What historical fiction means to me: G.S. Johnston

The ARA Historical Novel Prize will display the infinite variety of historical fiction, in subjects, writing styles and tones.  And show that it is fun. I hope the novel chosen is exceptionally accessible and will raise the awareness of the genre among readers to help breach any misconceptions.   

Let’s sound a fanfare of trumpets: submissions for the ARA Historical Novel Prize are now open (until 30th June 2020)!

In this next HNSA interview, GS Johnston (author of four novels, three of them historical) reveals the reasons for his longstanding love of historical fiction and also lets slip his hope for who might snatch the prize.

In your experience as a writer and reader of historical fiction what is its particular appeal to you? 

My primary school library had the fiction and non-fiction shelves on either side of the reading mat.  East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.  But then I discovered Historical Fiction, a vibrant mix of so many twines.  I especially like the pedagogical element: finding out about the past.  It’s exciting to move through an era with a character, especially if the character is naïve, and have aspects of that era revealed.  But then, the writing carries me over the reading mat, drifting into the subjective, the world of fiction.  What did someone feel watching a beheading in 1870 in France?  Non-fiction can’t really suppose this, but fiction can.  And does.  And often, if a piece of historical fiction is really doing its job, this understanding of the past casts a light onto present-day issues as well.  

How do you think a prize such as the ARA Historical Novel Prize helps to raise the profile of historical fiction in general?

Some readers may think historical fiction has a stuffy aura, that it’s hard work and inaccessible, even irrelevant, old news.  Perhaps this is based in misconceptions, that the Jane Austen they were force-fed at school was historical fiction and indicative of the genre.  Other readers seem to feel they need to know a particular piece of history, or they’ll not be able to follow the work.  But if the author has done their job, all of this exposition and backstory are folded seamlessly into the text.  

The ARA Historical Novel Prize will display the infinite variety of historical fiction, in subjects, writing styles and tones.  And show that it is fun.  I hope the novel chosen is exceptionally accessible and will raise the awareness of the genre among readers to help breach any misconceptions.  

What difference would it make to an author’s creative life to win a significant sum of prize money?  

Given most authors earn VERY little after the novel’s carcass has been picked clean, I hope the money would give the winner time to write with less distraction.  Writing is hard work, and it’s particularly hard to stave off the rest of life to get the time to do it.  

Prize money notwithstanding, what are the additional benefits of entering a high-profile writing competition for a published author?

Clearly, it will raise the profile of the authors who are shortlisted and especially the winner.  But hopefully, readers will be inspired to explore these novels and then other historical fiction novels.  

One of the great features of the ARA Historical Novel Prize is its active courting of self-published novels.  HNSA has always supported indie authors, so it is great to see the playing field will be level.  It would appear that even the entry price has been kept low to spark entries from self-published and small publishers.  Wouldn’t it be absolutely fabulous if a self-published author pulled off the prize!  Ooh là là!  Our own Marco Koskas scandal with le Prix Renaudot. 

Which sub-genre of historical fiction are you pleased to see is eligible, and why do you feel it is important?

Multi-time novels, as they facilitate the reflection of the past onto the present.

I think historical fiction is doing a particularly good job if I can find resonances in the past with our present.  For this reason, the rise of fascism has informed two of my novels and two of my works in progress.  So I’m particularly pleased to see multi-time novels included in the sub-genres, as they facilitate the easy projection of the past onto the present.  And the competition would also be able to include a novel like AS Byatt’s Possession – A Romance which changed everything for me.  Indeed, if only Antonia was Australian and it was published in the last 18 months…

G.S. Johnston is the author of three historical novels, Sweet Bitter Cane (2019), The Cast of a Hand (2015), The Skin of Water (2012). And a fourth novel set in contemporary Hong Kong, Consumption (2011). The novels are noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings.

In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing, and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels.

Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Canberra, Australia. He is treasurer of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Find more fabulous things at GS Johnston’s website

This interview was compiled by HNSA Marketing Coordinator, Lou Greene. Lou was winner of the HNSA First Pages Pitch in 2017 and she long-listed in the Richell Awards. Last year, as well as being short-listed in the HNSA short story competition, she was a recipient of an ASA Mentorship Award. Lou has an MA Modern History and has recently completed a dual timeline, novel manuscript. Find out more about Lou’s writing from her website, or connect with her via Instagram or Twitter.


The ARA Historical Novel Prize, for published historical novels by Australian and New Zealand authors, will be worth $30,000 to the winning author. With entries opening on May 1, it is a partnership between generous sponsor, the ARA Group, and the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA), in association with the New England Writers’ Centre. HNSA is delighted and proud to introduce this initiative, which celebrates the diversity and strength of an increasingly popular and acclaimed genre.

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