Interview: Claire Saxby

Claire SaxbyTell us about your new book, My Name is Lizzie Flynn.
My Name is Lizzie Flynn is a story of a young convict girl en route to Hobart, Van Dieman’s Land in 1841 aboard a ship called the ‘Rajah’. It’s also an imagining of the creation of one of Australia’s most important textiles, the Rajah quilt. My Name is Lizzie Flynn tracks Lizzie’s journey from hopelessness to hope.

What did the research for My Name is Lizzie Flynn involve?
What didn’t it involve! I discovered the quilt almost accidentally, and was immediately intrigued. I found books and on line resources which showed the quilt and talked a little about it’s provenance. So, I followed the trail of the quilt first. (lost for 146 years before reappearing in Scotland). I visited the National Gallery in Canberra and viewed the quilt in the special collections room and was fortunate enough to meet one of its conservators. The quilt led me to discover the ship – a challenging task since there are no images of it. So I climbed aboard the replica Endeavour (too old except for the modern internals, but similar shape), another ship (too young but the right dimensions) to paintings of three-masted barques. I needed to imagine the space the women occupied. From the ship, I chased down information about the convict women, their crimes and their sentences (three separate data bases). The on-board matron, Kezia Hayter led me to the work of Elizabeth Fry in improving prison conditions for women both in England, aboard ship and in Australia. Incidentally, it led all the way to the suburb next door to where I live.9781922179913 Kezia married the Captain and came to live in Williamstown. One of the main streets is named for Cpt Ferguson. Then all of that sat on my shoulder as I wrote about the fictional Lizzie.

Your book deals with the harsh reality of convict transportation from England to Australia and the poor conditions the convicts had to endure on their journey. Why do you think it is important to introduce young readers to these issues?
The big crime for so many of these women was simply being poor. Some were transported for their first crime, others were well known to the courts. They had no possessions, were mostly illiterate and only a minority had employable skills. They had so few opportunities. And then they were bundled aboard a ship and sent to the other side of the world. Yet they not only survived, they thrived in Australia. They raised families, helped to build farms and businesses, to create society. And yet, they rate hardly a mention in our histories. I spoke to a librarian today who said that many of her students didn’t even know what a convict was.

Lizzy Newcomb has created stunning illustrations to accompany your words. Are her illustrations similar to what you pictured in your head when writing the book?
They are stunning aren’t they? I write from inside the head of my main character, in this case Lizzie. Unless it’s essential for plot, I don’t know what my character looks like. I did know what the ship looked like, and the quilt, but that’s about it. So it’s always a wonderful surprise to see what a publisher and an illustrator imagine. It’s like unwrapping an unexpected gift. And I am never disappointed.

What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. I hope they will have a better understanding of early days of British colonisation, of how that affected the country Australia has become. I hope they will love Lizzie and cheer her on to a bright future. I hope they will discover just what bright treasures history can offer. In reality, I have no control over what a reader will take from my words, I can only present the words to them in the best possible form. I hope they will come for the illustrations, stay for the story that words and illustrations together make, and go away with questions they want to find the answers to.

Click here for more information on My Name is Lizzie Flynn and check out the teacher notes here.