Dustfall (UWA Publishing)
I’m finding it hard to stop thinking about Michelle Johnston’s debut novel, Dustfall—compelling, disturbing and strangely lyrical, given the harshness of its environment and the emotional and ethical territory it traverses. It will be my privilege and great pleasure to launch the novel in a couple of weeks, and I think it’s going to find a wide and enthusiastic audience.
Michelle is one of those rare and impressive people who manage to write as well as excel in a demanding professional field. I’ll let the poetry of her author blurb speak for itself:
Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art and beauty within the sometimes brutal reality of the Emergency Department, and has dedicated her career to finding that sweet spot between creativity and critical care medicine. Books are her other oxygen, and writing her sustenance.
And here is the blurb for Dustfall:
Dr Raymond Filigree, running away from a disastrous medical career, mistakes an unknown name on a map for the perfect refuge. He travels to the isolated town of Wittenoom and takes charge of its small hospital, a place where no previous doctor has managed to stay longer than an eye blink. Instead of settling into a quiet, solitary life, he discovers an asbestos mining corporation with no regard for the safety of its workers and no care for the truth.
Thirty years later, Dr Lou Fitzgerald stumbles across the abandoned Wittenoom Hospital. She, too, is a fugitive from a medical career toppled by a single error. Here she discovers faded letters and barely used medical equipment, and, slowly the story of the hospital’s tragic past comes to her.
Dustfall is the tale of the crashing consequences of medical error, the suffering caused by asbestos mining and the power of storytelling.
Over to Michelle…
2 things that inspired Dustfall
1 A ghost of a hospital
In 1991, without any planning, forethought or sense, I stumbled across the ruin of Wittenoom Hospital. It was the strangest place I had ever seen. As though it had been abandoned only the day before, there were scraps of gauze rolling across the crumbling concrete floor, stacks of broken shelving with old, waterlogged journals on them, and a mysterious gleaming metal machine in one of the corners. Many of the walls had collapsed or were simply gaping holes, and all the windows were broken. Outside, in the cancerous, dying town of Wittenoom, no-one knew much about the old building. Those citizens who still clung to that doomed, decaying place were of a different breed, and they had other matters on their mind rather than recording a history which was fading in the light. But the vivid memory of the building stuck in my head (as memories made during difficult times of one’s life often do), and 20 years later, it needed to have a story of my own set there. A year after I visited, the hospital was gone altogether. Razed. And most of the other buildings followed. I’ve been up to Wittenoom a number of times since, and on each occasion there is less and less man-made. Nature is consuming it all.
The research into the heinous episode in Western Australia’s mining history followed significantly later, well after I had written the early drafts of Dustfall. And the more I discovered, the more I needed to recraft the manuscript, so as to stay true to both the fictional narrative, and the truth about asbestos mining.
All medical errors are devastating in one way or another. Not only for the people affected but also for those responsible; they open a floodgate of self-recrimination and doubt. We doctors are an unforgiving breed. Mostly for good reason. Society expects the standards and safeguards in medicine to be beyond reproach. Mistakes will, however, occur, and when they do, most doctors will react to them uniquely, and oftentimes in exaggerated and destructive ways. We tend to be tortured by Fates only we can see. Dustfall has at the heart of its story a medical error. But further fascinating is the juxtaposition of an individual’s response to their own mistake with the way a corporate error is dealt with. The asbestos mining saga offered plenty of material to work with here.
2 geographical spaces connected with the novel
1 The Pilbara
The head-messing vastness of the Pilbara is like nowhere else on earth. It is at once a barren, desolate moonscape coexisting with pockets of lush vegetation and plains of glittering minerals. It is staggering in its extremes. There is soil that is red beyond description and it has skies so blue they ought not be real. This is a magnificent place to try out one’s writerly palette. Plus it is peopled by characters of steel, the cut of whom has made it into the weave of Dustfall.
2 Royal Perth Hospital
I love this place. I have worked amongst her higgledy-piggledy corridors and wards for 27 years. I have cried and laughed and knelt by the side of the newly bereaved and held still-beating hearts in my hand. I have travelled to and from her in the coal of the night, and have spent days frustrated and scared and triumphant and stretched to my very limit. She was always going to feature in my first book, even though she hasn’t been named (and so much has been fictionalised, she is barely recognisable).
2 historical characters who play important roles in Dustfall
The problem here is that there are three. Descartes, Keats and Pliny the Elder. But in no way would I want to rock Amanda’s extraordinary boat, so I have played rock paper scissors with them, and Pliny the Elder (despite his admirable contribution to the story’s denouement) has been cut from this list. [Amanda feels suitably guilty about the summary dismissal of Poor Pliny from the blog. You’ll have to read the novel to give him his voice.]
1 René Descartes
The polymathic father of modern philosophy, a champion of doubt, and a man whose ideas came from fervid dreams when shut indoors with a smoking stove. His doctrines were legion and cut across many disciplines, but the one that leant itself to Raymond’s (the main character in Dustfall) own rather outlandish personal theories about Medicine were the theories on mind–body dualism—that the senses cannot be trusted. Raymond is a man out of time—a misguided poet and a dreamer. He carries with him several books, one of which is Descartes’s Meditation on First Philosophy.
2 John Keats
(Or, more accurately, his poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’—although Keats’s premature death from tuberculosis gets a guernsey.) Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in 1819. It was certainly considered one of his best, and tells the tale, in Spenserian stanzas, of the romantic tradition in the Middle Ages that if, on St Agnes’s Eve (January 20), a maiden performed certain rites before bed, she would dream of her future husband, thus sealing her life’s matrimonial fate. The rest of the poem is mainly confusion and mild erotica and mixed messages and trouble. It’s gorgeous, and the themes are woven gently through the book. I shan’t give away just how, but the first lines are quoted at the beginning, the eve of the book, where in the poem it is chilly and wintry, and we are about to explode into suffocating heat in the novel.
I’m grateful to Amanda for inviting me to introduce Dustfall to you this way, and to sit in the company of such brilliant other writers in the 2, 2 and 2 series. And thank you, for reading.