised in music, a vocation he still follows part-time.
Stephen was always driven to write, but in later years he did this more seriously. His scripts were produced on screen and many of his articles were published. The main focus of his writing now is fiction. He lives in the rural south-west of Australia.
For more on Stephen and Song of Australia:
Song of Australia on the Australian Amazon site
Song of Australia on the US Amazon site