fbook icon 60'Reader's Digest' Interview: 

'The Trivia Man' by Deborah O'Brien

Kirsty People 420

'The Trivia Man' explores the theme of being different and trying to fit in. Was there a particular motivation that led you to write about these matters?

As a child, I was a bookish little girl who desperately wanted to be like her peers but didn’t know how. I think that’s why the need to belong is a theme which has emerged in all my novels, but in differing ways.

I really enjoyed the contrast between the characters of Kevin and Maggie. Where did the inspiration for your main characters come from?

I suppose you could say that they reflect two different aspects of my own personality – Kevin is the nerdy ‘quiz kid’ side and Maggie the empathetic side. However, I wasn’t aware of those connections when I was writing the manuscript. It was only when I read the first draft that I realised why those two characters were so easy to write!

Both Kevin and Patrick could be characterised as being on the autism spectrum. Do you have experience with people who are, to use a popular term, ‘on the spectrum’? Or were there other reasons that prompted you to create characters with these sorts of issues?

In my teaching career I encountered a number of young people with special needs including some on the so-called ‘autism spectrum’. tried verhard to view my students as individuals and not to define them by their ‘condition’. So ofteI’ve heard someone say: ‘He’s ADHD’ or ‘She’s Asperger’s’ and Ive longed to retort: ‘No, they’re not! They happen to be someone diagnosed with that disorder. Theres a big difference.

What led you to base your story around a trivia competition?

On a personal level, I’ve always been a trivia buff, even as a child. From a writer’s point of view, a trivia competition provides the perfect structure and framework for a novel. That’s important for me because I don’t plan my plots so I need those kind of constraints to keep me in line. Every chapter is a week of the competition, culminating in the big reveal at the end of the season when the winners are announced.

Have you been involved in a weekly trivia competition?

Years ago I took part in a seasonal trivia competition in which there was a karaoke session at interval. On the first night I was caught off guard and found myself up on the stage with the rest of my team, singing a Tina Turner song. The following week I disappeared into the loo at the end of round four and didn’t emerge until the singing was over! After that, I used to slip outside at interval, only to find the smokers in the audience had done the same thing. In my novel the karaoke session affords Kevin and Maggie a chance to have a conversation away from the other members of the team.

What was the most difficult question that you were able to answer?

'Which animal doesn’t belong: wombat, koala, kangaroo or echidna?'

This question wasn’t necessarily the most difficult I’ve ever encountered but it certainly created a lot of conflict among our team members. Everyone except me chose the koala because it’s the only tree-dwelling creature in the list. I nominated the echidna as it’s the only monotreme. Being the team recorder, I wrote down ‘echidna’ – against the wishes of the rest of the team. Thank goodness it turned out to be the answer that the quizmaster had on his card, or I would have been in big trouble!

Are you currently working on a new book?

Yes, it’s called 'The Rarest Thing' and is set in the Victorian High Country in 1966. The story is inspired by a true event – the discovery of a live mountain pygmy possum, a creature thought to have been extinct for millennia. My protagonists are a female palaeontologist and an international wildlife photographer thrown together in a quest to locate and photograph the tiny possums in the wild.

Where do you generally find inspiration for your novels?

The inspiration comes from many different sources, including my own experiences mixed with a good dose of imagination. I always begin with a strong premise which propels me through the story. In the case of 'The Trivia Man', it was the idea of a middle-aged quiz champion who is always on the outside looking in. That concept gave me so many intriguing possibilities to work with.

Do you have a particular writing routine and why do you think it works for you?

When it comes to routine, I’d love to say that I disappear into my ‘writing cave’ for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon and write 2000 words a day. But I have no routine. Writing fits into my life whenever I have free time. I wish it was the other way around!

If you could invite three of your favourite authors to dinner—living or dead—who would you choose to invite?

What an intriguing question! My first guest would be the inimitable Neil Gaiman who writes across a range of genres and happens to be one of the most compelling and entertaining speakers I’ve ever heard. As my second guest, I’d choose someone whose writing has been a great influence on me – Lewis Carroll. Even today, in spite of the swag of biographies written about him, he remains an enigmatic figure. And finally I’d love to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of one of my favourite novels, 'The Great Gatsby'. I’m sure he would have some incredible stories to tell about the halcyon days of the 1920s.

Interview with Alison Fraser in conjunction with the publication of the 'Reader's Digest' condensed version of 'The Trivia Man' in the April 'Special Edition'.

fbook icon 60A Gallipoli Story: Finding Uncle Arthur


Grandad soldier cropped resized

For years I’ve been searching for a picture of my great uncle Uncle Arthur, who died at Gallipoli in June 1915, less than six months after he enlisted. Last year I wrote a blog about Arthur and used a photo of my grandfather in uniform (at left) because I didn't have a picture of his older brother. 

Not long ago I received a phone call from my brother Mark and his wife Jo. In the process of cleaning out an old wardrobe at my aunt’s place, they’d made an interesting discovery – a large portrait of a World War I soldier wrapped in ageing brown paper. The picture had been torn in half but thankfully the soldier’s face remained intact. It wasn’t a photo of our grandfather though, Mark was certain of that.  So who was this mysterious young man, we wondered. Could it possibly be Grandad’s long-lost older brother?

Uncle Arthur Hill original torn phot 420

When I saw the picture for the first time, I knew instantly who it was. He looked just like my grandfather, only taller. Six feet one quarter inch, in fact, as attested in Arthur's enlistment records. I have to confess that I shed quite a few tears at seeing the heroic uncle I’d heard about ever since I was a small child.

Arthur Hill scan cropped 420

So here he is – the 22-year-old shearer from Parkes NSW who joined up on 30 January 1915. He looks so young, doesn’t he? A bit of a larrikin perhaps. His army records certainly indicate he had a healthy disregard for authority. He began his training at Liverpool Barracks on the outskirts of Sydney. For a country boy, it must have been quite an experience – away from home for the first time and raring to embark on a ‘great adventure’. Three weeks later he overstayed his leave by twelve hours and was fined five shillings. His commanding officer noted that his general character was good. By April Fools Day his skylarking had escalated. This time he was found guilty of riotous behavior, obscene language, breaking camp and using a forged pass. Major Baxter fined him forty shillings (a huge sum in those days) but deemed his general character ‘fair’.

On 10 April Arthur embarked on the HMAT ‘Argyllshire’ for the Dardanelles. On 7 June he was killed in action. His military records give no indication of what happened in the eight weeks between leaving port in Sydney and his death at Gallipoli. He was buried at Brown’s Dip (also known as Victoria Gully) just behind Lone Pine. In 1923 all 140 soldiers buried at Brown’s Dip were disinterred in the presence of chaplains, and moved to the Lone Pine Cemetery. 

Lone Pine Cemetery 2013.07.26 Gary Blakeley

Lone Pine pic: Gary Blakeley

Arthur was just starting his life. No wife, no children, therefore no direct descendants. After his death, the army sent his father two brown paper parcels containing a disc, a purse and a personal letter. Now we also have his photograph.


Arthur John Hill


Poppy: DOB 

Deborah O’Brien

23 April 2016

fbook icon 60Review: A World Without Downton

The Final Episode of 'Downton Abbey'


Warning: This article contains mild spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the finale yet.


Last Monday night, at 11.15pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, we farewelled Downton Abbey forever. For his movie-length finale, creator and writer, Julian Fellowes (who became Lord Fellowes during the life of the show) gave us a succession of fairytale moments which neatly resolved each of the multiple storylines. There was a wedding, the birth of a baby and the announcement of a pregnancy, plus a myriad of blossoming romances, confirmed by mutual smiles and meaningful looks – Mrs Patmore and Mr Mason, Daisy and Andy, Mr Moseley and Miss Baxter, Branson and the glamorous editor of Lady Edith’s magazine. 

In the job department, Barrow got a very big promotion at the expense of poor Mr Carson (see below), while Mr Talbot, Lady Mary’s new husband, and Branson, the former chauffeur, started a used car business together. 

Along the way, Fellowes threw in a couple of serious illnesses, one of which turned out to be misdiagnosed by a Harley Street specialist as pernicious anaemia when it was actually of the treatable iron deficiency kind. Relieved sighs from Lord Merton and his baroness, formerly Isobel Crawley. The other illness was more mysterious, afflicting Mr Carson, the ever-faithful butler and master of the cynically raised eyebrow, who could no longer continue in his job. Perhaps to compensate for his meanness to one of our favourite characters, Fellowes arranged for Lord Grantham to endow Carson with a lifetime sinecure.

In the fashion department, kitchen maid Daisy was given a makeover which transformed her into a Clara Bow lookalike. Meanwhile, above stairs, the ‘plain’ sister, Lady Edith, shone in a stunning handkerchief-hemmed wedding gown. 

Every character who’s ever appeared in the series (and has lived to tell the tale) made a cameo appearance, except for Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Cora’s American mother-in-law, who couldn’t be there but sent a droll telegram instead. Also missing was Richard E. Grant who played an oily art dealer in an earlier season and wouldn’t be welcome at Downton after his attempts at seducing the Earl’s wife. I also expected to see the ghosts of Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil but to his credit, Lord Fellowes must have thought better of it. 

As usual, a story containing a disparate assortment of subplots was held together by the ascerbic wit of the Dowager Countess aka Maggie Smith. In the final episode Fellowes gave her some rather superficial and syrupy lines to deliver (such as: ‘It’s good to be in love, whatever the age’), yet she managed to make them sound both profound and pithy. 

But for all my nitpicking, I will sorely miss Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes, Anna and Mr Bates, and the aforesaid Dowager Countess. I’ll miss the wonderful opening piano music by John Lunn. And most of all, I’ll miss that exquisite building (Highclere Castle) which we have come to know and love in all its moods and seasons, both upstairs and down. Monday night’s Christmas incarnation, complete with a dusting of snow, was the ultimate decoration to top off Lord Fellowes’ confection.

Vale Downton Abbey.


Deborah O'Brien

April 20, 2016

fbook icon 60What is ‘The Rarest Thing'?

Possum sketch cropped 

Illustration: DOB

‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.'

Oscar Wilde

A novel inspired by a possum? Well, this is a very special possum – a mountain pygmy possum. Scientists call it Burramys parvus, which translates as ‘little rock mouse’. Until 1966 everyone thought it had gone the way of the dinosaurs. In fact, the only evidence it had ever existed were some fossilised bones which were so tiny it’s a wonder they were ever found in the first place!

The catalyst for my new book is the discovery of a live Burramys (pronounced burra-mees) in a ski lodge at Mount Hotham exactly fifty years ago. After the cute little marsupial was transported to Melbourne and its identity confirmed, the newspapers dubbed it ‘the world’s rarest creature’, while scientists came from far and wide to see the celebrity possum. And that’s what gave me the title and starting point for the book. 

201001 4WDGuy 216  at 420

Other than those facts, the story is totally a figment of my imagination and everyone in it is fictitious. Except for the possum. In my earliest draft I called him ‘Tiny’ because I didn’t know the name he was given back in 1966, or even whether he was assigned one at all. At that stage I had very little historical material to help me ‘flesh’ out the story.

Then I discovered a charming book by June Epstein called ‘The Friends of the Burramys’. That allowed me to correct the obvious mistakes, and Tiny became George.

An early reader has called my novel 'The African Queen meets the Victorian High Country’ and although there’s no boat in my tale, and you won’t spot a single possum in the film, I’m rather chuffed with the comparison. The African Queen is one of my all-time favourite films and I named my leading lady after Katharine Hepburn, its female star.

Dr Katharine Wynter is a thirty-year-old palaeontologist, who's more comfortable with ancient fossils than live human beings, especially men – an exotic species of which she has little experience, apart from a predatory professor who has made her life hell, and a dashing wildlife photographer who seems too good to be true.

I'll be publishing ‘The Rarest Thing’ in two formats: as a special limited gift edition paperback and as an ebook. Both will be available in November, 2016 direct from this website.  

Read more about the book here

Deborah O’Brien

June 2016


fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Brooklyn’


These days, filmgoers are so accustomed to being confronted with dark themes and dystopian plotlines that an old-fashioned love story comes as a refreshing and satisfying surprise. And 'Brooklyn' is indeed an old-fashioned love story . . . and so much more.

It's 1951, and like so many of her fellow countrymen, smalltown Irish girl Eilis Lacey (Saoirise Ronan) is emigrating to America to seek a better future. During her first few months in Brooklyn she is wracked by homesickness. Then she enrols in a business course, meets a nice Italian boy at a dance and starts to build a bright new life. When a beloved family member dies, Eilis returns to Ireland, only to find herself torn between two worlds and two very different but equally worthy young men - Tony in Brooklyn and Jim in Enniscorthy.

This film would be nothing without Saoirise Ronan’s radiant and understated performance. Her pale blue eyes are so luminous and expressive that you feel you can see right into her soul. In that respect she reminds me of the young Celia Johnson in ‘Brief Encounter’ (although Johnson, of course, had dark eyes). And if Ronan looks familiar, it might be that you remember her from ‘Atonement’ where she played thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis and almost stole the picture from Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

Writer Nick Hornby (adapting Colm Tóibín’s eponymous novel) and director John Crowley have conjured up the atmosphere of a small town in 1950s Ireland, where everyone knows each other and gossip is rife. In many ways it is the repressive post-war Ireland of Edna O’Brien’s ‘The Country Girls’, but without the sleazy older man or the overly knowing sensibility.

Eilis's new world is presented to us in sepia tones with glimpses of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and rows of brownstone buildings. The glamorous department store where Eilis works epitomises the sophistication of New York as opposed to Enniscorthy, yet inside the Fiorello brownstone, the family values are as warm and strong as they are in Eilis's humble hometown.

The cast is impeccable, starting with the two suitors: Emory Cohen as the endearing Tony Fiorello and Domhnall Gleeson (‘About Time’ and ‘The Revenant’) as shy, likeable Jim Farrell. There are outstanding performances from Jane Brennan as Eilis’s careworn mother, a woman who wants the best for her daughter but can’t bear to lose her, and Jim Broadbent as the stereotypically lovable Irish priest in the ‘Going My Way’ tradition.

But the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast is the inimitable Julie Walters as the strict but caring Madge Kehoe, who runs the all-female boarding house where Eilis lives. Walters gets to deliver some of the best lines in the film. Remarking on the girls’ silly behaviour at dinnertime, she chides: "I see now that giddiness is the eighth deadly sin. A giddy girl is every bit as evil as a slothful man, and the noise she makes is a lot worse." And when Eilis is going on a date to the beach at Coney Island, Madge warns: "You need to think carefully about your costume. It's the most Tony will ever have seen of you. You don't want to put him off."

As you know, I’m pernickety about anachronisms, and one that jumped out at me was the scene where Eilis and Tony go to see ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (one of my all-time favourite films). The problem is that this scene takes place in 1951 and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ wasn't released until early in 1952. Having said that, the film reference does afford Tony the opportunity to break into a delightful (albeit brief) Gene-Kelly dance routine as he walks Eilis home.

With the Academy Award ceremony imminent, it’s worth noting that ‘Brooklyn’ has been nominated for Best Picture. But the truth is it’s a quiet, old-fashioned kind of film and the Academy members seem to favour big, spectacular pictures like ‘The Revenant’, so I would be very surprised if 'Brooklyn' wins. Nevertheless, I believe Ronan stands a good chance of garnering Best Actress, though there is strong competition from Brie Larson in ‘Room’ (I've only seen excerpts but she's superb).

In a nutshell:

‘Brooklyn’ is a gentle nostalgic film graced by fine performances. It's a coming-of-age story and so much more. Highly recommended.


Deborah O’Brien

24 February 2016


Home in the Highlands blogs