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Q&A with Heather Morris - Sisters Under the Rising Sun

By Niamh McCreanor

We are honoured to welcome Heather Morris to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Sisters Under the Rising Sun, released on the 26th September 2023.

The phenomenal new novel of resilience and survival from the international bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

In the midst of WWII, an English musician, Norah Chambers, places her eight-year-old daughter Sally on a ship leaving Singapore, desperate to keep her safe as the island falls to the Japanese Army.

Australian nurse Nesta James has enlisted to tend to Allied troops. But as Japanese troops overrun the island she joins the terrified cargo of people, including the heartbroken Norah, crammed aboard the Vyner Brooke merchant ship. Only two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia, and in a matter of hours, the Vyner Brooke has sunk.

After surviving 24 hours in the sea, Nesta and Norah reach the beaches of a remote island, only to be captured and held in one of the notorious Japanese POW camps. The camps are places of starvation and brutality, where disease runs rampant. But even here joy can be found, in music, where Norah’s ‘voice orchestra’ has the power to transport the internees out of the squalor and into the light. Sisters in arms, Norah and Nesta devote themselves to the women’s survival while discovering their own extraordinary reserves of courage, love and strength.

Sisters under the Rising Sun is a story of women in war: a novel of sisterhood, bravery and friendship in the darkest of circumstances, from the multimillion-copy bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey and Three Sisters.

I would just like to say I absolutely loved this book and thank you for the opportunity to ask you questions about it!

Thank you, it was a privilege to be trusted by the families of Nesta and Norah to tell this story.

In your author's note, you mentioned meeting Sally, Norah's daughter, and Deb Davies, Nesta's cousin, to listen to their accounts. What was your initial experience like when hearing these retellings of their experiences, especially considering their close connections to Norah and Nesta?

I had known Deb for some twenty years so when I mentioned I was looking at the story of the Australian nurses held captive by the Japanese in the Indonesian jungle and have her respond, ‘oh I know that story, Nesta was my 3rd cousin’ I was flabbergasted. She and her aunts in Cardiff who I spent time with, were wonderful to listen to. Hearing about Nesta’s family history in Wales also helped me understand the strength and determination of their pint-size relative who loved adventures.

Meeting Sally and her son Sean on the island of Jersey was an overwhelming experience. Sally, an 87-year-old when I first met her, was funny, full of life and had the most wonderful memories of her time in Malaya / Singapore and the story of her mother and father. They showed me the music scores written by Norah 80 years ago in the jungles of Sumatra. Holding these historical, yellowing, dog-eared pages affected me, I became quite emotional, holding them like a new-born baby, knowing they had been written by this extraordinary, brilliant woman, and the significance they held for the support and hope they brought to the captive women.

This book boasts a multitude of captivating characters, and I was particularly impressed by the way their distinct personalities shone throughout the novel. Could you elaborate on the process you follow to create such remarkable characters who feel as if they were real individuals, despite never having met them in person? Your ability to infuse such strength into their personalities and characteristics is truly astonishing.

Through archival material, memoirs written many decades ago I got to know these extraordinary women. I seem to possess the ability to place myself with them when reading, and imagine what would be said, what was happening around them and try my best to capture that. I had from the Australian War Museum a two-hour audio tape of an interview with Nesta on her return to Australia. I got to hear her voice, her words as she talked about her imprisonment, her descriptions of the others with her and what they endured. In the end it comes down to researching the women I chose to name and centre my story around, which for many of them wasn’t very much. There was enough written by others there about these women for me to get a feel for who they were and what strengths they brought to the camps. Growing up in New Zealand where stories of the Asia/Pacific war and the imprisonment of men in the Japanese camps were part of my family, I already had a strong background on this time and place. Of course, telling it from the women’s perspective was the challenge. I also drew on my memory of my mother, aunts, and friends to know how women from this period spoke and created communities around them in small towns. While there is no comparison to the camps, they were still women who lent on other women to get by in a rural setting. Farmers wives in the 1950’s were a tough bunch.

The relationship between the women throughout the book is for me, what made it so heart-breaking; you see these strong women working so hard together, putting each other first constantly, it is really emotional and sometimes hard to read. Was this something that was important for you to incorporate into the book, in comparison to The Tattooist of Auschwitz where the main focus is on Lale and Gita and their love story?

In a way I had two love stories here, Norah’s love for John who she was separated from, and Ena, writing love letters to her husband Ken on the date of their wedding anniversary each year. Those letters did make their way back to England but sadly none of the family members could find them. But you are right, it was critical that I attempt to show the length these women went for each other, the sacrifices they were prepared to make elevate their bravery to another level. It wasn’t just about their own survival. A researcher in Australia looked at the survival of the women in this camp and compared it to the survival of the men in the camp nearby. Her conclusion was that the women survived in greater numbers and overall, in better condition because they worked together, they put others before themselves, the survival of all, with no job to disgusting for anyone to undertake, the community of sisters was all that mattered. It appears the men had trouble trying to run their camp with a hierarchy, some men, Army officers, owners of big companies, considered they knew how to run the camp and allocate jobs to the men. This was not well received as a result there was no cohesion in the camp, definitely little emotional support between the men.

I was touched by the idea that the choir they form whilst at the camp brought the women joy and gave them the perseverance to keep going. Is this something that historically happened during the war?

I firmly believe Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh saved many lives during those 3 years and 7 months in the camps. With music they gave the women a sense of beauty among the squalor they lived in, they gave them a reason to stay alive to hear the music each Saturday night. They gave them hope that among the horrors they were living the power of music still existed in all it’s wonder. Looking at the stars above while a group of their friends gave them the sound of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Ravel was food for their soul.

For readers who enjoy your writing and specifically, Sisters Under the Rising Sun, what books or authors would you recommend that are similar to your own work?

I have included a short bibliography in my book, I recommend Lavinia Warner & John Sandilands’s Women Beyond The Wire, a non-fiction telling of this story.

Heather Morris is a native of New Zealand, now resident in Australia. For several years, while working in a large public hospital in Melbourne, she studied and wrote screenplays, one of which was optioned by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter in the US. In 2003, Heather was introduced to an elderly gentleman who ‘might just have a story worth telling’. The day she met Lale Sokolov changed both their lives. Their friendship grew and Lale embarked on a journey of self-scrutiny, entrusting the innermost details of his life during the Holocaust to her. Heather originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay – which ranked high in international competitions – before reshaping it into her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.


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