When I sat down to write my second novel, The Orange Grove, it was the culmination of my love and preoccupation with everything French. I had studied the language for years and visited France numerous times. Yet what really drew me to write a story about intrigues and power games within an 18th century French château, was a desire to examine human flaws and the ambiguity of morality itself.
This posed a challenge. In my previous book, I hadn’t delved this deeply into character motivation. Now I wanted to create characters who performed bad and even heinous acts, yet could still retain readers’ empathy. For that, I decided they needed sufficient backstory to make their actions if not justified, then at least understandable. I thought it was also necessary to frame their motivations within the wider context of the period, where social status was so crucial to survival that to attain or keep it, people often behaved in desperate ways.
In addition to this already intimidating task, I wanted to include overarching themes, deeper meanings which would act like the bones of the novel, holding it upright and giving it weight. I had only an inkling of what these themes would be when I started, so writing the story was like feeling my way ahead in a fog. It was only when the characters showed me who they were and what they wanted, that as well as deepening the main topic of moral ambiguity, I discovered other, related, themes that were integral to my story. The burden of holding onto secrets, the effects of loss, and how unrequited love can push people to act in destructive ways.
The main thing I wanted to show in this novel was that nothing occurs in a vacuum. Often our initial response to poor behaviour is bewilderment. How could someone act in such a way? But my sense is that such behaviour is never random; there are always causes and conditions from the present moment along with the past. In particular, people experiencing suffering are more likely to cause it. As I wrote this book, I thought about all the people I’d known who had acted in bad ways. They were rarely ‘bad’, though, and, more often than not, had good intentions. And I thought of the times I’d erred myself. As a teenager, for example, I’d abandoned a whole friendship group at school for a ‘cool’ group. I’d regularly sneak out of the house, deceiving my parents in a multitude of ways. In hindsight, none of this was unusual. The personalities of teens are unformed—they push boundaries to find out who they are. I realised that once people are adults, such a quest doesn’t necessarily end, it just manifests with more subtlety.
I then decided to imagine morality as a curved spectrum containing many points that did not fit neatly into ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ My parents had taught me to judge, to categorise people like a child’s shape sorter toy. But as I got older, I realised how unreliable this strategy is. Over time, I noticed it was often vulnerability that caused flawed behaviour in people I knew. For instance, I had a troubled friend who alternated between berating me and enveloping me with affection. Then, more crucially, there was my biological mother who, alone and unwed, had left me in a humidicrib at a Melbourne hospital. She had been young and kept her pregnancy a secret from her immigrant Catholic family. At that time, unwed mothers were stigmatised. Women in this situation were often viewed as morally deficient. Forgiving her helped me to be more merciful towards myself. Then once I stopped holding myself up to impossible standards, it became easier to do the same for others.
My writing has always been instinctive. It may sound like I was methodical as I developed my novel’s themes, but in reality I couldn’t plan a road through this layered project. As I wrote The Orange Grove, I had to trust that somehow it would all coalesce into a satisfying whole. To centre myself, in the two years it took to write this book, I often fell back on my research, reading primary source material such as diaries and letters. The thoughts of people who lived in the world I was recreating gave me insight into their values and priorities, and helped create my characters’ voices. When I weaved this material with my own experience of interpersonal ambiguity, I felt my writing began to resonate with emotional truth.
Writing for me, then, is a mixture of information gathering and submission to a higher source. It’s also a deeply personal art form, even though I am a historical novelist, because my own emotional experiences are embedded in my stories, processed and given meaning, reshaped into narrative. In writing The Orange Grove, I wasn’t just looking outward in my examination of motive and ambiguity, but reaching inside, drawing out my own reactions and dissecting them. I had gathered insight over decades, not knowing it would be expressed in fiction. In this novel, I was able to hold these observations to the light and create characters who are deeply flawed, but not evil.
Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter both in Australia and internationally before turning her hand to writing. Her short-form fiction has been published in various literary journals in Australia, UK, US and Canada. Her debut novel, Stone Circle (Fireship Press, 2017) was a First in Category winner in the Chaucer Awards 2018 for pre-1750’s historical fiction. Kate was awarded a Fellowship at the KSP Writers’ Centre in 2019 to develop her third novel, The Glasshouse. Her novel The Orange Grove was published by Regal House Publishing in 2019.