Anne McCullagh Rennie is an accomplished English born Australian author in love with our country. Her latest release is Reach for the Dream, which I hope to read and review for you in the coming weeks, and we were able to find out a little more about her in this interview. This is one of our longer interviews but Anne is so full of life and adventure that it’s worth the read.
Hi Anne and welcome to Beauty and Lace, thanks for talking to us.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a writing career?
I was born and raised in Cambridge England. As a child I was surrounded by books. There was no TV then so in the evenings we read stories and plays as a family. My parents introduced us to children’s classics, Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Arthur Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons, about school holidays spent in the Lake district and on the Norfolk Broads where we spent many family holidays. We read Shakespeare together: Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like all young women, I fell in love with Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, wept through Wuthering Heights and ached for Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Georgette Heyer’s gallant Regency heroes had my heart pounding with longing on many a late night read. I wondered how these amazing authors created such wonderful uplifting tales with their dramatic plots. I longed to write engrossing tales, but never dreamed I might one day do so. Instead I studied music and met a dashing Australian Naval Officer on the ski slopes of Austria.
After a whirlwind romance we were married and Jim brought me home to Australia. As we raised our family, I fell in love with the country, the people and the way of life. When my own children reached their teens Jim and I started our own computer consultancy. Jim suggested there would not be enough to satisfy me in running our business, so what did I want to do? I said ‘I love curling up with a good book, the sort that makes you laugh and cry and read to the last word. I would love to write such a story myself.’ With the wry Australian optimism I had come to know and love, he said: ‘Give it a go!’ So I did. I hope you enjoy the results.
You have done many amazing things in your life, how do you manage to fit it all in?
Music and adventure have always been a part of my life. When we were very young my dad introduced me and my brother and sister to music and then to sailing. Then, when our eldest daughter was two years old, my husband Jim came across The Suzuki method of teaching music. How it works: you learn an instrument the same way you learn to speak. You repeatedly listen to the tunes you will learn (on a tape, now a CD). Then, you learn to play. Later you learn to read. Parents were involved, lessons overlapped and children played in groups. Up to a hundred tiny violinists played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ together. It was very emotional. I got excited. I became a Suzuki Piano teacher and my children learned Suzuki violin and piano. Then I saw a gap: You can’t tuck your piano under your arm and take it to your lesson like you can a violin. But I wanted to give pianists the same opportunities as the violinists. I started running multi piano workshops, inviting other Suzuki teachers along. Then in 1988, sponsored by leading music retailer, Brash’s, and with the help of my students and parents, I staged ‘The 21 Piano Salute to the Bicentenary.’ On stage we had two grand pianos, nineteen uprights and electric pianos with two and three children to a piano, and over 200 performers. Then Jim introduced me to gliding. The things you say ‘Yes’ to!
Reach for the Dream is your latest release, can you tell us a little about it?
Sometimes life takes you on a journey you never expected…
Alice Ferguson is eight years old when a savage bushfire tears her family apart and she is sent to live with her aunt in the tiny town of Billabrin. Lost and lonely, Alice finds comfort in the beauty of the outback. As her confidence grows she dreams of creating her own home and one day breeding the best wool in the country…
Alice’s strength of spirit takes her far from her roots and the land she loves. As tragedy strikes again, she must summon every ounce of her will to keep her dream alive, but nothing can prepare her for the treachery of her jealous cousin or the betrayal of the only man she ever loved.
‘a beautiful story of passion, courage and determination told against the harsh compelling beauty of the Outback and the rolling hills of England’. (published 2014 by Penguin Group Australia)
What inspired the story?
I have always loved to curl up with a good book that makes you laugh, cry and read to the very last word. After reading Nevil Shute’s A Town like Alice and Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds and watching the movie and TV mini series, and with my husband’s ‘Give it a go!’ ringing in my ears, I was inspired to write my own Australian Outback Saga. Which was a bit of a cheek really considering I was born and raised in England, the daughter of a Cambridge University Don and I knew nothing about running an Outback sheep station or breeding sheep for wool!
Having said that….
• I am married to an Australian and have lived all my married life in Australia.
• My husband’s parents were both born and raised in country Australia, (Yass, Lightning Ridge and Walgett), giving me access to first hand knowledge about living on the land.
• As a wife and mother living in Australia I had by then fallen in love with the country, its culture and its people and collected some of my own experiences.
I started asking questions and was amazed at the willingness of people to help.
How do you choose your setting? Are any of them actual places or do you prefer fictional towns?
Some places just seem to me to have a romance and adventure about them: a cattle station in the Northern Territory, a vast sheep station in The Black Soil Plains of NSW. The vastness and beauty of the Outback, continues to inspire me. I choose a mixture of real and fictional towns, primarily because if you make a place up you can’t get the details wrong, so you won’t upset your reader.
In Reach for the Dream Billabrin is a fictional town very similar to Nyngan. Cambridge however is real! Tamworth was a setting in my novel Under Southern Skies. The settings for Song of the Bellbirds include a sheep property in Queensland Darling Downs and Vienna, Austria where I studied singing.
Can you tell us a little about your process? Do you plot or let the story flow in its own direction?
I start by giving my heroine something she is passionate about or naturally talented at, and a goal that she is continually thwarted in reaching. This dictates my Australian settings. Alice in Reach for the Dream loves her life in the Outback and wants to breed the best wool in Australia, but she has just lost her home and her family in devastating bushfire. Joanna in Ride with the Wind dreams of becoming a champion race horse trainer like her dad, but after a shocking accident, her mother won’t let her near the horses she loves. I then come up with a synopsis, which I and my agent Selwa Anthony discuss and refine. That’s the easy part. I get excited. I believe I know this story. I tell myself it will be a breeze to write!
Then I realise I have no idea what is going to happen or what drives my characters. I do a lot of thinking and research. I make copious notes. Then hopefully my characters will start to talk to me. Yes, my imaginary friends talk to me! Sometimes they stick to my original plot line and at others, they take off in unexpected directions and I have to decide to run with their ideas or pull back. But always I ask two questions.
What am I trying to say?
As the reader do I care about these people or what happens to them?
Do you have any quirky writing habits or superstitions you care to share with us?
I go through a rollercoaster ride of emotions as I write. I start off filled with confidence. Then I realise the task is impossible and about two thirds of the way through each novel I plunge into hopeless gloom with the belief that I will never finish it and that I certainly didn’t get so down with the last book, (which my husband assures me I did). But I have discovered my personality type is a completer- finisher. For seven years, my unfinished quilt lay on a chair in our sitting room. Each time I walked past I swear it whispered: ‘You will finish me.’ I finished it and it now graces our bed. Seeing that quilt gives me hope in the bleak writing times!
You have conquered crippling arthritis, can you tell us a little about how you did this?
When I was in my mid thirties, I was diagnosed with chronic arthritis all down my spine. I could no longer pick up my two-year-old daughter, my feet and hands swelled. I was in constant pain and I was losing my ability to turn taps on and off. I was prescribed anti-inflammatory medication and told it would get worse as I got older. This was not good news. I went looking for alternatives and came across ‘The arthritics’ cookbook’, written by a Chinese American doctor who had cured his own chronic arthritis by modifying what he ate.
Skeptically, I gave his diet one month of my life. After one week I noticed a difference. At the end of the second week I told myself it was all in my head. As the pain, stiffness and swelling receded I didn’t care if it was ‘all in my head’ – the diet was working. I kept going . The arthritis reduced and finally disappeared and I was able to come off the medication. I was so excited, I researched and wrote ‘Pain Free Living, a cookbook for Arthritis suffers.’ I filled it with mouthwatering recipes made with foods I could eat. It was my first published book. That was over twenty-five years ago. The arthritis still hasn’t returned.
Are you working on something new you can tell us about?
I am currently working on my seventh novel Beyond the Setting Sun. The backdrops are Sydney’s Blue Mountains and Europe. My heroine is heiress to a group of luxury boutique hotels and is a volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service. When speaking with other authors I challenge them to describe their books in one or two sentences. Here is my description of Beyond the Setting Sun: Bushfires, a body in the undergrowth, a young woman in crisis and a man who seems perfect for her. Or is he?
What do you love to read? What are you reading at the moment?
I read only to research when I am writing in case my story lines or characters are accidentally influenced by what I read. Once I have handed the manuscript to my publisher, I will allow myself to curl up and dive into a novel by one of my favourite authors. The latest novels by Penny Vincenzi and Marian Keyes are sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be gobbled up with a glass of wine and a box of chocolates. I will also read ‘Happiness, a guide to developing life’s most important skill,’ by Matthieu Ricard.
What does being a woman mean to you?
I love wearing elegant clothes and having my hair done. I love being a wife and mum and now a grandmother. But I am daily grateful that nowadays women can do whatever they choose. I have danced at Cambridge May balls, attended music camps in Europe and skied down a Glacier in Whistler, Canada. I have also sailed down the east coast of Australia, flown a glider over Lake Tahoe in Nevada and Parkes in New South Wales and landed in a sheep paddock in Forbes. We live in a world filled with opportunities. Don’t waste a moment!
Happy reading. Thank you for your interest
Thanks for your time Anne.
To find out more about Anne and her back catalogue head over and see her at: annemccullaghrennie.com
I devour books, vampires and supernatural creatures are my genre of choice but over the past couple of years, I have broadened my horizons considerably. In a nutshell – I love to write! I love interacting with a diverse range of artists to bring you interviews. Perhaps we were perfect before – I LOVE WORDS!