November’s the end of the KYD First Book Club for 2017, so for this episode we take a look at the last two titles till 2018. On Halloween, Lois Murphy let us in on the places that inspired Soon, her tale of an almost deserted town in the middle of nowhere. The people might be gone but something’s still trying to get in.
Further down south (and two hundred years earlier), an escaped convict named Bridget Crack fell in with a bad crowd. We asked Rachel Leary about research, Ned Kelly and prickly protagonists.
Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello and welcome back to the penultimate Kill Your Darlings Podcast for 2017. I’m Meaghan Dew and I’m sorry to break it to you but it is November – that’s right, it’s not long now until the end of the year. But if you’re torn between ‘Oh, a break will be nice!’ and ‘I have too much to do before then!’ I feel you, don’t worry, because your book club reading duties do not apply in December. That’s right November is our last book club month for the year. So before you get stuck into your holiday reads, it seems like the perfect opportunity to highlight Bridget Crack and Soon, which, if you’ve been following along, were the book club titles for October and November.
So we’re going in chronological order in more ways than one by starting with Bridget Crack. We spoke with Rachel Leary, but it was via Skype so do please excuse any blips in the sound quality.
Rachel Leary: The book is about Bridget Crack, an English convict woman – well, young woman – who gets sent to Van Diemen’s Land and ends up lost in the bush.
KYD: It’s interesting you say young woman, because for the first part of the book I thought she was younger than she was, or more that her life had not been as full as it was, and then it got to later on and I realised that she’d had this whole quite full life before being sent to Australia and it was really fascinating. What sort of research did you do to get a feel for the differences in lifestyle and lifespan in that time?
RL: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been sort of doing some historical research – I mean, for, kind of years really, about, you know, life in England in the early 1800s and convict women, for another project that I was doing which was sort of how I first got interested in convict women. So I’d sort of done quite a bit of reading around that area before I actually started on that book. So I guess I had a little bit of a sense of, yeah differences in, you know, what a life might be like compared to how we live now. But yes and no, I mean, in some ways I don’t know that it’s entirely impossible that somebody could be living now and not have an entirely dissimilar life to her. I mean, she lost Mum when she was young and, you know, she had a fairly hard time of it growing up and it’s not as though that doesn’t happen anymore.
KYD: No, of course. Was there anything when you were doing that research that particularly sparked this character or the idea of this novel?
RL: There was a particular photo of quite a close up image of a convict woman’s face, which was amazing and that really kind of affected me and stayed with me.
RL: And then, I think a lot of time – just spending time in the bush and also spending time in Hobart and finding out, you know, what the original layout was like and just sort of my – yeah, I guess sort of letting my imagination kind of go after having done quite a lot of that reading then sort of stimulated by the places themselves, I guess.
KYD: The idea of the bushranger is – in Australia’s sort of mythology really – the idea of the bushranger is given a lot of glamour, but there’s definitely not a lot of glamour in the situation that Bridget and the bushrangers find themselves in. Was that sort of not particularly romantic portrayal something that was shaped by that research?
RL: I think it was shaped actually quite a lot by conversations I’d had with people. And I guess I grew up with the Ned Kelly narrative and I’d been quite, I guess, taken in by that and I had this sort of very favourable idea of Ned Kelly. And I had a flatmate once and I said to her that I was going to get a Ned Kelly poster and put it on our wall and she was a little bit confronted by that idea and she said ‘Why? Why would you want to do that? He’s like a thug and a murderer and a criminal.’ And she was! – It was kind of very – It really challenged this idea that I had sort of grown up with that he was sort of to be looked up to and, you know, he was sort of a hero and that he was sort of fundamentally good. And then – so that was kind of really interesting – and then I suppose as I became sort of interested in heroes and sort of heroes generally, like who do we look up to and why? And who do we sort of hold as heroes? And what’s the other side of that? And then when I started reading about bushrangers, particularly bushrangers in in Van Diemen’s Land, there is this sort of very romanticised notion. There was Martin Cash and Matthew Brady, who were sort of talked about as these gentlemen bushrangers. But then there were other bushrangers who had very different personalities to them and were quite unhinged. So yeah, I guess I was interested in the underbelly – the underside of that idea of the bushranger as a hero.
KYD: Well, as much as the bushrangers aren’t portrayed in that romantic way that we’re used to seeing them, those pursuing them are also not portrayed as these entirely evil tools of the British as well. Was that sort of part and parcel for you? You felt if you were turning one of those stereotypes on its head you needed to do so with the other to show that complexity?
RL: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I suppose because, you know, there was – the other sort of thing that I was looking at that crops up a bit in there is this idea of the fairy tale – the sort of princess, or the maiden in distress. You know, the maiden in distress who’s rescued by the hero. That kind of voice snuck in there for me and so yeah, I was sort of playing with turning that on its head a bit in that she is the maiden in distress, but the guy who’s supposed to rescue her also he’s not really a very good hero either really. He doesn’t quite come through with the hero goods.
KYD: Since we’re I suppose on character at the moment, Bridget – she’s quite bristly. She’s sympathetic more in her reduction in circumstances that are out of proportion to her actual actions. How intentionally was she constructed? Do your characters’ voices arrive fully formed? Or do you shape them to the plot and the part you need them to play in it?
RL: With this particular story, the plot came first before she did. I mean, there was always going to be the ‘woman in the bush’ character, but in terms of me sort of finding her personality, that was sort of, yeah, something that I kind of found my way towards through getting to know her I suppose. You know, I found myself with this woman who didn’t really want people to know how she felt and she was quite, I feel like, quite ashamed of the situation she was in and sort of quite shut down around that shame. So it was sort of an interesting character to find myself with, because I was also writing quite close third person – so how did I kind of allow her voice to come out when I felt like she was kind of quite private and a little bit secretive.
KYD: The landscape, to Bridget, seems quite hostile in a lot of ways, it might hide them but there’s not a lot of affection for it there. How did you get to that feeling of the bush as a threat as great if not greater than those who were pursuing them?
RL: Well, I tried to make that a little bit different for different characters. I mean, my sense was that Sally – he has probably come to terms with that landscape and come to know it a little bit better and, probably through his connection with the Aboriginal people, that he’s kind of come to actually like that landscape better. It was probably – I got lost in the bush a couple of times. I used to do a lot of bushwalking. And so I was sort of interested in this idea that the bush could be such a pleasant place to be that – if you could go home and have a bath once you’d gotten wet or if you had, you know, a good tent and good supplies – it was very pleasant. But if you got lost and you had no food and the weather came in, it’s something entirely different. So I guess I was very interested in our relationship to wilderness and to landscape and these different sort of sides and aspects and what it is depending on how you’re in it and why you’re in it.
KYD: I think that’s really good point about – when you mentioned that the different characters have that different relationship to the landscape. I really love Bridget’s character actually, I think she’s quite tough and interesting portrayal of a young woman. How did you come across her name? Was that something that you found in your research and you thought ‘Ooh, that would make an interesting character!’ or is it entirely made up?
RL: Yeah, no, I went looking for it in the ship records. So I actually had the name Bridget – well, you know, because once I sort of got to know her more and I went ‘She is quite edgy, you know, she’s got this – she’s not soft.’ So I was looking – I liked Bridget because I liked those harsh sounds in the name, so I was looking for a surname that had that sort of similar quality to it really. So I started going through the ship records and that’s when I found Crack, and there actually was – Funnily enough, I’d already chosen Bridget but then there actually was a woman called Bridget Crack. It just really resonated, I thought. Because I was trawling through lots of them and I thought ‘No, no, no, no, no’ and then I found that, I was like ‘Yeah!’ I actually had a conversation with, I think it was Rosalie Ham, years ago and she – I think she said something about going around cemeteries looking at names on stones. But yeah, the ship records are great.
KYD: Is this the first novel you’ve written? I know this your first published, but have you worked on other pieces before?
RL: I did start another one before this that I didn’t continue with. I sort of got a certain way into it and I didn’t have enough there for me to persist with it, which this one ended up having. But yeah, it was also a young woman and there was an aspect of crime, so it had that probably in common, but it wasn’t set in the bush.
KYD: Is there anything that surprised you about the response?
RL: One of the things that I found interesting with the book is, you know, a lot of people have said things – and I think it said this in the review, the Kill Your Darlings review – like, you know, all the characters are – the characters around her are quite nasty and, you know, she doesn’t, no one helps her and that life was kind of hard back then. And I was thinking about that and thinking: I don’t know if you’ve come across somebody in the world now and you perceived them to be, you know, morally inferior to you, or of lower – you know, not made the best of life and they’re hanging out with a bad crew and they’re in a downward spiral, you know. How many people flock to help them? People stay away from them. So it was kind of, I don’t know, I’m interested in this idea that of course I’ve placed it in history, so it becomes about that period and it becomes about people in that period. But sometimes I think you could write a pretty similar story and actually set it now. Similar with the English thing, you know, that whole idea of that Christian, very English Christian, idea that the landscape has been – this land has been given to us to do what we will with because God has given it to us and we are white and we’re at the very top of the pecking order of everything and we, because we’re Christian, God’s given all of this to us. And, you know, Tony Abbott says those sorts of things. What I find interesting is this sense that we’ve somehow evolved as a species in the last 200 years. Maybe we’ve evolved in some ways as a society. But are people all that different? The physical environment’s different and we have different technology and we have more mechanisation, but whether people have changed all that much, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t know.
KYD: That was Rachel Leary discussing Bridget Crack, out now with Allen and Unwin.
You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast and this episode we’re all about our last First Book Club books for the year. Next up we have Lois Murphy speaking about her novel Soon.
Lois Murphy: It’s basically a ghost story, but I hoped not to write a traditional ghost story. I was more interested in the predicament of the characters and how they coped with their situation, which was basically living in a haunted place. So it’s about a group of people who are left in a haunted town where most of the population have left and they’re fighting it out on their own.
KYD: So, as I found myself thinking – and I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler – people trapped in a small town with a supernatural entity of sorts, made me think of a lot of books where the reason they’re stuck in a town is the entity itself, the force that’s going on or whatever is causing the horror type scenario, keeps them there. With Soon it’s more of the characters’ emotional ties to the place and to each other that holds them in place. Why did you go for not making it an external but instead those internal forces that are holding them in place?
LM: I was more interested in the human side of the story and part of my inspiration for it was the story of the town in WA, Wittenoom, that was the asbestos mining town that had to be evacuated when they realised how deadly asbestos was. And so basically everyone in the town was forced to move on. And I remember reading about it and reading about a handful of people who didn’t want to go – It was a such a beautiful spot to live and they’d lived there all their lives and they didn’t want to leave. And that was my hook for the story. And I thought, ‘Well, what if it was something that couldn’t be defined as well?’ I mean, the mist in the book is allegorical for a lot of different things. And the other thing that was preoccupying me was people who are forced out of their homes because of war or, you know, there’s so much turmoil in the world and asylum seekers are such a huge issue at the moment and they’re treated like criminals. That’s what I was trying to get at with the mist. It’s not that easy, you know, it’s not – you don’t just drop everything and walk away. There’s all kinds of emotional ties, there’s financial problems, there’s bureaucratic nightmares to be dealt with and it’s never that easy to give everything up, but the expectation seems to be that it is.
KYD: That people will do it when they don’t actually really have to, when in fact usually it’s the only option left when people take that.
LM: Yeah, it’s an act of desperation. I mean, you don’t leave your home by choice most of the time. And so that’s why I chose the mist, because it’s sort of emblematic of all these forces. I mean, in this book it’s supernatural, but it’s allegorical for all these forces that threaten us. And it can come from anywhere: it can come from development, it can come from environmental disasters, war. There’s all kinds of things that can destroy lives.
KYD: Your book made me think of the Australian gothic tradition. Not just in the sense that there a ghosts and quite a rural landscape involved, but there’s also that threat of the landscape. In many Australian books set in rural locations, the landscape itself is the horrifying aspect. Do you feel like your books sits within that sort of Australian gothic tradition? Or can you think of any particular books that you’ve read that you feel their influence can be felt?
LM: I mean the Australian landscape is really quite magical and it’s so different. One of my favourite places is the Pinnacles in WA, have you ever been there?
KYD: I can’t say I have, I’m afraid.
LM: Oh, it’s just these rocks standing in this – In sand dunes. It goes for acres and they are the weirdest, weirdest scene. It’s really, really almost eerie. And there are a lot of places in Australia that have that eerie sort of feeling to them. And I’m very much a believer in emotions staying in a place. Where, you know, when you go to somewhere where something tragic has happened, you – the vibrations are still there, the emotion is still part of the landscape. So yeah, I suppose that is a gothic – or a part of gothic literature. I haven’t read – I can’t think of any Australian books that influenced me, but I love Angela Carter and the old gothic novels as well, like Wilkie Collins and those ones. I cite them as an influence as well. Although it wasn’t so much meant to be a horror book, it just – obviously the mist had to be a big part of the story and in the end it became the story, the climax.
KYD: If the mist was in fact almost a side effect in this book as a way of provoking these particular responses in its characters in this particular situation, does that mean it’s probably not something you’re going to delve into in future books?
LM: Well, I have written another book which is a kids’ book and it’s actually quite similar to this one, the same sort of concepts of the ghost and the anti-hero who really doesn’t want to know but sort of gets caught up in at all. And I was working on another one, but when I showed my draft to my writing cronies, they so both said it was crap. So I’m back at the drawing board at the moment.
KYD: So there’s an isolation to small towns in Australia that makes Soon being abandoned to this phenomena by the wider country feel much more realistic than it would, in say the UK or something like that, where an entire town falling off the map seems so ridiculous these days. Are there any particular towns that you’ve visited? I know you mentioned that the phenomena itself is sort of inspired by sort of asbestos towns and things like that that had been abandoned, but is there anywhere you’ve travelled personally were you felt, ‘Oh, this is the feel of the place’?
LM: We did actually go to Wittenoom itself. We visited there, which was quite amazing. And I’m, yeah that would have contributed quite a lot. But we travelled through a lot of small towns and the sorts of problems that skirt in Soon – with the isolation and the sense of distance and the cut off from the cities – seem to me to be quite a prominent problem in our country towns these days. And there was a lot of resentment towards particularly cities over in the east where the population has the vote and basically make the decisions which affect the small towns. Whereas there’s no real understanding of the sorts of issues these small towns face. You know, when someone like Barnaby Joyce says, ‘Well, move to Tamworth because you can afford a house there.’ But how do you pay off a mortgage when there’s no work? And things like getting a doctor’s appointment – you often have to wait days before you can get a doctor’s appointment. Or there’s no services at all. So the issues that small towns face are actually a hell of a lot broader than what we face in the city. And there seemed to me to be a real resentment there towards the cities and the fact that these things that – another example which I found very personally challenging was the live cattle slaughter. When that, when they just suddenly stopped the exports – and which I personally agreed with because I’m an animal lover – but there were much more complex issues involved. And yeah, it caused a lot of anger and a lot of resentment because people’s lives were basically stopped and their income, their whole financial structure was, you know, that was it.
KYD: The hostile landscape in Australian fiction is sometimes seen as representative of a lack of right to this land, but in Soon it’s brought up Nebulah has always been hostile to people of all sorts. I found that really interesting. Was there any particular reason for that? Or was that just to underscore the supernatural phenomena aspect of it? That it’s always been a place that’s been a bit strange in some ways and not really keen on humans inhabiting it?
LM: I wanted the mist to stay ambiguous and I wanted – one of the things that gets me, as humans we always want to know. You know, we always want explanations and we want answers and, you know, nothing can be unknown. So I was playing with that and I wanted the mist to be unknown and have all these people saying, ‘Well, it’s this’, ‘Well, it’s that’, ‘Well, it’s from something else’ and, you know, all the paranoia and the conspiracy theories. And whether it is the land itself that’s poison, which relates back to Wittenoom. And also to – probably one of the other influences is Esperance, which had that terrible disaster with the iron ore being shipped through it, and it wasn’t being contained properly, and no one realised until all the birds died. About ten thousand birds just dropped out of the sky. And those people faced enormous bureaucratic hostility when they tried to get something done about the situation. And it wasn’t until children were being tested and being found with high levels of lead in their blood that finally government had to acknowledge that there was a problem. And the whole situation was caused by corruption, and yet then they tell us that we should be mining uranium and fracking and, you know, it’s all perfectly safe. Anyway I’m getting off track again.
KYD: No, no, not at all. So definitely that bureaucratic lack of support for the town and that lack of acknowledgment for the issues that they’re facing. That’s certainly, despite very clear phenomena – I mean, the lack of birds in the area is something that could be tested. People can go to the place and see what is nothing, but that willful blindness is a really interesting aspect of it.
LM: Yeah and then the bullying behind it, you know, it just seems to happen all the time. You know, this resistance to proof. I mean, you’ve got thousands of dead birds lying all over the ground, but ‘Oh, it’s nothing! It’s natural!’
KYD: So, I’m – oh sorry.
LM: Can we – ?
KYD: Yes, of course.
[In the distance: Trick or Treat! – Oh, oh my God, it’s Halloween.]
LM: We’ve just been interrupted by a potent force at the door dressed as Darth Vader.
KYD: This one didn’t come in, even when you opened the door, so it’s a little bit safer. So going back to I suppose the beginning, your book won the Tasmanian – the Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award. What sort of effect did that have on your book’s path to publication?
LM: Oh, it changed everything. I actually wrote the book quite a long time ago and had it in the bottom drawer and every now and then a friend would read it and say, ‘Oh, I really like it!’ and I’d think ‘Oh, maybe I should do something with it.’ And then when I was living in Tasmania I saw the award – and I nearly didn’t send it in, because I thought ‘Oh, it’s a ghost story, you know. You can’t send that to a literary prize.’ So yeah, it was amazing when it won and that just got everything rolling. Chris Gallagher, who was one of the judges and also the director of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre, was just great. And all the judges, they were just so supportive – i t didn’t end with the award, they were prepared to put the work in, to put the effort in behind the award. It was terrific.
KYD: Are there any other influences you’d like to mention that contributed to Soon in some way?
LM: There are two films that contributed really strongly too Soon and they were both ones I saw as a child that terrified me. One was The Omega Man, which I actually mention in Soon, and it was the classic ‘guy trapped in a penthouse under attack every night.’ And I used to be sent off to bed before the end of the movie, so I only ever saw it up to where he was fighting them off in his penthouse and it just terrified me. I thought it was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. And the other one was a TV mini-series, I think it was made in the eighties, and it was the Stephen King one called Salem’s Lot. And I don’t remember anything about it, except this one scene where the little kid is at his bedroom window and this cloud is floating along towards it and this horrible demon vampire is in the cloud and it floats up and starts tapping at his window with these long fingernails. And again, terrified me. Absolutely terrified me and I still remember it all these decades later. And yeah, both of those things really contributed to the effect I was trying to get in Soon.
KYD: It sounds like the stuff that nightmares are made of, really. Particularly the clouds floating, but then I’m think Stephen King is very good at the stuff that nightmares are made of, so makes sense. Well, thank you very much for your time today.
KYD: That was Lois Murphy discussing Soon, very appropriately recorded on Halloween. Soon is out now with Transit Lounge.
Well that’s all we have time for, so thank you to Lois and Rachel for their time. I’m Meaghan Dew and you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. If you like the podcast please rate and review us on iTunes and don’t forget to check out the great essays, criticism and fiction available at killyourdarlings.com.au. We’ll be back next month finishing off the year with our high/low culture mashup and some recommendations to see you through to 2018. So see you next time!
[Sounds of doorknocking]
KYD: We have some more witches and wizards at the door.
Trick-or-treaters: Happy Halloween! Happy Halloween!
LM: I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it was Halloween and I’ve got nothing but coleslaw! And that’s going to be awful, so I’ve got nothing I can give you, I’m sorry.
TOT: It’s okay.
LM: You look lovely. Have you got much?
LM: Oh, wow. Oh, there’s a dentist bill in there. Have a lovely time, I’m sorry I can’t give you anything.
TOT: Next time it’s gonna be Halloween, so this day you have to buy candy in Coles.
LM: Oh, okay. Next year. Yeah, okay.
LM: I wonder if I should just shut the curtains and stop answering the door.
KYD: It might be less awkward for you, but this will be my last question, so then you can probably go into another room and pretend you’re not here if you like, rather than disappointing kids.
LM: I might go down the pub. Sit over a beer until it’s dark.