There has been some disagreement in classifying the genre to which The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer belongs. My guess would be that this first novel of Edwina Preston is an imaginative work of literary fiction…but you mustn’t take my word for it!
‘I deliberately didn’t tie my narrative to a specific place and time so I would have creative freedom and wouldn’t be hemmed in by historical accuracy,’ the author explains.
‘Certainly the process from initial writing through to the finished novel has been picaresque: long and meandering, with many unexpected fits and starts along the way, and more than a few bumps.’
Indeed, there were many rewrites and it took almost eight years to get The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer published. Preston first had an agent who was excited, but then retired. Preston found another agent for two years who encouraged the budding author with her rewrites only to dump the book.
‘By 2006, the novel was ready to publish, but there were so many spanners in the works. I felt if I can’t get this bloody book published I can’t go on to anything new. It helps my confidence that this book has finally been published.’
Eventually she found a publisher through her friend John Hunter, who runs the small independent publishing house Hunter Publishing in Melbourne.
‘I’d done editorial consulting work for him. After I’d gone through the literary agents stage he read the manuscript and liked it. He got a job at the University of Queensland Press for a year and got the book through for acquisition at the end of 2011. The publisher there, Madonna Duffy, took over after he came back to Melbourne.’
For Preston, the inspiration behind writing The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer came from reading Victorian literature—Dickens, Thackeray and Fielding. She has a strong interest in capturing anachronistic devices such as the omniscient narrator, a colourful cast of characters, and long, digressive sentences.
Although she was careful not to ‘place’ the novel (so that she would not have to be bound to facts), research did play a part in the writing process. To find the right voice for the novel, Preston steeped herself in dingy, smelly London by reading The Dictionary of Vulgar Terms, first published in the 18th century, and a 1935 Pears’ Cyclopedia.
The characters in the novel are individually intriguing and realistically mixed and the lack of identifiable time, place or cultural setting is disorientating. No sooner has the murder-mystery setting been established than almost the entire cast of characters is removed from its home town and the task of solving a murder is relegated to secondary importance after livelihood and material necessities.
In this way the reader is positioned as another confused onlooker of the drama as the threads of the plot interweave and fray.
The narrator as intermediary, who actively commentates the story, is a convention appearing in early English novels and which Preston picks up in her debut novel. She reflects that this style of narration is both antiquarian and post-modern in its reflexivity.
The narrator literally becomes a fly on the wall:
Let us escape the mayhem, acquire wings and a small buzzing noise and fly to the top corner of this stern, oak-panelled room. […] One cannot tell, from this distance, the expressions on their faces.
As Preston observes, this narrative style is ‘both old and new, and a bit intrusive.’ A godlike narrator hints at the future, judges and excuses the characters, and invites us to ‘walk there alongside’ the narrator and those characters:
Whereas some of our company […] have found it entirely reasonable to abandon their fellow townspeople, you and I, dear reader, are not so heartless. We observe certain loyalties. We have certain narrative commitments.
The process of writing her first novel contrasts starkly with the development of Preston’s first book, Not Just a Suburban Boy (Duffy and Snellgrove), a biography of the artist Howard Arkley.
‘The Arkley book showed me I could finish something. I used to start things and not finish them. The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer was a work of enjoyment. It had convoluted subplots to make sense of. Next time I’d try to plan more…but writing a plan takes the fun out of not knowing what will happen.’
Instead of planning, Preston wrote from the beginning but constantly recorded plot worries in a notebook, along with good opening lines and snippets to inspire her and help her start chapters.
‘The Arkley biography was more workmanlike. It was commissioned by a publisher and was 70,000 words.’ The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer peaked at 126,000 words, which Preston cut back in chunks of up to 20,000 words.
‘One revision I did—the last draft before my agent dumped me—I briefed myself to cut 10 per cent from each chapter. I asked myself all the time was this bit really necessary? Can I live without this?
‘I went through periods of putting it down for a while. The editor helped me make it better and fix it. She gave me purposeful editorial feedback; I could tackle it because it was specific.
‘I pulled out one big section that I liked and that I was fond of but once you cut it you don’t care anymore. And I rewrote a court scene at the end, trusting the editor though I didn’t understand why. By the time it was finally going to print, I knew I didn’t want to read it for a while.’
Like an Aussie battler (and like the strongest characters in her novel), Preston has learned from Ivorie Hammer’s journey the power of perseverance. For Preston, who has two children and is the breadwinner of the family, being a full-time writer is not an option.
‘I was lucky because I obtained two grants to write this novel: one of $15,000 from the Australia Council and one of $10,000 from Arts Victoria, enabling me to dedicate two days a week to writing. The substantial first draft I wrote in 2004 came from this.’
The grants process is competitive. Preston submitted a sample chapter and a market analysis.
‘These days authors have to be marketers as well and it really pisses me off. I feel I have to do these things (promotion) that make me feel uncomfortable.’
Preston is currently studying a masters in creative writing at the University of Melbourne and her primary source of income is teaching at the North Melbourne Institute of Technology. She has taught just about everything in the TAFE media writing syllabus except for screen writing. She teaches non-fiction in the higher education program and oversees the publication of NMIT’s bi-annual anthology, Infusion.
‘I like the teaching and it kind of often revitalises me. Teaching is humbling. My students come with a level of competence, having already completed degrees. Most people have a natural ability to write but I know some students who don’t get it and some actually end up getting it. Most have something unique or distinctive.
‘Teaching does get in the way time-wise, though. Assessment takes up time.’
Creative writing subjects often involve four-hour sessions: analysing excerpts followed by reading and discussion, some time on experimental exercises and then workshopping.
‘When workshopping, I say to students you just know what feedback you’re going to take on and what you aren’t. You can’t possibly rewrite to make 12 people like it. Usually the feedback that makes you cross is the feedback that you have to take on.’
Her tip for developing as a writer is to read a lot. ‘How can you develop if you aren’t a reader? Copy people’s styles to work out how they get their effects, to get a style of your own, to perfect your techniques.’
As a writer Preston has also learned to be aware of mannerisms. ‘I felt I was using the same words. For me it’s “indeed”, I don’t know how many there are in there.’
Her workspace is located in her very large bedroom, part of which has also been reconfigured to function as her husband’s recording studio. Venetian blinds prevent her from getting distracted by the bustle outside on High Street. For Preston, the only essential thing about her workspace is that it doesn’t have the feeling that she hasn’t been in it for a while. ‘It has to have the feeling that it’s recently been given some attention,’ she says.
Preston believes that character names always say something about the character. ‘Once I came upon a name, the character metamorphosed to fit. Some characters’ names changed a couple of times. I wasn’t sure about Borrel Sweetley and Bald Sherry because they have the same initials.’ (Preston thought people might confuse the two characters—which I did for a couple of chapters, until the events in their lives quickly distinguished them.)
The mish-mash of character names in Preston’s novel again gives no hint of a true location (Racine Pfeffersalz is friends with Ivorie Hammer, Morag Pappy and Arcadia Cirque, and for most of the story the maid is known only as Nelly).
Preston says feedback from individual readers has been fantastic. ‘That’s what makes it worthwhile: connecting with the reader. It’s really exposing, especially when it doesn’t fit a genre perfectly. I was thinking, “Will it find its way, will it make sense?” It’s black magic whether something will sell.’
The novel has been billed as a crime thriller on Amazon, which it isn’t. Preston’s ex-agent judged it a really difficult, dense literary book and thought it would be hard to position in the market. As a writer, Preston is seeking to carve out ground, to find a readership.
What is next for Edwina Preston? She falters at this question.
‘I’m not interested in writing about real life because I live that. I wanted to live in my imagination. I didn’t want my first novel to be the slightest bit autobiographical and I achieved that. I mean, there is a bit of me in Ivorie Hammer but she isn’t me although I can relate to her. Sometimes you can use a character to examine your own flaws at a safe distance.
‘Am I the right person to write a contemporary novel?’ she wonders. ‘I am not sure what to do next. I have notes and writing for two projects.’
So it seems that The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer has not committed itself to any particular genre, and neither has its author.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Edwina Preston’ in The Australian Writer issue 379 (March–May 2013).