Monthly Archives: January 2018

2, 2 and 2: Michelle Johnston talks about Dustfall

MJ HeadshotMichelle Johnston
Dustfall (UWA Publishing)
FICTION

I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about Michelle Johnston’s debut novel, Dustfall—compelling, disturbing and strangely lyrical, given the harshness of its environment and the emotional and ethical territory it traverses. It will be my privilege and great pleasure to launch the novel in a couple of weeks, and I think it’s going to find a wide and enthusiastic audience.

Michelle is one of those rare and impressive people who manage to write as well as excel in a demanding professional field. I’ll let the poetry of her author blurb speak for itself:

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art and beauty within the sometimes brutal reality of the Emergency Department, and has dedicated her career to finding that sweet spot between creativity and critical care medicine. Books are her other oxygen, and writing her sustenance.

And here is the blurb for Dustfall:

Dr Raymond Filigree, running away from a disastrous medical career, mistakes an unknown name on a map for the perfect refuge. He travels to the isolated town of Wittenoom and takes charge of its small hospital, a place where no previous doctor has managed to stay longer than an eye blink. Instead of settling into a quiet, solitary life, he discovers an asbestos mining corporation with no regard for the safety of its workers and no care for the truth.

Thirty years later, Dr Lou Fitzgerald stumbles across the abandoned Wittenoom Hospital. She, too, is a fugitive from a medical career toppled by a single error. Here she discovers faded letters and barely used medical equipment, and, slowly the story of the hospital’s tragic past comes to her.

Dustfall is the tale of the crashing consequences of medical error, the suffering caused by asbestos mining and the power of storytelling.

Over to Michelle…

Dustfall cover

 

2 things that inspired Dustfall

1 A ghost of a hospital

In 1991, without any planning, forethought or sense, I stumbled across the ruin of Wittenoom Hospital. It was the strangest place I had ever seen. As though it had been abandoned only the day before, there were scraps of gauze rolling across the crumbling concrete floor, stacks of broken shelving with old, waterlogged journals on them, and a mysterious gleaming metal machine in one of the corners. Many of the walls had collapsed or were simply gaping holes, and all the windows were broken. Outside, in the cancerous, dying town of Wittenoom, no-one knew much about the old building. Those citizens who still clung to that doomed, decaying place were of a different breed, and they had other matters on their mind rather than recording a history which was fading in the light. But the vivid memory of the building stuck in my head (as memories made during difficult times of one’s life often do), and 20 years later, it needed to have a story of my own set there. A year after I visited, the hospital was gone altogether. Razed. And most of the other buildings followed. I’ve been up to Wittenoom a number of times since, and on each occasion there is less and less man-made. Nature is consuming it all.

The research into the heinous episode in Western Australia’s mining history followed significantly later, well after I had written the early drafts of Dustfall. And the more I discovered, the more I needed to recraft the manuscript, so as to stay true to both the fictional narrative, and the truth about asbestos mining.

Raymond Wittenoom

2 Mistakes

All medical errors are devastating in one way or another. Not only for the people affected but also for those responsible; they open a floodgate of self-recrimination and doubt. We doctors are an unforgiving breed. Mostly for good reason. Society expects the standards and safeguards in medicine to be beyond reproach. Mistakes will, however, occur, and when they do, most doctors will react to them uniquely, and oftentimes in exaggerated and destructive ways. We tend to be tortured by Fates only we can see. Dustfall has at the heart of its story a medical error. But further fascinating is the juxtaposition of an individual’s response to their own mistake with the way a corporate error is dealt with. The asbestos mining saga offered plenty of material to work with here.

2 geographical spaces connected with the novel

1 The Pilbara

The head-messing vastness of the Pilbara is like nowhere else on earth. It is at once a barren, desolate moonscape coexisting with pockets of lush vegetation and plains of glittering minerals. It is staggering in its extremes. There is soil that is red beyond description and it has skies so blue they ought not be real. This is a magnificent place to try out one’s writerly palette. Plus it is peopled by characters of steel, the cut of whom has made it into the weave of Dustfall.

2 Royal Perth Hospital

I love this place. I have worked amongst her higgledy-piggledy corridors and wards for 27 years. I have cried and laughed and knelt by the side of the newly bereaved and held still-beating hearts in my hand. I have travelled to and from her in the coal of the night, and have spent days frustrated and scared and triumphant and stretched to my very limit. She was always going to feature in my first book, even though she hasn’t been named (and so much has been fictionalised, she is barely recognisable).

2 historical characters who play important roles in Dustfall

The problem here is that there are three. Descartes, Keats and Pliny the Elder. But in no way would I want to rock Amanda’s extraordinary boat, so I have played rock paper scissors with them, and Pliny the Elder (despite his admirable contribution to the story’s denouement) has been cut from this list. [Amanda feels suitably guilty about the summary dismissal of Poor Pliny from the blog. You’ll have to read the novel to give him his voice.]

1 René Descartes

The polymathic father of modern philosophy, a champion of doubt, and a man whose ideas came from fervid dreams when shut indoors with a smoking stove. His doctrines were legion and cut across many disciplines, but the one that leant itself to Raymond’s (the main character in Dustfall) own rather outlandish personal theories about Medicine were the theories on mind–body dualism—that the senses cannot be trusted. Raymond is a man out of time—a misguided poet and a dreamer. He carries with him several books, one of which is Descartes’s Meditation on First Philosophy.

2 John Keats

(Or, more accurately, his poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’—although Keats’s premature death from tuberculosis gets a guernsey.) Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in 1819. It was certainly considered one of his best, and tells the tale, in Spenserian stanzas, of the romantic tradition in the Middle Ages that if, on St Agnes’s Eve (January 20), a maiden performed certain rites before bed, she would dream of her future husband, thus sealing her life’s matrimonial fate. The rest of the poem is mainly confusion and mild erotica and mixed messages and trouble. It’s gorgeous, and the themes are woven gently through the book. I shan’t give away just how, but the first lines are quoted at the beginning, the eve of the book, where in the poem it is chilly and wintry, and we are about to explode into suffocating heat in the novel.

 

I’m grateful to Amanda for inviting me to introduce Dustfall to you this way, and to sit in the company of such brilliant other writers in the 2, 2 and 2 series. And thank you, for reading.

Dustfall will be in bookstores on 1 February 2018
Find out more at UWA Publishing
Follow Michelle on Twitter

10 Comments

Filed under 2 2 and 2 (writers + new books)

2, 2 and 2: Louise Allan talks about The Sisters’ Song

Author ShotsLouise Allan
The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin)
FICTION

I’m delighted to introduce Louise Allan as my first 2, 2 and 2 guest for 2018. Louise’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, has only been out for a few weeks but it seems to be appearing everywhere—a wonderful, and well-deserved, start to its life.

Louise is well known in the Perth writing community for her engaging, warm-hearted approach to everything she does, and will be familiar to many readers through her popular blogs. But here’s a brief introduction:

Louise grew up in Tasmania, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing.

The manuscript of The Sisters’ Song was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle–T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship. Louise has also had short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.

Apart from writing, Louise enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.

And here’s the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:

Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother, who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora’s life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.

Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. The Sisters’ Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

Over to Louise…

Unknown

2 things that inspired my book      

1 My grandmother’s history

As a child, I heard about my paternal grandmother’s three stillbirths. After the third one, the doctor told my grandmother that if she ever wanted to birth a live baby, she would need a caesarean.

I’d accepted this story then without thinking too deeply about it. As I grew older, particularly once I became a mother, it struck me how heartbreaking it must have been for my grandmother to nurture a baby in her womb for nine months, only for it to die during delivery. Three times.

One day in 2012, I searched the Launceston cemetery records and found the record of the interment of one of these uncles:

Version 2

On 22 March 1937, the stillborn baby of Mrs L.D. Allan (she wasn’t even given her own initials but those of my grandfather) was buried in Section D558 of Carr Villa cemetery. Seeing it recorded was bittersweet—I’m glad there’s a record that he existed, but it was also strikingly sad.

On a visit to the cemetery in Launceston, I tried to find his grave, but it’s unmarked.

I incorporated my grandmother’s story into Ida’s story in my novel.

2 Old family photos

I also drew inspiration from photos taken by my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather was born in 1906, one of eighteen children from a working-class family. Despite the lack of money, and the relative expense of cameras, film and developing photos in those days, they managed to leave a substantial photographic record of their lives.

I wrote quite a few scenes using the photos as prompts. The opening paragraph comes from this photo. I changed a few details to suit my story, but the essence comes from this photo, including the mention of the cloche hat!

f Group photo - I think Grandpop Allan is centre front

The photo below is how I imagined Ida, Nora and the kids would look. It’s a photo of my paternal grandmother (L), with her sister-in-law and her children.

zzz Nan Allan and unknown people - possibly Michael McIntee on Left

2 places connected with my book

1 Ben Craeg

Ben Craeg is the name of the mountain I describe in my book. Tasmania has a few mountains called ‘Ben’: Ben Lomond, the highest peak of the Eastern Tiers, and Ben Nevis, where my grandfather once had a sawmill.

When writing the first ever draft of this story, I made up the name Ben Craeg. That version was mainly about Grace, so it’s an anagram of her name, and I thought it sounded very Scottish!

There are mountains wherever you look in Tasmania—it’s not flat and brown like many parts of Australia. Because mountains are referred to as ‘she’, and because they always seem to be quietly watching over the valleys below, to me they have a maternal quality, so I bestowed these qualities on Ben Craeg, in keeping with the themes in my book.

As an aside, I was tickled to see someone had googled ‘Ben Craeg Tasmania’ and ended up on my website. My apologies to that reader for confusing them!

2 Ida’s house

Ida lives in Launceston, Tasmania, and I put her house in the street in which I grew up, although I’ve given the street a different name. The suburb we lived in was built on reclaimed swamp, and whenever a heavy vehicle like a truck or bus drove down our street, the houses shuddered and the glassware in the cabinet clinked. Just as those who live near airports tune out the noise of planes, we were used to the shaking of the floor beneath us and the rattling of the crockery. It unsettled our visitors, though, and I remember explaining to friends that it wasn’t an earthquake, just a truck passing by.

Ida’s house is modelled on my grandparents’ home. It had a front verandah, and I added iron lace and geraniums in boxes. My grandmother cooked with a wood stove, and I remember the copper in their bathroom.

2 interesting parallels

1 ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I read this short story when my daughter studied it in late high school. I’d already written an early draft of my novel, and this story resonated, as it seemed to reflect the themes I was trying to bring out in my novel.

It’s about a young woman’s descent into madness after the birth of her child, and is based on Gilman’s personal experience of post-natal depression, when her husband, a physician, forbade her from working or writing, believing that devoting herself to domestic duties was the key to happiness. Although it was first published in 1892, unfortunately it still resonates today.

Here’s a link to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

2 Dame Nellie Melba

It could be argued that Dame Nellie Melba is still Australia’s most successful expatriate ever. She sang in the opera houses of Europe and America, and was feted the world over.

Melba is mentioned a couple of times in my novel: Ida’s grandmother had been to one of her concerts, and Ida listens to her records on a gramophone when she lives with the Godfrey-Smiths.

I wrote these sections and then researched Melba’s life. I discovered that Melba’s father was against her singing, expecting that she’d marry and have a family. She did marry and have a son, but later divorced, and, at one point, lost custody of her son for ten years.

I saw the parallels between Melba and Nora, the character in my novel: both wanted to dedicate their lives to music rather than family. Imagine if Melba had stayed in Australia and lived a life of domesticity; the world would never have heard her voice. Imagine, too, how many other Melbas have lived and whose voices have never been heard.

I loved this quote about Melba from one of the websites I researched: But hers was not a life dedicated to love; it was a life dedicated to opera.

For more information on Dame Nellie Melba’s life, see here.

The Sisters’ Song is in stores now
More at Allen & Unwin
You can follow Louise via social media: website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

10 Comments

Filed under 2 2 and 2 (writers + new books)