Interview with Lizzie Pook, Author of ‘Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter’

1886, BANNIN BAY, AUSTRALIA.

The Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them on these shores beyond shining pearls and shells like soup plates – the things her father has promised will make their fortune.

Ten years later and Charles Brightwell, now the bay’s most prolific pearler, goes missing from his ship while out at sea. Whispers from the townsfolk suggest mutiny and murder, but headstrong Eliza, convinced there is more to the story, refuses to believe her father is dead, and it falls to her to ask the questions no one else dares consider.

But in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, Eliza soon learns that the truth can cost more than pearls, and she must decide just how much she is willing to pay – and how far she is willing to go – to find it…

Summary from PanMacmillan
Lizzie Pook, author of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter was personally one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, so when I got a chance to chat with the author I had to do it. We talked about the publishing process, the inspiration behind the book and of course, I asked about Lizzie’s reading recommendations and her advice for writers looking to get published.

Adriana Ciontea: How are you? Congratulations!

Lizzie Pook: Thank you! Yeah, it’s a bit of a whirlwind really with the (UK) launch day yesterday, but also it’s a bit staggered because it came out in Australia a few weeks ago. I’m not over there so I haven’t been able to go and see it and the bookshops yet, and I did yesterday so that was nice to finally see it on the shelf and have a bit of a launch last night.

AC: How did you spend launch day?

LP: My mum, my husband, my sister and I had a nice lunch and then I made them go into the nearest Waterstones to check if the book was on the shelf because I didn’t want to go in if it wasn’t going to be there, but thankfully it was, so we went in there and took a little picture. We had a little launch party at the brilliant Barns bookshop last night with some friends and family and my editor and agent, and that was lovely just to get everyone together. It all went so quickly and I had lots of support on social media…

AC: Yes, I saw the little cakes (pictured above), they were adorable! 

LP: Yes, the cakes were lovely! It was just a nice whirlwind day that passed very quickly but it was great to properly mark it because coming out in Australia first meant I didn’t do anything to mark that day, the time difference is so massive that when my publication day was in Australia I had to go to sleep.

AC: Why was it released in Australia first?

LP: I got a separate Australian deal for the book. Normally what happens is you get a Commonwealth deal so that they would publish at the same time, but because it was a separate deal with PRH Australia they could decide when they wanted to publish things and February is a good time for them because it’s their summer and lots of people go on holiday and read books. It’s been nice to do publicity out there and I’ve had really lovely messages from readers out there, people whose families were involved in the pearling industry and who’ve read the book and enjoyed it. I had a message (my main character, Eliza, is loosely inspired by a real person called Eliza Broadhurst) and her great-great-granddaughter got in touch with me and said that she had bought the book and was taking it on holiday. Another woman whose great-great-grandmother was forced to dive for pearls in Shark Bay got in touch and said it’s great to see a book discussing and exploring this subject, so that was nice too.

AC: When I read MATPD I was immediately transported. I’ve never been to Australia but I could picture it vividly. As a travel writer, you must have seen and gleaned a lot of stories from your journeys, so what made you decide to make this your debut?

LP: I’ve been lucky to travel to lots of interesting places, like the trans-Himalayas and Greenland, parts of Africa, Canada etc. It was two things: the first piece of inspiration for this book came when I was in Western Australia and I was at the Maritime Museum in Freemantle where I came across this tiny exhibition about a family of British settlers who sailed across to a place called Shark Bay in the middle of the 19th century to set up the pearling industry. That piqued my interest because I just didn’t know that people had come to Australia to become involved in this industry and I didn’t know much about that industry anyway, but what was particularly interesting to me was the nature of this family.

There was a woman called Eliza Broadhurst and she was quite a formidable woman. She survived shipwrecks and storms and she set up a school in the Outback. She was what we would call a feminist now, and she subscribed to feminist literature and things like that. I had this idea of her and this settlers’ family rattling around in my head for years, but it was when I ended up in Broome, which is in the Northwest Kimberly in Austalia when the obsession started. 

Broome, AU

Broome is just the most beautiful place you can ever imagine, it’s like it’s drawn in technicolour, with bright red pigment soil and bright turquoise sea, and mangroves and it does look like paradise. But it’s got this dark history beneath its surface. So yes, I’ve been to lots of interesting places but it’s this hidden history of pearling and pearl diving, and just how dangerous it was that really got its claws into me. I went to a pearl showroom and they put on a little talk about the pearling industry and from that first moment hearing about men descending to the seabed in heavy copper helmets, lead-weighted boots and water-tight camper suits, coming up against all sorts of things down there – sharks and crocodiles, succumbing to things like divers’ paralysis – I just couldn’t believe this dark part of history so I just became completely fascinated by that. It was almost like I couldn’t say no. I think as a writer sometimes ideas choose you, and they choose not to leave you and they can be with you for years, tapping on your shoulders and saying “We’re still here by the way”.

AC: Yes, I didn’t know anything about the pearling industry before reading MATPD.

LP: Not many people do, I’ve spoken to many people in Australia who didn’t know about it.

AC: There’s a lot of interesting detail in the book, and as you said it depicts a dark time in colonial history, so what was the bit that you found most difficult to write, and that you were worried about getting right?

LP: It was exactly that: the treatment of indigenous people by colonists and white settlers.

I’m drawn to the darker parts of history and I find those parts of history very interesting because I do believe we should confront them and interrogate them. Only by doing that can we ever have any sort of progress or change. But that process also comes with a lot of responsibility, and I definitely felt the weight of trying to get that balance right, because if I was going to write about this part of the world at that time, it would have been a very diverse place.

Broome was almost an anomaly on Australian soil at that time in history, because you did have people from all over the world who have descended on this tiny red dust township to seek their fortune in pearl shell. Sometimes you read adventure stories and they’re purely populated by white people and I knew that I didn’t want to do that, couldn’t do that if I was writing about this place and this part of history.

I also wanted to be respectful of the communities that I was writing about, and create nuanced, multi-faceted characters. I didn’t want to exploit the atrocities, I didn’t want the book to feel too exploitative or graphic in a sense, so that was a balancing act too.

One of the most helpful things that happened along the way was that a man I was in touch with called Bart Pigram, who is a Yawuru man and a tour guide in Broome, agreed to help with my research and later on, he agreed to come on board as a paid cultural consultant, which was useful because he was able to do a reading and flag any sensitivities. He offered up a wealth of resources, his family was involved in the pearling industry and he was able to direct me towards great research, reference books and textbooks that I hadn’t uncovered before. It was great to have him on board as a consultant but he also made the whole research process a lot richer.

We also consulate with the Kimberly Aboriginal Cultural Council and they did another sensitivity read of the manuscript. It was a very collaborative thing, something that was important to me and my publisher in Australia, as it was such a diverse cast who weren’t from my own lived experience. It was respectful to have this collaboration. I’m so grateful and I would encourage anyone to go down that route if they’re hesitant about writing stuff like this. I certainly found it a real privilege and very helpful.

AC: Let’s talk a bit about Eliza, who is quite a headstrong and determined heroine. She is subject to prejudice from other women and violent behaviour from men, which was common in the Victorian era, but it’s unfortunately still something women face today. What can we learn from Eliza’s story?

LP: I wanted my Eliza to be unusual in terms of what a woman would have been like in that day and age. I was worried about making her too modern, but then actually researching the real Eliza Broadhers made me realise that there were women who were very independent and didn’t adhere to societal expectations. I think the thing with Eliza is that she’s very much driven through the story by loss, grief and trauma, and there are lots of characters in this book who have suffered the loss of land and liberty, the loss of identity or family members, but it propels them through the story.

I wanted to explore how grief can be this very active thing, instead of making us passive it can propel us forward like rocket fuel. I think that’s what people can take from Eliza: that we can try and use those things and turn them into a propulsive force. That’s what I would hope people can take from her. Yes, these things happen, but I think sometimes we can use them to motivate us and make us stronger and move us into achieving things that perhaps we might have thought we weren’t capable of achieving before.

AC: I think that’s a great message especially with everything happening at the moment.

If this wasn’t your debut and you could have written any book out there, what would it be?

LP: Something that springs to mind is a debut that came out recently called The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews – I just love that book! I think it’s such a gorgeous, beautiful book about a woman who is accused of being a witch, but there’s something very sinister happening. It’s to do with a shipwreck that happened hundreds of years ago and a sea serpent, which sounds quite strange but it’s such a beautiful book and it’s very much about the sea and water. The cover’s amazing, Rosie’s prose is absolutely beautiful, and I remember reading it and getting prose envy, thinking “This is the most gorgeous book, I wish I could have written it.” I’ve been impressed by that book this year. 

AC: What are 3 other books we should read if we loved MATPD?

LP: The first one that springs to mind is Outlawed by Anna North, which is a feminist western about a slightly dystopian society where barren women are outcasts and some of them are even hanged. The story follows a woman who escapes from that society and joins a band of outlaws in the desert called the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. It’s like a traditional western but the tropes in it are upended. I love that book and I think my book has a sort of feminist western feel to it as well, with Bannin Bay as this sort of western, swinging-saloon-door setting. 

There’s a book coming out in June called The Seawomen by Chloe Timms. Every sentence in that book is infused with song. It’s almost undefinable in terms of genre, but I’d say if you like Midsomer, Handmaid’s Tale and Shape of Water, you’ll love this book. It’s about an island spearheaded by a very religious man where none of the women are allowed to go near the sea because the seawomen who live there will curse them and make them do evil things. It’s just brilliant, I would recommend that. It’s about the power of the sea and the natural world and the awe-inspiring, slightly terrifying force of the sea. 

Read our review of The Seawomen

The third book is just a really interesting book about Australia called The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, and that is loosely about the Ned Kelly gang of outlaws in Australia, but it’s just so interesting and brilliantly written – a masterclass when it comes to voice –  it’s fresh and punchy and I don’t think I’ve ever read another book like it. If people are interested in the darker parts of British and Australian history, I’d recommend that. 

AC: What is a piece of advice for writers who want to get published?

LP: Big question! I think it relates to the writing process. When I started writing I thought that I had to wait for inspiration to strike and for the muse to appear before I could write anything half-decent. I thought I needed to have that creative desire to write something good, but actually, I heard a bit of advice from an indie author called Shannon Mayer and she said: “Your muse is your bitch!” 

You can actively sit there and you can tell your muse when she needs to arrive. That was a big lesson for me because it made me realise that you’re in charge of your creativity, and I think that’s a good thing for people who want to be published to learn, that sometimes it’s just sitting in a chair and slogging it out

 Also, I think there’s this sort of myth that good writing and good books have to have been easy to write, and if it’s not coming easily then it’s not good. That is just not the case – sometimes writing is just really really really hard, but that doesn’t mean that what you’re producing is not good. I look back on my book now and I remember some parts of it were so hard to write, it was like pulling teeth and I did not want to write those scenes because it just didn’t feel creative. But there’s no difference now between how those scenes read and the scenes that I found easy to write. 

My advice is: be a bit kinder to yourself when it comes to finding things hard, but also tell your muse and your creativity when to turn up. 

AC: Can you tell me anything about what you’re working on next?

LP: I’m working on a second book which is again a historical novel with a very strong-willed female at the centre, but the setting is very different. Whereas with MATPD we have this sort of sweltering Australian setting, this new setting is very cold and icy, and in a different hemisphere.

I’m currently working on a terrible first draft of it that will probably need lots and lots of redrafts, as was the case with Moonlight (I must have done about 15 drafts in full). It’s early stages but hopefully, people will enjoy the similar remote setting, the feminist feel to it and the wilderness aspect and the dark parts of history as well. It feels just like it has parts of dark tourism too. Book two is not finished yet, but hopefully will be soon.

Lizzie Pook’s Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter came out on 03 March 2022 and went on to become an instant bestseller. If you haven’t read this historical mystery yet, what are you waiting for?

You will be able to read a review of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter in the Blue Library section of our website soon.

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