Sarah Goldman has spent most of her life as a journalist. Initially working for newspapers in Sydney and London, she later transferred to television with the BBC. Back in Australia, Sarah continued as a producer for both commercial and ABC television news in Sydney and Melbourne. Much of Sarah’s journalistic work has involved international news.
Whilst still passionate about news, current affairs and history, Sarah has a wide range of interests from opera to cricket, and science to dog walking. She is as fascinated by the VIVID Sydney light festival as she is delving into the shelves of a local bookshop.
Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force is Sarah’s first book. She and her partner, Steven, have two sons and a dog. They live in Sydney.
Our Membership Intern, Mia Do, talked to Sarah about her journey from journalism to having her first book published, biography writing, and the hardships and joy that comes along the way.
Caroline Chisholm, An Irresistible Force was released in bookshops this September. Congratulations! How did you celebrate?
Champagne with my family. Our younger son is in France, so we had a long Skype call too.
Needless to say, writing a biography takes a huge amount of time and effort. The first question we ask all biographers is: what drew you to this person in particular?
My interest in Caroline started by chance, when my sons were quite young, I mentioned her to them, just in a throwaway line, but neither had heard of her. Being “that sort of mother” I went off to investigate so that I could tell them about her in detail (I actually didn’t know much about her back then, just left-over bits and pieces I’d learnt at school). The more I investigated, the more I was hooked. It wasn’t until about six years ago though that I had the time to really explore her and decided to write about her. I think what impressed me was that she appeared so conservative, but was actually very radical. Also, she was able to help thousands of immigrants in colonial Australia when no one else could or even cared to try. Another thing that fascinated me was that back in the early/mid 19th century women were meant to stay at home and look after children, but she refused to be hidden by banal domesticity – instead, with incredible efficiency, she undertook various projects which the powerful men of the day ended up supporting. She broke out from what they had considered the subservient role of women in society. In the end those men were forced to accept her at her own valuation rather than theirs.
What’s the one thing you wish everyone knew about Caroline?
That Caroline was not a frumpy, fat do-gooder, but was, in fact, a stylish young woman of immense talent, who cared passionately about helping less fortunate people, and who, through her work and her surprisingly modern attitudes, is still very relevant to today’s society. She was very much a protofeminist, believing that all religions should be treated equally and supported a multicultural society way before the word was even invented. She really did believe in the quintessential Australian dictum of “a fair go for all”. I guess that is a bit more than one thing – but they are all so intertwined with who she was and why she is still so germane to Australia today.
You’ve done something unusual with this biography by combining fictional scenes with biographical writing. Could you tell us more about this approach?
One of my aims with this biography was to present Caroline as not just a figure from a bygone age but as a flesh and blood woman, someone that the reader could identify with and who was still relevant 150 years later. The fictional scenes at the start of most chapters are easily identified by a change in font. They also relate directly to the subjects and incidents that are covered in the following pages. Some arise from my imagining of what it would have been like to be Caroline in certain circumstances such as having a baby, arriving in India or travelling in the Australian bush. For these pieces, I drew heavily on eyewitness records of the time and importantly, diaries written by other women of the era. On other occasions I fictionalised actual events, for example an interaction with a Scottish immigrant in Sydney named Flora includes considerable dialogue and descriptions from Caroline’s own pen, whilst the piece about Charles Dickens revolves around what he later wrote about Caroline, her contributions to his magazine, as well as actual accounts of her during the early 1850s in her home in London.
Do you have a certain ritual that you follow when writing and/or researching a character?
My day always starts, no matter the weather, with at least an hour long walk with my dog. It’s a great way to muse over what is swirling around inside my head. Sometimes I pull out my phone to record a memo about facts that I want to check or a situation or issue that I need to investigate or a new way of looking at something. It’s very valuable time and helps me plan out my day and what I want to accomplish in the hours ahead.
You’ve spent most of your life working as a journalist in Sydney and London. How did this experience influence your biographical writing?
I think the most important influence from working as a journalist is attention to facts and details and a sort of dog-with-a-bone insistence on trying to track down errant and missing information. Also, I must admit to a delight in reading so many old newspapers. They have a wealth of information. Both our own Trove from the National Library of Australia and the British Newspaper Archive sites are incredibly rich resources that we are very lucky to be able to access.
You mentioned that a meeting with Catherine Milne at our Open House with HarperCollins event led to the publication of your book. Can you share a bit more about that experience?
The NSWWC has been a fantastic resource for me in writing this book and having it published. Firstly, I must commend writers’ groups. I’ve belonged to one at the Centre for the past six years and the support, critiquing and friendship from the group has really helped me. I would, without hesitation, suggest joining a writing group to any and every would-be writer.
Regarding the Open House – there is absolutely no guarantee there would be this interview without it. For the Open House, one must submit a profile, a one-page synopsis and the first 20 pages of a manuscript and then you are matched up with someone from HC. I was very fortunate to be put with Catherine Milne, who has an extraordinary ability to see viable alternatives. I had initially written a novel of some 83 thousand words based on my research about Caroline. Catherine said that she liked the way I wrote, but that she was not interested in a novel so much as a fresh biography of Caroline. Catherine suggested that I rethink the whole project and then write two or three chapters as a biography and send them to her. It took a while but I did – and the rest, as the cliché goes, “is history.” I also honestly believe that the end result, the biography, is a far better book than the one I presented initially. So that is definitely a case of where the expert did know best.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have two books on the go at the moment – The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith and Balcony Over Jerusalem by John Lyons.
In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring…
Writer/Poet? Writers: modern – Anthony Doerr, past – Jean Paul Satre. Poet – can I name three? T. S. Elliot, Emily Dickinson and of course, Judith Wright.
Weather? Smiling Bright
Time of day? Morning for dog walking or dusk for martinis
Music? I love Opera
Location? By the water.