An Interview with Heather Sheard | Author of Women to the Front

Today I bring you an exciting and interesting interview from the lovely Heather Sheard. Recently, I read a really inspiring non-fiction, historical book. It was all about Australian women doctors serving during WWI. Note, ‘doctors’, not nurses.

This was a great achievement for these women and their bravery in putting others before them and striving so hard to achieve their goals was beyond inspiring.

I had the lovely opportunity to interview Heather about her writing experience and more. So, read on if you would like to know what it takes to write and research such a book and more about Heather, herself!

 What was the writing process like, especially given that this is Co-authored with some in-depth research?

I think that if the writing process had been done elbow to elbow, line to line it would have been difficult to negotiate.  Not because Ruth and I do not get on but it’s just not a practical proposition. Everyone has their own ideas, their own way of getting things down on paper and their own writing priorities.

We split the writing up.

Ruth wrote the biographies at the back of the book and a lot of the material about the Scottish Womens Hospitals America Unit in Serbia which is her area of expertise.  She also is good on structure and editing.

I wrote the main story and wove the women in and out of the narrative.

How did you do your research for Women to the Front? Did you draw upon much of your previous research and knowledge?  Or was it a new frontier to explore? 

The book evolved from my Masters and PhD studies.  Sadly I had no idea of the first wave of feminism at the turn of the 19th century and was very surprised to discover that Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown, Victoria’s first Director of Infant Welfare had served as a surgeon in the Great War. Along the way I met Ruth Lee whose PhD concerned another woman doctor who had served – Dr Mary De Garis.

So writing the book was based both on previous experience of researching women’s history and a new frontier – intense detective work to find the material.

If you could travel back in time…….

This is a difficult question.  I too would love to think I would pack my bag, board a ship and head off into the unknown but I really doubt my capacity for that level of self-sacrifice.  Like the women at the time it would depend a lot on what my colleagues were doing and saying.  Collective courage might get me there?

What do you think women today can take from reading Women to the Front? 

The book is an attempt to make these women Visible and the new women’s museum in Melbourne Her Place says the Visibility means a Voice. Reading about these women’s achievements is hopefully an inspirational experience given the opposition and scepticism they overcame.

Were there any particular stories in this book that resonated with you? Why?

Oh dear.  What a question! I think the way that Dr Laura Forster signed up and within four to five weeks of war being declared was working close to the frontline in Belgium as the German Army advanced is pretty extraordinary.

I just think that to walk into the unknown is a very brave thing to do – an unprecedented action by women doctors and demonstrates clearly their intense desire to do their duty.

What steered you back towards university and study after retirement?

 Several factors really.  Initially a desire to ‘know’ more about aspects of women’s work and finding a dearth of written history I translated that into taking on a Masters degree to record their contribution.  This also satisfied my desire to keep my brain active by learning – about research, about technology and about writing.

Once I started I didn’t want to stop.  Research for me became addictive and the university atmosphere, being surrounded by learning and resources and young people was exciting.

I had always loved history and now I had the opportunity to pursue it.

Do you have any recommendations for similar books to yours if someone wanted to read more on this topic?

As far as I know there is no other book that covers all of the women we are aware of to date, throughout the WWI period.  But these books look at the service of particular women:

  • Ruth Lee Woman War Doctor, the Life of Mary De Garis, Australian            Scholarly Publishing.
  • Susanna De Vries Heroic Australian Women in War, Harper Collins
  • Susan J Neuhaus & Sharon Mascall-Dare, Not For Glory, A century of service by medical women to the Australian Army and its Allies, Boolarong Press
  • And everyone should read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Everyone.

What is your favourite book? Why?

Can I have ten favourite books?  OK – maybe Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, or anything she writes.  Because I am fascinated with how she gets into the heads of people who existed several hundred years ago.  I wish I could do that!  And she puts so much research into her writing.

AND anything written by Inga Clendinnen and Brenda Niall.

Have you ever travelled for research….

To Wellington New Zealand to their National Library to delve into Dr Agnes Bennett’s wonderful photo albums of her wartime experience in Northern Macedonia with the 3rd Serbian Army. To the SL of Q to read Dr Eleanor Bourne’s handwritten account of her service at the Endell Street Military Hospital and to Adelaide’s SL of SA for Dr Laura Fowler Hope’s diary of her time with the Scottish Women’s Hospital and as a POW.

It’s always very exciting to hold in your hands the albums and writings created a century ago by the women you are hoping to ‘know’.

What’s your next project?

Not sure yet.  But there were hundreds of other Australian women who volunteered during the Great War for all kinds of service and I would like to write about them too. Munitions workers, ambulance drivers, Red Cross workers, VADs, orderlies, etc etc.

So a big thank you for Heather for being here on Upside-Down Books and I can’t wait for more books! If you want to find out more about the Women to the Front, read my full review HERE.

Do you read non-fiction? What type?

Happy reading!

~~ Kirstie ~~


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