What prompted you to write Once?
I am an oral storyteller as well as an author, and some of my favourite stories to tell are those told to me by my grandmother when I was a little girl. My great-great-grandmother was Scottish and grew up on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Her name was Ellen Mackenzie and one of the stories she told was about a famous curse cast against the Mackenzies of Seaforth by a warlock called the Brahan Seer. The warlock predicted the fall of the house of Seaforth, and many years later the curse came to pass.
Whenever I told any of my grandmother's stories, I used to introduce it by saying 'my grandmother's grandmother grew up in the shadow of a cursed castle in the Highlands of Scotland. When she came to Australia she brought only one small chest, but her head was filled with the stories her grandmother had once told her. She told them to her granddaughter who told them to me, and now I shall tell you ...'
One day I was saying this to a room full of children, and a little girl put up her hand and asked me if my grandmother had ever gone back to her grandmother's home - the cursed castle in Scotland - and I said, 'yes, but not till she was quite an old lady.' The little girl asked why she waited so long, and I said, 'well, when my grandmother was young, the world was at war. It was a very dark time, and she could not travel wherever she wanted.'
As I spoke, I felt the idea spark inside me. I wrote the words down after my storytelling session had finished, and over the next few days I built it into the book you can read now.
What do you think the most inspirational thing is about your ancestors?
They were very brave and resourceful. None of them had an easy life, but they all worked hard and did the best they could, and built lives filled with love and joy and purpose.
How do you believe your ancestors influence you still today?
I remember their stories, and think how difficult life must have been for them. I try hard to be as strong, courageous and resilient as they were, no matter what happens in my own life.
Why do you think it’s important to listen to the stories of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents?
They have learned so much and have so much wisdom to bequeath. I feel it's very important that we learn from history, and try not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
What story do you remember the most that one of your forbearers told you?
The story of my great-great-grandmother Ellen Mackenzie has always been very important to me. She and her sister grew up in a loving family, but her parents both died when she was still just a girl, and her uncle inherited everything. He sent Ellen and her sister Jane out to Australia by themselves, and they had very little money or help. I've often imagined what that would be like - how lonely and frightened they must have been, and how strange Australia must have seemed in comparison to the Scottish Highlands, and how much strength it must have taken to rebuild your life from nothing ... and yet also how exciting and adventurous it must have been too!
Once takes us from a sailing ship to bush fires to a world at war. Do you feel a connection to these moments of our history?
Yes, indeed. My ancestors lived through those dangerous, difficult years. They loved and feared and suffered and prevailed, and because of their courage and determination, I now live in this beautiful, peaceful country. I am reaping the rewards of what they sowed. I have tried to honour their memories and their stories in this book.
How can we learn to listen to the stories of our past?
I think learning to listen is one of the most important life lessons. Everyone has a story to tell. By sharing our stories, we connect with other people. We come to understand their hurts and their hardships, and we feel a kinship with them. Stories link us to other humans, both those that came before us and those who follow us. Telling our own story is a crucial way to understand our own lives, and to grow towards compassion and empathy.