My debut novel 'A House Called Askival' is set in the north-Indian hill station of Mussoorie between Partition and the present day.

I know the area well as I attended Woodstock, one of the many boarding schools there, in the 1980s and have returned for work and visits several times since.  Writing about it felt like another return to a beloved place.  But there was a problem.

 I knew my own experience and era very well, but the novel spans a big time-frame and many lives.  How could I, as a white Australian missionary daughter, give authentic voice to such characters as a Muslim cook in the 1940s, a Sikh teenager in the 1980s and a Hindu doctor in the current time. (Especially when all were male.)

An anthropologist I met felt very strongly that I could not and should not; it was wrong to assume I could speak for another culture - and I wouldn't be able to pull it off anyway.  After all, writers are supposed to 'write what you know', aren't they?

While there is wisdom in this, the truth is that I write to find out.  For me, writing is casting a search beam into my own ignorance.

I usually start from a place of knowing, but rapidly reach into new territory, and that is what makes it fascinating for me.

After all, one of the big themes of "Askival" is relationships across religious (and cultural) boundaries and the need for a deep understanding of one another in order to find peace.  It seemed fitting, therefore, that the work of writing the book was an expression of that theme: a journey into the worlds of others in order to explore, to understand and to portray.

One of the richest parts of crafting this novel, then, was the research.
I tapped into the stories of so many people from Urdu ghazal singers to bus drivers, western Buddhists to Gurkha soldiers, both through sources like books, films and pictures, but also through many personal interviews.

Woodstock School (fictionalised as 'Oaklands' in the novel) has an extensive international network of former students, staff and supporters that remain loyal to the school, one-another and India.
They proved an invaluable resource to me, especially the ones who had been there in 1947 and could relate their experiences of partition.

One informant, a Sikh gentleman who's wit, memory and energy belie his 80+ years, answered dozens of questions about everything from the political backdrop of Indira Gandhi's assassination to the finer details of male Sikh head-dress.

I asked him and a number of other Indians to read a draft and was thankful both for their feedback but also that none suggested I was transgressing or misrepresenting their people.  I believe that what mattered to them as readers and to me as a writer was an authenticity of human experience that transcends cultural boundaries and assumptions.
Yes, language and culture must be faithfully portrayed, but more importantly are these characters fully rounded people rather than mere props?.

Are the relationships and emotions universal?  Do the stories ring true?.
That was always my passionate hope and the answers I'm hearing from readers so far - spanning ages and cultures - would seem to be yes.
The risk was worth it, then.  

Writing what I didn't know took me to revelation; mining my ignorance unearthed gold.

'A House Called Askival', by Merryn Glover is available here: