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Bookmarked Blog

Here at Dymocks we love celebrating Australian stories and the second novel from the author of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is certainly one to celebrate. We were so enamoured with The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding that we made this haunting and magical novel our Fiction Book of the Month for October.

We asked Holly to share more about the writing and research behind the feminine mythology, nature and music in this stunning must-read novel.

Esther Wilding journeys to Copenhagen to learn what happened to her sister there. What inspired the Denmark connection in your novel?

HR: My ancestry, I descend from Celtic and Scandinavian people. My Danish ancestors were farmers who left Denmark in the late 1800s and sailed for three months to settle on stolen land in Australia. They never returned to Denmark. The journeys of the women in my ancestral line are stories I grew up hearing my family tell around Granny's kitchen table.

In 2017, after I'd sent my publisher the structural edit of my first novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, those stories of my ancestral grandmothers started calling me. As I often do when I'm curious about the connection between people and a place, I turned to Scandinavian folklore and fairytales one afternoon and sat with a pen and my notebook open. I scribbled an idea down about selkies, or seal people … then followed that idea to another. Family mythology and selkie stories led me to the work of a nineteenth-century writer named Helena Nyblom, which led me to the roles women had in the seafaring history of tattooing in the western world, and to the ancient relationship between women and seals in Lutruwita, Tasmania.

My body tells me when ideas that come are alive: I get goosebumps and prickles down my spine. That happened on this day, when ideas of the sea, fairytales, women, tattoos and storytelling swirled around me. And a young woman named Esther Wilding marched up to my desk and asked me to follow her.

Your writing – especially about nature – shines in the novel. How did you hone that skill?

HR: Thank you so much! The writing you read in my novels has been through countless rounds of being edited, buffed and polished until it hopefully shines. It’s the rewriting of a first draft that brings out the shine, but that’s not to say that the rawness of those first laid down words isn’t its own kind of magic.

Writing a first draft doesn’t feel entirely conscious or honed to me, it just feels… natural… the same way talking to an old friend can feel. I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t work hard at crafting my stories, I very much do, it’s more that writing feels natural, I think, because by the time I start the physical act of writing a novel, I’ve spent a long time with the story, thinking it through, researching it, and dreaming it to life. As I said, I got my first inkling of Esther Wilding’s story in 2017 but didn’t start to write it until 2020 - it's a bit of a dreaming slow, writing fast kind of scenario.

As for writing about nature, I was lucky enough to grow up outdoors, in the gardens of the women who raised me. I learned to read when I was three years old thanks to my mum, which was the same time I started to understand how much I loved being outside, in the natural world, with plants, flowers, birds, and trees. As an adult I’ve realised being in nature and writing give me a similar feeling of renewal, belonging and meaning. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Holly Ringland

Holly Ringland. Photo by Daniel Boud

You’ve weaved stories of feminine mythology so beautifully through the book – can you tell us one such story that has really stayed with you?

HR: These are the loveliest questions, thank you! There are seven fairytales/myths woven through the novel that each speak to particular times and points in Esther’s life and journey, as well as that of her sister, Aura. At the core of every fairytale/myth are similar themes/questions about a woman’s identity, her true, wild self, her desires and what threatens/oppresses her when she follows her instincts. Each story left its mark on me, but I think the one that has been with me the longest – I first read it in 2017 – is the first story I read by nineteenth century Scandinavian fairytale writer Helena Nyblom, called All the Wild Waves.

It’s about a young woman, Violanta, who’s sole longing in life is to leave her mountain home and go to the sea. On her journey she is potentially waylaid by ’sliding door’ opportunities for her life: a marriage proposal, a job in a mill, a position in the household of a wealthy independent women (who cannot walk)… however, Violanta stays focused on her ambition, on her dream of the sea, and refuses them all. But when she gets to the sea, it’s a malevolent force, that cruelly punishes her. The first time I read this story, I remember how lulled along I was by it, thinking I was reading a familiar fairytale, but then it slapped me with cold-water shock to the skin when I got to the end. That’s when I thought, this story is a key. And it was.

It became one of the seven stories threaded through The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding. The full version of All the Wild Waves, and the other two Helena Nyblom fairytales that feature in my novel are available to read on my website.

We hear you wrote the novel in a vintage caravan. How did Frenchie help get The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding into the world?

HR: Buying Frenchie, a 1968 Olympic Riveria caravan, for the sole purpose of giving myself the space to write Esther Wilding at the beginning of the pandemic was powerful on multiple levels.

One level was how motivating and meaningful the act of buying her was, because I was investing in myself, giving myself and my writing the space that I needed to do my job, to write Esther’s story, to create a dedicated place for both of us to belong. Another level was the sheer joy, wonder and sense of play that having Frenchie in my life brought me, whether it was working on her with my partner Sam to kit her out as my writing office, or potting the garden around where she sits with my parents, or spending hours inside, with my dogs at my feet, as I filled my writing desk with plants and objects of inspiration to bring Esther to life.

As the world was shutting down and anxiety and fear were rife, I tended this little caravan brimming with plants, flowers and an unwritten story waiting to exist. It kept me going.

The book starts with an 80s party and ends with an 80s party. Was it fun to explore the cultural references from that time? And if you were to dress for an 80s party tonight, who would you go as?

HR: If you’d walked past the paddock at my parents’ place where Frenchie sits through any of the months that I was inside writing the first draft of Esther Wilding, you likely would have heard me singing at the top of my lungs, out of tune, along with Fleetwood Mac and The Waterboys on repeat, at ear bleed volume, and occasionally you might even have seen me outside of Frenchie, flailing about in the paddock in something resembling dancing. So, yes. I had a hell of a lot of fun exploring, reliving and imagining the 80s to life for Esther in the varying stages of her journey.

And if I were dressing for an 80s party tonight, I would absolutely re-create my look from the 1988 Brisbane Ekka when I got a She-Ra showbag, and I would once again don my gold face shield, cape, wrist guards and hold my gold Sword of Protection high! Or I’d pull out some flowing chiffon and a top hat to conjure Stevie Nicks. Maybe I could be both? A She-Ra Stevie hybrid?

The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding is available online and at your local Dymocks store.

The Seven Skins of Esther...
Holly Ringland

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