Author Shirley Marr writes of a small girl and a strange new land

Shirley Marr
Shirley Marr © Jessica Wyld

Perth author of young adult and children’s fiction, Shirley Marr, has just released a delightful new book A Glasshouse of Stars which draws on her own experience of leaving Christmas Island for mainland Australia as a seven-year-old and experiencing the good, the bad and wonder which comes from cultural shock.

A Glasshouse of Stars, which everyone from older children to adults and grandparents will enjoy, focuses on Meixing Lim and her family who have arrived at the New House in the New Land. Everything is vast and unknown to Meixing, including the house she names Big Scary. Her only solace is a glasshouse in the garden, which inexplicably holds the sun and the moon and the secrets of her memory and imagination.

Shirley Marr answered some questions from Have a Go News: Shirley what inspired you to write the delightful book A Glasshouse of Stars?

Shirley: My book was actually inspired by my childhood experiences of migrating to Australia, encountering the cultural clash, language barriers and the difficulties of starting life in a completely new country.

Have a Go News: How much did you draw on your childhood experiences coming from Christmas Island aged seven. How did the move shape your life?

Shirley: I drew on so many things from my childhood for my novel. There are a lot of really good, but also really bad experiences in there that happened to me personally, even though I confess to not having a magical glasshouse or a cat that stood on hind legs and served my friends orange juice. The move absolutely upended everything I knew about life. I went from being a carefree child who climbed trees in the jungle and was popular with my group of friends to becoming a stranger in a strange land. That was when I started to withdraw into the world of stories and writing to escape the scary reality that I found myself in.

Have a Go News: How important is it for you to preserve those early memories, especially the folk tales and fairy tales from your mother? Did she tell them to you from an early age? Do you still have your mum?

Shirley: I do still have my mum and I am so grateful for her. I am trying to remember all the stories my mum told me when I was a child and I basically beg her every time we meet to tell me everything she knows while I still have her on this earth.

Have a Go News: Have you always felt the importance of these memories and writing about them?

Shirley: I think we all go through a stage when we are young of wanting to distance ourselves from the past, so we can try and make ourselves our own futures. But there is also a point in our lives when we want to reconnect. I’m at a stage where I feel it is an honour and a privilege for me to re-interpret and include these stories into my own. I am fascinated by the idea that I am passing down these memories as new folk stories. The idea that I can write a novel that will last a hundred years.

Have a Go News: Have you returned to Christmas Island much? Has it changed from the days you lived there?

Shirley: I haven’t returned to Christmas Island since I left at seven. But I am making plans to return one day because I feel that there is a story that I need to tell that I can only do so by going back. I can feel the island calling me back constantly.

Have a Go News: What next for Shirley Marr, reading and writing is part of you. A little about yourself.

Shirley: I am hard at work right now writing a followup book. And since I have always loved a sister story, my next novel will be based on the shared journey my little sister and I had while migrating to Australia. I’m hoping it is going to be tender and heartful. I have a wonderful seven-year-old son who I learn from every day.

Have a Go News: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Shirley: Apart from reading copious children’s books and writing in the middle of the night, I also like to tend to my 101 house plants, have a really good chai latte at a café with other writer friends and take out the maximum number of books I can from the library.

A Glasshouse of Stars (RRP $16.99, Penguin Random House Australia) is available from good book shops.