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What was it about the Sydney Coves that made you decide to write about them?
I’m fascinated by history and the forces of history that shape the present. I heard about the Sydney Coves from a friend. I hadn’t heard of them before and that alone was interesting to me—I thought I knew a fair bit about early Australian history. When I hear a story from our collective past that is new to me, and that I feel should be more widely known, I’m often drawn to write about it. I have a long-standing interest in the various gold rushes that took place around the world, and in particular how that roving society of miners, merchants and sex workers changed the societies that came into contact with them. That early San Francisco was so marked by an Australian flavour intrigued me, as did the overall poor reputation that was attached to those from Australia. As is often the case, the more I looked into it, the more interesting the world of the Coves became, until I knew that I had to put something down on paper.
How close to historical fact is your portrayal of life in San Francisco in 1849?
It is all based on historical fact and incident, even if I’ve amalgamated various characters and played with the temporal aspects of the period to better suit the needs of a historical crime narrative. For example, the first thoroughbred horse in California was indeed named Black Swan, and was imported to race a California pony. Yankee Sullivan was a real figure who died in a San Franciscan prison cell. The first great fire of 1849 was indeed blamed on Australian crime figures. I was lucky enough to spend some quality time in the library archives over there, reading accounts of the period, and came home with a great deal of interesting material—only a fraction of which I could use in The Coves.
What’s the most interesting thing you learnt during your research?
The most interesting thing that I found in my research was the answer to the question that earlier sparked my interest in the whole project—why hadn’t I heard about this before? The answer was that the Australian criminals of San Francisco were so reviled that they were largely expunged from history. Despite contributing to several major historical incidents, namely the convening of two vigilance committees where local merchants rounded up many of the Sydney Ducks and lynched them, or exiled them, and despite the fact that the Sydney Ducks were blamed for burning the city to the ground on several occasions, all the while giving birth to the well-known San Francisco area known as the Barbary Coast (which was originally called Sydney-town), there is little to no trace of that Australian history in the city today.
‘A clever tale of criminal plots, family bonds, and the birth of a new world. Holds like a vice and never lets go. Every turn of the page builds the pressure.’—Rohan Wilson
‘The Coves is what happens when Australian criminals take over Deadwood.’—Paul Daley
‘A lyrical coming-of-age tale and an historical crime novel, lit by something fresh, honest and generous.’—Joan London
‘… a fascinating novel. Whish-Wilson succeeds in providing an engaging access point into this aspect of Australian/US history, while also presenting an interesting way of understanding coming-of-age.’—Westerly Magazine
Read a sample chapter of The Coves here.
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