Interview with Rhonda Forrest

Rhonda Forrest (also Lea Davey) is the author of three novels that I absolutely love and is one of my favourite authors. Her novels include The Shack by the Bay, Silkworm Secrets and Two Heartbeats. Each of her novels is unique and has remained in my heart well after reading them. I love her writing, in particular her characterisation and way in which she explores significant issues within society. When Rhonda agreed to this interview, I was very excited to hear what has inspired her novels and learn more about her.

Hi Rhonda. Thank you for allowing me to interview you. I am very grateful, especially since I am such a fan! Can you please tell me a bit about yourself?

Rhonda Forrest: Thank you for interviewing me today, Melanie. I’m so pleased that you have enjoyed all three of my books. I’ve always loved books from a young age and that love of reading has now turned into an even stronger passion of writing. I grew up and have always lived in and around Brisbane, however two years ago my husband and I also purchased an old cottage overlooking a beautiful bay in the Whitsundays. It’s right next door to the shack where, The Shack by the Bay is set and a lovely quiet place to retreat to. This has allowed me to spend time working up north and I have thoroughly enjoyed relief teaching, working with students ranging from prep to Year 12.

Whereabouts do you live? Has your home inspired your writing? I loved The Shack by the Bay and would love to hear more about what inspired you to write this novel.

I live between the two places; the Whitsundays and Tamborine. Both are peaceful places that let me live life at a slower pace. The Shack by the Bay was my debut novel and the ideas came to me when I sat in a small boat for hours on end, fishing. I wanted to bring in the beauty and isolation of the Whitsundays as well as the variety of people who live there. I like to entwine Australian war history in my books so that readers find out about different aspects of that time and of course there needed to be a beautiful love story to bring some romance into the plot.

How long have you been teaching? Does your job as a teacher inspire your writing?

I have had a multitude of different jobs, ranging from working in the bank, toll collector on the motorway, timber wares business, bookkeeper and too many others to list. I studied full time later in life and have now been teaching high school students for about twelve years. For, ‘Two Heartbeats’ I drew on some experiences and stories that I came across when teaching students from a range of backgrounds. The novel that I hope to publish later this year is also inspired by teaching experiences I had a few years ago when teaching refugees. You’ll have to wait and see what that story is about. I will definitely keep you informed on that.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing or teaching?

My husband and I love to spend time with our three daughters, their partners and our baby granddaughter. I’m happiest when we’re all together, sharing a meal and a good laugh. My mum who is 90, lives nearby and I love catching up with her and also sometimes her older sister who is 94. They are both still avid readers, so there is always chatter about what books they have read and what books they like and don’t like. I also have other family nearby and many wonderful friends, so there is always something to do. I love gardening and or course reading when I have time. When I’m up north I love to be out in our tinnie, fishing. You see so much when you’re out on the water and we’ve had many special moments; watching pods of dolphins play or sitting quietly while huge manta rays glide under the boat. I also love watching the whales (at a distance) and the large green turtles that are common to the area. There is always something to see and do.

Have you always enjoyed writing?

I started writing about five years ago and just haven’t stopped since. Any spare moment I get, I write. I have always been an avid reader and writing is even more fun as you get make the story go the way you want it to.

You have written three amazing novels. Which one is your favourite and why? I actually can’t decide which one I like more, as I loved them all. I would be interested to hear if you have a favourite.

I always ask readers which one they like the most and I get a variety of responses. My favourite is ‘Silkworm Secrets’. I grew up in a loving, safe, family environment and I have interwoven many of my own wonderful childhood memories, such as the confrontations with the cow and watching the eclipse of the moon. Many of the events in the book are real, they have just been put into a fictional role. Although the plot touches on abusive families and situations, I also wanted to convey how there are so many good men and wonderful fathers out there.

I feel that although your novels have different plots, characters and issues raised, there is a common theme of living life in the moment and appreciating the little things in life. Do you feel that this is reflective of how you live your life?

I’m pleased that you picked up on that. I always say that the simple things in life are what make me the happiest. I try to live simply and to make do with what I have. This is also a good way to care for the environment, by only buying what you really need. I learnt a long time ago, not to put things off. If you want to do something, then you should have a go. I think I use this line in one of my books somewhere, ‘Life is not a rehearsal.’

Silkworm Secrets is a very emotional read and it is a story that will stay with me. You explore important issues in such a way that truly touches the reader. Do you research a lot prior to writing each novel?

Growing up, there were many around me, who were subjected to abuse and over the years I have listened to their stories about this. I tried to write about these themes in a sensitive manner. I have had many readers contact me to say they had experienced abuse in their lives and they loved the book, even though some of it had been confronting for them. It is an emotional read, but I never wanted the sad themes to be the prominent ones. What I wanted was to show the strong and wonderful relationships that exist for so many families.

I read somewhere that when you start to write, go with what is familiar to you, what you know the best. The first two books were easy to write as most of what I wrote I knew in my head; Memories, experiences and stories from others. I researched as I went and made sure that the facts in between were accurate. This does take large amounts of time but it’s extremely important to get it right.

Two Heartbeats explores the mining industry and in particular, women’s roles, in what was and in some areas still is, a male dominated industry. What made you choose this particular role for your protagonist?

I was never going to publish ‘Two Heartbeats’. When I wrote it I just sat and churned it out, telling myself it didn’t matter what I wrote, because it was just for fun. As usual, different themes crept in and once I’d finished, I decided to publish. At the moment, it is the most popular of my books. During our time spent in North Queensland we’ve met many who are connected to the mining industry and who live in the small mining towns dotted throughout Queensland. Great people with interesting stories who inspired me to write a book set in the remote regions of Queensland. Someone had commented that they didn’t like how, ‘Lily’ in The Shack by the Bay, was shy and not a strong character so I made sure that, ‘Jess’ in Two Heartbeats was different and able to stand up for herself.

Your characters’ backstories allowed me to connect further with them, in each novel. Where do you start and how do you go about creating characters for your stories?

I get an idea, usually about two people to start with and then once I start typing, the story flows out and then different characters come into it. It’s a bit like a movie playing out in your head and you write it down as it happens. Of course there are many changes once you go back over it and that’s when you can build on the characters and change them to what you want. Most of the characters are based on people who I have come into contact with over the years.

Have you been inspired by particular authors?

The first author who inspired me, was Colleen McCullough. Others around that time that I also loved were James Michener, Wilbur Smith, Nancy Cato and Bryce Courtenay. I always loved the mixture of history, adventure and romance. The books I find inspirational today are by Tim Winton, Anthony Doeer, Richard Flanagan and Khaled Hosseini. I also love to read autobiographies and real life stories.

What do you hope for when you send your writing out into the world?

I want the reader to be drawn into the story, to learn about the history of the Australian people and places and to fall in love with the Australian landscape and the eclectic characters who live in both the rural and urban areas. I like to have some sort of twist and to draw on people’s emotions, so that they are hooked until the last page and after. Almost as if they feel that they know the characters and don’t want the story to end.

I love that through bookstagram, I was able to meet you and read your novels. I am grateful to have such a beautiful friend in you. Thank you for allowing me to interview you. I look forward to reading your next novel.

Thanks Melanie. I find the community on bookstagram, positive and friendly. It’s nice to make friends who love reading and writing as much as you and I both do and it’s also a great place to discover new books and to get an insight into the lives of readers, reviewers and authors. Thank you for interviewing me and I look forward to giving you information on my upcoming novel in the next month or so. Thank you again and happy reading!