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Interview

Estelle Pinney describes the evolution of House on the Hill

Estelle Pinney talks about her soon to be published novel, House on the Hill (Penguin)..

To focus on Estelle Pinney’s writing, Ms Pinney is mainly motivated by a social history impulse. With her soon to be published novel House on the Hill (Penguin) Ms Pinney wanted to paint a portrait of North Queensland life in the late 1920s, and to show how people strived to improve themselves.
This tied in with her approach to plotting. She said she had never been any good at nutting things out, and that the plot of House on the Hill itself was basically a general striving of her characters to improve themselves.
House on the Hill was originally published as a book for young adults called A Net Full of Honey (published by University of Queensland Press) which was short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Ethel Turner Award in 1996.
House on the Hill is an expanded version for the general reader.
The novel tells the story of the lives of the three Dalton sisters, Belle, Molly and Josie, who live in a boarding house on a hill in Townsville, overlooking the sea. Not all the characters in the novel have dreams as glamorous as Belle, who wants to be a vaudeville star, but they all have the same impulse of wanting to improve their lives.
Nicos, newly arrived from Greece, falls in love with Belle, and wants to settle into his adopted, unfamiliar country, and start cafes, as many Greeks did throughout rural Australia.

Tied in with describing how people of the time strived to improve themselves, Ms Pinney wanted to highlight particular social features of Far North Queensland in the 1920s.
These included the plight of unmarried mothers at the time; working conditions, particularly on the wharves; leprosy brought over by kanaka labour (a form of slavery); the migrants from Greece and Italy; the Aborigines and the the missionaries; the cattle stations; and many other social features of the time all went into the mix in House on the Hill.
Ms Pinney grew up in in Mareeba near Cairns, and then Cairns from the age of 11, in the 1930s, so recreating the Cairns and Townsville of the late 1920s for House on the Hill wasn’t that difficult for her.
She said that the plight of unmarried mothers, for example, hadn’t changed between the late 1920s and the 1930s.
Estelle used her grandfather’s photos of family in Townsville in the 1920s as part of her research, as well as family stories of working in grand old hotels in North Queensland, and researching photos in the John Oxley library in Brisbane.
Like one of the characters in the novel, Estelle Pinney’s grandfather was a photographer who took photos of prostitutes to sell, as postcards, to cane cutters, and Estelle coloured the photos for him.
She said Cairns had a real Somerset Maugham feel to it in the 1930s, with a Chinese temple she loved to visit as a young girl, but Cairns changed drastically in the 1950s.

At 15 she moved to Brisbane, across the street from the old South Brisbane library. From her house she could see the navy ships tied up for repairs on the wharves during WW2. When the U.S. army was based in Brisbane, she was working in a photographic studio and had to deliver the photo i.d.s to the U.S. Army, based along with General MacArthur in the old Lennons Hotel in George Street in the Brisbane C.B.D. She worked in a hand grenade factory and later drove an ambulance for the U.S. army, experiences that went into her novel, Time Out For Living.
In her novel House on the Hill, Ms Pinney also wanted to include particular memories she’d heard about, like her mother’s memory of the flooding of the Burdekin River in 1923.
“All she said was that they went over in row boats, and it was very frightening. The migrants didn’t want to go because it was women and children first. They couldn’t understand that. It was chaos, you know. It was just so interesting and so unknown.”
House on the Hill is due to be published by Penguin Books in February, 2005.
Peter Pinney’s books, especially his travel classics like Dust on My Shoes, Anywhere But Here, and Who Wanders Alone, can be hard to find these days, but they are a must for connoisseurs of travel writing. His war memoirs are well-respected, covering such topics as the fatal incompetence in the chain of command during the Bougainville campaign in WW2.

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