Mary-Lou Stephens Reading to Write

Mary-Lou Stephens Reading to Write

Mary-Lou Stephens’ last act before embracing ten days of silence at the Vipassana meditation retreat was to sit down and talk to Cornerstone about the importance of reading and research to the writing process.  

Mary-Lou Stephens knew little about apples and even less about orchards before she picked up her pen to start writing Two Orchards. The novel, about two women – one with a secret and the other with a mission – is set in the tumultuous years of the Tasmanian apple industry in the aftermath of the 1967 bushfires which claimed the lives of over sixty people. She had just spent two weeks in Tasmania, taking a deep dive into all things apples.

“The thing that amazes me is how much research there is in fiction. You think you are just making stuff up and you are not,” she says. “I’ve done an enormous amount of research and will do more on how apples were grown in the 1960s and 1970s and its really quite tricky because so much changed.”

Take the way that apples were packaged.

“Before I went down to Tasmania, my research told me that the wooden apple crates – the really lovely old-fashioned ones with the pasted-on labels with tissue wrapped apples – were replaced in 1964 and 1965 by cardboard boxes and I was really quite sad about that.”

But chance encounters with some old orchardists in Tasmania reminded Mary-Lou that change is always gradual.

“Yes, the cardboard boxes came in in 1965, but we were still packing into the wooden crates. They were still making the wooden apple boxes and pasting the labels on because some countries in Europe only wanted the wooden boxes,” she says.

“For me that whole romance of the wooden boxes and wrapping the apples – I can still do that.” Mary-Lou adds, “But I need some cardboard boxes too.”

The main protagonists in the novel are Catherine Turner and Annie Pearson. And although they are entirely fictitious, Mary-Lou is at pains to ensure that the setting is as authentic as possible. Being on the ground in Tasmania with her ‘apple angels’ to show her around was invaluable.

“Another fact I got – was that the apple orchard was the safest place to be in a fire because there was no undergrowth. It was all cultivated dirt.”

“In 1967, Tasmania was in a bad drought after a really wet spring and that is why the bushfires were so bad. There was undergrowth everywhere. But in the apple orchard, they would plough under and hoe around each tree. There was no vegetation. So, people actually survived by getting into the middle of an apple orchard.”

“Knowing that, there are now parts of my book that I need to change. And that is fantastic!”

Another challenge was understanding the language of 1967 without confusing the modern reader.

“I have a list of words that the dads would use. The love interest Mark, who has come down from Melbourne comes from a very different social set to Catherine, who is very influenced by her mother and father. She was also a teacher and is very influenced by how a teacher is supposed to have spoken. So, she will have a very different way of speaking and that is important,” she says.

“Also in this time period, there is a huge amount of change going on – the Vietnam War, the moon landing, Harold Holt disappearing the Whitlam Revolution. All kinds of stuff. So, in some demographic areas, words are different.”

“That is why it was great to speak to someone who was 18 in 1967 – and then I got older people who were the age of my protagonists. And I recorded it all. They have different phrases and vocabulary.”

Mary-Lou says that the more she reads and researches, the deeper she understands the world of Catherine and Annie.

“My apple angel said, ‘Catherine is going to need a crawler.’ And I said, ‘What’s a crawler?!’

“Actually, it’s a cross between a bulldozer and a tractor that you need to get up these steep slopes where they planted apples. You can’t see how hilly it was on Google earth!” she says.

“It was sad was that my ‘apple angel’ would point out these slopes that used to be orchards and you could see where they had burrowed up the land.”

About Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou Stephens is a Queensland based author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation and How to Stay Married: The Adventures of a Woman Who Learned to Travel Light in Life, Love and Relationships. She is a musician, writer and a former radio presenter who spent 15 years with ABC on the Sunshine Coast.


David Leser will be presenting The Craft of Writing on the following dates: 

Sydney on 8 March 2019,

Wollongong on 22 March 2019

Mudgee on 5 April 2019


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