Christine Bell

Interview with Christine Bell: Finding the Reality Within a Person’s Journey

Interview by Louise Sapphira

A woman’s journey that shows raw honesty and courage despite her youth.  

Christine Bell’s No Small Shame is a novel from the point of view of a young woman, Mary, the main protagonist. Mary has the strength to take on what is thrown at her, deal with it, and see what the next confrontation or barrier brings. Whilst No Small Shame is a historical fiction novel, set during World War One, Mary takes the reader from Bothwellhaugh, a village in Scotland to Wonthaggi in Victoria, the State Coal Mine, and Melbourne.

When reading No Small Shame there is a sense of walking in Mary’s shoes and being torn by the choices she had to face. However, Mary’s is not the only journey explored in the novel. When I met with Christine Bell to discuss No Small Shame and writing historical fiction, she said ‘it was also important to me that every character had their own story. They had to be there for a reason.’

Several points of view come through in the novel and I asked Christine if this was done intentionally. She said the minor characters ‘evolved’ and she felt the need ‘to know what their motivations were, and difficulties and what led them to be the way they were.’ But she added ‘I knew certain points. I knew Mary was going to come to Australia and be in love with Liam,’ another character that created conflict in the narrative. To expand further on whether Christine had the intention of showing different sides to a story, she said, ‘I don’t think you can know all the answers, you know plotters. No Small Shame was written very organically…but also Mary did have such a long way to go. Each character had a place in Mary’s journey.’

Christine explained the idea for the novel came about after researching her own family tree at the site of the State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi, including the museum:  ‘I kept thinking, there’s a story here. But I didn’t have a character or idea…I continued to research the immigration voyage that my great-grandparents had taken from Scotland to Australia and in the midst of that…I came up with a young woman who didn’t have a lot of means to be able to do something beyond her position in life.’

Christine talked about the hooks in No Small Shame that draws the reader into Mary’s journey including, Mary’s family travelling to Australia. This involved Mary ‘going to have a crush…thinking herself in love at fifteen with the boy that had lived next door all those years.’ She further explained, ‘the more I looked at it, the more I realised it was crucial to have…Mary’s interest in Liam. But also, to indicate to the reader that Liam wasn’t necessarily interested in Mary. I wanted to be able to show that Liam was a nice guy, he had dreams, and he had hopes…otherwise, it wouldn’t have made sense that someone as kind-hearted and caring as Mary would even care for him. It was crucial that I made that clear at the beginning.’

The evolution of women’s voices is also shown in No Small Shame and how their stories, in particular, Mary’s resonate with women today. Christine said, ‘because of Mary’s background, because she was very young, uneducated, very poor, Catholic, and an immigrant, some of these things were going to relate to people and women’s situations today, some weren’t.’ She explained it being ‘quite tricky for me to create her narrative because I did have some pressure from early critiquers…that Mary needs to be more proactive.’ But she went ahead with Mary’s story as intended. ‘I wanted to show is that women could have their own impact by taking small steps…to change [their] own life.’ Christine continued that Mary’s mother (Maw) also ‘was trying to pin her down.’ In Maw’s own words, she talks about her sister Deidre:

‘A bright, beautiful girl with the voice of an angel was our Deidre. ’Til she ran after dreams of being a famous opera singer. All the way to London. But they wouldn’t take a girl from the slums of Belfast – with no fancy training. Catholic to boot. You couldn’t get much lower in those heretics’ eyes.’

When talking about research for the novel, Christine discussed that extensive research was ‘crucial to be done because otherwise, I might have been unaware of something.’ She provided the example of Liam remaining in Wonthaggi because the coal mines needed workers rather than enlisting in the war.

During the interview, I asked Christine about writing historical fiction and balancing the accuracy of research with the overall atmosphere of the story. She said, ‘I did have to work out a balance at being able to insert what was happening in the war without allowing that to overtake the story.’ Even though No Small Shame is set during World War One, ‘it was a story about people, relationships, personalities, and choices. I did have to tread a fine line between threading the war through the narrative and not allowing it to overtake.’

Christine has published numerous young adult and children’s fictional short stories and No Small Shame is her first adult fiction novel. When discussing the transition to adult fiction Christine explained it as being a big change, particularly in writing historical fiction. However, she said ‘when I switched boats, it suddenly seemed so obvious to me to write historical fiction, considering that had been my passion to read when I was young.’

Christine has taught creative writing to adult students and said part of teaching is focusing on what and how to explain something, such as writing techniques, to a class. She added, ‘but then to articulate it to other people made me really interrogate how I do things, and why I do things, and gave me a greater understanding because I think by that stage a lot of things I was doing intuitively.’ She said it is ‘interesting to hear [students] perspectives and their struggles with how they are approaching things. Because it was a mutual learning experience.’

Even when writing No Small Shame Christine said she had a lightbulb moment because later in the process, she realised an extensive amount of detail needed double checking. So, with her next novel, she kept ‘copious notes on a spreadsheet’ and documented where she found certain facts. ‘That was a big lesson to learn…Sources [are] so important.’

When I asked Christine about her next novel she said it is about ‘an Australian soldier who stays on in France after World War One, the French woman he falls in love with, and the trauma behind his refusal to go home.’ She hinted that there is also another novel in the very early stages. This is a reminder to keep an eye out at bookstores for her upcoming novels.


For more about Christine Bell.