The fabulous Julie Bennett, author of breathtaking debut The Understudy
As a born & bred Sydney-sider, the iconic Sydney Opera House has always held a special place in my heart - from my childhood days as a brownie guide in my little brown uniform, standing with my troop amidst a throng of people on the Opera House forecourt, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen of England, to more recently enjoying performances by the exquisite Australian Ballet and Italian maestro Ludovico Einaudi. I even once met author Elizabeth Gilbert at the Opera House.
Roll the clock forward to March 2nd 2022 and a breathtaking debut novel by Sydney-based writer Julie Bennett, The Understudy, is about to hit the shelves and will create a love affair with this Sydney icon all over again. https://www.simonandschuster.com.au/books/The-Understudy/Julie-Bennett/9781760858520
After instantly losing myself within the opening pages of this beautiful novel, I can see why publishing house Simon & Schuster has acquired the global rights to The Understudy. The prose has a timeless elegance, and the characters are multi-layered and totally believable.
I think the authenticity of the characters lays with Julie's first-hand experience of living within the world of Opera. Julie migrated from New Zealand as a child, when her father was offered a full time role as a tenor with the Australian Opera Company, and later found herself cast as an extra in the company's 1973 production of War & Peace.
A dual timeline work of historical fiction, set twenty years apart, the story will immerse you within the world of opera and tantalisingly draw you down a path of love, betrayal and passion.
On the eve of the gala opening of the Sydney Opera House the prima donna of the opera world, Margaret Gardiner, has gone missing, without a trace. So young and ambitious understudy, Sophie Carlton, must step into the leading role, a moment she has longed for.
But be careful what you wish for. As you delve further into the mystery of the disappearance of Margaret, suspicion starts to fall upon Sophie's shoulders, especially once she becomes romantically entangled with world famous, charismatic Italian tenor Armando Cecchi.
Mary-Lou Stephens, author of The Last of the Apple Blossom, aptly describes it as 'a sexy, page-turner of a novel, full of intrigue, secrets and ambition set during the opening season of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Julie Bennett has woven a spell that will entice the reader in and won’t let them go.'
'Sexy page-turner' couldn't be a more apt description. Some scenes found me in desperate search of a fan to cool myself down! But the tenderness of the relationship was so intricatley woven within the complexity of the characters that I dare you not to fall in love with Armando too!
Like me, Julie found herself surrounded by books during her time working as a library technician. Also like me, she dreamed of one day writing a novel of her very own. Mine is still a work in progress but luckily for us, Julie's is about to be available for you all to read.
But now, without further ado, I will hand you over to the gorgeous Julie.xx
Q1: What was your inspiration for this story and how long did it take you to write the first draft?
A: I was inspired by my experience as a child extra with The Australian Opera Company during the 1970s. My favourite memory is being on stage in War and Peace in what is generally considered the first opera publicly performed in the brand-new Sydney Opera House in 1973.
The idea to write a novel about opera set during those exciting times was suggested to me a very long time ago but I didn’t actually start it until I woke up one day in my 50s realising that although I’d always said I wanted to write publishable novels, I hadn’t. I decided it was now or never! I wrote the first 10 pages in preparation for attending Fiona McIntosh’s Commercial Fiction Masterclass in 2015.
Q2: You are hosting a spectacular dinner party. Name four dream guests you would love to have seated around your table, and what would they be dining on and drinking?
A: Wow! What a great question. The easy part is what they would be dining on – and the answer is seafood, steak and salads. Oh, and potatoes, preferably roasted, drizzled with a little truffle oil. We have such amazing produce in this country. Then of course we’d have Australian and New Zealand wines and craft beers. Dessert would be lemon tart. It’s always lemon tart for dessert at my dinner parties if I’m cooking, because I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth.
Now who to invite? I’m assuming my nearest and dearest are already there, so for the rest… (in alphabetical order…)
Maggie Beer – oh I know it’s not fair to invite her, because clearly, I’d have ulterior motives and want her to cook us something wonderful, or at least inform the menu. But when you watch Maggie on telly she also seems like a great conversationalist.
Anh Do – I don’t know him personally but his book and his art and his humour make me think he is a warm, compassionate, funny person. His personal story as a refugee coming to Australia is inspiring and humbling. Maybe we could encourage him to do a portrait of one of the amazing guests at our dinner party. I think there’s a theme developing here…
Rebecca Gibney – I binge watched Rebecca in the recent mini-series Under the Vines. I have long been a fan and just loved this series set in New Zealand wine country. Filming for season two is almost underway and I can’t wait! I follow Rebecca on Instagram and she seems generous and fun and kind-hearted. I’m sure she’d be a fabulous dinner guest!
Ian Moss (of Cold Chisel fame) – I’ve met Ian a couple of times and both times I was a bit starstruck. He’s soooo cool, which I have never been J. His life growing up in Alice Springs was so different from mine; I find it fascinating. And I just love his music. Maybe we could encourage him to play a little acoustic guitar for us.
(Ooh do you think you could find me a seat at your table Julie? Sounds wonderful. Shelley.xx)
Q3: What is your favourite book of all time and why?
A: It’s impossible to pick just one! I fell in love with the Brontes early in my reading journey, and I was captivated by the story of a convict woman in Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin https://www.amazon.com.au/Sara-Dane-Catherine-Gaskin-ebook/dp/B00NEQSRCU
Today, I really enjoy reading Philippa Gregory’s books. https://www.philippagregory.com/ The retelling of history from the women’s points of view is what captures my interest.
I also love Tim Winton’s https://www.penguin.com.au/authors/tim-winton
novels, I think he writes like a poet. The music in his words draws me in.
Q4: If you could travel anywhere in the world to write for a year, where would we find you?
A: Italy. Sorry if that took too long to answer lol. I have been fortunate enough to go to Italy a few times and would love to go back and spend a year in the birthplace of opera.
(Not only am I going to gatecrash your dinner party Julie, but I might just stow away in your luggage! Italy is my dream destination...Shelley.xx)
'My special things – this gorgeous white lady with the wreath of flowers around her head was given to me by some special friends for my
recent 50 plus 10 birthday.
My husband gave me the gold locket many years ago and represents the three most special men in my life – my husband and two sons – as it can open to contain a photo on the left and a photo on the right. I haven’t actually put their photos into it, as I wear it almost all the time and the photos would be damaged. But it’s symbolic to me - that I carry the three of them in my heart always.
The lady and the locket (sounds like a good name for a novel!) sit on the ceramic-topped desk I just HAD to buy after I successfully pitched my book to Simon & Schuster Australia… even though I knew I would rarely sit at it. I signed my book contract at it though!'
Q5: Describe your go-to reading spot at home and what book/s would I currently find there?
A: So, I have a bit of a confession to make… I run a small business as well as writing novels, so I just haven’t had the same amount of time to read as I used to have. But I’ve recently loaded up Audible with some titles I’ve missed out on over the past couple of years and listen to them while I’m doing other things, like cooking or driving or even shopping! I recently listened to one of Tania Blanchard’s https://www.taniablanchard.com.au/ novels. She tells stories which beautifully capture the female experience.
On the bookshelf, which is in the corner of the lounge room, are mostly research titles I’ve consulted for The Understudy and the next novel I’m working on, although I did notice my husband has snuck in a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s biography…
Q6: Tell us a bit about a typical writing day…
A: When I’m writing (as opposed to researching or editing) I usually start before I even get up. I write whatever number of words I feel I need to write and then go about my day. In the evenings, I go back to it. I try not to get stuck in rewriting at that stage, I just read the last paragraph and try to kick start the next scene. I say all this, but sometimes I do try to sneak back to writing during the day – and on weekends, I sometimes write all day.
'My writing space… well, I write anywhere and everywhere, but most of the time right here, on the couch,
next to my muse (our cross cattle/kelpie dog, Riley.'
Q7: As a lover of words, is there a special quote you would like to share with us?
A: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Usually attributed to Goethe.
I remember this quote almost off by heart. The reason I love it is because so many times I think we are afraid to take the steps we need to take in order to put ourselves on the path to achieving what we really want. This quote is saying, just be bold enough to begin.
Q8: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
A: Sorry, I don’t understand the question ;) I’m always writing – either on my novel or in my business. But I do love entertaining, which is why I so enjoyed answering question 2 above. My friends are amazing people and I love having intellectual discussions with them over the dinner table on important topics of the day. Social discussion is the absolute bread of my life and the thing I missed most during lockdowns.
I also love to travel. I have been fortunate to go to many places around the globe, and Australia. But the world is a big, beautiful place and there is still so much to be explored. I am not someone who likes to sit still in one place for very long, I’m a wanderer.
Q9: Any advice for aspiring authors?
A: My first piece of advice is to make sure you can write – read a lot, write a lot. Then join groups or organisations that will help you progress towards publication – the Australian Society of Authors, for example.
Make sure that being a novelist is what you really want – because it can often be long, hard, and lonely work. It can also be emotionally challenging. Even though it’s taken me quite some time to have my first novel published, I’ve always felt that being a writer is not what I do, it’s who I am.
If you can really write, and it is what you really want, then you will need a tenacity that refuses to let you quit. I mean it.
Q10: In a few lines, which debut/emerging Aussie author should we look out for?
A: I really enjoyed Mary-Lou Stephens’ 2021 debut novel The Last of the Apple Blossom https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781867226437/the-last-of-the-apple-blossom/
I met Mary-Lou at Fiona’s masterclass in 2015 and she is now writing her next novel. I look forward to reading it.
It’s opening night. The stage is set, the houselights have dimmed, and the handsome male lead is waiting. This is your time. Your chance to prove you are so much more than the understudy. You have worked so hard and would have done almost anything to get here. But not what they are accusing you of – never that. It’s simply bad luck that Australia’s darling of opera has gone missing, throwing the spotlight on you just as the whole world is watching history in the making. But the show must go on and it’s all down to you. Take a deep breath and get ready to perform the role of your life.
Immersed in the underbelly of the theatre world, where the truth often lies hidden behind the curtain, this addictive debut will have you wondering just how dangerous ambition – and love – can be.
Thank you Julie for being my March 1st Author Stalker victim. xx
The Understudy is available now for pre-order through bookstores and online.
If you would like to find out more about Julie, you can find her here:
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