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Meet Australia's answer to Jodi Picoult.

Caroline Overington and her dog

Pull up a chair and grab yourself a glass of something. The Mamamia dinner party is in full swing and the conversation is flowing. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been introducing you to some of the better-known women who read Mamamia.

First we met Leigh Sales, then Claire Bowditch. Last week Penny Wong dropped by and this week we’re joined by Caroline Overington – Walkley award winning journalist, best-selling author and newly appointed Associate Editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly.

She has written four novels, all of which have been wildly successful and her latest one, Sisters Of Mercy, comes out this week.

MM: When it comes to writing books, what’s the process like for you? How long do you take to research, write etc?

CO: I think about things for a while. Then I have a little go and usually decide it’s rubbish. So I scrap that, and start again a few months later. Then of course the clock has started ticking on the deadline, so I get into a bit of a panic. I start getting up early and staying up late, writing like crazy, and deleting most of it. Then I calm down and think: relax, it will come when it’s ready. And so far, so good!

MM: Your new book is being released this week – can you tell us a bit about it?

CO: Yes. The new book is called Sisters of Mercy, and it’s about two sisters, raised a generation, and a world apart. One was born in England, during the war years; the other in Australia, after her parents migrated, leaving the first little girl behind (there is a reason for that!)
The sisters don’t meet until their father dies, and the Will is read. When the English sister comes to Australia, she disappears … and the question for the reader is, did the Australian sister have anything to do with it?
I was keen on the idea of writing a book about sisters, who are normally raised in the same house and maybe even in the same room, and therefore know each other so well, being in a situation where they are actually strangers. In Sisters of Mercy, the sisters cannot predict how the other will behave.
And of course, it gives me the chance to examine the issue that fascinates me: how much of the evil that people do can be blamed on their childhood?

MM: Where do you find inspiration for your books?

CO: Most of the stories I’ve written come from events that I’ve seen in real life – for example, there is a scene in my second novel, I Came to Say Goodbye where a young refugee girl undergoes a forced genital mutilation, or cutting ceremony, to the horror of Australian doctors.

This was something that we as reporters, and the medical profession, have long known was going on in some communities in Australia – and earlier this year, there was an arrest of two people, for cutting two little girls. We will have to wait to see if there is a conviction, but there is no question that it’s going on in some communities, because doctors will tell reporters, off the record, that they have seen girls who were born in Australia, who are cut.

So the stories are based on real events, and I’ve mostly come across them while working as a journalist. Sometimes I think, “oh, nobody will believe me if I tell this story” … and then something even worse will hit the news, and I will think, honestly, is there no end to the harm we, as human beings, will do to each other?

Sisters of Mercy: how well do you know your sister? 

MM: Your books often deal with such heartbreaking subjects – child abuse, mental illness, disability – do you ever find them difficult to write? Is there anything you would never write about?

CO: Yes. They do. But I am careful to always have a hero in my books, but in my experience there is always somebody who is trying to do the right thing … somebody who will never give up.

In terms of things I would not write about, all I can say is, there are things that reporters I know have actually had to cover – the couple in Tasmania who filmed their own children performing sex acts on them, to share with other pedophiles, for example – and that is much harder than writing fiction, where at least I can have a good outcome, or a hero in the story.

MM: 20 years ago it was unheard of to have a woman reporter or journalist or host on television who was over the age of 40. What do you think has changed?

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CO: Oh, I’m not sure that’s true. There have been women in journalism pretty much since the start. What has changed is what they’re allowed to do – there are far more female foreign correspondents, and sports writers, and political columnists now, compared to when I started.

MM: How would you define your kind of feminism?

CO: My mother lost her job in the Post Office because she got pregnant, in the late 1960s. That’s enough for me. I will always be a feminist.

I Came To Say Goodbye: an old-fashioned, good-hearted grandfather writes an honest letter to a Supreme Court judge, explaining why his family fell apart. (This is everyone’s favourite, by the way!)

MM: They say that “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Who do you admire? Who did you look to when growing up?

CO: Jana Wendt. But I’m hardly alone there! All the young reporters wanted to be Jana. I still do.

MM: Who are the Australian women you would want your daughter to aspire to be like?

CO: My daughter will be exactly who she wants to be. That’s because of who she is – fun, and fearless, and smart, and capable – and because of women who came before her, kicking down the doors.

MM: Do we have strong enough female role models on our television screens? Who do you think are bad influences?

CO: To some extent, I disagree with the concept of having to “look up” to anyone. Women – and men – can find what they need to succeed by looking inside. It’s all about grit, and character, determination and ambition (which is not a dirty word!)

MM: What was the most disappointing moment or biggest setback in your career? How did you recover?

CO: I made a complete goose of myself on the Federal election campaign trail in 2007. There was nothing to do except apologise, immediately, in person, and in writing, both of which I did.

Caroline Overington.

MM: You’ve had such a diverse career and worked on some great stories. What has been your proudest moment as a journalist?

CO: When I was still a cub reporter, working on the Melton Mail Express (a local paper outside Melbourne) I came across a story about a female Wesleyan church minister, who was pregnant with triplets. It was quite rare at the time to have female church ministers, let alone with triplets. This was 25 years ago.

She agreed to be interviewed, and The Age (in the Big Smoke!!) picked it up and put it on the front page. My now-husband drove me to Spencer Street at midnight so we could get the first copy of the paper -still wet – off the stone. Then he had it framed for me. It was close to the best feeling of my life, until I had my children.

MM: What are your thoughts on the future of print journalism in the digital age? Do you think the internet has sounded the death knell for newspapers, or can they work in conjunction?

Oh, we are struggling, no doubt about it. But do you know what’s interesting? There is so much noise out there at the moment – opinions and columns and blogs and Twitter and 24/7 Facebook updates and continuous streaming news – I find myself seeking out hard copies of magazines, such as the New Yorker, and Australian Women’s Weekly, and The Weekend Australian Magazine, and Good Weekend, and The Atlantic, and Vogue, and Vanity Fair, and really enjoying the quiet, special, gentle time that comes when you curl up with print, on the couch. 

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Matilda is Missing: a bitter custody battle over a two-year-old girl called Matilda explodes out of the Family Court, onto the front pages.

MM: Australia has a female PM, a female Governor General, three females High Court justices – do we need feminism any more?

CO: Yes. Because it’s not about “us” – the middle class, the educated, the lucky. It’s about extending rights to all women, across the globe. To those who can’t get a fair trial, or drive, or vote. To those who can’t read. Who can’t get access to education, or birth control.

Also: I wrote a magazine piece earlier this year – this year, 2012 – about Australian girls, some as young as 13, who are being shipped off to Lebanon, Pakistan and India, into forced, arranged marriages with men who are often much older than they are, and to whom they are often related (uncles, second cousins.)

Enough said.

MM: What’s the biggest challenge facing Australia? Who should fix it?

CO: Over-regulation. We are governed to within an inch of our lives.

MM: The Women’s Weekly recently named their most admired women and many said they weren’t feminists. Did that surprise you? Did it disappoint you?

Yes. And yes.

MM: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received? What’s the worst?

a). “Never give up.” (Winston Churchill). I wouldn’t have my children without that bit of advice.

Also: “Instead of thinking about what you don’t have that you think you might want, try trying about the things you don’t have that you also don’t want.” – Bob Dylan. It’s another way of saying, never forget how lucky you are, Caroline.

b)  Bad advice: “Of course redheads can dye their hair blonde … no, it won’t go yellow.”

MM: Do you think women should be allowed to serve on the front line?

CO: Yes.

Ghost Child: police are called to a housing estate, to find a small boy dead on the carpet. His parents are arrested, but for years afterwards, rumours hang like cobwebs from the abandoned house: what, if anything, did the little sister have to do with it?

MM: If Australia became a Republic tomorrow, who would you choose as our head of state?

CO: I’m happy enough with the status quo.

MM: There is a growing sentiment that women are each others’ own worst enemies and stand in the way of each others’ success. Do you think that’s true?

CO: No. There are some people who cut the ladder after they’ve climbed but they aren’t necessarily women, and if they are, it’s not because they are women. It’s because they can’t find it within themselves to be generous. That’s a matter for them, of course, but see advice above (never give up!)

MM: Do you have a favourite book by another author?

CO: Yes, many!! Hundreds and hundreds of favourite books, new ones all the time! Crime and Punishment; Lolita; A Christmas Carol; anything by Cormac McCarthy. But earlier this year, I also read what all the switched-on girls are reading – Gone Girl – and I loved it.

Caroline’s latest book, Sisters of Mercy, is available tomorrow. This is her fourth novel, following Ghost Child, I Came to Say Goodbye, and Matilda is Missing, published by Random House.

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