Interview with Jacqueline Ross: A childhood home, its history, and its influence on our existence

By Louise Sapphira

Australian history within a derelict setting along our own coastlines can seep into our worlds and those around us.

The Australian gothic novel Blackwater is about pregnant Grace and her husband King Hammond, who return to his childhood home to visit his father in his final days. The novel explores Australian convict settlement history within a Tasmanian setting. Blackwater, also known as Hammond House, is a desolate, neglected property along the Tasman Peninsula where convict mothers and their orphan babies once resided. To make the circumstances even more challenging for Grace, King’s sister Ruth has a strange presence in his life. As a reader, if you wish to be left asking questions at the beginning, ending, and throughout a novel, then Jacqueline Ross’ Blackwater is a must-read.

I met with Jacqueline Ross to discuss character development and the underlying concept that initiated the novel, including the research journey. Jacqueline’s responses opened my eyes to what triggered writing Blackwater. Highlighting that a reader when opening the pages of a book can often initially think it is about something else. 

Jacqueline discussed the drafting process including the protagonist Grace by explaining that:

‘The strange thing about the book was that my character was pregnant right from the minute that she appeared on the page in the first draft, and I had no idea why…and I couldn’t work out how that was connected to the story. And then I discovered…the awful history of the convict nurseries.’ 

She added, ‘that serendipitous way that writing seems to happen for me.’

Further insight into the setting of the story is provided through Jacqueline discussing her early experiences in Australia after travelling from her home-grown country New Zealand. She explained:

‘Hammond House or Blackwater was really inspired by the house I saw when I first came to Melbourne in Elwood. It was this incredible Victorian crumbling mansion, with trees growing right up to the first story. The whole verandah had fallen off, and there was like a door opening into nothing.’ 

To draw closer to her initial inspiration, Jacqueline commented, ‘There’s something about an old, abandoned house that fires my imagination, in a way that just nothing else ever does.’ Each page in the novel highlights this passion and keeps the reader engaged in the narrative that shows a part of Australian history.

Australian heritage and experiential research are both evident in the narrative. When discussing how much this type of research influenced the writing journey, Jacqueline felt inclined to ‘start with a sense of place’ in particular the Tasman Peninsula which she has always loved. It is the Tasmanian setting that also inspired the writing of the novel. She continued:

‘It becomes that kind of peninsula of horror in a way because it’s so stained…so many layers of brutal history…awful Indigenous massacres occurred there, then the convicts, then Martin Bryant. So, you can’t help but think that somehow this is a place that’s got a real darkness to it.’ 

She added that with ‘its incredible beauty, like so much of Tasmania…I just really found that juxtaposition fascinating.’ From Grace’s point of view when she first approaches Blackwater with King:

‘The peninsula in winter is an overcast, dark, frozen place. There is beauty everywhere in Tasmania, sweeping golden bays, craggy rocks and caves, lush forest. But evidently not here. I’m relieved this is a quick visit.’

Jacqueline discussed the research trip she took to Tasmania ‘and really getting a sense of how I could weave that into the story.’ She explained how the research ‘reflects my passions, which are old things, especially houses, and places that somehow hold what’s happened in the past…the fabric…[and] soil, somehow those two things always fascinated me…convicts have always fascinated me, too. Maybe because I didn’t grow up here.’ 

These elements of research and passion are drawn together. Jacqueline added, ‘It was just not one place’. She continued talking about Tasmania and seeing the stone houses. ‘They’re really quite imposing…and I imagine Blackwater to be a very imposing house…before it became decayed. So, I think it’s an amalgam of a whole lot of places.’ For Jacqueline, the process does not feel like research when you are drawing on your passions.

Continuing from this sense of place, we began to discuss King, Grace’s husband, and his behaviour in Hammond House. In particular with his twin sister Ruth and the strange closeness between them. Jacqueline said, ‘I think what I love doing with characters is to offer all these hints about what might have happened to them, who they might be, and never make the reader feel comfortable…I like it to be open to interpretation.’ She continued, ‘But what I was intending…is just to show how dysfunctional their relationship was rather than anything else…I wanted to leave it open for that very reason.’ Jacqueline added, ‘I think relationships between siblings is another area that I find really interesting.’

Jacqueline originally had a different ending to the novel, but her agent told her, ‘It was too dark… so I pulled back on some of that darkness.’ She continued, ‘That darkness was around King, so he was much more of an antagonist…but it fundamentally didn’t change the ending’ or create another door for the main characters. She added ‘I like ambiguity, and I like everything not to be wrapped up neatly.’

Another character that we discussed is Grace’s experience with the town’s Tarot Card reader Hilda. Jacqueline said, ‘I really wanted to include her [Hilda] as a threat to be honest.’ She continued, ‘I think [when]…writing in this genre [one element] is to make as much conflict and threat as you can, even in small ways.’ When connecting with Grace, Jacqueline said, ‘I had to find ways to keep her [Grace] in the house, and one of them was her practicality and her lack of belief in anything that can’t be explained.’ For instance Tarot card reading or ‘something that goes bump in the night.’ 

Jacqueline also teaches writing to university students and works with them to achieve their writing aspirations. She discussed how this has influenced her writing. She said, ‘It constantly reinforces what I already know.’ Also, with students ‘some of them say the most insightful things, and it’s like the penny drops.’ The most important advice Jacqueline gives to students ‘is reading…both in the genre and the style that you’re interested in writing in, but also much more broadly.’ She gave the example of ‘reading genres that make you uncomfortable…because you’ll learn things that otherwise might have passed you by.’ She added that without pushing yourself ‘you may not discover something about yourself as a writer, which will be to your detriment, really.’

Jacqueline is currently working on a new novel in the same genre. This passion for writing in the gothic genre is clear in Blackwater. Each scene sets another sense of chaos into Grace and King’s relationship with the influence Hammond House has on them. The reader will keep turning the pages as each element unfolds resulting in surprising conclusions. 


Audio of the interview.

More About Jacqui:

Jacqueline Ross is the author of several novels including Blackwater, published by Affirm Press in 2023. She has written non-fiction books, feature articles for newspapers, and short stories for literary journals. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and a BA in Professional Writing and Editing. Jacqueline teaches writing at Swinburne University.