Women in the brave new world: Meet the writer behind the new book – Elizabeth & Elizabeth

Sue Williams, Author, Journalist, Writer

Meet the Author – Sue Williams

Bestselling author and award-winning journalist, Sue Williams has recently published her first historical fiction novel, Elizabeth & Elizabeth.

It is the story of the imaginary friendship between the two leading ladies of early colonial Australia, Elizabeth Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur.

It’s had rave reviews and is both intriguing and entertaining.

Sue is also an award-winning writer and university lecturer.

Here’s what Sue Williams has to say.

What is the story about?

It is the story of how two women, who should have been bitter foes, combined their courage and wisdom to wield extraordinary power and influence behind the scenes of the fledgling colony.

What inspired you to write the book?

Elizabeth & Elizabeth is my first novel, borne out of a love of early colonial Australian history – pivotal in the development of the country – and an overriding admiration for women of that era making their own way in life.

With both Elizabeth Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur having a huge impact on the fledgling nation, despite all the odds, Elizabeth & Elizabeth is the result of an enduring fascination with what might have been.

Why historical fiction?

In the COVID-enforced absence of overseas travel, the world’s greatest form of escapism is back in vogue: historical fiction.

If we can’t fly off to visit the ancient tombs of Egypt, bum around the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean or sample the sumptuous cuisine of Rome, then the next best thing is delving back into the past to explore a place, and a time, when life was very different to it is now.

The true joy of good historical fiction is that you can completely submerge yourself in a world that you know is substantially true.

While the actual story you’re reading might be imaginary, the fictional elements are a way of presenting and framing history that can make it instantly accessible and so much more enjoyable. I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, and now I’m loving writing it too.

What is the background to the book?

There was a moment in Australia’s European history when two women wielded extraordinary power and influence behind the scenes of the fledgling colony. One was Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of the new governor Lachlan Macquarie, nudging him towards social reform and magnificent buildings and town planning. The other was Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur, a dangerous enemy of the establishment, who is herself credited with creating Australia’s wool industry. These women should, in normal circumstances, have been bitter foes. But this novel explores what happens when two women of vision and courage are thrown together in impossible times.

How would you describe the women?

They were incredibly impressive as women of their time. They were tough and extraordinarily resilient in what was, in many ways, a brutal man’s world. They both lost children, and ‘Betsey’ Macquarie suffered numerous lost pregnancies. Yet they both managed to forge independent lives for themselves, and make a huge difference in the colony, at a time when women were seen but rarely heard. Today, they would be just as remarkable. Strong and with vision, neither would be deterred today either from what they felt was their role, despite any number of odds.’ I enjoyed writing the book.

Can you tell us about the times the book is set in?

Elizabeth Macquarie arrived here in 1810, a time of great turmoil over the revolt against former governor William Bligh, drought, famine and the increasing number of convicts sent from Britain, together with a fierce dispute over whether they should ever be allowed to enjoy the same rights as the free settlers. But Elizabeth Macquarie guided her husband into granting everyone a fair go at the expiry of their sentences and launched her own program of building works, while Elizabeth Macarthur ran a growing wool empire with her husband frequently away in England.

What is your background?

I worked in newspapers, magazines and TV in Australia, the UK and New Zealand. Born in England, I settled in Australia in 1989.

Where do you live?

I live in Sydney’s Kings Cross with my partner, writer Jimmy Thomson.

What other books have you written?

They include Getting There: Journeys of an accidental adventurer; the story of my travels around isolated Australia, Welcome to the Outback; and a series of other books about the outback, Women in the Outback, Outback Spirit and Outback Heroines. Biographies include Father Chris Riley, Mean Streets, Kind Hearts; Father Bob Maguire, Father Bob: The larrikin priest; navy diver Paul de Gelder, No Time For Fear; Fred Brophy, The Last Showman; and Australia’s youngest Everest climber Alyssa Azar, The Girl Who Climbed Everest.

What awards have you received for your books?

My true-crime book And Then The Darkness: The disappearance of Peter Falconio and the trials of Joanne Lees was shortlisted for the international 2006 Gold Dagger Award for the world’s best crime non-fiction.

Is historical fiction enjoying a resurgence?

Historical fiction is currently enjoying a fresh spell in the sun, both in Australia and internationally. The pandemic has given people more time to read and an appetite to spend time in a world that mightn’t have been better or easier or even more attractive than our present, but feels safer nonetheless.

Publishers report that giants of the genre, like Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl), Tom Keneally (Schindler’s Ark), Anthony Dooer (All The Light We Cannot See), Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind), Ian McEwen (Atonement) and Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) are all enjoying renewed strong sales.

“Historical fiction has always had abiding appeal but I think it’s even more popular now with COVID,” says Elisabeth Storrs, the Chair of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. “Escape is a huge element of its attraction and when you’re stuck in your living room, it can take you to places or times you’d love to visit.

“It certainly takes you out of your current reality, and gives you a real escape route, while it can also be enlightening and entertaining and educative.”

What the critics are saying?

Author Meg Keneally, the daughter of legendary writer Tom Keneally, was one of the first to read the book. “Elizabeth & Elizabeth brings us a nuanced and vivid portrait of the early days of colonisation,” she says. “The book stands as both a compelling novel, and a wonderfully researched piece of narrative history.”

Does it fill the travel lust in us all – just a little?

There are no international borders and no state borders to worry about any more within the pages of these books and time travel has always been the ultimate kind of travel.


Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams (RRP: $29.99) is published by Allen & Unwin.