A Chat with Judy Crozier, Author/Activist

DB©18 181104 Judy Bookpresentation 3936
DB©18 181104 Judy Bookpresentation 3936

happy in Pezenas 1 1Judy Crozier is an Australian living in France and the author of a novel that came out in 2018. It’s a great read – a historical novel called: What Empty Things Are These.

The novel is based in London, in 1860. Judy has been interested since her days as a child in wartime Saigon in the British Victorian era.

Now, she is leading a campaign to regain the right to a pension, for herself and other Australians living in France.

I recently asked her a few questions about her novel and the campaign for Australians abroad and access to their pension.

What inspired you to write a historical novel based in 1860s London?

wetatfrontcoverOddly, What Empty Things Are These arose (sort of) from having lived in a war zone. At least, in a city (Saigon) approaching war zone status in the early 60s. My father was attached to the Australian embassy there as an advisor on aid, due to his years of experience in South and South East Asia – mostly as a mining engineer. You may think that was all very exciting, and yes, it did have its moments, but mostly I just did a lot of reading. I read Thackaray’s Vanity Fair when I was nine (and totally missed all the racy bits), and also Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. I recall some interminable and deeply depressing Victorian children’s stories. There really wasn’t much else to do for a western child, but to read. In fact, I’d read my way all the way through the children’s section of the British Council Library and most of the way through the adults’ by the time we left.  I became very good at English and can recognize grammatical errors at a hundred paces, even though I missed out on English grammar as a subject at school.

I also became enamoured with Victorians. Not, as I grew older, as an unquestioning fan but more as people who were personally and whose culture was directly related to us. They were both unlike us, yet very, very similar. Every Victorian issue, especially socially, is highly recognizable to us. Even Victorian shonkiness is very like our own!

I think it’s fair to say that my parents were – as many Australians were in those days – anglophiles, and I expect this influenced me. Mind you, even during the times I was at school in Australia there was very little in way of real Australian history taught, aside from explorers. We missed out, in those days, on social awareness. Strangely, I suppose, over the years I got most of my social awareness from my interest in British Victorians, and then applied it to Australia. Just in time for the 70s.  

Judy Crozier
Book launch

How did your childhood in wartime Saigon influence your writing?

I think a person’s surroundings must influence their approach to life. For example, even a nine-year-old in the ’60s Saigon was aware of many of the complexities that threaded their way through Vietnam: animosities, corruption, destruction and general social stress. I knew that war is just about dislocation as it is about death.

You may not be amazed to learn I have a novel about Australians in Vietnam during the 60s ready to go just as soon as it finds the right agent.

I suppose the other influence was the sense of being there and sympathetic, yet from the outside. We were observers, and we could always leave. We were outsiders, in my case both of the worlds where I physically lived and the one I mostly read about.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your novel?

countess 1 1Like most writers, the initial challenge is to think your way into the skin of your characters. In fact, I enjoyed that immensely – both becoming a Victorian and thinking how every aspect of that person’s life, including her very clothes, affected her attitudes and how she would go about things. In fact, my Master of Creative Writing was about the dress of 1860 and what the very shape said about Victorian psychology. It was a picture of the much-photographed Countess Castiglione that got me going on this, having fascinated me from my early teens.

I think a writer also has to beware of making assumptions. How much were Victorians truly the dour moralisers we all think we know, and how much was this simply PR by the middle and upper classes? Quite a lot of the latter, it seems to me.

And then, of course, there’s the language. This I worked on with enormous care. Our language, after all, reflects how we think, but by the same token, this was to be a novel for the 21st-century reader. Tricky, but a lot of fun working to make the language both genuine and accessible.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I think and hope that readers will recognize our society in our ancestors’, and will empathise with my characters. Quite by accident, it came out in a world suddenly taken up with #MeToo awareness and yes, it is a deeply feminist book, without banging too many drums.

I like to think readers will like the mystery and the sense of adventure in What Empty Things are These – there’s even a very poignant murder – as well as underlying humour here, and there, an outrageous spiritualist session and, of course, what the book has to say about Victorian society and ours.

Can you tell us about your campaign to regain the right to a pension for Australians living in France?

Ah yes, my missing pension. While I spent my entire adult life in Australia working (first as a journalist and then mostly casually), raising kids (mostly alone), endlessly fixing my house (I’m quite good with a hammer now), and taking part in community issues both as a community worker and as a lefty…I had spent that important time in my childhood in Vietnam at a French school. Think not only language but geography, the decimal system even before it was introduced to Australia, and history. Add that to even earlier days when my family lived in Malaya (where I was born) and Burma, and you would understand that moving countries is not so very extraordinary a notion for me.

Though, let me tell you, shifting myself from Melbourne to France was, nonetheless, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

But my kids were adults, and frankly, I was by no means rich (and being a writer is no way to become so). Selling my house wouldn’t give me much change if I were to move to the next suburb, but I could buy into France and have something leftover to put into Super, a bank account to live on and something for the kids. Melbourne prices, you know!

The one thing I didn’t realise was that, while Australia has a Social Security Agreement (SSA) with 21 out of 27 EU countries and in 32 countries worldwide (so that Australians resident in those countries can claim their Australian Age pensions) there is no SSA with France. This was astonishing and more than a little distressing. Many of us Australians in France face a highly insecure old age unless we move to a country with an SSA with Australia – complete with new language and admin problems and all sorts of additional costs – or back to Australia. In Australia, we would have to wait two years to regain our eligibility for the pension, presumably on the dole and struggling to find accommodation in competition with all those others who can’t find a rental in Oz nowadays. We’d be a cost in these ways and also – since we are all over 67 – to the health system.

Some of us don’t even have Super (mine may not last me more than two years now), and many others have families who are French and not impressed with being forced to move in order to stay together.

So – since I have a background in community and political activism – what could I do but start a campaign to get our governments to negotiate seriously for an SSA?! We’ve been lobbying for around seven years now, across changes in government and ministries. We think we might be coming close to positive action, but of course, no one’s going to tell us until it’s done. We live in limbo, with our laptops open to pages describing How To Apply For Residency in any number of countries.

And no, we aren’t wealthy, or we wouldn’t be entitled to a pension in any case. We just feel that the rules that apply to others in comparable countries should apply to us. And we just want some security in our old age without having the upheaval of yet another international move.

Still, we live in hope. And I’ve become very good at letter-writing.

  • What Empty Things Are These, by JL Crozier, published by Regal House Publishing, and available online as well as by order from any bookshop.


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