A childhood filled with love and travel followed by happy reunions with her biological parents have given Kate Murdoch a well-rounded perspective of who she is. “I feel there are almost two parts to me — the part that grew up with my adopted family and the part that has all this other knowledge because I have met my birth parents,” says the Australian painter turned author whose first book, Stone Circle (Fireship Press), hit the shelves in December.
“As an adopted person, you have to invent yourself in a lot of ways. You have to work it out — who am I? For me, that has been a life-long journey. Meeting my birth parents helped me a lot. Writing has helped, too, in terms of understanding who I am. I’m finally doing something that feels really right and feels like what I’m meant to be doing.
“With writing, I can express myself more precisely. With painting, [the message] is opaque. It’s there but hidden and people may have to guess at it, whereas by reading one of my novels, they will have a pretty good understanding of who I am and what’s important to me. In Stone Circle, it’s all about love — familial, romantic — and friendship and family.”
The historical fantasy set in Renaissance Italy tells how ageing seer Savinus di Benevento takes on poor Antonius Sardi and Nichola, the spoilt son of Conte Leonardo Valperga, as apprentices, in the hope that one of them can take his place in the city of Pesaro. Nichola’s psychic powers are no match for Antonius’. So when the latter starts gaining favour with Savinus’ daughter Giulia, his jealousy and disdain for the fisherman’s son take a deadly turn.
Woven among the human exploits are spirit protectors, hermetic alchemy, magic, class distinction, the power of the Catholic church and the role of women in a patriarchal society.
Murdoch, 44, says in a telephone interview from Melbourne that she spent years wanting to write but feeling like she did not have the life experience to pen anything she would be proud of. “Now I have something to say.”
Personal experience comes into play, enriching her, inspiring her fiction and adding to her repertoire of subjects. Difficult relationships; a year spent modelling and English tutoring in Hong Kong; working as a graphic designer in highly competitive environments; and exhibiting in group and solo shows at home and abroad, which exposed her to different types of people, all impact her writing.
It took time to get a grip on writing and make it work, she admits. Four years ago, she wrote a supernatural thriller that was not published. She is currently working on the edits of The Orange Grove (Regal House Publishing), due out in 2019, a tale about morality and the ambiguity within. The story unravels in the French town of Blois in the 18th century and is wrapped around an aristocrat who has different carriages leaving his chateau nightly, each carrying a mistress.
History, fantasy and anything French have always fascinated Murdoch, who speaks the language. “I don’t think I will write anything contemporary. I love the research, gathering all the material, whether it’s [reading] reference books, watching movies or internet browsing. It’s almost like a coffee percolator — it all goes in and it all comes out.”
Historical fiction takes readers to a time when things were slower and less demanding, offering the kind of escapism people seek in today’s fast-paced world, she says. Besides, setting a book in Europe opens it to a wider audience. “If the right topic came up, I might write about Australia, although it has less years in its history.”
As for what leads to a book, she says it could start with one piece of a jigsaw and then putting the other pieces together. Stone Circle resulted from a dream she had of an old man and two young men in a canoe on a very calm stretch of water. “I only knew two things: It was a long time ago and he was imparting knowledge to the boys.”
She had no inkling there was a book in the dream, but felt it was a story that had to be written. Subsequently, when she read about alchemy and the Renaissance period, it dawned on her that that would be her story. “It was almost a tingly feeling,” she remembers.
The Orange Grove is inspired by something she saw about the nobility. The idea of the tensions and conflicts between the mistresses of an aristocrat and the incredible amount of trouble that could cause was fodder for the novel.
This mother of two is working on a third book set in Sicily during the1908 earthquake that killed over 100,000 people. The protagonist is a quake orphan adopted by a family in Palermo and Murdoch is still working out the main themes, which can sometimes surface long after she starts a story.
Displacement and identity, which reflect her origins, find their way into her writing. Reuniting with her birth family and finding a common bond — dad is a musician and her half-sister, a visual artist — has helped her understand her creativity and better manage it. Recognising that they share certain habits, mannerisms and eccentricities, which she puts down to genetics, has also been amazing.
There were no bitter feelings. Dad, who had no idea Murdoch existed until she wrote him an email when she was 31 and pregnant with her first child, was only 19 when she was conceived. Mum was 21 then and, coming from a Catholic immigrant family, “did what she felt she had to do”. They met up when Murdoch was 18.
Life circumstances pique her fascination with why people are the way they are and the motives behind their actions. “Finding my biological family has given me more compassion, understanding and empathy for others,” she says. The full support of her adopted parents, who are secure in their relationship with her, adds to her happy adoption story.
Murdoch, who has a keen interest in alchemy, the unseen and the unknown, admits she is a bit psychic. “I practise reiki healing. When I do a healing on someone, I get images of that person and his life. I’ve done lots of research on Eastern philosophy and religion. To be a bit more aware in that way adds more richness to life.”
Having one book out and another on the way is “a good shock”, she says. But it also means having to go out to meet readers and promote her book.
“Most writers I know need that quiet time to be almost in a bubble, to live in their imagination and talk to imaginary characters. To go from that very quiet space to the result of putting the work out and having to do the complete opposite — talk to people and be very extroverted — is challenging, Murdoch says.
“The whole culture of writing has changed. Now it’s all about author brand and being more active on social media and being engaged with everyone. It adds an extra amount of pressure to the whole process. I guess I have to keep going to Toastmasters and hope for the best,” she says, referring to the public-speaking practices that help her feel comfortable before an audience.
When not working on her own books, Murdoch enjoys reading good fiction because that helps with her writing, keeping fit to keep her energy levels up, and travelling to imbibe the atmosphere of a place. This abstract artist who put down paint and brush in 2004 after the birth of her daughter says she may pick them up again because she still enjoys painting.
As for what she aspires to achieve most as a writer, she says: “I want to look at aspects of the human condition that interest me and hope that readers might connect and resonate with my words, the issues and characters. It’s not about ego, me or wanting myself to be seen, or the money. That has always been my primary reason for writing. I want to make that connection with readers and I think I have succeeded. ”
Stone Circle is available for purchase via Murdoch's website. This article first appeared in the The Edge Malaysia on Jan 15, 2018.