Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Author Interview: Gail Graham

The Socrates’ Book Review Blog is happy to have Gail Graham, author of Sea Changes, join us for an interview. Welcome to our home, Gail, and thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

To start the ball rolling…

1) The main character in SEA CHANGES, Sarah Andrews, is a widow. How much of your personal experience did you draw on to write this story?

My husband passed away 20 years ago, and I was amazed that as a widow, I had “ceased to exist”. Colleagues kept their distance, and our mutual friends simply vanished. (I think the women were scared I’d steal their husbands!) Although everyone wants an extra man at dinner, nobody wants an extra woman. I was still alive, but my life was gone. I felt like an alien, and that feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I was living in Australia, a very different society from the United States. So yes, SEA CHANGES grew out of my own experiences although the character of Sarah is fictional, purely imaginary. I’m not nearly as brave and resourceful as Sarah!

2) Do Americans and Australians view or treat widows differently? How did your time in Australia shape Sarah’s experiences?

Americans and Australians have very different ideas about how relationships between men and women should be conducted. Australians are not romantic, in the American sense. (When we first moved to Australia in 1970, I remember my husband being very upset because he couldn’t buy a Valentine – because there weren’t any!) Actually, Australian men and women don’t like one another very much. Even after they’re married, men go out with their men friends and women go out with their women friends. At parties, all the men cluster at one end of the room and all the women gather at the other end. As far as I know, there are no heterosexual love Australian love stories (novels or films) that have happy endings. So Australians don’t have much patience for grieving. They don’t care, so they don’t grieve. Empathy and tenderness just aren’t part of Australian life.

Setting SEA CHANGES in Australia made it possible to underline the feelings of anomie and foreignness that widows feel -- for Sarah, Australia was an alien world. Australia was as strange to her as Xaxanader’s world. She was already an outsider. And with Charles already dead, she had nothing to lose. I think it’s when we feel that we have nothing to lose that we sometimes have our greatest adventures.

3) What are some of the cultural differences between Australia and America?

I’ve already talked about the difference in male/female relationships, which is reflected in the Australian lack of what Americans would call courtesy. Australians don’t say please, or thank you. They consider civility to be servility. So there’s no chivalry, no gallantry, no idea that women should be treated with consideration. It’s a very rough society, very brutal.

Also, Australians don’t value education. I taught in Australian universities and was absolutely shocked at the low standards and utter lack of respect for intelligence and scholarship. Australians don’t believe in testing, because they think it’s harmful for kids to compare themselves to other kids. Everyone just passes. Kids can go all the way through high school and never learn how to read. Australians don’t like to learn. In fact, Australian trade unions actually have it written into their agreements that their members will not be required to learn anything new. So in that sense, it’s very different from America.

Another big difference is that Australians don’t value or take pride in the work they do. Trade unions control every aspect of Australian working life, so there’s a built-in idea that the employer/employee relationship is adversarial, rather than cooperative. And it is. Australians have a saying, If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. It is a point of honor in Australian never to do anything beyond what is required. And since remuneration is based upon seniority rather than upon ability, there’s no incentive to do a good job. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If you’re seen as working too hard, you’ll get in trouble with your trade union. Just about every salaried occupation in Australia is controlled by a trade union. There’s even a Miscellaneous Workers Union for people who don’t fit into any of the other unions. As an American, I found that very oppressive, because you had no choice. If you didn’t belong to the union, you didn’t work.

4) Sarah’s daughter, Felicity, is not particularly supportive of her mother’s extended mourning period, arguing with her over everything, from the estate to wanting her to date again. Are children often impatient in these situations?

Children do not come with a guarantee. Most parents do the best they can, and sometimes their children turn out to be warm, loving and supportive and sometimes they don’t. The main point I was trying to make with Felicity in SEA CHANGES is that migrants often “lose” their children – the children grow up in the new country with new values that are often quite different from the values of their parents. That’s something a lot of Americans don’t understand about the migrants in our midst – that not only are they coping with a new country, they’re also coping with the gradual loss of their children. Felicity resents Sarah “not being like the other mums” and that resentment is at the root of their problem. And of course, there’s nothing Sarah can do about it.

5) You place Sarah in a very funny dating situation where she gets stuck with the tab. Is this based on personal experience? Do some men date widows out of sympathy?

Yes, I once got stuck with the tab. Perhaps American men date widows out of sympathy, but Australian men certainly don’t. There are introduction agencies in Australia, but they don’t match you with your soul mate. They’ve got half a dozen men who go out with one woman after the next, and sometimes – like Brian -- the man scores a free meal. That’s why they do it. If anything, widows are exploited in Australia. Certainly, they are exploited by the introduction agencies, who take advantage of their loneliness. It’s very cynical. But Australia is a very cynical society. Australians actually take pride in their cynicism.

6) Based on your own personal experiences, was this a difficult book to write?

No, it was fun. Once Sarah got beneath the surface of the water, I had a marvelous time. However, the plot twist that involved Bantryd coming home with Sarah was Bantryd’s idea, not mine. I just sort of went with it, wondering how it was all going to turn out. From that point on, SEA CHANGES just wrote itself. (That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of revising and rewriting and polishing, because there was) But I love it when that happens.

7) What made you decide to write this book?

I was intrigued by the unique experience of widows, and by the fact that nobody else had written a book about the journey of widowhood, the necessity of constructing an entirely new life and new identity for oneself. It is a journey, but quite a few women shy away from it. They don’t want a journey. They want their life back. So they hurriedly remarry, or they become recluses, or alcoholics. I didn’t want to take the journey either, but I had no choice. And I found that once you stop fighting it and just go with the flow, it can be a very exciting and rewarding journey. It has been for me.

8) What other books have you written?

My novel CROSSFIRE: A VIETNAM NOVEL won the Buxtehude Bulle, a prestigious German literary award, and was translated into French, German, Danish and Swedish. I wrote a biography of the young Mao Zedong, A COOL WIND BLOWING. My son Jim sustained massive brain damage in a car accident (that’s another difference between Australia and America. They don’t do rehabilitation in Australia) and I wrote two books about our struggle to obtain basic medical treatment for him, STAYING ALIVE and A LONG SEASON IN HELL. And a couple of childrens’ books, THE LITTLE BROWN GAZELLE and THE BEGGAR IN THE BLANKET.

9) Do you have any advice for women going through the things Sarah is going through?

It’ll get better. It may take years, but it’ll get better. The pain goes away, and you can start to enjoy the happy memories. And you will enjoy them, I promise you that. Put the old photos away if it hurts to look at them, but don’t throw them out. Some day, you’ll want them. And don’t give up. Widowhood is awful, but the only way out of it is through it. So keep going. When the darkness finally lifts, there’ll be a rainbow. Maybe even a pot of gold. Anything is possible.

10) Do you plan to write a sequel to SEA CHANGES so readers can catch up with Sarah?

What an interesting idea! I hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it, but the possibility is intriguing. So who knows?

11) Do you have a website that readers can check out your other work?

My website is I have a blog at and another on my Amazon profile page. And your readers are welcome to contact me at

Once again, thank you for taking the time to visit us. Good luck with your book, it was an amazing read.

I’d also like to thank Lauren Pires, Associate Publicist for Jane Wesman Public Relations, Inc., for arranging this review and interview for Socrates’ Book Reviews.


  1. Thank you for this interesting interview, I sure didn't know these things about Australia, and it certainly peaked my interest to read the book.

  2. I didn't know these things either. I was very surprised, especially when it came to legal issues.

  3. What a fabulous interview. It has put me off wanting to live in Australia. I have had so many friends emigrate and come back and now I am not surprised. It is awful to see the way widows are treated, but it appears to be a common story. I definitely want to read this book.

  4. Great interview! I was just doing a random search on who else had done interviews with gail graham and found your post.

    Here is the interview i did with her:

    I would be more than happy to link out to yours in a blog entry.


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