Suzanne Leal touches on being a single parent and working mum and the challenges that face them in her new novel, The Teacher’s Secret.

1. Can you tell us more about your novel, The Teacher’s Secret?

The Teacher’s Secret is a tender and compelling story of scandal, rumour and dislocation. Set in the small coastal community of Brindle, it is the story of Terry Pritchard, a much-loved teacher who finds himself the subject of accusations that leave him reeling and the rest of the school in disarray. It is also the story of Nina Foreman – newly single and struggling to manage a classroom of hostile students and colleagues – and of Rebecca Chuma, who has left her homeland for unexplained reasons. In essence, however, The Teacher’s Secret is a story of hope and grace in difficult times.

2. Do you have a favourite character you can tell us a bit more about?

Nina Foreman is one of my favourite characters. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that her marriage is in trouble. She just can’t understand why. And when she finds herself on her own, she struggles to negotiate the difficulties of single parenthood and her new job as a teacher in a classroom of hostile students. But Nina is strong and resilient and determined – this is what I most like about her.

3. How did you come up with the plotline for the book?

The Teacher’s Secret is set in the fictional town of Brindle. Geographically, Brindle is very similar to Malabar in south-eastern Sydney, where I live. Over the years I have lived in Malabar, I have watched with interest and affection the daily intrigues of a community which, bordered as it is by its row of shops, the golf course, the ocean and a jail, is almost a cul-de-sac in itself. In many ways, The Teacher’s Secret is my lovesong to Malabar and to the importance of community.

As a lawyer, I have worked in criminal law and in child protection. In The Teacher’s Secret, I drew upon this experience to consider issues of trust and suspicion that may emerge within a school setting.

I have also worked in refugee law and in the course of my work, I have encountered many people seeking asylum in Australia. Amongst these people were strong, articulate and impressive women who had experienced great hardship. I often wondered how women like this – women who may have been well known in their country – would manage their relocation to a country that was foreign and where their experience and qualifications might count for nothing. The character of Rebecca Chuma emerged from my experience of these women and my imaginings of their subsequent lives.

With the character of Nina Foreman, I wanted to examine that tricky mix of being a single parent and a working woman. For some years, I was a single parent myself and I used this in creating Nina’s story.

4. Was there a particular part of the novel that was really difficult to write for you?

Towards the end of the book, there is a courtroom scene in a tribunal. I won’t spoil the story by saying too much about it. This was a difficult scene to write because I wanted it to be both legally accurate and suspenseful for the reader. So I kept rewriting and rewriting until I was satisfied with it.

5. Do you have a special place where you like to write?

My house is bright and airy and I like to write there, particularly when everyone else is out. My garage is quiet and I feel calm when I write there. Varuna is a writer’s retreat in the mountains west of Sydney and when I am there, I can write for hours.

6. What do you do to relax after a long writing day?

I like to run or swim or snorkel or read a novel. Or eat Turkish Delight.

7. Who was your favourite author growing up? Has it changed?

When I was growing up, I loved Ruth Park who wrote the children’s time travel story Playing Beatie Bow as well as the novels Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange, which bring to life one family’s struggle to make ends meet in Sydney in the 1940s. I am the senior judge for an Australian literary competition, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and so much of my focus has been on Australian writers. In recent years, I have been impressed by works by Michelle de Kretser, Richard Flanagan and Heather Rose.

8. What message do you want readers to take away from your novel?

My focus is never on imparting a message to my readers. I prefer to examine a particular idea or situation rather than to trying to draw conclusions or make any moral judgments. My great interest is in understanding people’s motivation: why they behave badly or what encourages them to behave well.

In The Teacher’s Secret, I wanted to consider serious issues – what happens when a marriage ends, when a career ends, when a family is forced to relocate – without becoming mired in darkness; without losing a sense of humour and kindness and lightness.

9. When did you decide to write and what prompted you to start?

I was a keen writer as a child and then suddenly found that I’d grown up, was about to have a child and had simply stopped writing creatively. Stupidly, I assumed that a baby would free up my time so I’d be able to write again. That didn’t happen but once I was less sleep deprived and my son was in childcare, I took what time I had to sit down and write. My first novel, Border Street, is based on the wartime lives of my former neighbours and their story propelled me to write harder and with more urgency.

10. What’s next for you?

I’ve just finished a time travel book for older children and have started writing a novel about long-held secrets that threaten to destroy the lives of two very different families.

A popular teacher with something to hide.

A new principal determined to uncover the truth.

A young mother, suddenly single, who struggles to rebuild her life.

A grieving daughter who must learn to face the world again.

A family forced to flee their homeland and start afresh.

A small town can be a refuge, but while its secrets are held, it’s hard to know who to trust and what to believe.

The Teacher’s Secret is a tender and compelling story of scandal, rumour and dislocation, and the search for grace and dignity in the midst of dishonour and humiliation.

Suzanne Leal is a lawyer experienced in child protection, criminal law and refugee law. She is a regular interviewer at Sydney Writers’ Festival and other literary functions and the senior judge for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.Suzanne lives in Sydney with her husband, David, and her four children, Alex, Dominic, Xavier and Miranda.

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