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Interview: Deborah OBrien on overturning first impressions and confronting prejudice in fiction

 Interview: Deborah OBrien on overturning first impressions and confronting prejudice in fiction

Deborah O'Brien, author of the newly released Mr Chen's Emporium, is on a mission to write authentic older women.

'I think it's ironic that a significant proportion of readers, including myself, are in that particular 'demographic', yet with a few notable exceptions, we rarely see ourselves depicted as major protagonists in books or films,' she says.

Instead these women are relegated to the sidelines, playing supporting roles, and often as stereotypes such as 'cougars', dotty eccentrics or busybodies.

'How often do we see a fictional 'woman of a certain age' who's a real person with aspirations and dreams, not to mention valuable insights to offer the world? Far too rarely.'

Deborah's debut compares and contrasts the lives of two women: teenage Amy, whose story takes place in the late nineteenth century, and middle-aged Angie, who provides a contemporary counterpoint.

'By having two heroines at different stages in their lives, I was able to explore some of the issues women have in common, no matter what their age or which era they live in,' says Deborah.

In particular, she wanted to highlight the powerful and supportive nature of female friendships, which is something that resonates strongly throughout the book.

'In Amy's storyline, we see her camaraderie with Eliza. For Angie, there are two sets of friends: those like Vicky, whom she's known since her youth, and her new support network ' Moira and the painting students.'

Although she tends to emphasise the connections between Amy and Angie, she notes that there are significant differences between them, some of which are age-related, and others not.

'Amy is young and full of romantic dreams, while middle-aged Angie can't see a future after losing the love of her life. Amy grows in moral conviction as the book progresses. The opposite happens to Angie, who seems to be doing okay on the surface, but loses her way in another sense.'

These contrasts illustrate the universal constants of love and loss, grief and renewal, and illuminate the different ways in which people deal with these issues.

'There are several instances of loss in the novel, including a divorce, and we see the various protagonists grieving in their own ways. For some of them, the process brings hope and a reorientation towards the future. For others, that possibility is still a long way off.'

Although the individual circumstances of the characters are different, it is inevitable that the end of any loving relationship entails a grieving period.

'A short-lived relationship it can result in an endless stream of 'what ifs' and 'if onlys', while the tragic loss of a partner after decades of marriage produces its own unique traumas. The path towards acceptance can be a long and winding one. It's rarely a linear process; it's more like a maze with lots of back-tracking.'

Of course, of the many factors influencing how a character responds to the challenges posed to them, the context in which they live is key.

 Interview: Deborah OBrien on overturning first impressions and confronting prejudice in fiction
Mr Chen's Emporium alternates not only between two points of view, but also between two different eras, meaning that Deborah had to pay careful attention to whether her characters were acting in a way that was true not just for their personalities, but for their historical contexts as well.

'It's always tempting to write the past from a contemporary perspective and I'm probably guilty of doing this at times. My only defence is that the two nineteenth century female protagonists, Amy Duncan and Eliza Miller, were partly inspired by my grandmother and her early life in the gold districts of central-western NSW.'

Though forced to leave school at thirteen, Deborah's grandmother continued her education through self-studyas does the character Eliza Miller, who aspires to become a doctor.

'I remember my grandmother telling me stories about hiding in the barn to read Dickens while family members were calling out to her to come and do her chores. In spite of losing both parents at a young age, she made a life for herself as a milliner and dressmaker and remained a positive role model for me right up to her death.'

Although main character Amy Duncan is a conventional young woman at the outset of the book, her encounters with Charles Chen encourage her to consider issues she's never engaged with before.

'Although Amy does grow in many ways, she still retains her conventionality in many respects. Consider, for example, example, her typically Victorian reaction to Eliza's dreams about the future.'

Eliza on the other hand, is the true feminist in the book, 'a suffragette some decades before the term was in common usage.'

The progressiveness of these characters is contrasted against the more typical attitudes of characters such as Amy's mother, Margaret. An obedient wife, Margaret submits to her husband's wishes, even when it comes at an emotional cost, says Deborah. Her sister, Molly Mackenzie is more free-thinking, but we learn that she too has conformed to some of the more rigid conventions of the time.

On the other hand, the novel's present-day heroine, Angie Wallace, is essentially conventional and middle class. It's only after her husband dies and she moves to Millbrooke that she starts to build a different life.

'It's a rocky journey, encompassing a few choices we might wish she hadn't made. If there's any excuse, it probably that she's reeling from a loss she hasn't really dealt with. Can she work through her grief? Will she be able to build an independent and positive life for herself? They're the questions I hope readers will be asking themselves about Angie as they read the book.'

As the character arcs of Angie and Amy indicate, first impressions can easily be overturned. Not only that, but they can often be misleading, or the result of our own ingrained prejudices.

Mr Chen's Emporium is rife with examples of misguided and unfounded first impressions, and the wide-reaching influence that these can have.

'Ever since I started writing fiction againafter abandoning it in my uni days because I could never weave the fragments of my stories into a cohesive wholeI've found myself writing about the dangers of 'first impressions' and false assumptions, whether they're based on race, age, gender or some other equally 'unreliable measure', as Amy puts it.'

It's not a theme that Deborah deliberately sets out to write, however: it's one that seems to manifest in everything she does.

'In Mr Chen's Emporium we see many examples of 'placing people in tea boxes' rather than treating them as individuals. As you've noted, they're not just in the 1870s thread.'

She has also dealt quite extensively with the concept of first impressions and their consequences in a manuscript written several years ago. Set in the seventies and the present day, it's the story of a woman whose past comes back to haunt her.

'There's a knock-you-for-six twist at the end, which is predicated on implicit prejudices,' she says.

Unfortunately, it's a book we may not see, as it's been relegated to 'trunk novel' status. Still there's hope: 'I won't say too much more about it, just in case I decide to take it out of the drawer and have another look!'

One book that we will see, however, is the modern-day sequel to Mr Chen's Emporium, the draft of which Deborah has just finished writing.

'It has two middle-aged women as its main protagonists ' that's why your first question made me smile. One of them is Angie Wallace, who finds herself involved in a battle to save Charles Chen's Emporium.'

 Interview: Deborah OBrien on overturning first impressions and confronting prejudice in fiction

Mr Chen's Emporium is published by Random House Australia

Purchase'Mr Chens Emporium from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA | Booktopia | The Nile

Visit Deborah OBriens Website


  1. What an interesting article. I do love your author interviews. Now Im quite intrigued by this book and the thought put into the concepts and story. :)

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Jami! Ill be putting up my review either today or tomorrow. This one definitely got me thinking about quite a few things, in particular about public perceptions of whats moral or right, and also about my own ingrained ageism and the assumptions I make about characters based on this.

  2. @readinasitting interviews Deborah O'Brien on overturning first impressions & confronting prejudice in fiction.

  3. A really interesting background to the story, thanks for sharing it Stephanie and Deborah

    • Stephanie /

      Pleasure, Shelleyrae :) I love the story about Deborahs grandmothershe sounds wonderful.