Category Archives: Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Simone Lazaroo’s Between Water and the Night Sky

The work of three writers most influenced me in the years when I was studying literature and writing, all the while daring to hope I might one day be able to write, myself. Those three writers were Gail Jones, Joan London and my guest today, Simone Lazaroo. You can imagine, then, how delighted I am to have the opportunity to interview Simone here.

Simone migrated to Western Australia from Singapore as a young child. She is an honorary research fellow at Murdoch University, where she taught creative writing for many years, and is part of a Spanish-funded research group.

Since winning the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 1993, Simone has published six novels, as well as numerous short stories and essays, and has won the WA Premier’s Book Award for Fiction three times. She has also been shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Prize and the Nita B. Kibble Award.

If you are not acquainted with Simone’s work, please do hunt down the brilliant novels that form her backlist: The World Waiting to Be Made, The Australian Fiancé (optioned for film), The Travel Writer, Sustenance and Lost River: Four Albums.

But before you do that, there’s the sixth, her new release, Between Water and the Night Sky

Elspeth is full of inexpressible longings: to leave behind life in Perth and her beginnings in a small wheatbelt town, and a secret she scarcely comprehends.

Francis wants to fit in—to make a life for himself after migrating from Singapore that is not determined by the colour of his skin or the judgement of others.

Told by their only child, Eva, this is a novel about falling in love, and falling apart—the beautiful, sad story of a shared history that never ends.

Memorialising courage

AC: Simone, Between Water and the Night Sky has been described as auto-fiction, a hybrid genre blending elements of fiction and autobiography. There are many ways a novelist can weave real events and characters, and themselves, into a work of fiction; Donald Stuart, for example, whose novel Shuggie Bain is often classified as auto-fiction, said that it was not autobiographical but inspired by his own experiences. Could you please talk about your choice to write this novel in the way you have, and some of the challenges it posed?

SL: Between Water and the Night Sky began as a couple of short stories that drew on incidents from my parents’ lives, but fictionalised aspects of these (including some elements of plot, setting, characterisation, imagery). But a few years after my mother died, I felt compelled to incorporate extracts from these short stories into a longer story that memorialised aspects of my mother in particular, including her relationship with my father. I focused particularly on my mother’s courage and creativity in the face of considerable struggles she’d experienced. I’d always felt that the way she lived her life showed a kind of heroism often unacknowledged by society. Doubtless many of us know individuals who have shown unacknowledged courage in dealing with the after-effects in their daily lives of traumas they’ve endured, although we sometimes don’t know the precise nature of those traumas.

I also tried in this book to convey many of the social and historical circumstances of my parents’ lives, to give a sense of the era and some of the social and geographical settings in which they lived. For example, partly due to aspects of the White Australia Policy still operating then, marriage between Anglo-Australians and Asians was unusual in the late 1950s, when my parents married, as was migration of Asians into Australia. However, partly because I simply didn’t know certain details of my parents’ lives before and after their marriage, imagination was all I had to fill in the gaps. Also, as the writing of the story progressed, it took on a life of its own. I used various fictional techniques (some of which I’ve alluded to above) to make the story more engaging, and because of issues of privacy.

At the intersection of cultures

AC: Throughout your body of work, you have explored characters at the intersection of cultures. Could you discuss how this plays out in Between Water and the Night Sky?

SL: The marriage of Elspeth and Francis might be considered an embodiment of the intersection of cultures—in this case, Francis’s Singaporean Eurasian culture and Elspeth’s Anglo-Australian culture. And of course, they each experience the upheavals, difficulties and joys of migrating and living in cultures and nations they are unfamiliar with. These kinds of experience can make unusual demands on the individuals involved, and on their relationship with each other. Some of the effects of such experiences upon a bicultural (or perhaps it would be more apt to say multicultural) marriage and family are reflected in this book.

Ways of seeing

AC: A photo’s just a memento of how a person looks at a particular moment…but a person’s life floats across countless moments. Elspeth, p. 164

I love the use of photography as an elemental motif in the narrative. The younger Francis is a keen hobbyist photographer, an interest gifted to daughter Eva, who studies photography at university. It recurs again and again as a metaphor for light and shadow, positive and negative, truth and illusion. I wondered, too, about the relationship between photographs and words in telling the story of a life—whether each complements the other, compensating for the other’s limitations. Was photography always a fundamental part of the story of Francis, Elspeth and Eva?

SL: Yes—photography is in a sense emblematic of how Francis and Eva develop their ways of ‘seeing’ other individuals, particularly during Francis’s courtship of Elspeth and later as Eva sees Elspeth aging. Many of us are familiar with the ways in which family photographs help trigger narratives and understandings about family members.

An enduring kind of love

AC: The relationship between Elspeth and Francis is both incredibly strong and heartbreakingly fragile, and ultimately does not survive—or at least not in the way we expect of a love story. But (and I’m trying not to wander into spoiler territory here) long after finishing the novel I was left thinking about the nature of love, and what endures between people. Did you conceive this work as a love story?

SL: Not while I was in the early stages of writing it. But as the writing progressed, I reflected on some aspects of Elspeth’s and Francis’s relationship with each other in the light of some of the wisdom I believe my parents acquired about their relationship as they aged, and saw that a nonetheless enduring kind of love had developed between my parents, despite the breakup of their marriage. Although my parents didn’t have the conversation that Elspeth and Francis have just before he dies, I wanted to convey something of the growing respect they had for one another as they aged.

Indirect trauma

AC: The great trauma of Elspeth’s infancy, painfully, shockingly, revealed to her late in life, in some ways drives the narrative. Again, I don’t want to give too much of that away. But I have always been interested in the idea that trauma can be passed from one generation to those that follow, and I sense that in this novel. Could you talk about that aspect of the work?

SL: I’m certainly not an expert in these matters. But I’d suggest that while the offspring of a person who has suffered trauma may experience it much less ‘directly’ than that parent, they nonetheless are affected by their parent’s long-term psychological responses to the trauma, which can continue to play out in their daily life decades after the traumatic event—in ways such as depression, anxiety, perhaps difficulty with some kinds of social engagement—even if the parent hasn’t told them about the traumatic event. And it’s possible that offspring who know more directly about their parent’s trauma may feel a heightened sense of responsibility towards their parent, sometimes resulting in the offspring taking on a carer’s role towards the parent at a young age; this can in turn lead to depression and anxiety in the offspring, particularly if they feel powerless to ‘cure’ or make their parent feel ‘better’.

Narrative immediacy

AC: I’ve noticed that while you don’t use it exclusively, you often seem drawn to writing in the first person. What does first-person narration bring to a novel such as this?

SL: As one of my hopes for this novel was that it might help people who’ve suffered similar kinds of trauma feel less alone, I used first person to try and build a sense of more ‘direct’ communication between the writer and reader.

More broadly speaking, I sometimes use first person in my fiction to give a sense of immediacy and direct revelation of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and experiences—although attentive readers and writers know this isn’t impossible to achieve with third person point of view, too.

When you have to let a title go

AC: Between Water and the Night Sky is a beautiful, evocative title. Was it an ‘always-was’ title or one that took time to emerge?

SL: It took a long time to emerge—partly because I discovered around the middle of last year, while I was working and travelling in Europe, that the title I’d originally chosen for the manuscript-in-progress (almost three years ago) was very similar to the title of someone else’s novel published about two years ago. So en route to various work destinations in Europe, and just as the cover design was being finalised, I had a frantic email correspondence with the exceedingly helpful and patient Georgia Richter of Fremantle Press, in an effort to find another suitable title. Both titles included water, which is central to the novel’s preoccupations with the Indian Ocean and with states of merging, flux, separation and release, in the relationship between Elspeth and Francis, and in her life generally.

Between Water and the Night Sky is published by Fremantle Press
Simone Lazaroo is on Facebook

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Filed under Favourite books, New books, Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Brooke Dunnell’s The Glass House

Unpublished manuscript awards such as the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and the Fogarty Literary Award have brought into the light many new writers with impressive manuscripts. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Brooke Dunnell and her debut novel, The Glass House, which won the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a WA writer aged 18 to 35.

Brooke’s short fiction has been widely published (I remember choosing one of her stories for the journal Westerly when I was fiction editor), and her collection Female(s and) Dogs was a finalist for the 2020 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. She is well known in Western Australia as a creative writing teacher, mentor and workshop presenter.

Julia Lambett heads across the country to her hometown where she’s been given the job of moving her recalcitrant father out of his home and into care. But when Julia arrives at the 1970s suburban palace of her childhood, she finds her father has adopted a mysterious dog and refuses to leave.

Frustrated and alone, when a childhood friend crosses her path, Julia turns to Davina for comfort and support. But quite soon Julia begins to doubt Davina’s motivations. Why is Davina taking a determined interest in all the things that Julia hoped she had left behind? Soon Julia starts having troubling dreams, and with four decades of possessions to be managed and dispersed, she uncovers long-forgotten, deeply unsettling memories.

Gaining momentum

AC: Brooke, The Glass House dives deep and wide into contemporary life, giving us a story about parenting, marriage, childhood and ageing, among other things. Can you tell us about the genesis and development of the novel?

BD: It’s often really hard to know exactly where a novel originated, especially when it was so long ago!

For a while, I’d been exploring the idea of a character who is trying to decide whether to have children when they’re put in a position of responsibility for their own parent. Seeing the parent ageing and looking back on the decisions they made in their life would be a way of giving the character a different perspective on their desire for children of their own.

The concept by itself ended up being a bit too navel-gazey, with a lot of looking back at the past and not so much in the present. There wasn’t much momentum until I thought about adding the third generation—a child. I was interested in that moment of early teenagerhood and the issues and vulnerabilities that can come along with it. Once I hit on the idea of the main character not only putting herself in the position of being a parent, but also of being a child, then things got moving in a much more promising way.

A house, a suburb

AC: The Glass House is set mostly in Perth, where Julia travels from Melbourne to care for her elderly father and to help him pack up his house and his life. The house and the suburb, which play a major role in characterisation and plot, feel entirely authentic, and I wondered whether you adapted something familiar to your own childhood in creating them.

BD: Thank you so much, that’s wonderful to hear! I definitely mined elements from my childhood, though I haven’t identified it as taking place anywhere too specific because I wanted to be able to fictionalise places like the river and shopping centre in order to suit my own purposes.

I grew up in Willetton and our house was a late nineteen-seventies build on a big block, with a front yard, backyard, pool, Hills Hoist—the whole shebang. All my friends’ houses were similar. They don’t have the same charm as other architectural styles (apologies to anyone who particularly likes brown-brick bungalows with cathedral ceilings and sunken lounges!), but to me they have a lot of personality.

Wherever you grow up, I think most kids just see their house and area as ‘the norm’ and it’s hard to get an outside perspective until you have more experience. For Julia, the contrast of living in a flat in Melbourne and coming back to this really big house with a big yard in a quiet family suburb allows her to see the home, her father and her childhood in a new way.

Mothering Evie

AC: The relationship between your main character, Julia, and her stepdaughter Evie is such a tender portrait of mothering, avoiding the common trope of the child damaged by parental separation. Evie is beautifully mothered by both Julia and her biological mother, Samara, in ways that are supportive and complementary. Could you talk about your development of this aspect of the novel?

BD: It was important to me that Evie have a good relationship with her parents and with Julia, and for Julia and Samara to have a fairly good relationship as well, because I was interested in the fact that things can go wrong even when you’re trying really hard to do everything right. Evie is a very strong young woman, and this is in part due to her parents and Julia putting her best interests first. I gave Evie that personality to contrast with how Julia saw herself at a similar age, which was much less assertive and more desperate for approval.

Julia remains a fairly passive person as an adult and so it’s natural that she defers to Samara, not only because Samara is Evie’s mother but because she’s also a strong person. Samara could have used this influence negatively, but I wanted her to be kind and caring so that Julia slowly realises what friendships between adult women should be like.

When a friend might not be

AC: The sinister tone that gradually enters this suburban domestic scenario is subtly realised, which of course makes it all the more sinister! One of the sources of Julia’s (and the reader’s) unease is the character Davina. Please tell us about her.

BD: Davina was Julia’s friend when they were little, and she’s there when Julia returns to Perth and wants to be best friends again. Because Julia’s feeling exhausted, frustrated and vulnerable, having left her marriage in Melbourne on uncertain terms and facing the difficulty of moving her father and all his stuff, she’s flattered by Davina’s attention and confides in her a lot. After a while, she starts to realise that she’s not getting much back from Davina, who’s opaque about her own life and cagey when it comes to the past. Over the course of the novel, as she goes through the family belongings, Julia begins to work out just why she stopped being friends with Davina in the first place.

Sinister dreams

AC: The main narrative is interspersed with fragments from Julia’s dreams, which escalate tension and that sinister tone. If it’s possible to do so without introducing spoilers, could you tell us how these work in the story?

BD: Julia’s understandably stressed while she’s back in Perth. She’s put a pause on a marriage that’s having problems, and part of that is telling her husband Rowan that they shouldn’t contact one another for a while, so they can see what it’s like to be apart. She starts having bad dreams about her stepdaughter Evie being pursued by a sinister male figure, and because she can’t contact Rowan and ask what’s going on, the situation just exacerbates. Julia’s not the type who believes in prophetic dreams or anything like that, but the nightmares are so realistic, she wonders if she’s losing her mind.

Starring role for Biscuit

AC: Biscuit, the dog, must take a bow as one of the most important canine characters I’ve ever met—oddly so, since he ambles through the narrative in typical old-dog fashion! What do animal characters allow a writer to bring to a narrative?

BD: I love Biscuit! I love all dogs, obviously—even the fictional ones.

I think animals, in fiction as well as in life, can be good intermediaries between people. Biscuit forms a bit of a buffer between Julia and her father, and it’s good, because if he wasn’t there, the interactions between the two of them might be even more fraught. The dog is a symbol of Don’s independence; a way he can show Julia that he can still make his own decisions and be in control. For Julia, the dog is just a manifestation of Don’s stubbornness and denial.

I think animals also become carriers of the personalities and stories we assign to them. Both Don and Julia put a lot of meaning into Biscuit. For Don, the dog needs to be protected and kept stable, not subjected to anything that might unsettle him. For Julia, the dog is at risk just being in Don’s company, because Don doesn’t have the capacity to walk him or give him mental stimulation. Living with Don, the dog has food, shelter and company, which Julia doesn’t think is enough. But Biscuit ends up having a side to him that even Don and Julia didn’t realise.

Genre hopping

AC: How did you find the leap from writing short fiction to writing a novel?

BD: I didn’t find it too arduous, because I’ve been trying to write novels for a long time. It’s definitely a different process—a novel gives you much more space to go off in different directions, have elements evolve at a slower pace, and introduce a wider range of themes. One of the pleasures of writing a short story is that you can keep the whole thing in your head at once, and that’s far more difficult with a novel! I plan to keep writing in both genres, because that gives me the scope to explore a wider range of ideas.

Towards publication

AC: What has been the most surprising thing about your journey towards the publication of The Glass House?

BD: In practical terms, I’ve been surprised in various ways at how the book publishing process works—the lead time needed, how interest gets drummed up, that type of thing. It’s been fascinating to see the different aspects come together, and it’s made me admire people who work in publishing and bookselling even more. They put so much hard work and passion into producing and promoting books they didn’t even write! Thank God for them.

More generally, I’ve been surprised and moved by the number of people who genuinely care about the fact that I’ve written a novel and are interested in it! I knew the WA writing community was close and supportive, but it’s been to a greater extent than I ever expected. Readers and even people I meet in passing can be really enthusiastic, too. I’ve been in a perpetual state of the warm fuzzies for a while now!

The Glass House is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Brooke via Instagram, Twitter or her website


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Talking (new) fiction: Sharron Booth’s The Silence of Water

Sharron Booth’s debut novel, The Silence of Water, is a beautiful work of historical fiction. I admire it immensely—as you can see from my endorsement on the cover.

In constructing questions to pose to Sharron, I think I was influenced by memories of my own exploration of Western Australian convict history for The Sinkings, and the ever widening circles of research that help a writer to understand the people, places and social worlds of the past. It’s evident from her responses that, like me, Sharron formed deep emotional attachments to those she researched, and to artefacts of the past—sometimes to be found beneath one’s feet.

Sharron emigrated from the UK (Yorkshire) to Western Australia as a child, and works as a professional writer. Her creative work has been published in literary journals and newspapers and broadcast on ABC Radio. The Silence of Water was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award—once again proving what a wonderful source of new talent this award represents.

It’s the turn of the century when Fan’s mother, Agnes, announces the family is moving to Western Australia to take care of Agnes’s father—a man they’ve never spoken of before now. Fan finds herself a stranger in a new town living in a home whose currents and tensions she cannot read or understand.

Resentful of her mother’s decision to move, Fan forms an alliance with her grandfather, Edwin Salt, a convict transported to Australia in 1861. As she listens to memories of his former life in England, Fan starts snooping around the house, riffling through Edwin’s belongings in an attempt to fill the gaps in his stories. But the secrets Fan uncovers will test the family’s fragile bonds forever, and force Edwin into a final reckoning with the brutality of his past

When you witness a different crime

AC: Sharron, The Silence of Water is a work of fiction, but it is partly based on people and events drawn from convict history. Was there something in your research into that history that immediately presented itself to you as being a subject for fiction or did you arrive at that point gradually, through the process of accumulating facts and impressions? What was it that lit the spark?

SB: I knew that I needed to write about these events and people, particularly the women, immediately after I read the medical reports and newspaper accounts of the crime that Edwin Salt committed. They upset me so much. I felt as if I had witnessed a very different crime to the one being reported. In the early days, I’d imagined I might write a fairly straightforward account of the life of a Western Australian convict. Those documents reminded me there was no such thing as a straightforward account and that archives always reveal the biases of their times. I didn’t have a clue how I would do it but I knew I wanted to write about the women I had read about, in addition to the convict.

Fragments, glimpses and whispers

AC: The novel is told from the alternating points of view of three characters: Edwin Salt, his daughter Agnes and his granddaughter Fan. Fan’s narrative anchors the present of the novel—the events of 1906—while Edwin’s and Agnes’s range between 1906 and earlier times. There are always challenges in using a non-linear approach, but could you talk about the opportunities such a structure gives a writer in telling the story of three generations?

SB: Before I did much research, my original intention had been to write a past/present dual narrative. Then I discovered that Agnes had left Western Australia at around eighteen years old and started a new life in South Australia. Based on the records, she didn’t seem in a hurry to return. Creatively, I liked the idea of the family conflict that could arise from a decision to move back to Western Australia after a long absence. Plus, moving states at a young age in the late 19th century seemed like a gutsy move for a woman. It made me want to give her a bigger role in the story.

The interwoven structure allows the reader to watch Edwin, Agnes and Fan as they grow up, struggle, make decisions, lie, behave badly. The structure lets the reader know parts of each character that not even other characters know about. It makes for a richer experience of the story.

It also allows the reader to go on the journey with Fan as she uncovers long-buried family secrets. I think it more realistically reflects the way we tend to find things out about our families: in fragments, glimpses and whispers, and almost never in an ordered, linear way.

Bad wives and mothers?

AC: The adolescent Fan is my favourite character—imaginative, independent, witty, and endearing in her fascination with the past and its secrets; a strong girl in the process of becoming a strong woman. But many of your female characters—Eliza, Mary Ann, Cath, Agnes—are strong women, albeit within the context of their times and socio-economic constraints. Were you conscious of foregrounding women’s stories in a novel that is to some extent shaped by the life of one man?

SB: When I read the archival material about Mary Ann and Cath (two of Edwin’s three wives), my emotions ranged from anger to compassion. Mary Ann was decried publicly as a bad wife and bad mother and yet contemporary understanding might suggest she was suffering from post-natal depression. Cath was arrested for using offensive language, an offence that was used almost exclusively against women. I wanted to bring both women out from under the weight of the records. I consciously looked for moments of resistance; they were hard to find but they were there. I used those fragments as starting points for thinking about character. For example, one of the most enduring features about fictional Cath is her voice. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind. People pay attention when she talks. Agnes remembers the sound of Cath’s voice long after her mother has died. I did this to ‘write back’ to the fact that Cath had been criminalised for using her voice.

Flowers on an unmarked grave

AC: Your research for the novel was wide-ranging, taking you from Western Australia to South Australia to various places in the United Kingdom, and from archives and libraries to the kind of experiential research that involves communing with the past through the physical remains to be found in houses and churches, streets and landscapes. Where did you find your greatest inspiration?

SB: I loved the archival research, but visiting the places where my characters had lived got me properly under the skin of this story. Two moments stand out: one in Semaphore and one in Edinburgh. I was walking along Semaphore beach, minding my own business, when in my imagination I saw a girl running over the dunes towards the ocean, her hair trailing behind her. She seemed to fly into the ocean. It was one of those between-two-worlds moments that writers sometimes talk about but I secretly didn’t believe in, until it happened to me. I knew this girl was Fan and that she was here to shake things up.

The second was in Edinburgh in a small church graveyard on a quiet, sunny afternoon. I laid some flowers on the unmarked grave of a woman to whom I had no connection except the privilege of having time and resources to pursue my interest in her life. I told her that I had no idea why this story had chosen me, but no matter what, I would try to do justice to her. The novel did not really come together for me until that afternoon.

Lucky charms

AC: As someone powerfully influenced by physical objects, I’m wondering whether you also acquired anything of this kind during your research, something that helped you to make emotional connections with your material. Was there a talisman sitting on your desk while you wrote?

SB: I also find physical objects inspiring. They ground me to the truth of my characters, and to place, through the fog of the writing process.

My desk was crowded with lucky charms while I wrote The Silence of Water. I collected shells and rocks from Semaphore beach. I pinned all my train tickets from the UK research trip on a cork board. When I visited York, Western Australia, via the old convict route from Greenmount, I dug up a stone from part of the original convict-laid road.

I cut my hands and broke fingernails liberating that rock from the ground. I could only imagine the effort it had taken to put it there more than 150 years ago. It inspired a scene in the novel where Edwin and his fellow convicts work on a road gang.

Watery places

AC: Could you talk about the symbolism of water in the novel?

SB: The ocean is a place of duality. It both separates and connects places. I read somewhere that the ocean symbolises ‘the terrifying sublime’: it’s spiritually uplifting but it can also kill you. In the novel, some characters find great solace in watery places and others meet their end there.

The ocean is essential to my spiritual wellbeing and so it was perhaps unsurprising that it found its way into my fiction. I can’t say I intended to write about water but that’s what happened! I’ve given my love of the ocean to Fan, although she is much braver than I am. For Fan it is a place of calm, compared to the soup of unspoken tension in her Fremantle house.

For Agnes, too, the water is important: she associates the sounds and smells of the river with her mother and the precious times they spent together. Agnes’s relationship to water symbolises her grief and how she deals with significant losses.

I found it interesting that Edwin, Agnes and Fan all made long journeys across water to start new lives. I wanted to explore how people respond to unfamiliar places by asking the question: is it ever possible to truly escape the past?

Silences and the forgotten

AC: Are you naturally drawn to the past, and to historical fiction? Do you see yourself continuing to work in this genre? Which I suppose is another way of asking if you are currently at work on something new!

SB: I’m particularly drawn to stories about how actions of the past, particularly in families, influence the present. While The Silence of Water is historical fiction, I see it primarily as a family story that just happens to be set in the past.

At a broader level I’m also fascinated by the role that secrets and silences play in narratives of Western Australia’s identity. Reading the archives is eye-opening, but so is the daily news.

I’m working on a non-fiction project inspired by some now-forgotten Western Australian women writers, as well as a novel that is set in the more recent past. It’s wonderful to be writing something new, now that the characters from The Silence of Water are making their own way in the world.

The Silence of Water is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Sharron on Facebook, Instagram, or via her website

Photo credits: author photo by Jess Gately; photo of artefacts by author


Filed under Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House

I’d have thought you’d be hard pressed to find a reader less likely than me to fall in love with a novel about a boxer. But it’s 2022—unpredictable to the marrow—and here am I, smitten, and urging everyone who appreciates superb literary-historical fiction to read David Whish-Wilson’s captivating new release, The Sawdust House.

Mind, this novel is ‘about a boxer’ as much as Oliver Twist is about a greedy boy—something that will become abundantly clear when you read David’s generous responses to the questions I’ve put to him.

David is one of Western Australia’s most prolific and versatile authors, having published six crime novels, four in the Frank Swann series, which explores the seedier aspects of 20th-century Perth; three works of non-fiction, including a stellar contribution to the NewSouth Books City series, Perth; and a historical novel, The Coves, that traverses some of the ground covered in his new novel. A much valued teacher and mentor, he coordinates the Creative Writing program at Curtin University, and lives and writes in Fremantle.

San Francisco, 1856. Irish-born James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan is being held in jail by the Committee of Vigilance, which aims to rout the Australian criminals from the town. As Sullivan’s mistress seeks his release, and as his fellow prisoners are taken away to be hanged, the convict tells a story of triumph and tragedy: of his daring escape from penal servitude in Australia; how he became America’s most celebrated boxer; and how he met the true love of his life.

Hard citizens

AC: David, the present of the narrative is San Francisco, 1856, at the time when citizens had formed a Committee of Vigilance to deal with Australian gangs of criminals who had dominated the city—the setting also for The Coves. Was it during the course of your research for that novel that you happened upon the story of James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan?

DW-W: Yes, I came across his name several times while doing archival work in San Francisco on the story of the wild Australian men and women who so rapidly established themselves in that city, and whose reputation as ‘hard citizens’, formed in the crucible of the Australian convict system, gave them such a bad reputation. One such citizen was Yankee Sullivan, as he was known, considered a leader and something of a celebrity due to his once status as the US boxing champ, but also his ability to roguishly engage with the local media. He was caught up in the second great purge of Australians from San Francisco in 1856, arrested for being a ‘shoulder-striker’ for the Democrat party, which led to him being locked up in a makeshift vigilante prison while others arrested in the same purge were being lynched.

Contemplating an extraordinary life

AC: What was it about Sullivan’s story that caught your interest initially?

DW-W: The fact that Yankee Sullivan was a colourful figure and a boxer, strangely enough, didn’t initially draw me toward him as a subject. I was curious as to why this man, considered by some to be the father of American boxing (which is now of course a multi-billion dollar industry), wasn’t better known in Australia, but that wasn’t enough for me to consider dedicating researching and writing about him for a couple of years. I did a bit of digging and learned about his time as a convict in Australia, where he was a serial escapee and was sent to Moreton Bay as a sixteen-year-old (then the worst prison in Australia, under the notorious Commandant Logan—the subject of the terrific Drones song ‘Sixteen Straws’). It interested me that he’d been able to escape Australia, and reinvent himself so thoroughly (and quickly) in the milieu made famous by the Scorcese film Gangs of New York, where he became a significant figure, but it wasn’t until I found some words written by his wife following his death in San Francisco that I really felt like I wanted to explore the parts of his life absent in the historical record. She’d noted his vulnerability, and his melancholy, and his fears, which is the starting place of the novel—the human story of a man who’s lived an extraordinary life but is now facing an imminent and humiliating death, using storytelling as a way to distract himself from his situation but also to communicate the things most important to him.

‘Letting the language wash through me’

AC: As someone deeply interested in structure and point of view, I am in awe of The Sawdust House as a masterpiece of both, with two main characters—Sullivan and the reporter Thomas Crane—in conversation with each other while Sullivan waits, in a cell, for his fate at the hands of the Vigilance Committee. Were there challenges in using this device?

DW-W: I felt like I needed someone for Yankee Sullivan to communicate with in his prison cell, someone who Yankee not only trusts, but can see himself in, had his life been different—had he been blessed with some of the opportunities that we take for granted now. But I also wanted Thomas Crane to see something in Yankee that he himself lacked, as an introvert, a certain flamboyance and courage, so that they reflect one another on an emotional level. So the novel proceeds by way of this conversation, and by way of internal monologue that reflects Yankee’s gradual fracturing self as a product of his distress, melancholia, and lack of food and sleep, and Crane’s observations of Yankee and thoughts about his own situation. I haven’t told a story this way before, and so it proceeded slowly, and in fragments, and in a non-linear fashion, moving backwards and forwards in time, with abrupt switches from the present to the past. As a process, I found it intriguing, surprising, and pretty enjoyable, in that because both characters were keen to speak to one another (and to me), I was able to proceed intuitively, with minimal anxiety about where the narrative might be going, instead just letting the language wash through me.

Archival discoveries

AC: Your research for the novel, as outlined in your Author’s Note at the back of the book, was wide-ranging, including archives, informal sources and site research. Is there one that stands out for you now as the most valuable of these—a photograph, a document, a feature of the landscape?

DW-W: I think the two most important research moments involved the discovery, in the archives, of details about Yankee’s transportation to Moreton Bay as a sixteen-year-old, which was a bland record providing dates only, plus a small note to say that he’d also escaped from Moreton Bay before being recaptured. Knowing how harsh that penal colony was in turn linked to the second most important research discovery, which was a portrait of him as a young man in New York, where he looks so calm and healthy. Knowing how many times he’d been flogged in Australia, how scourged his back must have been, made the portrait (which was used to advertise a tobacco brand) extra poignant to me, and helped with his characterisation, and the development of his voice.

Truths of fiction

AC: You speak, in your Author’s Note, of having ‘changed names and dates and amalgamated characters for dramatic purposes and to better suit the truths of fiction’. Could you talk about the ‘truths of fiction’ as they apply to The Sawdust House?

DW-W: Yankee Sullivan was a much-mythologised character in the US, and some of that reputation was the product of self-mythologisation. This is natural, to a certain extent, for an escaped convict whose worst fear (according to his wife) was to be returned to the chain in Australia. It looks like not a single person in the US, including possibly his Australian wife, knew his real name, for example, or that he’d begun his boxing career in the dusty streets of Sydney, New South Wales. I explore some of that concealed history in the novel, working with the main features of his life that were known (and including some of the newspaper reports written about him, verbatim, as well), but where appropriate I also felt like I needed to streamline some aspects of the narrative by designing devices (such as Yankee’s being chained to Leggo on the transport ship) and by changing dates while keeping to the emotional truths of the events as they played out, and as they affected Yankee’s reputation. This reputation was cemented, for example, when he cheekily sailed back to England and challenged the British middleweight boxing champion, Hammer Lane, to a bout, which Yankee won, despite the risk of his arrest and potential execution before sailing back to the US. In revolutionary America, this was a big deal, and I explore this in the novel while having slightly changed the focus of the return trip, to one where he’s in fact there searching for what remains of his family.

When a character begins to speak

AC: Is the fictional newspaperman Crane (I’m assuming he’s fictional) based on a real journalist of that time, or is he perhaps one of those ‘amalgamated characters’?

DW-W: Thomas Crane is an entirely fictional character. In fact, I met him for the first time just as the reader first finds him, as a disembodied voice addressing Yankee in his prison cell, before he proceeds to colour himself in, so to speak. Without the benefit of much planning or foresight, all of his personal aspects appear to the reader as they appeared to me, too, as Crane becomes a key figure in drawing out Yankee’s story, but also in exploring some of the aspects of Mormonism that so interested me in researching The Coves, such as how violent and chaotic the early history of that religion was.

‘The way he sees the world…’

AC: Sullivan’s narrative, though it carries stylistic characteristics of an untutored 19th-century voice, is frequently poetic. To give one example of many:

…I barely have recollection of what I have said from one utterance to the next. Since my incarceration here I am like a taper whose wick is my voice and the flame has been lit but the wick consumed as it goes—

Did the Walt Whitman connection—which came as a surprise—give you opportunities for developing Sullivan’s voice in this way?

DW-W: The link to Whitman developed later, when I was excited to read that he was a contemporary of Yankee’s in New York City, and when I came across some fascinating anecdotes about him in different texts. The development of Yankee Sullivan’s voice, on the other hand, which of course is an approximation, or a hybrid version of a 19th-century voice shaped by a life in several different countries, was one of the great joys of writing The Sawdust House. As an aspect of this hybridity, perhaps, and of the need to let him speak freely, I was fortunate that right from the beginning, Yankee expressed himself in imagery and metaphor, which is something I hadn’t anticipated, but which is important, because without it I don’t know if I would have been able to sustain the narrative. I was frequently surprised and delighted by the way he sees the world, and while I wasn’t doing any contextual reading at that point, not wanting to complicate the language with another’s voice, it seems to me in retrospect that Whitman’s expansive and enthusiastic style might be an unrecognised influence.

The power of white space

AC: I found the physical layout of the novel fascinating, with each question and each answer of the interview beginning on a new page, even if they occupy only one or two lines. White space speaks eloquently in The Sawdust House, and it contributes to the way you control the pace. But, as white space also = page extent = money, I’m wondering whether there was any discussion surrounding this aspect between you and your publisher.

DW-W: Fortunately, because it’s quite a short novel, the white space, which like you say is there to control pace but also to serve as an absence/presence, or a silence/voice, wasn’t mentioned as a significant issue. Essentially, I think I’m very blessed to have a publisher willing to take a risk with a non-traditional kind of narrative, and an editor who was able to see the merit in this kind of approach. I don’t know if the two things are related, but perhaps it’s significant that Fremantle Press is one of the last publishers around who still publishes terrific poetry.

Title as talisman

AC: The title is immediately intriguing, but I also found it to be one of those titles that was even more resonant after I’d finished the novel. Was it always your working title, or one that came to you in the writing process, or later?

DW-W: It was always my working title, acting while I wrote as a kind of talismanic aspect of Yankee’s yearning, both during his difficult years of captivity, and then, after he’d achieved his parents’ dream of owning a public house/saloon with that name, as an aspect of his recognition that the very things he’d done to achieve that dream had diminished him and his ability to value this achievement—something which becomes significant toward the ending of the novel.

The Sawdust House is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow David on Twitter and Instagram, and contact him via his website

Photo credits: boxing image—James S. Baillie, 1849, black and white lithograph of Thomas Hyer, American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of 1841, fighting Thomas Sullivan on a snowy day in Baltimore; Yankee Sullivan image—Lorilliard’s Mechanics Delight Boxing Card


Filed under Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks

It’s a pleasure to introduce my first international guest in the Talking (new) fiction series. Sue Orr’s second novel, Loop Tracks, has been a bestseller in her home country, New Zealand, since its release last year, and has just been released in Australia, to acclaim, by Terri-ann White’s Upswell Publishing.

Loop Tracks was recently longlisted for New Zealand’s premier literary honours, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Sue Orr is also the award-winning author of two books of short stories, Etiquette for a Dinner Party and From Under the Overcoat, and the novel The Party Line. She teaches creative writing at Victoria University in Wellington, and has for some years been involved with programs teaching creative writing in prisons and women’s refuges in Auckland and Wellington.

Sue took time out from Adelaide Writers’ Week to answer a few questions…

It’s 1978: the Auckland abortion clinic has been forced to close and sixteen-year-old Charlie has to fly to Sydney, but the plane is delayed on the tarmac. It’s 2019: Charlie’s tightly contained Wellington life with her grandson Tommy is interrupted by the unexpected intrusions of Tommy’s first girlfriend, Jenna, and the father he has never known, Jim. The year turns, and everything changes again.

Loop Tracks is a major New Zealand novel, written in real time against the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic and the New Zealand General Election and euthanasia referendum.

Voices from sisters past

AC: Sue, you’ve spoken about Loop Tracks having been inspired by a conversation some years ago—a moment you’ve described as ‘a tingle, like shorting electrics desperate to earth’ when a friend spoke about ‘a plane delayed on the tarmac at Auckland Airport for hours, with anxious pregnant girls and women on board’. The plane’s destination was Sydney, where the women and girls could go to have a safe, legal abortion, something they could not do in New Zealand at that time (1978).

The first question I want to ask about this concerns the issue of teenage pregnancies in the late 1970s. As you show in Loop Tracks, the choices available to young pregnant girls were limited—abortion or adoption—both involving a great degree of secrecy and hypocrisy. And those so-called ‘choices’ were often made by others. What floored me was the cruelty meted out to so many young girls in the name of ‘respectability’. Were you able to access formal, as well as anecdotal, research into the long-term effects of these practices in developing your story?

SO: Yes. As an ex-journalist, it was really important to me that the backdrop to the fictional narrative of Loop Tracks was factually correct. I obsessed over the accuracy, to be honest, and now on reflection I think it was also because I didn’t want to give anti-choice lobbyists any grounds to challenge me on sloppy research, diverting the conversation away from the issues at the heart of the book.

Dame Margaret Sparrow, with others, set up Sisters Overseas Service, the clandestine network that enabled women from the far reaches of New Zealand to travel to Australia for abortions during 1978. Margaret went on to establish Family Planning in New Zealand.

She has written three texts on the history of abortion law in New Zealand. One of them, Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980, was my key formal resource for the researching of Loop Tracks. It contains many reflective accounts of the long-term effects of the practices you mention.

Margaret launched the New Zealand edition of Loop Tracks. The novel is dedicated to her, and to my friend who was on the delayed flight at the beginning of the story. Loop Tracks could not have been written without the generosity of these two women.

Someone else’s story

AC: I’m also wondering about the process of developing a narrative from that initiating conversation into the rich terrain covered by the novel. Was it difficult to transform the experience of a friend into fiction? Were you conscious, for example, of the need to de-identify your friend? I imagine this might affect all manner of creative choices—characters, settings, motivations…

SO: Unlike Charlie, my friend who was on the flight stayed on the flight. So it was never a question of transforming her specific experience into fiction. But she was able to gift to me the essential details of what it was like to be a very young woman pregnant in 1978, not wanting to have the baby. What it was like to have to find a doctor (and they were rare) who would help her navigate the system that had been established by the Sisters Overseas Service. What it was like to raise the small fortune needed for the flight and procedure. What it was like to turn up at the airport and be shepherded on to a commercial flight with others in her situation. The condescending air hostesses. The dash to Sydney, or Melbourne, and the return home two days later to take up her old life, pretending none of it had ever happened. And, of course, the delay that occurred on her particular flight. That delay was the genesis of this book.

I have always protected the identity of this friend. It was the promise I made to her, when she agreed to talk about all of those things I just mentioned. I’ve written an essay about this here.

‘The girl that was me’

AC: I love the way you play with tense and point of view with your protagonist, Charlie. Although the novel is essentially a first-person narrative, the world through Charlie’s eyes, you also give us third-person sequences that tell the story of ‘the girl that was me’, and which slide between past and present. What advantages did this narrative sleight of hand give you in conveying Charlie’s story?

SO: It felt as though I had no choice but to offer Charlie the sleight of hand as a way to confront her traumatic past. Charlie has never dealt with the shocking circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, the father of the baby, or the birth of her child. Rather, she has developed mechanisms for shutting down that period of her life; shutting down any conversation that looks as though it might be drifting towards these traumas. As a result, she’s disassociated herself from ‘the girl she was’.

The disassociation starts to crumble when two things happen—her grandson Tommy gets an inquisitive girlfriend, and the pair of them summon Tommy’s father into all their lives. Charlie’s forced to confront those events, all those years ago. She is so far emotionally and mentally estranged from them, the only way she can cope with revisiting them is via a third-person perspective. The distance she creates between her adult self and the girl she was enables her to face the past, fearfully crack it open, and eventually create the possibility of moving on from it.

Joys and challenges

AC: Charlie’s grandson, Tommy, is a wonderfully drawn character, and I found my response to him vacillating between protectiveness and exasperation, affection and outright horror. Can you please tell us a little about Tommy and how you developed this character?

SO: Tommy came into Charlie’s life at the age of four—dropped off at the gate when his father became unable (or unwilling) to cope with him. Tommy needed Charlie, and Charlie needed him. She needed someone to care for, a purpose in her life.

As I grew this character—as he grew into a teenager—I realised that his relationship with his grandmother had to become more mutually reliant rather than less, as would normally happen. I also needed a character who would interpret the world in a very literal way; someone who would be vulnerable to the conspiracy theories in 2020 New Zealand.

I have friends with sons on the spectrum—I have watched these boys grow up, watched how they interpret the world around them, watched how their loving families have accommodated their views and celebrated their difference. One such friend read an early version of the manuscript, and pointed out that I had painted too rosy a picture of life with a child on the spectrum. Where’s the anger? she asked me. Where are the unreasonable, vicious, hurtful outbursts towards the people that love them and care for them the most? The next draft was more honest. It captured the challenges, as well as the joys, of raising a child on a spectrum.

Another crack at reckless joy’

AC: Loop Tracks could be thought of as a multiple coming of age story. Tommy’s passage from adolescence into new adulthood is one thread; Charlie’s earlier, very different experience of that journey is another. Is the older Charlie also undergoing another kind of ‘coming of age’ in the narrative present of the novel?

SO: She absolutely is.

As Tommy gains independence, Charlie recognises that she’s becoming irrelevant to him. (There’s no feigning denial of this on Tommy’s part—he says it like it is!) So where does this leave Charlie? Who is she, if she’s not Tommy’s provider and protector?

Her second coming of age—her opportunity to reset her life, bump the looping patterns off track—occurs against the backdrop of the extreme lockdown conditions of the first wave of Covid-19 to hit New Zealand in March 2020. For Charlie, already cast adrift from the responsibilities of the last 20 years, this weird new world presents opportunity for another crack at reckless joy, this time tempered with wisdom.

Characters first

AC: Loop Tracks is a novel that foregrounds the political. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the rights of individuals are woven into the story in ways that make it clear that rationalisations and doctrines don’t hold: the political is personal, it affects lives, it has consequences. Is this an abiding concern in your work or did the original inspiration, the experience of your friend, dictate this direction for the novel?

SO: Characters always come first for me. I started with a girl on a delayed flight: she’s pregnant, naïve, and makes a crazy decision that makes sense to her in that moment. That’s all I had to work with. I knew the circumstances of her pregnancy, and little else.

But if you’re willing to inhabit the hearts of your characters—be your characters—then the story unfolds in its own surging, organic way. This feels like the only way to write, to me. This is the source of the joy of writing. The excitement of discovering what happens next, at the same time as your characters. Jumping on their shoulders and experiencing their lives with them.

The issues—the themes, whatever you want to call them—they emerge in a natural way, as a result of the character’s development and decisions. I’m there for the ride, documenting the fallout, the consequences, the joys and despair of human fallibility and resilience.

Loops interrupted

AC: The stunning cover for your Australian edition features an image by Greg Simpson that brings to mind Charlie’s, and then Tommy’s, love of the 1960s design toy, Spirograph. Could you please talk about the way this works as metaphor in Loop Tracks?

SO: I always imagined the cover being a Spirograph image (it was my favourite childhood toy) with a big smudge across the page as the pen was bumped off course. The final cover was so much better—less literal, less obvious, while still clearly referencing a Spirograph design. The geometric loops have gone haywire, just as the rigid routines in Charlie’s life get knocked off course in the novel. The image also alludes to Tommy’s discovery of loop track music and his natural gift for mathematics, and the beautiful loop track bush walks in Wellington city.

The C word

AC: Yours is one of the first wave of novels to draw Covid into the story—and the pandemic atmosphere brings so much to what is happening. What influence, if any, did Covid have on the way the novel ends?

SO: The novel ends in spring 2020—after the General Election which saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government return to power. By early October, Covid had been eliminated in New Zealand for the time being. The return to a normal way of life gave agency to all the characters—they were free, finally, to make decisions about how they would live their lives, for better or for worse.

Loop Tracks is published by Upswell Publishing
You can follow Sue on Twitter and Instagram


Filed under Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Portland Jones’s Only Birds Above

Portland Jones is a beautiful writer—a favourite of mine on the strength of her brilliant debut novel, Seeing the Elephant, which was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. I came late to reading this, but I have been singing its praises ever since, and if you haven’t yet read it I urge you to (as Molly Meldrum used to say) do yourself a favour and seek out a copy.

Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Portland’s second novel was scheduled for 2022, and anxious to read it. I was not disappointed. Only Birds Above is sublime, and I think you’ll get a sense of that from reading her responses to my questions below.

Portland Jones is a writer, lecturer and horse trainer who lives and works in the Swan Valley, near Perth. She has a PhD in Literature, and in addition to her two novels she has co-authored a non-fiction book, Horses Hate Surprise Parties. She is currently working on a third novel and another work of non-fiction.

Arthur the blacksmith goes to war with the 10th Light Horse, to care for the horses of his fellow soldiers. When he returns, Arthur’s wife, Helen, and their children bear witness to a man forever damaged by what he has seen and suffered.

As a second war looms, Arthur insists on his son Tom going to work in Sumatra. Tom is taken prisoner by the Japanese, but is sustained by memories of life on the farm at home and a growing understanding of his father.

This big-hearted, beautiful novel captures the deep and mysterious connection between humans and horses—whose very presence lends a sweet, steady counterweight to human frailty, and whose nobility aligns with human courage.

The unfathomable

AC: Portland, I’m intrigued that your two novels, although very different, both tell stories of war—the Vietnam War in Seeing the Elephant (2016) and now World Wars I and II in Only Birds Above. What draws you, as a novelist, to these critical historical periods of the twentieth century?

PJ: I think there are two main reasons. The first is because history, or more specifically the history of conflict, has always felt very real to me. When I was growing up my Dutch grandmother would hold us in her lap and tell stories about fighting in the resistance during the war. She used to tell us about hiding my grandfather in their house between the floor of the second storey and the ceiling of the first. They would roll back the rug, prise up the floorboards and then, once he’d squeezed himself into that tight little space, she would nail the boards back down and replace the rug. She told me how German soldiers had come to the house and yelled at her, ‘Where’s your husband?’ And she had pretended she didn’t know, although he was hiding just above their heads.

And some stories become indelible because of their context. I admired my grandmother a great deal and it wasn’t until she had been gone for several years and I started a PhD on learned helplessness in war veterans that I realised that both she and my grandfather had suffered from PTSD. My grandparents belonged to a generation that didn’t speak about trauma. PTSD was only recognised as a disorder in 1980, so people like my grandparents just lived with their responses because they didn’t have the language back then to talk about them. That realisation reframed a lot of my childhood memories of my grandparents. I saw how their lives and the lives of their children had been irredeemably altered by their experiences and I suppose that made me want to understand more.

I was born at the height of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese say). During my childhood I felt like it was a dark secret grown-ups wouldn’t talk about with children and I’ve always been suspicious of those sorts of secrets. Then the Welcome Home March was held in 1987 (the year I left school) and it all felt a bit underhanded. No-one that I asked could give me a coherent answer about the treatment of our Vietnam veterans, so I started to read as widely as I could. Back then, there wasn’t nearly as much material about the Australian soldier’s experience in Vietnam, it was mostly about the American experience. As an example of that, one of the most popular Australian songs about the war (Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’) is about a battle that Australian ground troops didn’t even fight in. They could have written the same song about Long Tan without even changing the rhyme, but perhaps in the late 70s no-one knew anything about Long Tan because it was a specifically Australian battle.

I decided to do a PhD so I could untangle in my own mind this enormously complex, multi-dimensional part of Australian history. When I first started researching, we were on a family holiday to Exmouth and we stopped at the Overlander Roadhouse. I saw a man sitting in a car eating a burger and on his back window a sticker that said AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam). I knocked on his window and we had a chat about his service and a few weeks later, over a cup of tea, he told me about himself and the terrible price he’d paid for the years he spent in the army. History can be uncomfortably close when you hear it first hand—that was another story made indelible by its context.

The second reason that I write about war is because it frightens me. I have three children, two of them boys, and I can never forget that we’ve had conscription during my lifetime. Once you’re a parent, history happens to sons and daughters. So I write about war as a way to try and understand that.

Custodians of the horse

AC: Arthur is a blacksmith who has grown up and worked with horses all his life, and he carries an intimate knowledge of and love for them into war as an infantryman in the 10th Light Horse. The scenes where Arthur is interacting with his horse are among the most beautiful and moving of the novel, and they clearly come from your own experience and knowledge as a horse trainer. Could you please tell us about this aspect of the novel, and the research you conducted into Australia’s war horses?

PJ: During WWI the horses were usually tethered in a row on long picket lines. At the end of the war, when it was decided that the horses would not be coming home, they shaved their manes and tails, pulled off their shoes and a veterinary officer walked down the line and shot them where they stood. The horses were so habituated to gunfire at that point that they didn’t even try to run away.

I tell that story to my university class and every time I pretend to be objective, though it’s an image that will always haunt me. Not just because of the loss of the horses but also because of what it must have done to the men that had fought alongside them. Nearly 136,000 horses left Australia between 1914 and 1918 and only one returned.

To me, horses are the most beautiful of all our domestic animals. The joy of watching them gallop and play never wears off, even after all these years. When you’re a horse trainer, their lives are tightly woven into yours. There’s this moment, every evening, just before I go inside for the night. The afternoon light is coming sideways through the trees and horses are quietly eating. I know then that I’m just one small link of a chain that stretches back for over five thousand years, all of us custodians of the horse. I’m grateful every single day that I can do what I do. It’s a job but it’s also a privilege. In writing Only Birds Above I really wanted to convey that sense and, in my own small way, to honour the thousands of horses that died during the war.

I really enjoy novel research and I like to think of myself as a method researcher—I want to live and breathe my subject. Luckily there are lots of people who are interested in the history of the Light Horse and I’ve been able to speak to many who are passionate about preserving that history. And people are so kind. When you tell them that you’re interested in their passion, they are incredibly generous with their time. I have been lucky enough to have been shown original equipment, ridden in a replica of a universal pattern saddle (the saddle that was used during WWI) and had many, many long conversations about the tiniest details of gear and equipment with people who have dedicated years of their lives to learning as much as they can about the Light Horses. A friend even gave me an old universal pattern saddle which had been hanging in the rafters of a shed for decades—it’s now been restored and is sitting in my living room. To me these things connect us to our past.

In the presence of death


Joining up was the right thing to do and like everyone says—it’s a chance to see the world.

When Arthur meets Helen, he is already in training at the Blackboy Hill Camp and there is an aching poignancy in his words to her. Is their hasty marriage, emblematic of many of that time, an act of naivety? Desperation? Hope?

PJ: I think the threat of death strips everything bare. All the layers of artifice that we paste between ourselves and the world get ripped away. I have a very dear friend fighting a serious illness and I’m often struck by how the threat of this loss has altered the way we communicate. It’s as though your skin has been rubbed raw—some moments have an almost painful vividness and clarity. It’s sad but it’s also beautiful.

You’re never more alive than when you’re in the presence of death. That’s why risk is so important, it makes you cherish your life. After my father died I sat down to try and write about it and the first thing I wrote was: ‘Why is everything so beautiful since you’ve gone?’ For weeks I’d have to stop and stare at the way the light fell through the leaves or the way the sunset coloured the dust. The sight of a mother lifting her baby from a car seat or a flock of parrots in a marri tree would take my breath.

When I was writing the novel I felt sure that Arthur and Helen’s marriage would have been informed by that same sense. There would have been an urgency to it, a need to hold onto what is real and important in the presence of so much uncertainty. In an era without videos, social media and all those other windows into other people’s experiences, falling in love must have been like exploring new territories. Amazing and yet also terrifying. Our ability to love is the most miraculous and beautiful aspect of life, isn’t it? [A million times yes!]

On the homefront

AC: For all that the novel takes us into theatres of war and the world of men and horses, it also brings us stories of the homefront, of women and children left alone during the war, and then inexplicably alone again when the men who return are morose, insular and unable to communicate with those who love them. Without giving away spoilers, could you talk about the longer term effects of the war on Helen, a new bride when Arthur leaves, and their daughter Ruth?

PJ: One of the things I encountered when I was researching my first novel is the prevalence of families with three generations of soldiers. Many of the Vietnam veterans who I met had grandfathers who served in WWI and fathers who had served in WWII. I am really interested in how this would change the dynamic of the entire family. What happens to intergenerational trauma when it is compounded?

I think it’s the role of historical fiction to fill in the gaps between what is written and the people who lived it. The experiences of women in war are rarely privileged by non-fiction historical narrative, though that is definitely changing. History doesn’t always tell us what ordinary people thought or felt and sometimes the numbers are too big to comprehend. Or maybe your mind won’t let you comprehend them because it’s too much. But having an insight into one person’s experience makes it easier to relate to. Listening to veterans speak about the experiences of their wives and families is often very moving because it takes great courage to love someone whose life has been impacted by war.

‘Almost as if it didn’t happen’

AC: Son Tom, working in Indonesia at the outbreak of World War II, becomes a prisoner of the Japanese and one of the slave workforce building the Pekanbaru Death Railway across Sumatra, which was completed on the day Japan surrendered and subsequently abandoned. Your own great-grandfather was among the thousands who died during its construction, and I noticed he appears briefly in the novel. Was it important to you to explore this terrible tragedy of World War II?

PJ: The novel started out as a story about my great grandfather. He was one of those aspects of the family history that no-one really knew much about other than that he’d died in Indonesia during the war. So a while ago I wrote to the Dutch archives just to see if I could find out anything and within 24 hours I had a copy of his death certificate and a photo of his grave. That was really the start of an absolutely fascinating journey.

My daughter’s Japanese teacher was able to translate the death certificate for me and I learned that Dirk had died very near to Pekanbaru, the start of the infamous Pekanbaru Death Railway built across Sumatra by both POWs and press-ganged Javanese labourers known as Romushas. When I was researching the railway online I came across a website put together by a New Zealander working in Sumatra who was fascinated by the railway. He mapped the length of the line with a drone and a GPS using the little information that he could find. In fact most of his information came from a single text written by a Dutch researcher.

I sent him an email and we started chatting and pretty soon he invited me to come stay with him in Pekanbaru (an experience that went way better than it might have done, in hindsight). The Pekanbaru Death Railway is not very well known. Around the town you can still see rail embankments winding through palm oil plantations and train tracks repurposed as farm fencing. It’s almost as though it didn’t happen, and I think that’s very sad. Standing in the place where my great-grandfather died, listening to the traffic and the call to prayer, was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

I’m interested in representations of truth in fiction. I wrote my great-grandfather into Only Birds Above knowing only what I’d found out through the archives and the couple of stories and photos from my grandmother. Originally I wanted to include photos in the novel—I have photos of Dirk and I have taken photos of various things in the novel that I thought it would be interesting to include. But in the editing process we decided that the novel was better without them. But it’s that blurring of the line between truth and fiction that really interests me.

Piecing a story together

AC: Only Birds Above is structurally complex, moving between time-frames, generations, characters and places. This has the effect of creating a compelling narrative, with different threads to be drawn together so that the reader can see the whole. But I’m wondering how you managed the process of writing the story—whether you wrote entire strands and wove them together, or worked piece by piece, assembling them into that whole.

PJ: I wrote the first 50,000 words with great confidence but absolutely no plan. I wrote without any sense of continuity or cohesion and in totally random order. And then one day I sat down at my computer and realised with horror that what I had was not a novel but a seething mass of disparate fragments.

I had to call on the assistance of the always amazing Richard Rossiter to try and pull them into some kind of order. It was a bit overwhelming for a while; I thought it would never make any sense at all. But sense emerged in the end.

After that I vowed I would never write a novel with a complex structure again and that I would write in an organised and disciplined way. But maybe my brain is too chaotic for that kind of order because the novel I’m working on now is at least as complex and I’m no more organised. I guess that’s future-Portland’s problem.

Only birds…

AC: I love the novel’s title. Did it come early in the development, or, as so often happens, was it something you and your publisher agonised over?

PJ: I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with Georgia Richter as editor on this novel. I learned so much during the process; it was both fascinating and humbling. I’m sure Georgia had many hair-tearing-out moments when we were editing but luckily the title wasn’t one of them. It came to me very early in the writing process as it seemed to be a good way of describing a loss of faith. If there’s only birds above you, there’s nothing else, is there?

Only Birds Above is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Portland via her website


Filed under New books, Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Maria Papas’s Skimming Stones

Maria Papas’s wise, moving, beautifully lyrical novel Skimming Stones is the most recent winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, which has been instrumental in introducing many exciting new Western Australian voices. It was published late last year, and an appreciative early review from Lisa at ANZ LitLovers does justice to the novel’s many qualities.

Maria works as an English teacher and sessional academic based in Perth, and her fiction, non-fiction and academic essays have been published in Australian and international journals. Skimming Stones is her debut novel.

*Maria will be a guest of the Perth Festival Writers Weekend, to be held at the Fremantle Arts Centre 26–27 February. Her event, ‘How It Begins’, may be booked here.*

Grace first met her lover, Nate, as a teenager, their bond forged in the corridors and waiting rooms where siblings of cancer patients sit on the sidelines. Now an adult, for Grace, nursing is a comforting world of science and certainty. But the paediatric ward is also a place of miracles and heartbreak and, when faced with a dramatic emergency, Grace is confronted with memories of her sister’s illness. Heading south to Lake Clifton and the haunts of her childhood, Grace discovers that a stone cast across a lake sends out ripples long after the stone has gone.

Connecting past and present

AC: Maria, Skimming Stones is narrated by your character Grace, across two main time-frames. We first meet her in her role as a nurse in a paediatric oncology ward, but the narrative takes us back to the child Grace, who, at the age of 13, also inhabits a paediatric oncology ward, in a very different role. Could you please begin by talking about this specific connection between the 13-year-old Grace and the adult she has become?

MP: There was a time in my life when I drew a lot of strength from asking nurses what made them choose their career paths. Commonly, aside from having parents or grandparents who were also nurses, many said that either they or someone they loved had once spent a lot of time in hospital. It wasn’t uncommon, I discovered, for children who had serious illness, their siblings, or even their parents to later choose nursing or care work as a profession. In a way, Grace’s experiences do shape her choices. It felt logical for her to become a nurse, and logical that as an adult she should go back to reflect on her past. Those connections did feel real to me.

Listening to a voice

AC: I adore Grace’s voice and her unique perspective on those around her. Did the first-person point of view come naturally to you as a way to tell this story?

MP: When I write fiction my most comfortable default is third person, present tense. With this novel, though, first person felt more honest. For many reasons, I needed to hear Grace’s story myself, so the writing of the whole book was almost an act of listening to someone like Grace. She’s strong, she’s knowledgeable, she has been through a lot, and she is reflective, so why not let the story come from within her?

At the most basic level, yes, her voice did come naturally. I am the eldest of three sisters, so the older sibling was one I could easily draw from. Having said that, writing from the perspective of a character who had witnessed her sibling’s cancer raised ethical concerns for me. Was I writing this voice well? Was the representation sensitive? I did second guess myself, but in the end, the first-person voice was the one that spoke most clearly to me.

Toxic relationships


He touched my mother. He rested his hands on her shoulders, kissed her crown, and then left for work as if there was no hole in the pantry door.

There’s such power in this brief observation. From a writer’s point of view, I admire the craft—the restraint, the metonymy—but I also admire it for what it tells us about Grace as a character, her quiet, observing eye, her struggle to make meaning from incongruent things. I’m going off track a bit because my question relates back to the substance of the sentence: the troubled relationship between Grace’s parents. What function does this play in the novel?

MP: One of my aims for the novel was to write about the way illness can impact families, but I didn’t want to oversimplify and focus on just the illness alone. Instead, I wanted to acknowledge that there are often many pre-existing concerns, and that these won’t go away just because something more worrying or pressing has arisen. In addition, I also wanted to acknowledge that people have different ways of coping with tumultuous emotions—some healthy, some unhealthy—and that such mechanisms are likely to continue and have an effect through difficult times. The toxicity between Grace’s parents impacts Grace’s worldview and, alongside her sister’s illness, has its hand in forming her relationships as an adult.

Sharing a language

AC: Grace’s friend Nate is an important character, and I found it interesting that the psychic space he occupies in the novel is far greater than his actual presence in the narrative. Could you please tell us about Nate?

MP: Nate and Grace each have shared memories of hospital and of being somewhat cast aside while the focus of parenting is redirected towards a sibling in crisis. Nate’s presence in the adult narrative and his relationship with Grace does conflate past and present, but it also provides Grace a space in which she is understood without having to explain her past. To Grace’s mind, she and Nate share a language. She doesn’t have to speak or think about her experiences because Nate already knows. Having said this, it is precisely this relationship that puts Grace at a set of crossroads and prompts her to revisit her past. So, in a way, while Grace’s relationship with Nate seemingly allows her to leave a difficult experience unexamined, it also inevitably brings that experience forth and insists it be examined.

Myths and boundaries

AC: For all that Skimming Stones presents an authentic, intimately rendered account of the experience of illness and how it affects those who live with and alongside it, it is broad in its concerns and resists any easy categorisation as an ‘issues novel’. Among the many things I was drawn to is the way a geographical place—Lake Clifton in Western Australia’s south-west—becomes not only a character in the novel but a character in Grace’s life. How did this come about?

MP: Years ago, I remembered an old childhood memory that I think is attributable to the thrombolites. Soon after, I visited the lake and it struck me how ancient and mysterious the thrombolites were. You can’t touch a thrombolite and you’re not allowed to enter the lake, and so no matter how much I wanted to know what those structures were like, I had to leave comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing. I am of Greek heritage, and something about the landscape put me in mind of mythological characters who cross boundaries into unknowable worlds. The lake was one of those boundary spaces for me. It was a place that allowed me to imagine, but not the kind of place I could ever fully understand. Grace has an ambivalent relationship with the lake. She exists on its edges. She is drawn to it, feels it as a healing place, but it is also a place of terrible drama. Metaphorically, the lake is central to Grace’s concerns. It urges her to consider how much we can know, and what we must be satisfied with not knowing.


AC: Is the novel a narrative of motherhood, or perhaps as much about mothering as it is about motherhood?

MP: I think this is my favourite question that I have ever been asked. The whole time I was writing, I thought Skimming Stones was a novel about siblings, but now that I look back, I see that it is absolutely about all the things we conflate when we consider the word ‘mother’ alongside the word ‘care’. The narrative represents mothering within a nuclear family, parental conflict, and then motherhood after separation and divorce. There is mothering under tense circumstances, the desperation of mothering a sick child, the fear of becoming a mother, of not knowing what that might mean. There is also the kind of mothering that many people do when they participate in the upbringing of children that are not biologically their own. Harriet, for example, is very much a mother for Grace. People think of her as a surrogate or ‘childless’, but she is not childless to me. Her experience of motherhood is highly tragic, but she is still a mother, and when it comes to Grace, she shows us a version of herself and a version of mothering that extends well beyond the typical family structure into the community. Motherhood is definitely an underlying theme.

A place called Cancer


Nate knew cancer like I knew cancer. We were both from cancer. We shared it like a password between travellers in a foreign country. Or that moment in a crowd when someone says something or another and they carry just the right inflection, an accent you recognise, the sound of home…He knew where I had come from.

You write with an intimate knowledge of the foreign country that is cancer, and I’m wondering about the experience of revisiting that place emotionally in order to create this powerfully moving narrative—whether it was painful, whether you felt compelled to go there anyway. Did it feel inevitable to you as a writer that you would wrest from that place you once ‘came from’ a narrative of some kind, or did this story emerge more by stealth?

MP: To be fair, I wasn’t revisiting when I was writing; I was firmly a resident. I had begun this novel as part of a PhD, and for about a year or so I was working on themes to do with the kindness of strangers. In these early drafts, the sisters, Harriet, the lake and the boy already existed but in more sketchy forms. Then, out of the blue, one of my children developed leukaemia. For a while, I couldn’t read let alone write, and later, when I did start writing again, I couldn’t engage with the story I had previously worked on. All I wanted was to begin processing the experience that had since changed my family, but I was tied to the PhD, and I am the kind of person who must finish what I start. At the time, I remember considering changing my project to non-fiction, but I also recognised that I didn’t yet have the distance to reflect well. In a way, creating Grace and Emma from the sisters within an already existing fiction allowed me to garner the strength to look at the spaces I had just occupied with my children, really for the first time. It wasn’t painful, no, but it was difficult to write, primarily because writing and researching became a teacher for me. I was learning while I was writing. Oddly, it was later, after I won the Hungerford Award and throughout this publication process that I felt I was revisiting this long-ago place, and that did feel disorientating at first. It took me a while to know how to talk about the connections between my novel and my real-life experience, but again I garnered strength from the place I had come from and all the people who had once visited it and since talked about it. Ultimately, I think that’s important: that we do revisit and talk. It helps us not just to make sense, but also to acknowledge what people genuinely go through. It can be quite releasing simply to acknowledge.

Skimming Stones is published by Fremantle Press
Follow Maria via her website, Twitter and Instagram

Photo credits: author photo (top) by Pamela Souris; author photo (bottom) by L. Watters

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Another year of reading…

This year, like the last, has thrown up many things that have taken time away from reading, but I seem to have found more solace in books than ever before. Perhaps that’s attributable to what I’ve chosen to read; perhaps it’s also that I instinctively turn to books when the world around me makes no sense. I’m grateful to all the authors who have allowed me to travel vicariously and who have reminded me that one of the greatest gifts of reading is a fostering of compassion.

A few stats:

  • Books read: 26 (excluding the many read for research)
  • Women authors: 19
  • Australian authors: 21
  • Western Australian authors: 15
  • Indigenous authors: 2 (obvious room for improvement)
  • Debut novels: 7
  • Genres: 18 fiction, 3 non-fiction, 1 hybrid, 1 poetry, 2 YA, 1 junior fiction

I’m never good at choosing one favourite anything, but I will admit to feeling bereft on finishing Donald Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it took me ages to recover from it. And Robyn Mundy’s Cold Coast took my breath away—literary historical fiction at its finest. One of the highlights of the year, for me, was the chance to interview Robyn live at Beaufort Street Books in November, her fleeting visit to Perth just squeezing in before the borders between WA and Tasmania closed.

This year I introduced a new series of author interviews, Talking (new) fiction, and featured six new novels that I loved, and loved delving into:

Huge thanks to Jo, Susan, Michael, Zoe, Robyn and John for their time, their goodwill and their thoughtful, often thought-provoking responses.

Next year’s interview list is already in preparation, and the first post ready to go. I’m looking forward to spending time with some exciting new works.

But for now, thanks to you for reading and for all your valued comments. I hope reading has brought you much to think about in 2021, along with an abundance of joy.


Filed under Favourite books, Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: John Hughes’ The Dogs

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Upswell, the new imprint of publishing dynamo Terri-ann White. Today it’s my pleasure to feature one of the titles on Upswell’s 2021 list, the recently released novel The Dogs by John Hughes.

Sydney writer John Hughes has published six acclaimed books, including novels The Remnants, Asylum, and No One (shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award). He has won the National Biography Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Innovation, and NSW and Queensland Premier’s Book Awards.

Since its recent release, The Dogs has garnered outstanding reviews and has been described (Newtown Review of Books) as

a seductive shaping of memory and imagination…superbly plotted literary fiction, a historical-contemporary cross; widescale and microscopic, metaphysical in aims…

It’s a novel I know I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.—Elias Canetti

Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?

Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?

From the Miles Franklin shortlisted author of No One comes a haunting gem of family secrets and impossible decisions.

Always further to fall

AC: Can you tell us a bit about your protagonist, Michael Shamanov, and the situation he finds himself in?

JH: Michael Shamanov is a television scriptwriter in his late fifties. He has a fraught relationship with his mother (who is suffering from dementia and whom he put into a nursing home against her will), and with his son Leo, a Gold Coast property developer, with whom he has barely kept in contact since a fractious divorce when Leo was still very young. He’s smart and articulate (and hopefully funny), but he’s also selfish and unpleasant, and a failure in pretty much all his human dealings, incapable, it would seem, of change. The novel begins with him at the nadir of his life, with apparently nowhere further to fall. Though as he remarks later, ‘That’s the beauty of existence, isn’t it, that there’s always further to fall, always something worse. Fear of something worse might even pass for a definition of what it means to be alive.’ That’s Michael Shamanov in a nutshell.

Talking ten to the dozen

AC: Years ago I read—with great alarm, as I was at the time writing a novel in the first person—that Henry James described the use of first-person point of view in any long fiction as ‘barbaric’, an ‘act of violence on the reader’. Obviously, neither of us is with Henry on this point!

The use of Michael Shamanov’s voice in The Dogs is masterful. We learn so much about who he is and the way his mind works from what he says, what he does not say, and in particular the digressions and tangents that he weaves through his narration. Did you know, from the outset, that you were going to use this perspective, and did you encounter any pitfalls along the way?

JH: Yes, James loathed the first person, he thought it was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. And for the kind of novel he wanted to write, I take his point. But the writers of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, obviously thought otherwise.

The Dogs came to me with Michael Shamanov talking ten to the dozen, he was telling his story even before I knew what that story was, so there was no way it could be anything other for me than first person. And unlike Henry James, I think writing in the first person allows you to do two things for the price of one, because even when your narrator is telling you something about someone else, he’s also revealing something of himself, as you say: with every characterisation, he’s also characterising himself. The main problem with a narrator like Shamanov, though, was getting him to shut up, even if his ire was directed mostly against himself!

To know what has to come

AC: The Dogs has one of the most arresting prefaces/prologues I’ve read in a long time. Anna’s reference to ‘the dogs’ chilled me to the bone, and that was before I understood what she meant. What, for you, is the purpose of a preface, or this preface?

JH: I wrote prefaces for my first two books–The Idea of Home and Someone Else–because my publisher thought the books needed them. I wrote them grudgingly, after everything else was done. Yet many readers have told me it’s the prefaces they love, especially the one to Someone Else. It was my first lesson in realising your publisher always knows better than you do! But seriously, though I didn’t enjoy writing them at the time, I think now they make each book. So I’m glad I dragged myself to the task.

In this book, the preface again came at the end of the writing, though this time the impetus was mine. It wasn’t that I felt the book was incomplete, it was just that the preface could do a lot of historical work in a short space, setting up the relationship between Michael and his mother Anna, and how they’ve got to where they are when the novel begins. But mainly it’s as you write in the question, I wanted the prolepsis: to create in the reader an acute feeling of anticipation, and of terror at the prospect of it being fulfilled; to know what is to come has to come, there can be no other way.

Silence as a weapon

AC: Anna, always a determinedly elusive mother to Michael, now has the ‘crumbly brain’ of an Alzheimer’s patient. We encounter her as an inmate in a nursing home, unable to perform basic functions like feeding herself, but in spite of her apparent helplessness, what struck me when I was reading was her strength, the power she holds over Michael. Could you please talk about the sources of this kind of power?

JH: Silence, like coldness, is an incredibly powerful weapon. Michael wants only a sign of love from his mother, the vaguest idea of why she is the person she is, but she gives him neither. About herself, she will say nothing. She can so easily satisfy his strongest desire, and yet she will not. Worse even than the power over life and death—Anna destroys her son while keeping him alive. That is the power of her silence.

Magnetic energy

AC: I’m always intrigued by characters who are outright unlikeable or (as in this case) sometimes not easy to like. Michael’s narration of his own failings is painfully honest and often shocking to read—as, for example, in the following passage:

I had access to Leo on weekends. I used to pick him up early on Saturday mornings on the way across from Bondi. But sometimes, when I knew Sarah had booked a weekend up the coast with her new ‘partner’, I wouldn’t show. It’s petty, I know, but it amused me all the same. The phone would ring over and over again. It felt good hearing it ring out…I didn’t think of Leo.

That last sentence!

Likeability does not, of course, equal engagement: a character readers loathe can be as compelling as one they love—or even more so. But did it ever feel like a risk, writing Michael in this way?

JH: Yes, it did feel a risk (if only because given his age, and background, he has many resemblances to me, and it’s an easy step for a reader to mistake the narrator for his author!). It’s all about getting the balance right, I think. I wanted to make real the damage that inherited trauma can do, to give it flesh and blood, and to do that I had to create a highly damaged character. So damaged, in fact, that even though he recognises what his mother has done to him, it doesn’t stop him perpetuating the damage in his son—its transmission is as irresistible to him as a virus, or the passing on of our DNA. The key was to balance this with traits the reader might enjoy—his humour, for instance, the self-lacerating nature of his criticism, but mainly, the fact that his failings may not be as bad as he thinks they are, that beneath them there is someone who loves and wants to be loved, even if he can’t help but put his foot in his mouth! I think there is something compelling about failure, and I hope readers do too, but I hope too that there’s also something compelling about the voice, and it’s this energy that’s magnetic, pulling readers in, even as it seems to drive them away.

Across generations

AC: Research has shown that trauma can be transferred across generations genetically as well as by social means, and an inheritance of trauma is evident in The Dogs. As Anna’s story is gradually revealed we can see threads involving silence, evasion and withholding at work, connecting Anna’s mother, Ravenna, to Anna herself, and to Michael. I’m wondering about Michael’s son’s, Leo: is he the one to break the pattern?

JH: Without giving too much of the novel away, it’s clear that Leo too is damaged, and repeats, in many ways, the story of his father. But I like to think the last part of the novel reveals him as a different kind of man, and that even while on the surface he appears to be doing something many might consider terrible to help his father, he is doing it out of love, and Michael recognises this, and it breaks him inside and shows him that in his son, at least, he is more than his failings. Trauma is difficult to dilute, even across four generations, but I hope by the novel’s end there is some small sense of hope, even given (I might almost say because of) its final action.

A story made out of stories

AC: I was deeply moved by the piece you wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald about the experience of sitting with your grandmother as she lay dying—and I recommend it to anyone interested in ageing, legacy and honouring the past and the lives of those we love. You describe this experience as having inspired The Dogs, although the novel does not tell your grandmother’s story.

Your grandmother, as a young woman and mother, lived through a tragic time in history, the Great Ukrainian Famine of the early 1930s. It is obviously a powerful narrative, and one intimately connected with your very existence. You have used the emotional weight of that story of survival but none of the details, and I’m wondering whether you consciously rejected the idea of using the story itself. Must we always transform our own experiences and those of people close to us—tell them slant—in order to see the dogs for ourselves?

JH: In his long poem ‘Phantom’, the Scottish poet Don Paterson writes:

what kind of twisted ape ends up believing
the rushlight of his little human art
truer than the great sun on his back?
I knew the game was up for me the day
I stood before my father’s corpse and thought
If I can’t get a poem out of this…

John Hughes’ grandmother with his aunt and mother (front)

As you say, I knew the game was up for me the day I sat beside my grandmother, who lay dying of dementia in a nursing home bed. Though I didn’t think the thought in such an explicit way, it must surely have been there. If I can’t get a novel out of this…Writers are terrible cannibals of their family and friends. Where else do our characters and stories come from? From other literature, perhaps, but mainly from those we know best (including ourselves, although there I’d say there’s no one alive who doesn’t know the self they want to be far better than the self they are—when it comes to self-knowledge, that is, all of us are idealists!).

But in this case, although the novel came out of my experience sitting beside my grandmother’s bed, and the way of its telling corresponds closely to the way her story was revealed to me, I also knew that the story itself had to be different, and not only because I needed to spare my grandmother. Because I knew when I started writing the book that it is, in one way, a story about second-hand stories. History comes to us as Anna’s memories come to Michael—fragmented, contradictory, incomplete—and we have to make sense of it, as Michael does, in his self-conscious and highly allusive stories that dominate the second part of the novel. All our stories of the time before us can’t help but be second-hand. For this reason, I needed Anna’s story to feel like a pastiche—a story made out of stories. The reader is given the source, in the fragments of Anna’s edited transcript, and then the story Michael makes of these. First-hand accounts, like that of his mother, say, ‘This is what happened.’ Second-hand accounts ask, ‘What happened? How do we know?’ Michael—who wasn’t there and doesn’t know—must build his mother’s story then out of other stories, to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of his mother’s experience. (And mine too!)

In a way the second part of the novel is really about writing itself, about being a writer, and the process of putting a story together out of what we don’t know. So yes, it made sense for me to tell the story slant, in part to respect my grandmother’s privacy, but also because the novel demanded it be told that way. And yet, it’s also true that in the way it explores intergenerational trauma and the secrets that run through even the most ordinary of families, it begins and ends with my grandmother in that bed, and the knowledge that I did ‘get a novel out of this’, one in which I hope I have done her justice, and for which my family will forgive me, and hopefully continue speaking to me, if only until I turn the spotlight on them!

The Dogs is published by Upswell
Follow John on Instagram @johnhughes185

Photo credits: author photo by Tim Derricourt; family photo photographer unknown

Addendum, 19 June 2022: Plagiarism allegations concerning The Dogs
On 9 June, The Guardian published an article claiming that passages from The Dogs had been taken from the English translation of Svetlana Andrievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. A response to this claim by author John Hughes and publisher Terri-ann White (Upswell) appears on the Upswell ‘News’ page (dated 9 June).
On 15 June, The Guardian published further claims of plagiarism in The Dogs. A response by Hughes was published in The Guardian, and a further response from White appears on the Upswell ‘News’ page (dated 17 June).


Filed under Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Robyn Mundy’s Cold Coast

All year I have been looking forward to interviewing Robyn Mundy about her brilliant new novel, Cold Coast. Robyn is the author of The Nature of Ice, set in Antarctica, and Wildlight, set on remote Maatsuyker Island, off Tasmania’s southern coast (read a post about Wildlight here), and this new novel takes readers to another of the wild places of the world: Arctic Norway. As the photos below show, it is as rugged as it is stunningly beautiful.

Among many endorsements for Cold Coast is this from award-winning novelist Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites:

Cold Coast summons the raw beauty of Svalbard with achingly evocative prose. At once visceral and lyrical, I was totally absorbed in the story of Wanny Woldstad and her yearning for wilder freedoms.

When Robyn is not writing or travelling (in the days when that was possible), she teaches writing and works as a volunteer marine radio operator. She shares her home in Tasmania with a penguin biologist and a Blue Heeler.

She is also a dear friend of so many years that they can probably be measured in decades now, and is one of my favourite writers.

Perth readers: Robyn will be in conversation at Beaufort Street Books on Tuesday 30 November. Bookings here

In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.

Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its first Arctic winter.

A cabin with a story

AC: Robyn, while Cold Coast is a work of fiction, Wanny Woldstad (pronounced ‘Vonny Volstad’) was indeed Svalbard’s first female hunter and trapper. How did you come upon her story?

RM: I spend several months of each year working as a ship-based guide on tourist expeditions to the polar regions, north and south. Our voyages include Svalbard, an extraordinary archipelago in the High Arctic, way north of Norway. A favourite site to visit is Hornsund in the south-west corner of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. At the inner end of the fjord sits a pint-sized trapper’s cabin, set at the foot of a mountain with cliffs and ledges alive with the shrieks of breeding seabirds. When I discovered that the cabin was used by Wanny Woldstad in the early 1930s, and that she was Svalbard’s first female trapper and hunter, I wanted to know more. How did a woman—a young widow—break into a fiercely guarded male domain? What was the experience of months of winter darkness in bitterly cold conditions? Those questions set me on a course of research and writing that became Cold Coast.

Wanny’s hut, Gnalodden, colloquially known as Fuglefjell (Bird Mountain). Photo by Robyn Mundy
Robyn with tour group at Wanny’s hut. Photo by Gary Miller

A scaffold for imagination

AC: Creating a character drawn from real life, a novel inspired by a true story, is not without its challenges. Wanny published her own story in the 1950s, and I’m wondering whether this was a help or a hindrance to your development of the character we read about in Cold Coast.

RM: Wanny’s published memoir, First Woman Trapper on Svalbard, proved utterly invaluable. It took me six months to get hold of a copy through a local library document delivery service (hallelujah for our fantastic libraries and the services they provide), and several months more to have it translated from Norwegian to English. While I often craved more of Wanny’s internal world—her thoughts and feelings, her anxieties and misgivings—she offered a sparkling window into the day-to-day life of an Arctic trapper: the practical challenges, the physical exhaustion of the work that meant trekking 20 kilometres a day to check and reset fox traps, rowing a leaky boat six hours in dodgy weather to reach their outer cabin, crossing a glacier on foot in the dead of winter, encountering polar bears. Just as importantly, I gained an intimate sense of domestic life inside the hut—the room where they cooked and ate and slept, the same space where Wanny set aside her embroidery to flay fox and bear pelts. Her memoir provided the scaffolding that gave structure to my own story and ignited numerous scenes.

Robyn on bear guard, Ardneset. Photo by Gary Miller

Tougher than bears and blizzards

AC: There are many journeys in Cold Coast—physical, into a wild place that poses life-threatening challenges; psychological, testing mind and spirit in the pursuit of a formidable dream. And with only two main characters for most of the narrative, there’s also the journey of a complex relationship. Could you please tell us about Wanny’s trapping partner, Anders?

RM: I hope readers will pay a nod to Anders Sæterdal who, despite his grave reservations about a woman trapper and having to withstand derision from fellow trappers, afforded Wanny her chance to go north. Anders acknowledged two crucial qualities in Wanny: as Tromsø’s first taxi driver, operating her own cab, he saw a get-up-and-go, self-made woman; and she had formidable skill with a rifle—Wanny regularly won target shooting championships. That blend of independence, determination and practical prowess was Wanny’s ticket to the Arctic, yet Anders immediately regretted the decision to take her. In turn, he proved an unyielding taskmaster. Out in the field he expected Wanny to take care of herself, get herself out of trouble; she had to learn fast and work hard. I suspect the effort of proving herself to Anders Sæterdal was a far tougher undertaking for Wanny than it might have been for a first-time male trapper.

Robyn driving a Zodiac at guillemot cliffs at Alkefjellet, Svalvard. Photo by Gary Miller


AC: There are other stories circling Wanny’s during her year on Svalbard that give us a different perspective on the world she and Anders have entered and what they are there for. I found the main interleaving narrative—the chapters headed ‘Fox’—utterly compelling, and a remarkable feat of imaginative engagement with the non-human world. What was behind your decision to include these other narratives?

RM: Thank you, Amanda. From the start I wanted to offer a contrasting experience to that of the human hunters. I chose the perspective of an Arctic fox. The fox itself is hunter and hunted, a small animal prized for its pelt, needing to eke out sufficient food to survive its first Arctic winter as it navigates the trappers’ perilous world. The fox chapters are purposely concise, adhering to the fox’s ‘creature-ness’. I wasn’t sure how this strand of the narrative would play out, only that the interplay offered the capacity for affection between Wanny and this small Arctic fox, along with the inevitable tension for a starving fox tempted each and every day by a trap baited with its favourite ptarmigan meat.

Imagining beyond the human

AC: Staying with the ‘Fox’ chapters for the moment: they are so detailed in their minute observations of the animals’ behaviour that it feels like we are there, watching, feeling, seeing through their eyes. How did you, as a writer, enter that space?

RM: One of my cherished experiences of travelling regularly to the Arctic has been encounters with Arctic fox. I won’t forget standing on the slopes right beside Wanny’s hut, watching a family of fox kits romp through snow and tussle together, as playful as puppies or kittens. I am fascinated by Arctic foxes—their speed and agility in navigating death-defying mountain ledges and near vertical slopes in order to hunt, their capacity to snooze in a howling gale, their ability to vanish then reappear in an entirely different place. Some of the old trapper accounts talk about having a house fox each season, an animal so tame it would stay around the cabin and take scraps of food from a trapper’s hand. In writing from a fox’s perspective, the characterisation of the fox comes solely through its actions; I loved falling into the fox world and imagining those moments.

A receding landscape

AC: Svalbard—situated between mainland Norway and the North Pole—is one of the stars of the novel, fully alive on the page. Climatic extremes, plant and animal life, geographical features, rare phenomena—beautiful, often surprising descriptions that come from your own intimate knowledge of place are among my favourite passages. Here are two examples, but I could give pages of them:

…it is neither night nor day. Soft, it feels to Anders, this silky in-between, the sky all lilac and butter.

Leaves of Arctic willow turn gold and russet; they wither, consumed into the permafrost’s water-logged skin.

How different are they, the Svalbard you know and the Svalbard of Wanny’s time?

RM: Part of my research was to pore over maps, terrain and distances, and to investigate changes to the glacier that Wanny and Anders regularly crossed on foot. Now could be a moment where a picture paints a thousand words. This map shows the extent of ice in Wanny’s time in 1932 (dark green), the recession of the glacier by 1990 (mid green) and further diminishment through to 2010 (light green). Sadly, the melting of ice from increased global temperatures is consistent across the Arctic latitudes.

Contextualising the visceral

AC: There is no getting away from the gruesomeness of the trappers’ work, and readers have to be prepared to set aside the modern lens through which we view the trapping of animals for their skins today. Some scenes are confronting to read, but I know, from having myself written of a horrific historical murder, that it can also be confronting to write of such visceral things. How did you approach that aspect of the writing?

RM: Vivid scenes of trapping and hunting represent a small part of the novel, but as you so capably know, Amanda, often the most visceral images reside in the unspoken. Nonetheless, there was a stage of writing where I needed a break from tackling the more gruesome aspects. One scene I wrote never made it to the final cut, the publisher deeming it too confronting. I simply had to be true to the trappers of the time, to the pragmatism of their work, to their reason for being in Svalbard. On reading Wanny’s memoir, seeing her overt disapproval of the ‘one-sided nature’ of trapping, along with her mention of ‘the vanity of women providing we trappers an income’, I suspect that the work, for her, came second to simply experiencing the Arctic and its wildlife.

Cold Coast is published by Ultimo Press
Follow Robyn via her website and on Instagram at @robyncmundy

Author photo by Matt Horspool


Filed under Talking (new) fiction