fbook icon 60Inspirations for 'Mr Chen's Emporium'


mce building coloured


When I was a little girl, I loved to listen to my grandmother’s stories about growing up in the Central-West of New South Wales during the early years of the twentieth century. At thirteen she left school but continued her education by reading everything she could get her hands on. Although novels were banned in the O’Brien household, she read them anyway, hiding in the barn for hours on end, immersed in Dickens or Thackeray. Sometimes she would tell me about her Irish grandparents who had settled in the area at the end of the Gold Rush era and made a new life for themselves, running a sheep farm. All those tales lived in my memory for decades, but I never thought to write about them. Not until several things came together in my life at the one time.

After years of searching for a country weekender, my husband, son and I fell in love with a little cottage on the banks of a creek frequented by platypuses. Two months later the place was ours. Meanwhile, I had begun work on the novel that my mother had been encouraging me to write, ever since she first read the stories I used to pen as a teenager. The fact that I myself was a ‘blow-in’ gave me the starting point: two women recently arrived in a rural town. Worthy, but not too exciting unless … there was a dual narrative – then and now.

I decided to set the ‘then’ storyline in the Gold Rush era and to make its leading lady the teenage daughter of a dour Scottish clergyman. She would be a lot like my grandmother, a girl from a strict family, who is feisty and just a little rebellious. In the present-day, my heroine would be a ‘woman of a certain age’, who moves into the house where the girl from the past once lived. No ghosts or time travel though. Just real connections, which unfold as the story progresses.

As to what the connections might be, I wasn’t sure, apart from the obvious – the town and the old manse. I never like to plan things beyond the initial idea. I just let my characters run loose and see what happens. And in the case of ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, the parallel storylines became interwoven in ways I could never have imagined possible. 


Deborah O’Brien
September 2012