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The Low Road

Author Katharine Quarmby brings Australia's past to vivid life

The Low Road

Today I’m happy to welcome Australian writer Katharine Quarmby as she celebrates the launch of her captivating new novel, The Low Road. I’ve always been fascinated by Australia and have yet to visit, so it was a pleasure to learn about the history behind the story in our conversation below. Enjoy!

In 1828, two young women were torn apart as they were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. Will they ever meet again?

Norfolk, 1813. In the quiet Waveney Valley, the body of a woman–Mary Tyrell–is staked through the heart after her death by suicide. She had been under arrest for the suspected murder of her newborn child. Mary leaves behind a young daughter, Hannah, who is later sent away to the Refuge for the Destitute in London, where she will be trained for a life of domestic service. 

It is at the Refuge that Hannah meets Annie Simpkins, a fellow resident, and together they forge a friendship that deepens into passionate love. But the strength of this bond is put to the test when the girls are caught stealing from the Refuge’s laundry, and they are sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, setting them on separate paths that may never cross again.

Drawing on real events, The Low Road is a gripping, atmospheric tale that brings to life the forgotten voices of the past–convicts, servants, the rural poor–as well as a moving evocation of love that blossomed in the face of prejudice and ill fortune.

Author Interview

AM: What’s the tagline or ‘elevator pitch’ for your book?

KQ: The Low Road tells the story of two women convicts, Hannah and Annie, separated when they are transported to Australia in the 1820s. It is a story about crime, loss, poverty – and the strength of ordinary women fighting to love against all odds.

AM: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

KQ: The search for the story that became The Low Road started in around 2016, when I stumbled on a description of one local area in my Norfolk, England, hometown, describing a local walk. There was a snippet that mentioned a boggy area at the end of the town called Lush Bush, where a local woman, Mary Tyrell, had been buried on the parish boundary in 1813. She had taken poison and died after being investigated for infanticide. She was staked through the heart after death in an archaic punishment called felo de se. A daughter, then only described by her initials, A.T., had survived and had been sent to a refuge in London.

AM: What inspired you to write about that particular era or character?

KQ: I felt a kind of identification with the story of this poor orphan – who had seen her mother die in such a sad and terrible way. I wanted to find out what had happened to her and tell her story as best as I could.

AM: How did you create a realistic setting for your story?

KQ: I researched extensively in archives; I looked at paintings in galleries to get period details right, as the Georgian era is pre photography; I read some PhDs which were relevant; and I also visited places and walked in the footsteps of my characters, from Norfolk, to Australia.

AM: What surprised you in the course of your research?

KQ: I was surprised to find reliable accounts of relationships between older girls in the Refuge for the Destitute and to find the same pattern in the female work factories in Australia, corroborated by academics as well, which meant that I could weave relationships into the book, knowing they were based on fact.

AM: Do your research findings guide the plot, or do you plan out the plot first and flesh it out with research? (Or perhaps both?)

KQ: It was a bit of both for me, in that it started with the few facts I had about the life of the main character, and then I delved deeper. When I decided to novelise it I then did plot and plan much more deeply, and then put some more flesh on the bones.

AM: What are three historical facts or events that helped bring your main character to life.

KQ: The very sad death of the main character’s mother, in Harleston, Norfolk, reported in the Norfolk Chronicle, the regional newspaper of the time in 1813.

The stealing of huge amounts of laundry from the London based Refuge for the Destitute by the main character and her friend Annie, for which they stood trial at the Old Bailey in January 1822.

The accounts of the time from the Superintendent of the Refuge for the Destitute, who wrote to a lawyer in my hometown of Harleston to let him know that the main character had been transported to Botany Bay.

AM: As historical novelists, we are often left wondering about tantalizing mysteries that can’t quite be solved with our research. If you could invite your main character(s) to dinner, what questions would you ask them, and what lingering mysteries would you hope to solve?

KQ: I would like to ask my main character, Hannah, who she thinks was implicated in violence against her mother, which really led later to her early death; and Hannah was eventually transported to Botany Bay and what name she had on the shipping lists. But most of all I’d like to know, was she eventually happy, in Australia?

AM: Do you have any tips for other writers about keeping track of your historical fiction research?

KQ: As a working journalist I tend to keep all my documents in shared folders so I can always access them, whether I’m at my desk, on my phone, or on a laptop. I have huge folders of material I can then draw on as well and I also use notebooks when I’m out and about. I sometimes use voice memos to record passing thoughts and I take a lot of photos which I then stick on pinboards when I’m writing.

AM: Do you prefer to write in silence or with background music? If music, what kind and why?

KQ: I write in silence – I get so distracted otherwise. My cat, Billy, sometimes lies on the bed in the room I write in and snoozes gently, which I like. And I look out over gardens in inner city London and watch the blue tits in the plum tree in the allotment nearby.

AM: What do you have planned for your next writing project?

KQ: I have an arts council grant to develop a three part crime series, partly based on the journalism I’ve done in the past, but in terms of historical fiction I’d like to go back to the era of the Swing Rioters, in rural Norfolk, and give them their due.

AM: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

KQ: I swim, I walk, and I really like talking about writing with friends who are also writers. I also love reading. There’s few things better in life than tea and a great book (and a bit of milk chocolate).

Where to Buy the Book

Universal Buy Link: https://books2read.com/u/mg5RAD

Bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/the-low-road-katharine-quarmby/7418138?ean=9781800182394

About the Author

Katharine Quarmby has written non-fiction, short stories and books for children and her debut novel, The Low Road, is published by Unbound in 2023. Her non-fiction works include Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People (Portobello Books, 2011) and No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013). She has also written picture books and shorter e-books.

She is an investigative journalist and editor, with particular interests in disability, the environment, race and ethnicity, and the care system. Her reporting has appeared in outlets including the Guardian, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Times of London, the Telegraph, New Statesman and The Spectator. Katharine lives in London.

Katharine also works as an editor for investigative journalism outlets, including Investigative Reporting Denmark and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Connect with Katharine

Website: https://www.katharinequarmby.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KatharineQ

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katharinequarmbywriter/

LinkedIn: Katharine Quarmby – Writer, Journalist, Editor – Self-employed | LinkedIn

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/katharinequarmby_/

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/stores/Katharine-Quarmby/author/B004GH8LS6

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2082356.Katharine_Quarmby

2 Comments

  1. Cathie Dunn says:

    Thank you for hosting Katharine Quarmby with such a fabulous interview today.

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      It was a pleasure!

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