At the start of 2008, Valerie Volk and her husband Noel were excitedly looking forward to a long and happy retirement together.
A gifted artist, Noel, who had just retired as principal of Immanuel College, was hoping to have more time to paint, while Valerie was going to put her energy into pursuing her love of writing.
But as sometimes happens, the hand of fate intervened and Noel was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Hospitalisations and treatment followed, there were frequent times spent in intensive care and nine months later he sadly succumbed to the disease.
For Valerie, Noel’s health crisis brought with it a roller coaster of emotions and as a way of coping she began penning her thoughts and feelings in a series of poems that later formed her first book, In Due Season.
Chronicling a year of sorrow and joy, while recollecting the couple’s happy lives together, the book continues to be Valerie’s best-selling literary endeavour.
“That’s where my publishing career started, quite accidentally,” she said. “It still sells constantly because it is a beautiful book in itself – and grief touches everyone. A lot of people buy it as a condolence gift and some funeral directors purchase it to give to clients.
“It was a very raw experience writing that book but it was a helpful experience. It not only helped me cope with the year but the grieving process after, as the last part of the book is written after Noel’s death.”
A staunch Lutheran and committed member of the Immanuel Lutheran Church which meets in the college chapel, Valerie said her faith had always been an important part of her life “in good times and particularly in bad”.
With the fire to write ignited, albeit under terrible circumstances, Valerie has continued to produce several books in various genres over the past 15 years.
A project that had its origins when she was writing for a church magazine back in the 1950s has resulted in the publication of two companion books – Bystanders and most recently Witnesses – which she believes will be of great interest to church groups.
In each of the 16 short stories in Witnesses, Valerie uses the bones of a Biblical story (from both the Old and New Testament) and retells it from the perspective of a minor character or bystander.
Selecting the ‘onlookers’ featured was apparently a relatively simple process.
“The characters more or less select me,” she laughed.
“They come to me at odd moments, especially when I’m sitting in church not attending to the sermon. The Bible reading will be something quite remote that I haven’t thought about much before and suddenly my mind is away with the fairies, thinking what if..
“I like to get inside their heads and speak for them.”
Through her creative writing style, readers can empathise with Noah’s daughter-in-law’s fear of water; the jealousy between two sisters married to the same man; the soldier commanded by his king to slay him; the father yearning for his prodigal son.
However, Valerie hopes the reader, perhaps with the support of a church group, will go further and dig deeper.
“Part of the point of all these stories really is to get people to go back and look at the biblical story to find out what did happen, why did it happen,” she explained.
“The discussion points at the end of the book are organised carefully to then move on from the bible story, to how the issues raised tie in with modern life.”
While only new on the bookshelves, Valerie said the feedback she had received so far had been positive.
“People say they’ve enjoyed reading the stories, that they were thought-provoking. I really hope that the book will be used by church groups for discussion as it’s a different way into the Bible.”
Born and raised in Melbourne, Valerie met Noel when they were both co-editors of their university literature club magazine. While always harboring a desire to write, her work as a teacher, then lecturer at tertiary institutions, coupled with a busy family life, meant it remained on the backburner for many years.
“They were extraordinarily busy years – we had four children, I was the headmaster’s wife and we did a lot of entertaining, I was teaching full time and was also involved as one of the Australian directors of the Future Solving Program, an international program designed to extend gifted students,” she said.
“During those years I’d always written a bit – it was an escape from the rest of the world – but nothing terribly sustained or serious.”
However, a year spent in the US when Noel was studying gave her the time and opportunity to pen her first full-length fictional novel.
She submitted it to a publishing house and while she received a rejection letter, they indicated they would like to read what she wrote next.
“Which was encouraging,” she smiled.
Now, in between extensive travel with her partner David Harris, she still manages to spend hours at the computer working on her next project. Inevitably, Valerie says there will be a follow-up to Witnesses, as “there are lot of these characters on the edges in the Bible, who will make such interesting stories”.
Witnesses is published by Wakefield Press, wakefieldpress.com.au and is also available from selected bookshops and the author’s website valerievolk.com.auJump to next article