Monday, February 11, 2013

The Story of my Book

The Story of my Book – Sally Rippin on Our Australian Girl: Meet Lina.
From the Readings blog Feb 7, 2013

There is an imaginary laneway off Rathdowne Street, probably not far from the Readings Carlton store, where, fifty-seven years ago, Lina Gattuso would have played cricket with her brothers. When it began to get dark, the four of them would have stashed the old plank of wood they used as a cricket bat behind the dented garbage bin they used as stumps. Their precious ball, a faded red six-stitcher, would have been safely tucked away in someone’s pocket to be pulled out again the following day.

I have been working on Lina’s story over the last couple of years, wandering through the streets of Carlton, imagining what it would have been like to live there fifty years ago. Carlton was a very different place in the 1950s, a refuge for migrants, first Jewish, then Italian, making a new life for themselves in the crowded little terrace houses, often crammed with several families and sometimes no proper bathrooms. Wealthy Melbournians looked down on Carlton as a filthy slum and there was pressure to have it razed to the ground. Others joked that by the late 1950s it was so heavily populated with Italians that you needed a passport to enter Lygon Street!

It was Carlton’s Italian history that I particularly wanted to explore in my writing. My partner’s family is from Italy and came out to Australia in the early 1950s, living in Carlton when they first arrived. When I met Raffaele, his family would regale me with stories of their early lives; some hilarious, others heartbreaking, but all of them so different to the childhood I’d experienced. When I was asked to write for the Our Australian Girl series I knew instantly that I wanted to write about an Italian-Australian girl growing up in Carlton as I already had so many great stories to inspire me.

The year 1956 was a big one for Melbourne. Not only was it the year we hosted the Olympic Games, the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, but it also marked the arrival of television. I was particularly thrilled that these two momentous occasions happened to coincide, as I am embarrassed to admit I’m not a huge sports fan, but I am fascinated by the history of television! Another lovely thing about having 1956 as my designated year is that there are still plenty of people around I can talk to about this era (including a couple of very helpful Readings staff members!) I collected many stories orally but there was also a lot of information available on the internet including original footage of the Melbourne Olympics and our very first television broadcasts.

The Immigration Museum and the National Sports Museum at the MCG were also great sources of information and I found some fabulous books on the history of Carlton. My favourite was Per l’Australia: the story of Italian migration published by a division of Melbourne University Press with heart-breakingly beautiful photographs from the archives of the Italian Historical Society (Co.As.It). However, when I was touring schools in Darwin last year, I happened to mention to a teacher-librarian I was researching the 1950s and the next day she brought me a whole stack of women’s magazines her husband had found under the linoleum in a house he was renovating. Of all the documents I had come across, these were the most revealing of Australian life at the time.

I am still only a third of the way through the series, editing book three and about to embark on book four, but already Lina and her family have become such a big part of my life. I can’t wander through the streets of Carlton without seeing things through Lina’s eyes and every time I look at an Italian woman in her sixties I picture her as a young girl, like Lina. All my characters in all the books I have written feel real to me as I am writing them, but having spent so much time with Lina and her family and having lost myself so completely in the research, I would have to say Lina feels the most real of all. I know I will be relieved, but also a little sad, when I finish book four as it’s hard to leave a character’s world when you have spent so much time there. I have loved getting to know Lina, I hope you will love getting to know her, too.


  1. This is lovely Sally. A big fan of your books and the Australian Girls series and of Social History. I love to hear the detail of your experience of researching and writing the books and get a lot of enjoyment sharing my love of books and history with my little girl. Wonderful. Thankyou.

    1. Hi Michele - thank you! This is the first time I've written any historical fiction so it was a steep learning curve I have to say. I hope you and your daughter enjoy the books. If you live in Melbourne, do come along to the launch, won't you?
      It should be fun!

  2. Hello Sally, my daughter is loving your Billie B books at the moment. I also find so much inspiration from magazines and books of the time. Thank goodness for Trove but to have the original mags there is priceless. I look forward to your Australian girl series. xx

  3. Oh my goodness Josephine - I just looked up Trove now! I never knew of it before. Thank you for passing on that brilliant tip! I can see I am going to spend many hours there over the next few weeks. Luckily I still have one more book in the series to write!

  4. What a wonderful sounding story! I will get it for my girls - their grandmother's name (my mum) is Lina! Short for Fiorella in her case.