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Chloe Hooper. Image: Penguin Random House (digitally altered)

When Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man was published in 2008 it became an instant Australian classic. It was a compelling and confronting book about the worst of colonial Australia: police brutality, racial and judicial injustice, dispossession and the enduring trauma of colonialism. The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire (Hamish Hamilton) is Hooper’s first non-fiction book since then (she published a novel, The Engagement in 2012) and displays all the sensitivity, nuance and lyricism that readers found in The Tall Man. 

The Black Saturday bushfires that swept across Victoria on 7 February 2009 were the worst ever recorded in Australia, with 180 fatalities and 414 people injured as a result of the nearly 400 individual fires recorded. Near the small Gippsland town of Churchill, a man named Brendan Sokaluk deliberately lit two fires, then sat on the roof of his house and watched the flames. In 2012, he was found guilty of 10 counts of arson causing death in the Victorian Supreme Court. The Arsonist is the story of the man, the community he came from, the fire he lit and the people who were killed. 

‘Black Saturday was such an extreme day…it’s left a national scar in our cultural imagination,’ Hooper says, when I ask her why she was drawn to write a book about these events. ‘There were hundreds of fires that day, and of the five fires that killed people initially three were believed to have been deliberately lit. I guess the huge question for me afterwards was, how could anybody light such a fire? Who becomes an arsonist, and why?’

It is estimated that only one per cent of bushfire arsonists are ever caught, but Sokaluk came under suspicion almost immediately. His car was spotted close to the area of ignition within half an hour of the fire starting. The car was incinerated, but after the blaze died down he had the burnt remains towed away before any crime scene investigators could arrive. People in the area reported strange encounters with a seemingly unfazed Sokaluk while they battled to save their homes. 

‘I guess the huge question for me afterwards was, how could anybody light such a fire? Who becomes an arsonist, and why?’

After his arrest, the police had difficulty getting answers from Sokaluk, who did not seem to understand their questions. In the book, Hooper explains that Sokaluk ‘was diagnosed by three doctors as being on the high-functioning end of the [Autism] spectrum, but also on the borderline of intellectual disability, with his poor verbal comprehension placing him truly in the range of the disabled.’ As Hooper discovered, Sokaluk’s level of impairment or culpability was viewed very differently depending on whom she asked.

‘That was very striking to me,’ she says, ‘the different figures that the lawyers and the police both seemed to be talking about. There was a confrontation between these two equally dedicated [groups of] lawyers and police. The lawyers believed that Brendan was a misfit who’d been poorly treated and was misunderstood, and the police believed he was a serial firelighter who, to some extent, played up his impairments. I guess I saw it as my job to try to show both sides of the story. I think the truth is somewhere in between those two things.’

Despite requesting an interview, Hooper wasn’t able to meet Sokaluk, to ask him the simple question many want answered: why? I wonder whether if she had, any answer he might have given would have been satisfactory. ‘No,’ Hooper says. ‘I think you have a dream of resolution, but this is insoluble.’

The Arsonist is also an exploration of the place in which Sokaluk grew up: the Latrobe Valley. Most electricity in Victoria is generated here, by burning brown coal in thermal power stations. ‘I didn’t know very much about the Valley even though it keeps the lights on in Melbourne’, Hooper says. ‘It’s funny how ghettoised we can be. It was once described as the “Ruhr of the South” [after the heavy industry found in the Ruhr area of Germany], and the coal industry there really drove the state’s economy for decades.’

‘I think you have a dream of resolution, but this is insoluble.’

The decline of the Hazelwood Power Station, a Brutalist icon of the Australian coal industry, looms large over the Latrobe Valley and the story Hooper tells in The Arsonist. In its heyday in the 1970s the government-owned power station attracted young families, including Sokaluk’s, to the region with the promise of well-paid jobs and security for workers. But in the mid-1990s, as Hooper writes, ‘a conservative Victorian government split up and sold the state-owned power assets, over 7,500 people lost their jobs in the Valley, and the $23 billion in sales profit flowed elsewhere. Instantly the region became a different kind of place.’

In our interview, she explains further. ‘Now the Valley is a very depressed place with a range of social indicators that are disturbing. When you start to look at crime stories in Australia, they become stories about disadvantage and dysfunction. After writing The Tall Man I was asked a lot of questions about dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, which I didn’t feel comfortable answering. With this book I was interested in looking at: what is culturally White dysfunction? Not in what some people in the city think of as being far-flung places, but towns actually not very far away from our metropolis.’

The Arsonist describes two incredibly damaging man-made issues working in tandem: arson and climate change. ‘An imperfect storm’, says Hooper. ‘It’s interesting to look at the Latrobe Valley, where there are a very high level of deliberately lit fires, and also some of the dirtiest power stations in the developed world. We’re at risk, with a warming climate, of more of these fires on these hot days. Fires that are deliberately lit and burn out of control.’

‘Australian flora is evolved around fire. And yet we don’t have as nuanced an understanding as we need to about what a contemporary fire regime should look like.’

Hooper tells me how writing the book has changed the way she relates to the Australian landscape. ‘It’s made me believe that we [non-Indigenous Australians] don’t seek to have as good an understanding of fire ecology and how that relates to our wild spaces as we should,’ she says. ‘Australian flora is evolved around fire. And yet we don’t have as nuanced an understanding as we need to about what a contemporary fire regime should look like. The wellbeing of people in cities actually also depends on the wellbeing of our forests.’

I ask what surprised Hooper in the course of her research. ‘The forensics. I think it’s extraordinary that nearly 30,000 hectares can burn and the site where the fire started can be narrowed down to 3 square metres. Some of the science is fascinating. I’m also interested in where the science and the myth meet. The science doesn’t completely describe the existential horror and the power of the fire. I guess that’s why we have such vivid myths and stories about fire culturally.

‘It was very surreal to have these two kids dressed as firefighters wheeling plastic fire-trucks on the ground while I was trying to figure this out,’ she adds, describing the experience of writing the book whilst parenting her two young children. ‘I guess I tell you this partly in terms of how ubiquitous – even in children’s imaginations – and deeply wired the idea of fire is.’

One of the most powerful sections in The Arsonist is the story of the Churchill fire told through fragments of many different survivors’ memories. ‘A God-awful roar, deafening’; ‘a hurricane coming through’; ‘it felt like it was raining fire’; ‘trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding’; ‘burning birds fell from trees’; ‘the aluminium tray of a ute ran in rivulets on the ground.’; ‘you could feel your skin melting from the heat of it’.

Janet Malcolm famously said that ‘every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’ I ask Hooper about the ethical considerations of writing a story like this.

‘I was very aware that I was dealing with people’s stories that were phenomenally traumatic. I don’t think there’s an easy answer about the ethical worth of the project. It continues to be something that I think about late at night. I tried very hard, I suppose, to protect or shield people the best way I could in the work. But I guess that in the end I do think that there’s a social obligation to look at this squarely. If we don’t understand how these environmental and social phenomena happen then we’re less equipped to deal with them as we go forward. I do think, in the end, that our minds are shaped by stories and that is how we understand things. The story of Brendan and the fire is specific to our time and place, so it’s important to tell it.’

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire is available now at Readings.