God was at the shoulder of this debut novelist

Tasmanian-based mum of two Claire van Ryn still can’t quite believe that her debut novel, The Secrets of the Huon Wren, has been published by Penguin Random House, one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world.

Although a Christian, Claire always intended her novel to fit into the traditional publisher market rather than a Christian niche.

“That’s a pretty bold thing to do because it is an incredibly competitive market – I can’t stress that enough,” says the former journalist for the Launceston Examiner who became known for her Keeping the Faith column.

“I’m still rather overwhelmed by the fact that it was picked up by Penguin Random House, but right from the beginning I always knew that’s where I was going to be positioning it.”

“Often, I would start my writing sessions in prayer, just seeking an emptying of myself so that my inspiration could come from the right place.”

Yet even though Claire’s novel can sit happily alongside those of a bestselling author such as Kate Morton, with whom she has been compared, God did have a hand in this success story.

“I can’t help but write with God at my shoulder with Holy Spirit in my ear, so I knew that there would be a flavouring or an aroma to it that would speak of my faith. However, I knew that it wasn’t going to be an overtly Christian novel,” she explains.

“My writing process was still very considered in terms of where God would guide me with the plot. Often, I would start my writing sessions in prayer, just seeking an emptying of myself so that my inspiration could come from the right place. And he delivered; he absolutely guided me right through the whole writing process. So it was a really joyful, amazing process. I absolutely loved it.”

For a dedicated fiction reader such as myself, I would suggest that it’s rare for a debut novel to be as dazzlingly accomplished as this one. The writing style, character evocation and storytelling reveal a natural-born novelist with a bright future.

Launched on June 27, it tells a deeply moving story in two timelines – one in 2019 about Allira, a journalist who visits a nursing home looking for stories and meets Nora, a resident with advanced dementia and a doll cradled lovingly in her arms. As the pair form an unlikely friendship, Allira feels compelled to dig into Nora’s past as she reveals snippets of her childhood living beneath the Great Western Tiers in Tasmania’s heartland. A parallel story, set in 1953, follows Nora as a 15-year-old, the daughter of a carpenter/ undertaker who helps stitch linings into coffins for her father. After she meets a charming Polish-German migrant, her carefree life starts to fall apart. As Nora’s story is unravelled, Allira realises they are connected by their heartbreak.

Having always wanted to write a novel, Claire came across the kernel of her central character during a caravan holiday with her family in Queensland in 2018.

Portrait of Claire van Ryn by Jac Parsons

Sitting around the campfire, an eccentric fellow traveller regaled them with stories about her life as a police officer and then a nurse. For Claire, the story that lodged in her mind was of a woman with dementia in a nursing home who had a doll that she cared for like a newborn baby, and who said chilling things that revealed something terrible had happened in her past. “Daddy took my baby behind the shed.”

Two years later, as COVID hit, Claire felt God tell her it was the time to start writing and she turned to the idea that had been percolating in her mind.

“To be set free to write creatively was a real dream.”

“Having written for other people and other agendas for so long, to be set free to write creatively was a real dream but also the guidance that I had from the Holy Spirit and the research and the little affirmations as I trundled along,” she says.

For the contemporary story of Allira, she mined her own life experiences and the places that she knew deeply from her childhood. She lyrically evokes the mountainous area of Tasmania where Nora grows up, about an hour’s drive from Launceston, and where Claire’s parents lived at separate times.

“My parents tell stories of how, when I was first born, they would bundle me up at crazy hours of the morning and put me on the backseat of the car and they’d go and milk the cows and come back to the car and I’m still just asleep in the back of the car,” she explains.

“My mother’s lineage is rooted in that country from the 1830s. My mum and dad have just sold their property there, so I don’t have a link there any longer, but there’s still just that tug tug on your heart. It’s rather inexplicable. It’s a spiritual kind of connection to place.”

Claire van Ryn on the road. Photo by Sarah Kirton

Claire says she feels very privileged to have been brought up in a Christian home and remembers becoming a Christian when she was six. “I had just had a terrible dream and I’ve always been a fairly black-and-white person in terms of my belief systems, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to hell.’ And my dad prayed with me, and that was it. Of course, it’s much more nuanced than that as I’ve matured. God’s always been my guiding light.”

Interestingly, Claire portrays Nora’s mother as having a very religious, harsh rendering of Christianity and she was interested in exploring through Nora’s younger self “a softer appreciation of the world that is much more in line with Jesus.”

In considering how her novel might help bring healing to people or to draw them to God, Claire says a theme she was particularly drawn to was the relationship between young and old and how in our society, we don’t do that well.

“An elderly woman said something to me once that really touched me. I was walking with my daughter; she was quite young at the time, three or four. And this lady had a dog. So, of course, my daughter was patting her dog, and we were chatting, and this lady said, ‘Thank you so much for stopping.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s OK, thanks for lending us your dog.’ And she said, ‘You disappear when you get older.’ And just that one line touched me, and I rebel against that. I think that’s wrong. I don’t think we should disappear as we grow older. Elderly people or people on the spectrum of age have so much to give the younger generations and there should be this meshing, this kind of feeding off each other. That was the backstory to the theme of a young Allira and an old Nora establishing a connection. Of course, their connection is somewhat hindered by Nora’s dementia, so that’s a challenge, but in terms of what that means in a faith sense, it’s having our heart and our mind open to those in our midst no matter what they look like, how they present in terms of their impediments or abilities and disabilities.”

“I don’t think we should disappear as we grow older.”

In terms of the nitty-gritty of the creative process, Claire describes herself as a pantser rather than a plotter.

“In the author fraternity, authors will self-describe as either a plotter where you sit down and plot it, perhaps chapter by chapter or scene by scene, and then work to create all those elements chronologically. Or you’re a pantser – which means flying the seat of your pants. We’ll start with one small element. It might be a character, it might be an idea, it might be a view out of a window, it could be anything. And then they just write and they see where that takes them. So we’re a lot more open to imagination.”

And guidance by the Holy Spirit, I suggest. “Exactly,” she agrees.

Until The Secrets of the Huon Wren, Claire’s only previous publishing experience has been a self-published compilation of her newspaper columns called Faith Like a Mushroom, which had won the Young Australian Christian Writer Award in 2012 in its manuscript form.

So finding an agent and a mainstream publisher was a much more challenging and ambitious process.

“I had a sense that, in order to be seen, I needed to have an agent. So the first part of the submission process was submitting to agents. I submitted to about eight before I found Fiona Smith, who represents me and she signed me in about November 2021. Then we went on a family holiday in 2022, did a lap of Australia, and we left in January. It’s a really strange experience to actually relinquish your work into the hands of someone else. And it was then her job to position the manuscript in front of all of the different publishing houses that she approached,” Claire explains.

“We were just touring around Australia. I was checking my emails pretty frequently still because, notoriously, I don’t have a lot of patience. So it was in May, we were camping in a remote WA cattle station, when Fiona called and said that Penguin Random House was interested and that she was expecting an offer. And it just happened from there. It’s an absolute dream!”

Claire is now suffering the nerves of the successful debut novelist facing the challenge of writing a follow-up. Her next novel will also be a dual timeline, and will also feature a bird. “Birds are a theme in my life,” she says, pointing to her a pendant of a swallow and her wrist tattoo of a swallow, which remind her of her two miscarriages between having her son Roman, 12, and Adelaide, 9.

“When we had our miscarriages, God just sent swallows; I saw swallows a lot. For me, it was a theme that because swallows are so common, such is the presence of God. He is all around us. He’s always with us. We will always see him when we look for him. So the theme of the swallow became a symbol for me of God’s presence in my life. And that correlated with the grief of our babies that we lost.”

“He’s always with us. We will always see him when we look for him.”

Now faced with doing publicity for her novel, Claire is so grateful to God for the success he’s brought so far.

“He’s so good. He’s just doing everything. It is so encouraging to know that this is not in my strength,” she says.

“I don’t know if it will be a success, but in the sense that it’s been published, in the success of it, my need is the same and even greater because again, I can’t do this without God. That is to say, I want God to be glorified in it and it’s a little bit confusing sometimes because the book is not overtly Christian, but I want God to be glorified.

“Can I do it again? There’s that question in the back of your mind, can you actually achieve this again? But, yes, in God’s strength it’s possible.”

Claire is launching her book in Launceston today, July 6, at the Tramsheds Function Centre, 6-8pm. trybooking.com/CIPTV

The Hobart launch is on July 13 at Fullers Bookshop from 5:30pm: Click below for tickets.