Author Interview, Sarah Goldman

Goldman Caroline Chiholm
Illustrations from Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force by Sarah Goldman (my review) is the recently released biography of one of the most interesting and influential women in Australia’s early history. My review copy arrived with a letter suggesting Sarah would be happy to be interviewed, so I sent her some questions to which she has been kind enough to give extensive answers. I didn’t let on, but this is my first interview.

Q. Personal Stuff: It bemuses me that publishers ‘always’ put in an author bio, “so and so lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog”. The things that affect how I read a work are the author’s gender, age and education.

A. none [that’s what I get for being impertinent!]


Q. Writing: This is your first book. I like the writing, it is both fluent and informative. Did you arrive at this point by writing in the course of your work, keeping a journal, writing for publication short stories/essays, or maybe just by writing/re-writing Caroline Chisholm? During the course of writing Caroline Chisholm did you publish any extracts?

A. I’ve written all my life, firstly as a newspaper journalist and then later as a television producer mostly in news. They say of journalists that they know a little about a lot, but not much about anything. Writing this biography gave me an opportunity to concentrate on one, fascinating character and the people and places which became the background to her story. It did take me a time to develop my voice though. In most news writing, one avoids expressing opinions whilst striving to communicate relevant facts concisely and effectively. Writing about Caroline demanded a different style altogether. I soon found that expanding and colouring-in with the facts were both enjoyable and rewarding, particularly as I had such a rich subject and environment to explore. Through the process I was helped by being part of a writers’ group at the NSW Writers’ Centre. Disinterested opinions from other writers are very valuable. Once the rhythm to the writing was established though, I found it quite easy to continue. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable process and one I am eager to repeat.


Q. Motivation: Did you always want to be a writer? A biographer? What drew you to Caroline Chisholm in particular?(The more I read about her, the more I admire her).

A. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a journalist and I honestly enjoyed every moment of my career, whether it was in newspapers or television, in Sydney, Melbourne or London. I vaguely thought that one day I would write a book, but it wasn’t until I started delving into Caroline’s life that I became absolutely determined to write about her. It all started years ago when I mentioned her to my (then) young sons, who knew nothing about her. I began to investigate Caroline so that I could tell them about her and I became hooked. I was busy at the time and put the idea of writing a biography away until a few years ago when I decided to give it a go. I was interested in not just telling what she did and how she did it, but who she was, in effect the flesh and blood woman behind the story. Similarly, I also thought it important to explore the physical and social environment in which Caroline lived because they too are vital aspects of her life. I thought it important to look at her 19th Century world and try to understand it from a 21st Century viewpoint.


Q. Process: Had you already started when Carole Walker published, did this give you pause? By your notes you rely on the McKenzie Memoirs, is there much other source material for the early part of her life (I infer there is no birth record naming the mother)? I imagine Chisholm becomes increasingly visible in Trove over time. Was your manuscript or parts thereof workshopped?

Q. I came across Carole Walker’s excellent PhD thesis and then book sometime after I had started my work on Caroline. It did not really give me pause because I soon realised that we were approaching the same subject from two different viewpoints. Another major difference was that Carole Walker’s best research and interest was focused on Caroline’s life and work in the UK. As you have obviously seen from my end notes and bibliography, I have certainly referenced some of her admirable research, but I have also been able to follow other leads. One valuable resource was Edith Pearson’s essay on Caroline which was written after Pearson interviewed Caroline’s daughter, also named Caroline. Elsewhere I found other resources for example the notice of Caroline and Archibald’s wedding in the Northampton Mercury and William Whellan & Co., History, Gazetteer and Directory of Northamptonshire which gave me valuable information about Caroline and Archibald’s neighbours in Northampton in 1831 and the whereabouts of various of her relations at that time and afterwards. Elsewhere I was fortunate to happen upon the log of Archdale Low Whitby, who sailed to Australia in the Slains Castle, Caroline’s first Family Colonization Loan Society boat. The log gives fascinating information of what it was really like to make that journey in the mid-19th Century and, I have the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies to thank for using that wonderful material. Without doubt, both the British Newspaper Archives and more particularly our own Trove from the National Library of Australia were invaluable and truly engrossing sources, both to follow Caroline’s career and that of her various family members.


Q. I think you are careful to say when you are ‘imagining’, which is not always the case. What do you think about the fictionalizing of real lives? What influence have other biographers had on your work? Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa for instance which is really an extended discussion on constructing a life from insufficient facts.

A. I think that the art of biography is to bring a real person alive as a character so that they are interesting not only on an intellectual level, but an emotional level also. If the reader is engaged with the subject then the enjoyment of the book is so much richer. There are various techniques. I have chosen to use short fiction pieces at the start of most chapters, each easily identified by a change in font. As I explained in the introduction, in each case, the fiction relates to events that follow in the body of the chapter. They were also created using actual facts and evidence, be it direct writings by Caroline or other people such as Charles Dickens or a diarist of the time.


Q. Last of all, do you have a new ‘life’ in mind, underway even?

A. Yes, I do have another project in mind, but it is still percolating through my brain at the moment, so I will remain a little coy about it for the time being.


Thank you Sarah!


Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

I also referred to:

Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).


18 thoughts on “Author Interview, Sarah Goldman

  1. Ha ha, yes, question 1 = lesson 1, authors are (wisely) never ever going to admit to any reservations about the publicity machine.
    But it makes me think: what do I want to know? I’m not interested in their family lives either or where they live/d unless it’s relevant to the book, as in deep in the jungle or way out in the Tanami desert. Michelle de Kretser moving to Sydney is relevant to her latest book and Peter Carey living in the US is relevant to his work as well, and #BeingTopical Kasuo Ishiguro feeling disconnected from Japan when he moved to Britain aged five…. but for most authors this information has nothing to do with anything. #RandomThought Do they just put in this homely stuff for women or do they do it for everyone if they can’t think of enough else to say about the author?
    However, I don’t care much about gender age, or education, and I actually don’t want to know if they’ve been to creative writing school or done a PhD on the topic of the book because I want to read the book on its own terms. If I can tell, and I sometimes can, then that’s a black mark against the book because a book should not be recognisable as a recycled PhD or in the style of the University of SuchandSuch.


    • On reflection, I don’t think the author’s details are relevant to a ‘factual’ work, such as a biography, at all, though I guess there are cases where it’s good to know whether or not the author was an ‘insider’. I’ve got in the habit of thinking about the author’s education because it was an issue for earlier writers.

      For fiction writers I like to know as much as I can about the author because it informs how I read the work. I don’t see what I can get from a white author who is imagining being black, or a male author imagining being female (or vice versa) or a city person writing about the bush. And I’m sure you have been exasperated by a 20 something writing about experiencing the 1960s – they have no idea!


    • I wonder if the author didn’t write anything for #1 because there wasn’t a question attached to it. She may not have realized Bill made an observation and wanted her to comment on it. Every time I read the location/spouse/kid/pet thing though, I care less about the author. I mean, what are they trying to do? It looks like their flaunting that they have a happy family or are lonely because they have so many cats, etc. I also think the thing about family suggests that the author can’t be recognized and appreciated an author with writing merit–they must also be a unit in a family, which I don’t like. To me, that’s what the dedication page is for. You love your family? Thank them for their patience while you holed up in a room with a computer and served mac and cheese (again). I like knowing where an author was born and has lived, though, because I believe location shapes what we write about and why. That, to me, is telling information. KNowing that Ishiguro was born in Japan and moved to England at five informs me of his life and how it’s likely drastically different from his parents, and all that will likely inform his writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed your FIRST interview Bill, well done. I’m a bit like Lisa I think. I don’t really have a strong need to know author’s gender, age, education unless it does impinge upon issues like a non-indigenous author writing in an indigenous author’s voice. Just because I don’t have a strong NEED to know, though, doesn’t mean I’m not interested so I’m always interested in the author’s bio.

    However, I don’t think I have any pre-conceived notions about how such info might affect my reading. I’m not too fussed about young authors, for example, getting period facts right, but you know that already, though sometimes something will jar. (I’m not completely oblivious, but even when it does it will often not bother me unduly.) I’m more interested in the characterisation and what the book is about, why the author is writing it – the big picture, I suppose – to worry about whether they’ve got specific details right.


    • Thanks Sue, I enjoyed doing it and one day I’ll pluck up the courage to interview a Perth writer – Kim Scott? – over coffee. I’m sure Ms Goldman’s age had no bearing on her writing and maybe not even her gender, though there is a certain fierceness in her advocacy of Chisholm’s importance in Australia’s early history. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with her. But why do we have to know she has a partner, sons, pets? So many author bios take this form and it seems to me entirely unnecessary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, we don’t need to know all that. (Though I’m always intrigued if I’m told. It’s natural to be curious about people’s lives, isn’t it? That’s why we love reading!)


      • I’m a misanthrope, and I’d probably rather not know. So why do I read? Partly for the writing, partly to immerse myself in other worlds (and yes, other lives), and partly to increase my knowledge of Australia in particular and the world in general. That’s today’s answer, anyway.


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