In this interview, Jenny Mosher talks with Jenny Kroonstuiver, author of life stories and family histories.
If you’d like to learn more about Jenny or check out some of her books, then visit IndieMosh.com.au or search for her books at your favourite online retailer.
I’m Jenny Mosher and today I’m talking with Jenny Kroonstuiver, author of life stories and family histories. Join me as we learn about Jenny's work processes and what drives her to write.
Good morning Jenny. How, how are you?
I’m fine thank you, Jenny.
Not to, ah, lock down stir crazy yet?
Not yet. It's getting close, though. I’d love to be able to go for a drive.
Yeah, yeah, it gets a bit like that doesn't it? But I suppose there's only so many times you can drive to the end of the road or the supermarket, isn't there?
Absolutely, yes. Fortunately we're in a large LGA.
Yeah, yeah, so you get a bit of a bit of breathing space. So um we've published three books with you so far um and your, your theme, what you what you write about seems to be family history or history of people.
Your first book, Glimpses of Jean, wasn't a relative, was she?
No, but she was a very, very close friend of the family and we actually called her Auntie Jean, so she was like an adopted aunt to us.
Yeah, right. And she lived in Kalgoorlie?
No, I grew up on a sheep station and when my father first went there in 1963 there was nothing there in terms of a station. There was a lime kilns which are with a Yugoslav community of about 30 people.
Right, was this in Kalgoorlie?
No, this was about 400 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie on the Nullarbor Plain.
Wow – isolated!
It was, yes, and so Auntie Jean was a … she and her husband ran the lime kilns community there.
Yeah, right, right. Okay, so … so you grew up out there?
Ah yes, we were there when I was about eight years old and so I did most of my primary schooling on School of the Air and, um, as did my brothers and my sister. And yes it was a wonderful childhood.
Actually that's, that's an interesting thought. However many years ago, what was that about 20 years ago, you were eight?
Oh, please, yeah!
So, those years ago, you were doing School of the Air and now in this last 18 months our children have had to adapt to doing home schooling online.
Absolutely, it's like a full circle and I watch my grandchildren absolutely struggling so it's a little bit more than 20 years ago. I watched my grandchildren struggling with the concept of being isolated in their learning and yet that was an integral part of my own childhood.
Yes, yeah that's, that's and and they've got the benefit they would have visual as well - you only had the radio.
Yes we had the Flying Doctor Radio and we had one hour every couple of days as, as our lessons and the rest were correspondence.
Right, right so you get … actually, I can remember doing a course in the early 2000s I think it was and it was literally correspondence. It hadn't quite made it to internet levels at that stage and yeah the packet would come and I’d, I’d complete it and send it back, yeah. Wow life has changed very quickly hasn't it?
It certainly has. Yes.
So, three books under your belt. What's … is there anything … you've got more in the works?
I’ve got four in the works and it's wonderful because I get up each morning and decide which one I’ll work on today.
So you're working on them concurrently?
Oh yes, yes. So one of them is another family history and it's my husband's side of the family. And that's really challenging that one because there's so much Dutch involved and I have to translate word by word. So that's very slow and laborious. But I think the next one that's most exciting is that another biography which is … I’m editing the diaries of a very old friend who passed away just a few weeks ago and she and her family escaped communism at the beginning of the Second World War, by basically walking from country to country in front of the um the Russian army, trying to escape the Russian army. And it's the most incredible story.
And she kept diaries of that?
She wrote the diaries in her later life as reflective diaries and um she had lost she lost a brother, her father was arrested, it was, it was just the most heart-wrenching story.
So you've got all her diaries … did she have children?
She had three adopted children and I’m working with them, and her husband is still alive as well, although he's in his 90s and very elderly but yes I’m working with her family at the moment and they're finding photos and things that can be included in the book.
Oh fantastic, fantastic. I interviewed Jeff Hopkins last week and he was talking about legacy publishing about um getting these stories and documenting them of, you know, basically, you know, the ‘ordinary people’, the people who don't get reported in the news but their stories are still so valuable and we can learn so much from them. Do you find it emotionally difficult?
That one I have, because she writes very emotionally as well, so sometimes I have to tone it down a little bit because it just gets a little bit too heart-wrenching. Yes, that one I find very challenging. But I’m also writing my father's story. He left me his early childhood story with the instructions that I wasn't to do anything with it until after he passed away.
I think I’d do the same!
So I’ve been working on that and he has a totally different style, it's a very narrative personal style and that one I love. I’ve just been working through that and he has, a he's a gifted storyteller and to be honest I have to do very little work on his writing.
That's good. So what's, what was his background? Is there something special about his story?
He grew up as the eldest of 13 children in the depression years.
Oh my goodness!
Yes, and he became a jackaroo in western Queensland which is where my station heritage comes from and … he just tells the story of his early years as a jackaroo and how he learned to become a station manager and the types and lots of stories. The outback is full of rich stories and my dad was a wonderful storyteller.
Yes, yeah. It's interesting, you probably have to get a uni degree to be a jackaroo these days, I’d assume! It's um …
Yeah. I mean, that's a place we still have jackaroos, don't we?
Oh, oh yes, we have jackaroos and we have jillaroos, yes, they're still very much an integral part of station life, yes.
Yeah, yeah. I suppose it's some things that can't be automated aren't there? Probably just as well. Wow … so that's your dad's story, your friend's story and two others, right?
So the Kroonstuiver history is one and the other one is the novel and the novel's been on the table for 20 years now, and every now and again I get a surge and write another chapter or so, but I’ve discovered that I’m, I’m not a fiction writer and it's, it's really hard work writing a novel. Which amazes me because I don't read non-fiction, I only read fiction, and yet my writing is totally non-fiction. That's the genre I’m most comfortable in.
Isn’t that interesting?
Actually it's good that you can recognise that though. It's good that you can recognise that as a writer um that there is a difference between fiction and non-fiction writing.
Very much so.
Your background, your work background, was that writing? Were you a writer?
No, I was a teacher for about 15 years and I taught in fairly remote areas of Australia including the Northern Territory. And then for the last 16 years until I retired I ran a national training council for the Australian meat industry and I, although that wasn't a writing job, I actually wrote heaps of training manuals and materials for training so um I had done quite a lot of researching and writing as part of that role.
Yeah. So that's a question – research. The research for your husband's family, the Kroonstuivers, um, how do you research? Like, you can't go on to Trove for that, or I suppose you could for stuff that's happened since they arrived in Australia, but, how do you research the, the earlier stuff?
Well I’m a member of lots and lots of, genealolly, genealogical sites, if only I could say it properly!
I know the feeling ha ha. ‘Family history sites’ - I cheat.
But I’m very lucky, lucky in the fact that the Dutch have excellent record keeping and that each province has many localised records and they've been collecting them in a lot of detail since the early 1800s. And the church records are pretty much intact from before then as well. So there's lots of records in Holland that are available. Unfortunately they are all in Dutch hence the need to use Google Translate constantly but that that's where you're lucky and you just find, okay somebody might be listed as a timberman or a salmon fisher, so you can go in there and research the history of that particular industry in that area and get a sense for what they were doing and how they operated.
And what their life was like, yeah, yeah. Because family history is more than just so and so was born on this day, died on that day, married this person, had these kids, lived here, lived there. Um it's, it's, it's about how they lived their life. If you're going to write a family history, you've got to add that colour, haven't you? You've got to add that.
You, do. And you have to provide historical context as well. With the Australian newspapers in the last book I wrote, one of the things I did was on the day they arrived in Australia on the ship I’d go and have a look at the newspapers of the day and see what the front page stories were so that I - and the weather - and so I could find out what they actually stepped off the ship into and what were the burning events of the day. And it just provides such an interesting context for what they faced when they first landed in Australia.
And especially if you consider that you know they would have been out of communication for quite a long time.
You know, months possibly, and then they, they finally arrive and, and to find out what's been happening while they've been, yeah, isolated on that boat for so long um must have been, yeah, quite, quite overwhelming, yeah.
Absolutely. I know that one of the families in the last book I wrote, they arrived in the middle of the gold rushes in western New South Wales and so the ship would have had hundreds of people who were just there to get off and go and find gold, plus the fact there was a huge Chinese migration at the same time, so they would have stepped off onto a wharf which was absolutely teeming with Chinese people as well. And for people coming straight from um the midlands of Britain, that would have been incredibly confronting, they wouldn't have known what they'd come to!
Well actually that’s probably quite right. They would, they probably would be so unaware of, of those other cultures back then.
You don't, you don't think about that … yeah … it's, it's just not, it's not just about the documenting, is it? It's about all the effects of, yeah, it's about being able to bring that to life, how those people would feel, yeah.
One of my, I’m very lucky that when I was at university I actually studied a lot of history and I’ve never ever got a chance to teach it and now I’m sort of reliving my childhood here I just love researching all the historical context and the Kroonstuiver family history that I’m working on at the moment, they were in Indonesia from about 1900 onwards and caught up in the Japanese um takeover of Indonesia and then subsequently the Indonesian war of independence, where some of the family members disappeared. And learning the history of that time which affected the family is just incredible um it's such an amazing story they were all interned in Japanese camps and some of them went through terrible times.
Yeah, yeah … yes, it's um, yeah, war, wouldn't wish it on anyone.
Yeah, wow, um now you mentioned something about, who was it had 13 children in the depression?
My father was the eldest of …
13 children in the depression. Did, were they able to keep the family together, or did they have to, like, give some of the kids away?
No, no, they kept the family together. My grandmother was an extraordinary lady and of course the children were spread out over, quote, over quite a number of years so my father left home by the time my youngest aunt was born. My grandfather though um he was a soldier settler and uh he, he enlisted in both wars, although he never got sent overseas, but he was away for um quite long periods during the wartime and in those years, and in the depression years, my father and his other brothers who were the eldest ones in the family, really had to step up in terms of taking on part-time work in orchards and things like that. They grew up around Griffith and so they worked a lot in the orchards and on other farms, just to help make ends meet with the families so it was really tough times.
And of course in those days we didn't have a minimum working age, I don't think. I mean, they would have been working at what, 12, 13, 14 would they?
Oh yes, they were only early teens, yes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We expected our children to grow up a lot faster.
Absolutely! And they had to go and, even the younger ones were off trapping rabbits every night just to put meat on the table so …
Yeah, and now you pay 300 bucks for a plate of rabbit in a top-class restaurant, don’t you?
Wow, so, so when you're writing four books at once, I suppose they're all different? They're all, they're all different source material, all different stories, aren't they? So you, there's, there'd be no chance of confusion. Do you find, like, you wake up and one is drawing you more than another?
Oh very much so. Like I’ve worked almost exclusively on the Kroonstuiver story over the last couple of weeks because I had a big breakthrough and discovered a branch of the family that I’ve been trying to discover for years, and so that's been really exciting because I’ve discovered pirates and slave traders and all kinds of colourful characters. So I’ve worked almost exclusively on that for the last couple of weeks.
So you know your next job, don't you? You've got to research those guys and then do a film script so that you can get into Hollywood.
Oh no, I don't think that's my genre either.
But it's like that breakthrough um it's, it's just like dominoes tumbling, isn't it? Like it's …
You know I’ve got a couple of brick walls myself and, and it's just why? Why can I not break these, these walls down and I think, I think someone must have been adopted or somebody's father was naughty or something and, and the people I think I’m related to I’m not really related to. I think, I think there's something going on there. It's um, but yeah without those documents you'll never know.
That's right. And it's sometimes and it's just a word and I went back and just found a surname mentioned in a marriage document. But I wonder if that's related? And I went in and it just opened it all up a complete smorgasbord of discovery. It was wonderful!
Lovely yeah, so um personal question: have you had your DNA tested?
Yes I have and um it helped originally because it gave me um confirmation on my, when I was writing my father's history, that it gave me confirmation that I was on the right track going into the British aristocracy, which did throw up an unexpected amount of um northern Europe heritage which I’ve originally attributed to the Vikings, and then I discovered that I had Dutch heritage on my family side not just on my husband's family side. And the Dutch that I’m descended from were the founders of New York.
Okay, right …
And so that was amazing! So the DNA actually opened that up for me and sort of said to me that there's something more here that you haven't found yet haven't thought yet
That's what I find interesting, it's just those, those things that um and of course the more people that get the tested the more refined your own test comes. Every, every six months or so mine gets refreshed and now I’ve found out I think I’ve got four percent Welsh in me which was, didn't exist before, no idea where it comes from, but um … What I do find interesting I’ve got a couple of links in my family and of course I’m not a Mosher, I’m a Mosher by marriage um but I’ve got a couple of links in my family who have Mosher ancestors from the same Rhode Island area that my husband comes from.
Yeah, so now, now the thing is to prove that I’m related to my husband. No actually, no, I don't want to consider that!
Oh it sounds reasonably distant.
I think so, pretty safe. But yeah it's, it's just the way the way people move around the world and, and um and, and populating those links, yeah … it's, it's fun, isn't it?
Oh it certainly is and, and I lose entire days, and at the end of the day I’ll find I’ve written an entire sentence as part of the script that I’m working on. But I’ve had a journey of discovery that's gone down hundreds of rabbit holes and had great fun in finding out lots of things that aren’t totally irrelevant!
Although you think they are, like that name which helped break down that wall. You know you, you go down that path, you enjoy it, and then maybe six weeks or six months later something will happen and you'll think, ‘Ooh, I read something about that.’
You just, you just don't know. You've got to, and you've got to enjoy it! I think if you don't enjoy it, it's, yeah, it's no fun. You've got to have fun with it, haven't you?
Oh I agree, yes.
Yeah, yeah … So with the novel, what do you reckon you'll do there? Do you reckon you'll keep going?
Yes, well I turned it into historical fiction so at least it was partly fun. And so I’ve pretty much finished the narrative side of it. Now I’ve just got to go and polish the language and um just put a bit of embellishment in it because it's a bit too much um this happened then that happened and it needs a bit more colour in it. So that's going to be the challenge, yes.
Yeah. So I suppose it's a case of trying to get your characters to tell the story rather than you telling it?
Yes that's exactly …
Yeah, yeah um I don't envy you there. I have tried a bit of fiction and I actually find because I’ve got a corporate background um that my fiction is a bit heavy-handed as well. It’s um … and especially like I have a theory or a philosophy that um fiction is, is entertainment, but you should also get a little education out of it. And then if you're writing non-fiction which is educational you should still put a bit of entertainment in it to keep it going. So I do find that my fiction is probably too … I need more entertainment and less of the education.
I couldn't agree more. You've just described my writing perfectly!
So do you set yourself goals or do you like, like do you, have you decided ‘Okay, I’m going to get this book out this year, this book out next year.’ Or do you just write until you feel like it's, it's completed?
The Russian book I intend to get out before the end of the year.
The Kroonstuiver one, that's open-ended I have no idea when that's going to be finished. I think there's a long way to go on that still. My father's book just about ready, I think.
Who knows with the novel - that could be another 20 years!
Yeah … it's waited this long, it'll wait a bit longer.
But that's good, that's good that you sort of … it's like cooking a roast dinner: it'll be ready when it's ready, yeah.
And I suppose that's the difference between your style of writing and if, if you were, say, a novelist by profession, you would have to have deadlines. You would have to be delivering a book every six months or every 12 months or whatever your, your path is, to stay in business. But because you do this for self-fulfillment …
Oh yes, I’m never going to be a famous writer! I’m quite comfortable with that. And I’m never going to earn a great income from my writing and I’m quite comfortable with that as well. I do it for my own enjoyment and for the family history aspect of it, I do that for the family. I really think it's important that family stories are recorded um for example with the Kroonstuiver side, my husband's family didn't even know the names of their grandparents.
Yes, they were the ones that disappeared during the Second World War and so having been able to un- uncover that part of it has been just as important for them as it has been for my children to start knowing and understanding their heritage.
Yeah, yeah. There's, there's a lot to be said for knowing where you come from, no matter who you are. Um yeah and I mean I noticed that with um, you know, the Winton, your Winton book um that was about the Swan family/
If I remember correctly? And they came to Glengallan. I mean, I noticed, you know, a lot of um people who were obviously family researchers buying those books um
Oh very much so, yes.
With Winton I was very lucky that the 13 children in my father's family had reproduced to um with symbol similar numbers of children so I had a ready made … a ready market!
So that's the clue! You want to write family history, make sure that you've got families with lots of generations with lots of children!
Yeah that's, that's good and … but also, and I said this to Jeff Hopkins - I mean, you know we do legal deposit for these books, so you know we send a copy to the National Library in Canberra, a copy to the State Library, a copy to the State Parliamentary Library, a copy to the University of Sydney Library, so there's, there's four physical copies out there on the public record now. And they will be there for, you know, barring disaster, hundreds of years. So that that documentation will exist in one way or another - someone can find it down the path so those, those people are in a sense still alive, aren't they, when you do that?
I think that's wonderful. I, I think it's so important that they are recorded for posterity.
It's great that they're in the libraries.
Yeah, yeah. They don't have to be a general or a major and they don't have to be anybody famous and then the best stories come out from the people that, that aren't, don't they?
That's right, yes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah … So you're, you're retired. So how many hours a day do you work, or do you write, sorry, it's not work! How many hours a day do you write?
It really depends like um the last couple of weeks I’ve been working eight to ten hours a day because I’ve been right into it. And I sit down in the morning and next minute I look up and it's dark. Some days only a couple of hours a day. It just depends on what the urge is. Sometimes the housework really has to be done …
Yes I know! So I have a break and do it and being in lockdown that gives me lots and lots of time to write and I guess I’m writing more over the last couple of weeks and I haven't weeks before. Just depends what I feel like. There's no rules. I keep telling myself ‘I’m retired now - there's no rules.’
Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Um so do you, do you write seven days a week? Would you actually take a weekend? Do you take time off?
No. Sometimes I write seven days a week, sometimes I won't touch it for four days.
Um I’m just a bit burned out and think, ‘No, I need to break away from it.’ And I might think about it a lot but um I don't do any writing for a few days and then when I come back I’m hot to trot and ready to go again.
Good on you. Yeah, I think you do need to have that, well, it's a weekend, isn't it? It's a weekend for your brain, so um you probably do need that, that little, that little stop for a little while, just to … I have a friend that said um she said, ‘Sometimes you have to make room for other things to come in.’
And probably yeah, that little break, yeah …
Well when I was writing Glengallan um that, at Christmas time I drove to Cairns from here and went by …
How long did that take?!
Uh four days.
Yeah, yeah …
So I actually went to Glengallan during that time and uh walked around the house and had a look at and took lots of photos and read all the history there and that was wonderful. It gave me a real perspective on what I was writing about and gave me a sense of the area that my ancestors went to and um I didn't write for two weeks. But when I came back I had a lot more material.
Yeah … Did you find that you were itching to write while you were away?
No, I was quite happy to set it to one side. Sometimes I really have to sit and think things through and I might try a different angle or reorganise something in my mind and when I come back to it I know that I have to do some polishing and some editing and turn things around.
Yeah, yeah, wow … Well that's, that's interesting, because every everybody does it differently, everyone approaches it differently um so this has been interesting, to see how you approach it and you put it together and, and how it drives you. So there's a question: you've got three non-fiction books on the burner at the moment. When you finish those, let's forget about the fiction, the novel might as you say could be another 20 years, but when you finish these three um non-fiction do you think that will make room for something else to come in, or do you think you're a bit done?
I don't think I’ll ever be done. I think at some point I will write my own story.
Both of my parents sat down and wrote their own stories before they passed away and they've been really important parts of the books that I’ve published.
And I think it's important to write mine as well. So I will do that. I think I’ll be doing um giving the same rules as my father did, that it’s not be published until I’m, I’m gone but, yeah, I will do that and I’m sure I’ll find something else to write about. I, I have no doubt that there's more out there.
Yeah … there's plenty of plenty of fodder and I mean, there would be um there's possibly angles you can take from what you've already published, or what you will be publishing, there's possibly spin-off things that can come from some of those, those books as well, I’d imagine so …
Yeah, yeah … Well look, it's lovely talking with you, um thank you for your time and, and thank you for that background on your writing processes and how it comes to you and, and what you what you do with it um … Hopefully this will be of help to other people writing their family histories too, so …
Thank you for asking me. It's been an absolute pleasure.
Yeah! Well lovely to meet you, all be it by cyberspace, and um, yeah, enjoy your writing, enjoy your lockdown.
Thank you, Jenny.
Thanks, Jenny. Bye.
You've been listening to an IndieMosh interview with Jenny Kroonstuiver. If you'd like to learn more about Jenny or check out some of her books, then visit indiemosh.com.au or search for her books at your favourite online retailer. I’m Jenny Mosher, thanks for listening.