My first memories are like an impressionist's painting or maybe a half-dream of the migrant holding camp we were taken to in Northam, East of Perth and then a succession of houses until we settled in Shenton Park. Nothing much really stands out. Some people have vivid memories of childhood; I don't.
The heat in our relatively mild Autumn would have been a very noticeable change for the family. How long did it take in terms of years to adapt to the new climate?
For my brother and me, not long at all. We were kids, after all and we soon fitted into the sun, sand and surf lifestyle in the Wonderful West.
Like many migrants my family didn't understand the power of that sun. Nobody did all that stuff about sun lotion, umbrellas and hats, not even the locals. My mother's fair skin was easily burnt in the fierce sun and she developed this horrible, weeping sore on her back, a carbuncle. After that, she never went to the beach unprotected.
Your country of birth was decimated by the war with Germany, was this what prompted your parents to move all the way to Australia?
Yes, I think so. It was quite common at the time, people leaving Europe for a better life.
You have a BA(Hons) in history from the University of Western Australia, a Graduate Diploma in Education and a Graduate Diploma in Business and Admin. What work did you do after graduation?
My big ambition in life at high school was to go to university. I never gave a moment’s thought to what I'd do later, except I didn't want to be a teacher. So there I was with BA(Hons) after my name. Now what? I had no clear direction. I very nearly started work as a trainee librarian but then I got a job in Canberra working at the Commonwealth Archives.
As it happened, though, after I'd completed my degree and was casting around for jobs I applied for officer training in the Australian Army (having decided that female officers had a better chance of a worthwhile career in the Army than either the Navy or the Air Force at that time). After I'd been in Canberra for two months I found I'd been accepted - not an easy achievement in its own right. So I went to WRAAC School at George's Heights in Sydney. I lasted half the course and asked for discharge. I'm not very good at mindless obedience.
After messing about aimlessly for a while, I decided to get something more practical than a BA and completed a primary teaching course. I didn’t last long. I don’t much like kids and the Education Dept didn’t like the way I taught (which was to try to give the kids a sense of curiosity so they could things out themselves). However, nothing is ever wasted. I had acquire skills in planning lessons and instructing that stood me in excellent stead in my future career.
After that I ended up as a clerk in the public service. There I fell into computing quite by accident. I loved it, using logic to solve processing problems. I took a year off work to get as much of a post-grad IT qualification as I could and got a job as a computer programmer.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. IT work can be difficult and stressful. There are times when I could have personally inflicted the death of a thousand cuts on Mister Gates. Or something not quite so nice. But I loved my career. Often it was a joy to go to work.
You worked in IT for many years, do you think that has given you an advantage with the internet featuring so strongly in what we writers must now have at our disposal?
Maybe. I'm obviously very comfortable with technology and I've worked on web-based projects. I'm not sure it gives me an advantage, though. People with marketing nous who can use the accessibility the internet provides have the advantage on me, I think. What my IT background has done is enable me to portray some of my IT-attuned characters in what I hope is a realistic way.
When did you first realize that you loved to write?
At school creative writing was a favourite. In my quest for a job after uni, journalism was another track I tried. But the opportunities were limited in Perth and though I made the short list I was destined for disappointment. Over the years I wrote a few short stories, dabbled with writing courses but I don't think I had enough self-confidence or plain bloody mindedness to succeed.
Tell us about Die a Dry Death the story of the ‘Batavia’. When did you become fascinated by the wrecks of Dutch ships and their history?
That's a tale in itself. The 'discovery' of Western Australia by the Dutch is obviously a matter of historical fact and we learnt about that at school. 'Discovery' in this context meant happening unexpectedly on an unknown shore in the full light of day, having a quick look around and then buggering off quickly. Sounds a bit like one of those coach tours, doesn’t it? If you were unfortunate enough to happen on the unknown shore in the dark, though, you got wrecked. Four, maybe five Dutch East India Company vessels were lost on the WA coast in the space of about one hundred years. Four of the wreck sites have been found, two of them as late as 1963.
That year (’63) the newspapers were full of the discovery of the Batavia and the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon). At last, after hundreds of years of mystery, their remains were found. Even so, it didn't excite me much. It wasn't part of MY story.
Then years later I visited the WA Maritime Museum with overseas friends (as you do). So many people miss what’s in their own backyards. I looked at Batavia’s keel, rebuilt in the museum and the portico, intended for the fort at the city of Batavia (now Jakarta), whose stones had been her ballast. Then we went upstairs to the gallery where they displayed recovered artefacts from all four of the known Dutch wrecks – Batavia, Vergulde Draeck, Zuytdorp and Zeewijk. Jugs, plates, bottles, scrimshaw, pipes, buttons – all sorts of things ordinary people would have used. And I had an epiphany. I remember the feeling clearly. It was as though I was looking down a four-hundred-year time tunnel. I could have had a relative on one of those ships. Very easily.
I developed something of an obsession, looking up and reading what I could. Every single one of those wrecks has a mystery about it, or a story of enterprise and courage. I visited the Zuytdorp wreck site on the cliffs that bear her name – cliffs known and avoided by the Dutch mariners after 1629. The men in Batavia’s longboat would have eyed those cliffs with dismay as they sailed for Java. I stood at both sites regarded as possible candidates for the place where Pelsaert marooned two of the Batavia’s miscreants. I’ve been on the Batavia replica twice – once in Holland, once in Sydney.
And I promised myself that one day, I’d write a book about one of those wrecks.
Die a Dry Death
Shipwrecked on an unknown shore, their gravest peril came from within.
June 1629. The Dutch merchantman Batavia, sailing on its maiden voyage to the East Indies from Amsterdam, ploughs into an uncharted reef thirty miles off the coast of Terra Incognita Australis – the unknown south land.
In a desperate attempt to find fresh water and help, the ship’s officers leave the survivors on an uninhabited island, and set out in an overcrowded, open boat on a two-thousand-mile journey across uncharted waters.
They have no idea that, while they are gone, from amongst the survivors will emerge a tyrant every bit as brutal and deadly as the reef on which they were wrecked.
Where to buy the book:
You researched this thoroughly. You seem to have applied a ‘what if’ question to the story, and done it remarkably well, making it more of a dramatization than just fiction. Was that your intent?
The dramatization element was intended. These things happened, to real people. I couldn’t change the facts and I feel it would have been irresponsible to do so. But I studied history and I know that all events are open to interpretation. A ‘what if’, certainly.
My issue was always with the portrayal of the Captain as a villain. He is accused of plotting with the psychopathic Jeronimus Cornelisz to seize his own ship to go pirating. Some people go so far as to say he was responsible for the murder and mayhem that ensued after the ship was wrecked, despite the fact he had departed to fetch help. His magnificent feat of seamanship in getting an overcrowded open boat across two thousand miles of uncharted ocean with no loss of life is often overlooked.
Also, the only record of events after the wreck were written and edited by one man, Pelsaert the senior merchant in charge of the fleet of which the Batavia had originally been a part. He and the Captain hated each other and Pelsaert had his reputation and his standing in the Company to lose unless he could foist responsibility for what happened to the ship and the survivors on somebody else. Cornelisz would say anything to save his own skin. I wondered if the Captain was the fall-guy for both of them, if the events as described could be explained without the Captain having been part of a plot? That’s how it is written.
From Western Australia you moved to Victoria, what prompted that move?
It was time. A number of things in my life ended. I needed a new beginning.
From Victoria to the lovely Coast of Queensland where you now reside, how do you enjoy living in such a beautiful location?
Hervey Bay is lovely; small enough to be slow, big enough to have the amenities we’ll need as we get older. We both love being retired and not knowing what day of the week it is. We have a beach close by, whale watching in Spring and we seem to be exempt from the floods and cyclones which have so affected Queensland.
Tell my readers about ‘Morgan’s Choice”.
Morgan is a genetically engineered woman, a supertech. She has a computer integrated into her human brain and artificial eyes so she can access both.
When her spaceship is stranded in unknown space she is relieved to be rescued by humanoid aliens. But her unusual appearance and her extraordinary technical abilities mean that everybody wants a piece of her. Who’s it to be? The autocratic admiral who press-gangs her to help against a shadowy threat from the stars, or the freedom fighters who think she’s a legend reincarnated, returned to help them throw off the yoke of oppression?
Morgan doesn’t much care which it is until one side tries to kill the man she has come to love. When together they face the power from the past, Morgan will need every bit of her superhuman bio-engineered intelligence to save the man she loves and his people from certain death. And spare a little to save herself.
The cover shown here is one I mocked up myself. It won’t be anything like this when it’s published.
What first attracted you to writing science fiction?
I’ve always loved SF and fantasy. I devoured anything by Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham. So many books. I also loved science although I never studied it much. I’m lousy at maths, you see. Astronomy and astrophysics fascinated me, though. I stayed home from uni to watch the moon landing and spent quite a few hours on hot summer nights outside, watching the stars. The only thing that was missing from the science fiction I read was a dollop of romance. I was never into ‘romance’ as in M&B and such. I might have read half of two Mills and Boon and rolled my eyes. But a good, solid space opera with some sex; yeah, sounds good. So I did.
You also have a short work published in an Anthology, tell us a little about your contribution to “Words to Music” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab For Cutie
I’ve never written much short fiction. The story ‘Into the Dark’ arose when I saw a short story contest advertised somewhere. I wrote it in a few hours and gave it to my husband to read. He loved it. Doesn’t count, I hear you say. Of course he’d say he liked it. Um… no. He doesn’t read my stuff because it’s not his genre and when I make him read bits, he’s critical. So I was chuffed.
Anyway, I submitted it once or twice without success and then forgot about it until Michael came up with the idea of Words to Music. It’s a bit eerie that the randomly-selected song matched this story very well. I made a few small changes and off it went.
‘The Iron Admiral’ was my first ever book, started maybe five years ago. I used it as my learning book, written as part of a novel writing course with comments back from a tutor. The story that is to be published has come a loooong way since then. The basic plot is unchanged, as are the characters but the action is a little different.
Some of your readers may be interested to know that the book’s initial premise, of a massacre designed to trigger a war, is loosely based on the true story of how Hitler instigated World War 2. On the night of 31 August 1939, a small group of German operatives dressed in Polish uniforms seized the Gleiwitz radio station and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish. The Germans' goal was to make the attack and the broadcast look like the work of anti-German Polish saboteurs.
One of the things that I’ve removed from the books was a lot of Chaka Saahren’s back story. I know it all – where he was born, how he grew up, why he doesn’t bother with women much (no, he’s not gay). Needless to say, he’s my idea of a hunk. It’s my book, after all. If you’d like to see what that is, http://gretavanderrol.com/2011/02/27/welcome-to-the-casting-couch/. It’s interesting; many people who read earlier version of IA really liked the bits where the reader learned a lot about this man but it doesn’t fit so easily into the new, fast-paced, action-packed structure so I can only dribble in bits and pieces.
Give us a brief synopsis of The Iron Admiral.
Politics. Hatred. Star systems on the brink of war. A species under threat of extinction from a deadly virus.
Ex-Admiral Chakka Saahren goes undercover to discover the truth. Systems Engineer, Allysha Marten, takes one last job to rid her of debts and her cheating husband. On Tisyphor, deadly secrets about the past explode, as Allysha and the undercover agent scramble to prevent the coming holocaust and xenocide.
When the ex-Admiral’s identity is revealed, she must come to terms with her feelings for a man she thinks caused the death of innocent civilians, including her father.
In a race against time, Allysha must set aside her conflicted emotions and trust a man she barely knows. Saahren must convince the woman he loves to find the truth as he once more assumes his position as … The Iron Admiral.
How much research is required to take on a book of this genre?
Not research as in historical fiction research. I keep my finger on the scientific pulse through things like ‘New Scientist’. I have aliens in Iron Admiral and they’re not humanoid at all. I very deliberately set out to create a being which would build technology but didn’t have the same appendages as us. Before you ask, there is NO CHANCE of a half-human, half-Ptorix. There are no suitable tab As and slot Bs.
It’s space opera so I have travel through my version of Hyperspace and I have a thing called a Multi-dim which moves sound and light through one of the dimensions of space to allow real-time conversations over inter-stellar distances. I have artificial gravity in my ships because if I didn’t the effects on the human body would be debilitating. My stuff is no more scientifically rigorous than Star Wars or Star Trek but I try to make the tech convincing. Reading people like Jack McDevitt and Elizabeth Moon is both inspiring and helpful.
It has a cross-genre feel to it with the addition of a romance, sure to attract readers from other genre bases, yet remaining true to the Science fiction genre. Was it difficult to maintain the balance?
No. The romance is one thread, a complication both MC’s could do without. Think of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ or ‘Gone with the Wind’ or countless others where romance is a part of life in a world gone mad.
What other works do you have in progress at the moment?
I’m having a wonderful time writing another space opera/adventure/romance set in the same universe as ‘The Iron Admiral’. Jess is a widow with a slightly shady past trying to bring up her teenage daughter as a lady. Hudson is a womanising Admiral parked in orbit around Jess’s home planet. He’s there to make sure the Ptorix are aware of a military presence but his interest in the delectable Jess soon leads him to query strange happenings on a mining platform orbiting a nearby gas planet.
It’s great fun and response so far has been excellent.
What other works are due for publication this year?
This year Pfoxchase will publish ‘The Iron Admiral : Conspiracy’ followed by ‘Morgan’s Choice’ followed by ‘The Iron Admiral : Deception’.
This has been quite a remarkable 12 month period for you in terms of works being signed to publishers, tell us how that unfolded.
You could say MM Bennetts had a hand in my writing DaDD when I did. A discussion started on Authonomy’s forum when somebody asked what everyone’s next writing project was going to be. I mentioned my life’s ambition to write the story of the Batavia. I’d hardly pressed the ‘post’ button when a received a message from MM saying she’d like to read that book. I laughed it off. I wrote SF, after all, but the urge grew and with some encouragement, away I went.
MM gave me invaluable advice, read early draughts and passed the book on to her husband, Ben. I didn’t know it at the time but they were deeply involved with Diiarts which had just jumped into the water to publish ‘May 1812’ and a few other works.
I really didn’t want to tout the book around the agent circuit. I was afraid that if they did take it on, I’d be stuck with historical fiction for the next books so I decided I’d go with Diiarts.
In a way, my introduction to Pfoxchase was similar.
After many attempts, an agent asked to see the full manuscript of ‘The Iron Admiral’. She passed but invited me to make modifications and submit again. By then, I had two ‘Iron Admiral’ books. If the story was to sell as a romance it needed to have a ‘happy ever after’ ending. That didn’t happen in the first book so I tried to combine the two. Two 100,000 word books ended up at 112,000 words. I still wasn’t ready to re-submit, though.
I asked Diane Nelson to beta-read for me because I needed an opinion from somebody who reads SF. I didn’t know about her publishing empire, just that she read and wrote SF. She loved it and asked to publish it.
Still I prevaricated. One more edit… I participated in an editing workshop and realised to my horror that I’d gutted the story. Sorry, this had to be two books or one very long single book and if they couldn’t be traditional romance, too bad. I started rewriting and decided that I’d be happy for Diane to publish both books. I’d already signed with her for ‘Morgan’s Choice’. She’s a very busy, energetic lady and I’m hopeful my books will prove popular.
Of all the books you have written thus far, which is your favorite and why?
In some respects, ‘The Iron Admiral’ because I really like this powerful, driven man who is thrown completely out of his depth when he falls in love. He flounders his way through, messing it up more than once in a variety of ways.
I’m also having lots of fun with Jess and Hudson. I need a title, though.
For your reading enjoyment here is Chapter 1 of “The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy.”
Shernish, Carnessa, main planet of the Qerran Suldanate
Ullnish Space Port, a spectacular confection of multi-colored domes and turrets in the best Ptorix architectural style, glowed a welcome. Allysha traded a look with Sean as the driver guided his taxi around the concourse to join a line of vehicles, all depositing passengers.
“Looks like we made it,” she murmured.
“So far. But they’ll be after us.” Sean stared along the road to Shernish, where lights were starting to hold their own in the gathering dusk. A lingering line of orange still stained the horizon where the sun had disappeared.
Allysha paid the driver and climbed out of the taxi to join Sean on the pavement. He reached out to grasp her arm but she jerked away. “Let’s not make with the happy couple thing, okay? I mean it. When this is over, I want a divorce.”
He grinned that lopsided grin she used to think was cute. “Don’t be like that, Ally. You know you’re the only one I love.”
Time was that might have worked; had worked. Now she was beginning to wonder what she’d ever seen in him. “Me and that blonde bimbo you were screwing in my bed?”
Sean flushed, scratched at his hair. She’d come home early from her trip to Brjyl and caught him at it, stark bollocks naked with her riding him.
They followed the crowd into the cavernous main hall. Most of the passengers were Humans, probably getting out while they could. Just like us. Sean headed toward the flight schedule displayed in the middle of the main hall while Allysha waited, arms folded, foot tapping on inlaid tiles, eyes flicking around the hall. The building glittered around her, all curved walls and ornate embellishment, busy with people and luggage. A Ptorix voice rose above the echoing din and she started, nerves jangling. No. The two conical forms approaching her had pale blue fur and wore elaborately decorated, green robes. High caste business people, she’d guess. The writhing tentacles at the ends of each of four arms betrayed tension, nervousness maybe, but not alarm. They passed her, appearing to glide in their floor-length costumes.
Hard to believe that the sight of a Ptorix would frighten her. Then again, she would never have imagined the violent demonstrations, crowds of Ptorix brandishing placards saying ‘Humans Out’ rampaging through the streets, attacking human businesses, looting, even assaulting passers by. She shuddered at the memory.
Sean returned, weaving his way between people and luggage. “Next shuttle to the space station leaves in ten minutes.” Stale alcohol wafted with his words. He cast a glance toward the entrance doors. “Best to get lost in the crowd. You can bet Bronx’s mashers will come here when they can’t find us.”
He strode off down the corridor toward the lounge, pushing past people as he went. Allysha hurried to catch up with him. Idiot. How he could have been stupid enough to fall foul of the local crime boss was beyond her. Bronx would ensure they’d both suffer. Ptorix law was very direct when it came to debts; Sean’s debt was her debt. Well, this was it. One last job to pay off Bronx and then the divorce court. Bye, bye Sean.
The corridor widened into the departure lounge, little more than rows and rows of seating and a counter beside the closed doors to the ramp. All the seats were occupied; at least an hundred other people huddled together in nervous groups, their belongings stacked around their legs on the floor. At the counter a woman sobbed, pleading, and a man, red faced and belligerent, shouted at a sullen Ptorix attendant. Somewhere in the crowd, a child started to cry. Every now and then a few bars of piped music struggled above the formless din of murmured conversations until it was drowned out again. The place was claustrophobic. Too many people, too much noise, too much fear. Foreboding pressed down on Allysha’s soul.
“Lucky for us,” Sean said, gazing upon the scene with a satisfied grin. “We’ll be harder to spot in this.”
She shot him a glance. Lucky? If this was lucky, she couldn’t imagine being unlucky.
Following Sean, she edged into the crowd, standing too close to too many people. The sooner they got out of here, the better. The air-conditioning fought a losing battle with the stink of nervous sweat. Her skin prickled with heat. She peered between the bodies, scanning the few Ptorix in particular. They stood together, trying not to attract attention. Judging by their tentacles, which waved in and out of the four wide sleeves like an anemone in a swift current, they were as unhappy to be caught up in this as everybody else. Shouts rang out above the background buzz. Her heart jolted and settled again. Just another irate customer venting his fury on the unfortunate counter staff. She eyed the water dispenser out in the open, near the corridor. She’d love a drink. Best to wait.
Sean’s leap forward sent a lightning bolt down her spine. Her pulse rate slowed when she realized he’d snared two seats against the wall when the incumbents went to the counter. She flung herself down in her chair and rolled tight shoulders. The shuttle should be boarding soon. Surely.
A flash of blue at the edge of the crowd. Her heart bounced. She grabbed Sean’s arm. “Bronx’s goon. Over to the right.”
“Yes, I see him,” Sean said.
The big Ptorix was so obviously a thug. His dark-blue fur marked him as low caste, and his tentacles slashed in rhythmic arcs; backwards and forward, purposeful, concentrated. She slid down in the chair. The three eyes at the top of the Ptorix’s conical body could easily cover three hundred and twenty degrees. But big as he was, most of the human men were taller; he’d find it difficult to spot them in the crush of bodies and luggage.
The piped music stopped. Silence fell as people looked up expectantly, listening. At last, the boarding announcement.
“Galaxy Interplanet would like to welcome all passengers traveling to Carnessa Station for transit. Please have your ticket ready for scanning.”
The room erupted into noise and activity as people stood and gathered up belongings. Multi-headed queues began to form at the gate, passengers jostling for position to be first into the ramp. Allysha couldn’t see the Ptorix thug anymore through the thicket of bodies. Or more importantly, he couldn’t see them.
“Hurry.” Sean pushed his way forward. “We can go to the front—we’ve got first class tickets.”
“I’m impressed,” she said. “Employers with money.”
Sean barged his way through the throng, brandishing his ticket like a weapon in response to any protest. Even so, he had to work to get through the logjam at the gate.
“Ghatuzsh!” The Ptorix howl rose above the din.
Her pulse raced. “He’s seen us. Quick.”
Sean surged forward, shoving his way through protesting passengers to the scanner. The match of ID and ticket took a split second, then he was through, sprinting down the passageway, Allysha pounding at his heels.
The ramp bent to the left, no longer in a direct line from the lounge. Sean slowed to a rapid walk and she followed suit, panting. She glanced over her shoulder. Shouts in Ptorix and Standard issued from the shuttle lounge but no one seemed to be following.
“We’re okay, Ally.” Sean’s face creased into a satisfied smile. “We’re safe. They won’t let him follow us.”
She just looked at him. If this was safe, so was holding up the targets in a shooting gallery. “Whatever you say. I hope this job’s worth the effort.”
“It’ll be worth it, Ally, you’ll see. We’ll be able to buy Bronx off and still have plenty left.”
She hoped so. This job on Tisyphor wouldn’t be hard work. An old mine being reopened, existing Ptorix systems to be interfaced with a brand new human system. Set up the security, set up monitoring. It was similar to the work she had completed at Brjyl. And the money, as Sean had said, was excellent.
A steward greeted them at the airlock and directed them to their seats, half-way down on the left of the first class compartment. The cabin started to fill; grim faced businessmen, a couple with two children, an elderly couple, all escaping Carnessa. When a couple of Ptorix came on board her pulse began to race again. But she recognized the high-caste businessmen she’d seen in the departure lounge. They were guided to two places on the other side of the shuttle, where the steward pressed the buttons that converted the human seats to Ptorix platforms for them. Soon all the seats were full.
“Welcome aboard the transfer shuttle to Carnessa Space Station,” said the IS in Ptorix. “The flight will take approximately forty five minutes. Please relax and make yourselves comfortable.”
The announcement was repeated in Standard. At last. The hatch seals hissed. Harnesses rose from compartments in the seats and clamped into place over her shoulders and legs. The ship lurched into motion. She let out a breath, blowing away the tension in her shoulders.
The ship’s cabin had been conditioned for take-off, but she still felt some of the pressure of acceleration. She gazed at the view screen as the ground raced away below, details lost in the greater whole. The lights of Ullnish lined the dark ribbon of river and out to sea scattered gleams betrayed ships waiting to dock. To the west, a small patch of lights must be Shernish.
The ship pierced the clouds and the ground disappeared. Like a curtain closing at the end of a performance. One last job. One last job and she could get on with the rest of her life.