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North Melbourne Books: Set in North Korea in the late 1990s, The Last Exiles is a love story centred on two young university students, Suja and Jin. Suja’s family is well connected, while Jin comes from the rural north, where poverty and hunger are constant. The two make for an unlikely couple, but their futures look bright. They have plans to work hard and serve their country. Then suddenly everything goes horribly wrong. Jin tries to right a wrong in his village, only to find himself accused of the worst kind of betrayal. He is sent to a brutal labour camp. Suja, determined to be reunited with Jin, risks everything and soon finds herself descending into a living nightmare. Their experiences will change them forever.
The story is a real page turner, with so many extraordinary twists and turns, yet it is so believable. Did you base the novel on people you have met? How much did the stories of real exiles inspire you?
Ann Shin: As I was researching the novel, I met with many North Korean defectors who inspired me deeply. They had risked their lives to escape their country by foot, embarking on a 3,000 mile journey across China to find safe asylum in South East Asia. I remember telling one of them how brave she was, and she replied simply, “I’m not courageous, I just had no other choice. I had to do this.” I was struck by her stoicism and her modesty, and realized how desperate she had been to see that risking her life was her only option.
A couple of the women I met were inspirations for my character Suja, and most notably, a human smuggler called ‘Dragon’ was a person after whom I modeled ‘Sarge,’ the smuggler character in my book. Dragon had a larger-than-life personality and was the kind of guy who owns three cell phones, not counting all the burner cell phones he got rid of. He had served in Kim Jong-il’s personal army cadre and then went rogue, turning to ferrying North Korean defectors out of the country. I had mixed feelings about this man who made money off the backs of defectors, and yet had also helped them find freedom. I learned a lot about how to navigate the North Korean and Chinese underground from this man.
NMB: Suja and Jin make some incredibly dangerous journeys. The book captures the gritty atmosphere and sense of place so well. What kind of research did you undertake to get all these details so right?
AS: I ended up getting embedded in a journey with Dragon and five defectors and the experience of that journey left its indelible mark on me. The details in the book come from these first-hand experiences like travelling with them on public buses, private vans and trains, all the while fearfully keeping silent so that the authorities would not discover that we were not Chinese nationals. We ended up in safe houses, eating instant noodles together, sharing many stories. I learned about where each person came from, the hometowns they longed for, and why they were each undertaking this perilous journey. Living, eating, and travelling with the defectors gave me an intimate sense of their lives, as well as the terrain they had to cover to get to freedom. All these experiences went into the writing of the novel.
NMB: Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the book is to learn of the trade in women, sold as wives and slaves, often sexually abused and raped. The trade seems more widespread than many in the West might realise. Suja makes some fairly pointed remarks about women being sold into slavery and how some men can be complicit almost by default. What needs to be done to combat this terrible trade?
AS: It was heartbreaking to meet women who were trafficked in China. In 2019 it was estimated that the business of trafficking North Korean women transacted $105 million dollars annually.* Approximately 60% of North Korean refugees are trafficked and sold into prostitution, forced marriages, and cybersex. Because North Korean women are not recognized as refugees by China, they can’t flee their traffickers to seek help from officials because they would be deported back to their country where they would be sent to prison camps and subject to torture and abuse. China needs to be pressured about their human rights abuses – and as we know, there are many, including the tragic situation of the Uyghurs. We should lobby our governments and the UN to condemn China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors, and to lobby for alternatives; for example, providing safe passage to a third country. We can also support NGOs like Liberty in North Korea, Crossing Borders, and church groups who are actively working to help North Korean defectors today. Many help them find asylum as refugees.
NMB: Suja and Jin, being patriotic North Koreans, revere Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”. But their experiences make them gradually realise they’ve been fed a steady stream of lies. How do you think power is maintained and entrenched in North Korea?
AS: The North Korean government has maintained their power through a regime of terror and by controlling all media and telecommunications within the country. The average North Korean has no access to outside news, entertainment, or even books. All information is created by state news agencies and state presses. Even the cell phones in North Korea are geo-blocked and cannot make calls outside the country. With this absolute control, the regime is able to shape people’s worldviews, and terrorize any dissenters.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
AS: I recently finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and really enjoyed that. I'm re-reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry - mainly for the brilliant voice in that novel. And I'm also re-reading some short stories by David Means. I love his spare, poetic style.
The Last Exiles, by Ann Shin. Published by HarperCollins. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Golden Book tells the story of two childhood friends, Jessie and Ali, growing up in the regional town of Bega in the 1980s. Jessie is adventurous and a risk taker, getting the two girls into their fair share of scrapes. Then one day a terrible accident changes everything. Many years later, when Ali is a mother with a daughter of her own, she hears of Jessie’s death and must confront much that is uncomfortable from her past.
The novel has a very realistic feel. Did you rely much on your own experiences for the story?
Kate Ryan: I have always been fascinated – and remember – the intensity of childhood friendships, especially those between girls on the cusp of adolescence. This intensity can almost have the character of a love affair, though no physical attraction may be part of it. I think we can romanticise what it is to be a child, to simplify it too, to forget that the emotions which exist in adults are there in children too – love and hate and fear, for instance – and rivalry between children may run deep. Children are complex beings – and I wanted Jessie and Ali to reflect this. I am interested in the way our childhood best friends are often complementary selves, possessing traits that we would like to have. A best friend’s family, its strangeness and difference, may be part of their allure too.
This preoccupation was sparked again when, eight years ago, on holiday with my partner and three children, I visited Mumbulla Creek Falls near Bega on the south coast of NSW.
I arrived after a meandering drive through the bush into the blue-green mountains. On the path leading to Mumbulla were signs from the Biamanga Aboriginal Board of Management explaining that it was a significant spiritual site. The Board encouraged people to reconsider swimming there. As soon as I saw it, I was struck by the beauty of Mumbulla, and an air of timelessness that seemed palpable. As I sat under a tree watching people swim and slide and jump into the pool, for some reason I felt great anxiety that someone might be injured. As a white person, I also felt considerable responsibility and guilt about the disregard for the wishes of the area’s custodians.
This interplay of emotion eventually led me to imagine two very different 12-year-old girls, Ali and Jessie, swimming at Mumbulla in the 1980s.
Both Jessie and Ali reflect something of me as a child. I was shy and quite anxious, but also an obsessive reader and physically confident and adventurous. I spent most of my spare time with my best friend Michael, usually barefoot, exploring the neighbourhood. We played elaborate games in and around the grounds of a school we lived next door to, climbing trees and onto roofs. Our friendship was competitive (at least from my perspective). I always wanted to prove, as a girl, that I could do things as well or better than Michael, was tougher and braver.
As an adult I have become cautious and I sometimes wonder, as with Ali, what happened to my brave child self. In my own life I was 12 when we moved houses and then my father died when I was 13. Both events signalled the end of my friendship with Michael and that particular feeling of childhood freedom and also brought amorphous fear. I have brought many of these emotions to The Golden Book, both directly and indirectly.
NMB: The story is beautifully constructed, slipping back and forth between the 1980s and the present. It’s a finely crafted book, one that is also a pleasure to read. What was the writing process like?
KR: The writing process has been many layered like the book, years of writing and re-writing! Although the initial idea and first draft came quite quickly, it took a long time to work out how to structure the book and the best order in which to tell it. Each time I went back to a new draft however, I felt I got deeper into my characters and understood them better and was able to deepen particular themes.
NMB: Key events in the book take place around a forbidden watering hole, a sacred Aboriginal site that has signage requesting people not to swim. Was there any comment you wanted to make about non-Indigenous attitudes, or lack thereof, to sacred places?
KR: I wanted Ali and Jessie’s obliviousness to the fact that Mumbulla is a significant site for the Yuin nation to make people think about how often Aboriginal people’s wishes have been overlooked at best, at worst trampled on. I also wanted to show how easy it is for non-Indigenous people to ignore large complex questions of colonisation. In a sense, in a different lesser way, in the battle of their friendship, Jessie and Ali seek to have, and hold onto individual power and this is a microcosm of the larger power structure. I also think that in everyday ways, non-Indigenous people choose not to take in the particular significance of ancient sacred places. Attitudes to climbing Uluru are a clear example of this. Eventually not climbing had to be mandated because people actively ignored the wishes of Uluru’s custodians.
It is not forbidden to swim at Mumbulla but the board of management gently suggests people reconsider doing so. I would understand though if, in the future, much stronger directives were given. I spoke to Glenn Willcox the CEO of Bega Land Council and he said that it is really a matter of respect. Some local Yuin people themselves choose to swim at Mumbulla, but they would like people to have respect for its great significance to their nation and act accordingly.
NMB: The Golden Book has several themes about writing. Ali is participating in writing classes, testing the waters to see if she would like to write. As a child she also keeps a journal of her and Jessie’s daring exploits. Writing is almost presented as a form of therapy, or a way to explore the past and present. What is the importance of writing for you?
KR: Writing is vital to me. It is my way of working out what I think about things and processing my life, my relationships and the world. Most mornings I write three or four pages of stream of consciousness writing in my journal as soon as I wake up, drinking coffee and looking out over our inner-city street and at the sky. Quite often preoccupations and connections will emerge in these jottings that grow into larger pieces of writing, fiction and nonfiction. When I am really immersed in a piece of writing it is a completely intoxicating feeling.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KR: Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ series: The Cost of Living, Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill and Albert and the Whale by Phillip Hoare, an incredible discursive nonfiction book about the artist Albert Durer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place was intriguing and strange and left me puzzling over the complex intersection of gender and art. I have also just finished the first book of Jimmy Barnes’s autobiography, Working Class Boy, which I picked up in an opshop. I have never been a fan of his music but he is a very good writer and I am amazed at how he emerged as an artist (and survived) the incredible disadvantage he experienced as a child.
The Golden Book, by Kate Ryan. Published by Scribe. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Shortest History of China briskly covers thousands of years of Chinese history. How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?
Linda Jaivin: That’s the million-dollar question - or at least the 3,500-years-of-recorded-history question. My first draft was way too long. That required some tough calls about the most important historical and cultural developments, rulers and rebels, philosophers, battles, technological and scientific innovations, and so on. I was determined to make space for as many of the great women who often get left out of short histories as possible, as well as the talented quirks and non-conformists who have always been part of this diverse nation and have greatly enlivened its civilisation, beginning with the first Daoists. There needed to be a balance between the broad sweep of history and the fine details that make history live, as well as things that just tickle me, like the wild makeup trends of the Tang dynasty and how an uptight Confucian official lost his mind over an emperor welcoming a Buddhist relic into the palace. So not every one of China’s 550+ emperors gets a mention, but I don’t think lists like that are what my readers are looking for anyway.
NMB: What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions Australians have about China?
LJ: That China is a monoculture, with a relatively homogenous population. China is in fact wonderfully diverse. If Australians understood the diversity of China better, we wouldn’t be so quick to believe it when the Communist Party of China claims to speak on every topic for all 1.4 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China. China is a multiverse, big and messy, and full of every kind of person as well as different cultures and subcultures, and all the more fascinating for it.
NMB: The book has an interesting focus on women, from the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi to more contemporary feminists and warriors. Do you have a favourite historical figure who you find inspiring?
LJ: There are several. But while I’m personally committed to non-violence, I can’t help but adore the early feminist and revolutionary Tang Qunying. Born in 1871, the daughter of a Qing dynasty general, she learned martial arts from her dad, who gave her a boy’s education. She became a feminist and revolutionary, studied bomb-making with Russian anarchists, and led an all-female militia in the republican revolution of 1911. When the new National Assembly stepped back from the early commitments of the leaders of the revolution to female suffrage and gender equality, Tang led her women to the parliament, where they kicked the guards to the ground, smashed windows and boxed the ears of the legislators with, as one contemporary report put it, their ‘delicate hands’. January 6 this year notwithstanding, this story still gives me a little thrill every time I think about it. (They still didn’t get equality or the vote, by the way – the men told them it wasn’t yet the right time. Sigh.)
NMB: The Australia-China relationship is currently at a bad moment. How do you think things could be improved?
LJ: By our government understanding the difference between playing domestic politics and being a responsible and effective actor in the international sphere. We may need to be prepared for war but our politicians and public servants need to stop their hairy-chested display about the ‘drums of war’. If you study Chinese history, or even just Confucius, you’ll realise what a serious business words are in China. The government needs to take more advice based on knowledge, less on ideological affinity and to allow that knowledge pool to be built up over the long term through greater, not less, investment in the humanities. But all Australians have a role to play as well, not just in better informing themselves about China generally, but in uniting to combat racism against Chinese-Australians and Chinese in Australia in all its forms, from violent attacks to subtle social exclusion.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Kate Holden’s The Winter Road and Colm McCann’s Apeirogon. I recently scared myself senseless, in the best possible way, reading Andrew McGahan’s last novel The Rich Man’s House. And I am loving, most of all, my long, slow, mindful stroll through John Minford’s masterful translation of the Daoist classic Tao Te Ching.
The Shortest History of China, by Linda Jaivin. Published by Black Inc. $24.99
Photo credit: Elizabeth McCracken
North Melbourne Books: After discovering that his son, the puppet Pinocchio, has been cruelly thrown into the sea, the woodcarver Geppetto desperately tries to find him. He wades out to sea but ends up swallowed whole by a giant fish. Inside the giant fish he discovers a ship, the schooner Maria, and several crates of candles. With the candles slowly running out, he writes his story.
What attracted you to re-writing the story of Pinocchio? Has it always been a favourite?
Edward Carey: I was given a commission to do an exhibition of Pinocchio-themed work by the Collodi foundation for the Parco di Pinocchio in Italy. I read and reread and read the book and I was suddenly struck that Collodi put Geppetto in the sea monster’s belly for two years and says almost nothing about it. I wondered what he would do for all that long time. Geppetto is an artist (he made his son after all) and I began to make the art that I thought he would create in the belly of the shark (it’s a shark in the book). Then it seemed to me - Robinson Crusoe like - it should be his journal as well.
NMB: The Swallowed Man is richly imagined, with lots of strange happenings and curious characters. The section depicting the different women Geppetto has loved during his life is terrific. Where do you find inspiration, or do images and characters come to you naturally?
EC: I sat in the darkness in the corner of our house and tried to think how the old man would sum up his life. I kept thinking that Pinocchio spends much of his book wondering ‘What is a man’ and how he can be one. It seemed to me Geppetto would eventually ask the question ‘Am I still a man’. I tried to imagine his whole life. Collodi - fortunately for me - gives very little information so I felt free to imagine most of it. And to link his life with objects. I’d found small lozenges of wood worn down by the sea, for example, they looked like portrait miniatures and so I painted the loves of Geppetto’s life on the wood.
NMB: The book's story is about the hopeful reunion of a father and son. Do you see the book as having a main theme?
EC: I don’t really think in those terms. But if I had to I suppose I would say, it’s about creating to keep going, it’s about faith, I hope, and resilience, I hope, and family. It could be a portrait of any human in some ways, it just happens to be Geppetto. How do we sum up our lives. How stories - and memories - can keep us going.
NMB: Both your previous novel, Little, based on the life of Madame Tussaud, and The Swallowed Man, deal with the need to create human likenesses in art. From puppets to AI, there's a long history. Is this a subject that preoccupies your thinking much?
EC: If I could paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss, I find dolls and puppets and sculptures good to think with. I carved Madame Tussaud in wood, full size, and this large doll sits at home with us. Pinocchio is perhaps the greatest doll of them all, the wooden toy who longs to be human, I think of him as the patron saint of objects.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
EC: I’ve just finished Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, an amazing memoir. Right now I’m in the last weeks of semester and so there’s not time for much beyond reading student work. But as soon as semester is over I’m going to read The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox and then Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge.
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $24.99
Photo credit: Karin Locke
North Melbourne Books: Lapsed examines your Catholicism, from devout childhood through to reconstructed adulthood, the journey articulated with an often comic commentary. While the book is playful in tone, there’s a serious struggle that happens throughout as you try to sort out what your Catholic past meant and how it affects you now.
What made you want to write such a book at this time in your life?
Monica Dux: Although I’d stopped believing in God back in my teens, and had long since rejected the Catholic Church, I always felt shadowed by my Catholicism. It was as if being brought up as a Catholic had imprinted something very deeply on my character. When I was researching Lapsed, I often heard people comment that Catholicism is like an ethnicity, or a blood group. Something that’s quite fundamental to your identity – even if you don’t believe a word of it. And that really resonated with me.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. If you ask lapsed Catholics to describe their relationship to their former religion, you rarely get a straightforward answer. There are almost always loads of qualifications, and lingering, ambivalent feelings; feelings that people often struggle to clearly articulate.
It was on a family trip to Rome, when my 6-year-old daughter suddenly declared a desire to be baptised as a Catholic, that I realised just how unresolved my own feelings were. I’d been bringing up my children in a thoroughly secular family, and yet I felt quite confronted by her sudden religiosity, even if it was just a childish whim. My discomfort wasn’t about her wanting to believe in God, but about the Catholic Church itself.
And so I realised that a reckoning with my religious childhood was long overdue. I had a lot of unfinished business with the Church, a lot of anger, and a lot of mixed feelings, so I wanted to figure out exactly what it was all about, and what it means today to be a lapsed/former/recovering/ex Catholic.
NMB: The chapters to do with paedophilia in the church are quite impassioned. Do you see these crimes and their cover-up as making the institution irredeemable, for yourself at least?
MD: Yes, I do. I approached this book with an open heart. I wanted to look at the light and the dark of my Catholic childhood, and weigh it all up, but when I researched Church abuse, the darkness stained all the rest of it, spoiling all the good parts. For me, it became impossible to separate the crimes of the Church from everything else that comes with the Catholic institution. I started to realise how little effort the Church has made to rectify the profound trauma that has been inflicted, and how devastating and unspoken so much of that trauma is – both individually and collectively.
It struck me that all of us who were brought up in the Catholic Church are so closely connected to church abuse, even if we don’t have a personal experience of it. I didn’t want to write a book telling people what to think or believe, but I did want to explain my own journey and how I came to my conclusions. I think that, uncomfortable as it is, it’s important for lapsed Catholics to examine their relationship to their former religion in light of the Church’s history and response to child sexual abuse. Because it’s not enough, to simply pretend that it isn’t relevant to you, just because you’ve stopped going to mass.
NMB: Your close relationship with your brother Matt is lovely to read about. He came out as gay at about the same time you were claiming your own sexual independence. How much did the relationship help you when growing up?
MD: My brother was such a wonderful companion when I was a child. We used to sing at the piano together as kids, and I think those moments were among the happiest of my childhood.
He is a year older than me, and I completely adored him when we were growing up. And when it came to our relationship to the Church, we were both on a similar journey. Catholic ideas about sex and sexuality are especially constrictive, and we both felt that quite keenly, in our different ways.
I was very lucky to have his support while I was working on Lapsed. We share a lot of memories, but he was very clear in allowing me to own mine, to write my book, even though so much of it intersected with his life. Which isn’t an easy thing to do, when you’ve got your own story to tell.
NMB: There’s a hilarious episode in the book where you decide to scandalise your school. For a health presentation you dress up as a condom to instruct on the importance of safe-sex. Has the same trouble-making ethic followed you through life?
MD: My son thinks I am very embarrassing and that I am a habitual line crosser, doing extreme, provocative things, and advocating openness about matters of sex, in a way that horrifies a teenager, at least when it’s coming from his mum! So if you asked him, I’m sure he’d agree that the condom dress-up was an early manifestation of that.
You have to be prepared to be a bit of a trouble-maker if you want to write the kind of non-fiction that I’m attempting. Pulling punches, shying away from difficult subjects because you are scared of how it will be received, trying to sugar coat difficult ideas, none of that makes for good, honest writing.
It isn’t easy, of course. I spent a lot of time while I was writing this book, thinking about my responsibility as a writer, versus my fear of upsetting people. It can be a high wire act.
On many occasions I’ve woken in the middle of the night thinking, “oh dear, what have I done!”…but it’s too late to take it back now!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MD: I recently finished Hamnet, which I loved. Such a gentle, graceful rumination on grief. I adored the way Maggie O’Farrell has re-imagined Anne Hathaway. My last few years have been so consumed with reading about Church history, and theology and Jesus (occasionally very dry, but usually a lot of fun), it’s often felt like there wasn’t much time for anything else. But now I’m heading into a complete Jesus-Free zone. I’m especially looking forward to reading Kazuo Ishuguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Emily Maguire’s latest novel Love Objects.
Lapsed, by Monica Dux. Published by ABC Books. $34.99
Release date 7th April
Photo credit: LJM Photography
North Melbourne Books: It’s 1960, rural Victoria. Eleven-year-old Joy Henderson lives a nightmare existence, trying to avoid her father’s wrath. George Henderson is a pillar of the community, but at home he abuses his wife and children. When local girl nine-year-old Wendy Boscombe goes missing, the police come to the Henderson house to do a routine questioning. The answer to what happened to Wendy is a story that will grip the reader from the first page to the very last.
The Silent Listener is an accomplished debut, with a superbly organised plot that never flags. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Lyn Yeowart: Several years ago, I was writing short pieces to help me process my father’s legacy, and thought they could perhaps be cobbled together into a novel. It didn’t take me long to realise that the story of my life was not exactly compelling (!), but that I could keep readers turning the page by weaving in some fiction. So I’m delighted to report, and I hope readers are relieved to hear, that there was no Wendy in my childhood who disappeared, although I distinctly remember news reports of a child who went missing in Australia when I was just nine, and it chilled me to the bone.
Interestingly, Wendy was never even going to be in the novel until Joy was eyeing off her father’s tool chest and realised that it was big enough to hold a body. Specifically, a child’s body. And that’s how Wendy was born—or to be precise, killed off before she was born!
NMB: The story moves between the 1940s, 1960s & 1980s and offers a bleak portrait of farming life in rural Victoria. The descriptions are particularly realistic - of the dinginess, poverty, money worries and general meanness of life. How did you go about creating such a menacing atmosphere?
LY: The seed of the novel was my own childhood, and indeed, the farm in the book is essentially the farm I grew up on, from the dam and the rubbish tank, right down to the wall-hanging above the kitchen table and the eel stews. In some respects, my childhood was set in what you’ve referred to as a menacing atmosphere, so unfortunately a great deal of it came to me all too easily. This meant that while I was writing most of the descriptions—visual and emotional—all I had to do was hark back to my childhood, but in some scenes, I’ve ‘upped the ante’ quite a bit. Having said that, I want to add that there are other scenes that I wound back, because fellow writers felt those scenes were not believable…even though they were entirely true.
Certainly, times were hard for many farming families I knew, all of whom were at the mercy of the land and weather, as well as government policies, milk prices, and the expectations of the community and its institutions, including the church. I knew children from families who suffered from extreme poverty and hardship, so I often pictured them and imagined their emotions while I was writing, so that I could deliver readers an authentic, if vicarious, experience of what it was like to live such a bleak, poverty-stricken existence.
NMB: One of the central themes of The Silent Listener is the abuse of children, their helplessness and inability to speak for themselves. Do you hope the book may provide some catharsis for anyone who feels their childhood was denied peace and security?
LY: Even though the book has been out for just four weeks, I have been equally surprised and saddened by how many people (strangers, acquaintances and friends) have rung, messaged, emailed, or spoken through a Zoom screen or across a café table, to tell me they experienced a similar childhood. Many have said that reading The Silent Listener has made them feel okay about the tangled and distraught emotions they struggle with, and they’re relieved to talk to someone who ‘gets it’. And while the specifics of our stories might all be different, what we seem to have in common is that we were ashamed of what happened to us (as if we were the guilty party) and consequently find it difficult to speak about it to others because of the perceived indignity and humiliation. Many people have never told their partners, children or friends what happened to them, and possibly never will.
We’ve also talked about the long-term ramifications of abuse, and agree that while flesh wounds can mend and scars can fade, the psychological and emotional trauma stays for decades. So, yes, I dare to hope that reading The Silent Listener provides catharsis for one, some, or many survivors of childhood abuse. In even braver moments, I hope that it compels others to think and talk about why and how we need to make sure that no child is ever denied peace, security and love, and that those discussions take place not only in families, workplaces and social institutions like schools and churches, but also in governments.
NMB: Who are the crime writers that really inspire you? Are there any that particularly helped you in writing The Silent Listener?
LY: I enjoy relaxing with a good cosy murder, so Agatha Christie’s at the top of the list, with Arthur Conan Doyle coming a close second. Sorry I don’t have anything more original, intellectual, or obscure (!), but I admire how both of these writers created worlds and characters that ingeniously deceive and intrigue readers, so that solving the crime is impossible…until you know the truth of course, at which point, it’s clear that we too could have solved the crime if only we had, to use Poirot’s words, “the little grey cells” of the inimitable detective character. Plus, of course, their work is timeless because it examines humanity closely and ruthlessly, which I believe is an essential element of good fiction. Some of the contemporary crime writers who I admire for their tenacity, productivity, originality and/or ingenuity include Emma Viskic, Christian White, RWR McDonald, and Kirsten Alexander. And there are a few recent releases waiting patiently on my TBR pile.
I’m also a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca because of how she specifically uses language to irretrievably lead the reader down the proverbial garden path, only to abruptly disassemble your notions, compelling you to go back and re-read certain lines and conversations. That’s something I tried to do in The Silent Listener, and I would like to think that readers, once they know the various truths of the Henderson family, go back and re-read certain lines and conversations and say, “Aha…I see what she did there!”
When I completed the University of Melbourne’s Masters in Creative Writing some years ago, Arnold Zable and Tony Birch were two of my lecturers who were highly complimentary of my writing, giving me a huge confidence boost.
More recently, JP Pomare has been absolutely great since we met in a writing workshop a few years ago. He read early extracts, was very positive about the book’s potential, talked to me about the editing process he’d gone through with his first book, and suggested a plot change that helped me take the novel to a new level.
I workshopped many extracts of The Silent Listener with people in writing groups I belong to, and am forever indebted to them for their invaluable feedback, along with their moral and sometimes practical support and friendship.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
LY: As I’m in the very early throes of the next novel, I’m deliberately steering away from reading fiction until the cement of this one is poured and set. So I’m reading books about writing, and am halfway through James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which I first read about ten years ago. I’m also reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History because I enjoyed his Utopia for Realists (he presents complex societal issues in an extremely straightforward and interesting way), and am dipping in and out of Growing Up Disabled In Australia, edited by the wonderful Carly Findlay.
My treat tonight is reading a draft of a short story written by JP Pomare, which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, unless it has the same themes or setting as my next novel, in which case, I’ll be cursing him for breaking my self-imposed “no fiction” decree!
Mind you, taking a break from reading fiction doesn't mean I’ve stopped buying fiction, so the aforementioned TBR pile is teetering dangerously, thanks to talented Australian authors who have released stunning works over the last few months. I’m champing at the bit…but resisting temptation.
The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart. Published by Viking. $32.99
Photo credit: Susan Gordon-Brown
North Melbourne Books: For two years you and your wife, Lynne, circled Melbourne's inner suburbs on foot, from working class Yarraville to posh South Yarra, researching the many weird and wonderful places you visited. Many of the buildings you write about – The ETA Peanut Butter Factory, famed for its modernist architecture and the Maribrynong bomb factory – are not that widely known. Was there anything that particularly surprised you and Lynne about inner Melbourne?
Nick Gadd: One thing that surprised us was how short memories can be. For example, Yarraville had the scandal of the ‘sinking village’ in the 1970s, when a housing estate was built on top of a quarry filled with sludge, and all the houses collapsed. We wondered, how could the quarry have been so quickly forgotten? And now the story of the sinking village itself is little known. Things that were part of daily life for many years are now gone as if they had never existed - like the Sands & McDougall street directories, amazing repositories of information that were published every year in Melbourne for more than a century. Who remembers them now? One reason I wrote the book is to recover some old stories and bring them back to light. One particularly surprising story we uncovered is that in the 1930s there was a race track in the western suburbs where monkeys rode greyhounds and people bet on the results. You can find that story, and photographs of the monkey jockeys, in Melbourne Circle.
NMB: Lynne passed away in 2018 and Melbourne Circle is very much a love letter and remembrance of her. Was Lynne the primary inspiration for the book?
NG: For Lynne and me, walking was a big part of our relationship. It was how we connected, how we fell in love, and something we continued doing for as long as we could. When we went walking together we were usually looking for things that had been lost and traces of the past - quirky old buildings, ghost signs, derelict factories and the like. The themes that interested me as a writer were change, loss, and renewal. When Lynne became sick and died of cancer in 2018, the experience of personal loss struck me in a terrible, almost overwhelming way. I found that writing the book helped me to deal with the grief, by remembering and recording our relationship and the ways that it was intimately connected with place. So Lynne, and my relationship with her, did inspire the book, but the themes it deals with go beyond us two - in fact they are universal.
NMB: Melbourne Circle is beautifully illustrated and presented, with plenty of terrific pictures. Did you and Lynne take most of the photos?
NG: I took the photos, though Lynne spotted many of the things I photographed. I also drew the maps. I’m glad you liked the presentation of the book - my publisher, Nick Walker of Australian Scholarly Publishing, was determined to do a nice job of the production, which meant printing in colour. I’m thrilled with the result.
NMB: Living in a car culture, our suburbs are not designed so much for walking. What do you think is the best thing about walking and what joys has it brought you?
NG: There are two clear benefits - one is that you can go more slowly: stroll, meander, and take time to look at the things that we normally ignore. The Situationists used the French word ‘derive’, which means ‘drift’, for this way of proceeding through a city. One approach I recommend is to raise your eyes above the ground level - you will often spot an old sign, a name, or a strange little feature higher up that can send you back into the past, or off on some imaginative journey. The other advantage is that you can wander down laneways, duck around the back of buildings, or inside them, and investigate places where cars can’t go. When you do, you will often stumble across something intriguing. “A walk is only a step away from a story” Robert Macfarlane writes, and walking is a great source of inspiration for writers. If you have writer’s block, just go for a walk!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
NG: Talking of Robert Macfarlane, I am immersed in Underland - his wonderful investigation of what can be found underneath mountains, oceans and glaciers. I’ve also been thrilled by a collection of essays on art by the late John Berger, Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss. Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: It’s 1945. Germany is losing the war. Three Prussian children – Liesl, Otto and baby Mia – flee the advancing Russian army. The Wolf children (that is their surname) have lost their mother and beloved grandparents in the mad exodus, and their physically disabled father has been drafted to fight. The children muster all their survival skills to find food and warm places to sleep, while also trying to avoid danger.
How did you find out about this story and what made you want to turn it into a novel.
Katrina Nannestad: I was searching online for something quite different when I came across an article about the Wolfskinder. I read on and followed the links at the bottom of each page. I was fascinated by these stories of children, surviving on their own, in the harsh end-of-war environment that existed in East Prussia. I was also surprised that I’d never heard these stories before. I realised that if I hadn’t heard them, perhaps they’d be new to others as well. It’s always exciting, as a writer, to think you might be sharing something that is completely new to your readers.
The other significant factor in my decision to write this book is that these stories of the Wolfskinder have a timelessness about them. They deal with big themes – war and the scars it leaves on everyone involved; the plight of refugees; personal and cultural identity; and the power of kindness and love to change lives.
NMB: We Are Wolves has a realistic feel. How did you go about researching the novel to get all the details right? Did you have to read a lot?
KN: I did a lot of research – before and during the writing of my book. I started by looking at the stories of the Wolfskinder and the German people fleeing East Prussia at the end of the war, reading whatever I could find online and in books, watching documentaries and interviews. I read two great autobiographies – one long, detailed account by a Wolfskind, and another short humble account by a child refugee. Both were gold, providing wonderful personal details from a child’s point of view. When I ran out of information specific to the Wolfskinder and the child refugees, I expanded my search to read about the history of East Prussia and the tumultuous events surrounding the end of World War II.
There were many times when I stopped mid-writing and searched some more to fill the gaps in my knowledge. How did people ever write historical novels before the internet existed? It must have taken sooooo long!
NMB: There are some quirky, unusual scenes in the novel. In one part of the story Russian soldiers throw their socks in a toilet bowl, thinking it’s a washtub. Did things like this really happen?
KN: I read a lot of stories about the Red Army and their behaviour on entering East Prussia and other German regions. There were many terrible things done to the German population, but there were also funny stories and those that were a mix of tragedy and comedy.
The wealth found in Germany was bamboozling to many Red Army soldiers – the paved roads, the fine buildings, industry, farms, the individual wealth of families, household objects like washing machines and fridges. They couldn’t understand why such a rich country would bother to invade the Soviet Union, which had so little in comparison.
Interestingly, I seemed to come across a lot of poop stories! Indoor bathrooms were foreign to many Red Army soldiers, particularly those from a peasant background. The true purpose of flushing toilets was not always understood, and they were occasionally used to keep things cold. I imagine a small bottle of vodka or a wrapped cheese would sit comfortably in the porcelain bowl, surrounded by water, keeping cool and fresh! But one flush could make a light object vanish and so the toilet was named by some as the ‘stealing machine’.'
Drunkenness, too, was a huge problem once the Red Army entered Germany. At one place, a few soldiers found a basement filled with kegs of wine. They thought the fastest way to get to the drink was to shoot holes in the barrels and fill their canteens as the fluid poured out. They drank so much that they passed out, but by this stage, the floor was flooded with a foot of wine and they drowned.
Of course, many of these stories were not appropriate for a children’s novel but made for some interesting (and confronting) reading.
NMB: Liesl goes through a transformation in the novel. She starts out loving Hitler as a good man, but reality eventually crashes through this false image. Did you find this a complicated transformation to write?
KA: I didn’t find this really complicated, but I did have to plan the process of revealing Liesl’s growing awareness. At the start of the book, we see that Liesl has been completely indoctrinated by society and the education system, and she has not been exposed to anything that would conflict with these ideas of a great Germany, a benevolent Hitler and a bright, prosperous future.
In writing my story, it felt quite natural that, as Liesl was exposed to the horrors of war, she would begin to question the disparity between what she was promised and what was actually happening. The war ends with Germany’s defeat and Hitler’s death, and then there is no doubt in Liesl’s mind that she has been deceived.
Another aspect of Liesl’s growing awareness comes from her interaction with the Red Army. She learns of German cruelty and greed in the Soviet Union, and experiences the kindness and generosity of individual enemy soldiers firsthand. She begins to understand that nationality and race have nothing to do with good and evil, that war is damaging to everyone, and that love is what matters most.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KN: I’ve just started reading Northanger Abbey, for the millionth time. I adore Jane Austen’s rant, early in the book, against society’s disgust for the novel as a literary form. She declares that the novel is ‘only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’. I find it very affirming.
I’ve had a full year of writing and I’m tired, so I’ve been comfort reading. For me this means snuggling up with old favourites (like Northanger Abbey) and choosing new books that are filled with humour. I’ve just read Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue, both by Marina Lewycka. They are wonderful – colourful stories with rich characters, a great plot and lots of laugh-out-loud moments.
We Are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad. Published by ABC Books. $19.99
North Melbourne Books: Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen lives with his mother and maternal grandparents, Noonie and Pop, in a block of flats in Coburg, near Pentridge Prison. It’s the early 2000s and the suburb is gentrifying, with the prison being turned into boutique apartments. Ford has a lot on his plate. He has been sent to school in posh Toorak, causing feelings of dislocation, his mother is emotionally fragile and in need of help, and to cap it all off, his relationship with his father is strained to breaking point. The novel is narrated by Ford and uses the unvarnished language of sixteen-year old boys. It’s often emotionally raw and deals with the hurt caused by unstable family life.
Was it a difficult or perhaps cathartic book for you to write?
Tobias McCorkell: The answer is, of course, both. The book was difficult for two reasons: On the technical side of things, one of the trickiest aspects of writing a book of this nature is trying to render things accurately – the “unvarnished language” and “emotional rawness” of the teenage perspective, as you rightly point out – while knowing there’s a chance you’ll alienate the prudes and the people who make demarcations between the high and the low, particularly when I aspire to bridge the high with the low. Threading together the confluence of influences – which included things as various as The Catcher in the Rye, the novels of John and Dan Fante, Anita Brookner’s characteristic introspection, as well as gold standard Melbourne texts, Loaded and Monkey Grip – was a hard job, but I like to think I pulled it off, if only in part.
Emotionally, it was a difficult book to write, too. I’d spent years trying and failing to write a memoir, and that process nearly killed me. When I was shaping the novel, though, it was quite hard digging into some of this material and from that trying to craft scenes, where I was distilling so much raw feeling into only a few pages, especially some of the smaller/quieter moments, the intimacies and ponderances that come after the more explosive scenes, which, even reading them now, leave me a bit fed up with the world. Facing up to that kind of vulnerability makes you vulnerable, and the process left me pretty exhausted at times. (For those interested, you can read about my experience writing the novel at leekofman.com.au.)
But yes, it was cathartic! It was good to vanquish some of the material, and finishing any novel is always a triumph!
NMB: There is quite a bit of humour in the book. The scene where Ford is bashed but worries about losing his “Caravaggio boy” looks provides an unexpected laugh. And the descriptions of some of the dingy houses and décor are brilliant. Do you find humour can spring naturally from otherwise bleak and grim scenarios?
TM: It has to! You can’t have the funny without the sad, the light without the dark. Meanness and cruelty are often essential to humour, not that I’m intent on being mean or cruel as an author. Personally, I’d say I have a healthy sense of humour – I like to laugh and I’ve long been obsessed with stand-up comedy – and I can’t imagine writing without getting a giggle from the reader from time to time. Life is funny, after all.
It’s a bit like sex. Writers, particularly those who want to be seen as “literary” or “serious”, too often avoid venturing into the places where you’re most likely to be humiliated, where an audience might be induced to cringe. But ultimately, it’s cowardly – nobody wants to risk not having someone laugh at their joke, or to be thought of as being a little ‘pervy’, yet avoiding certain areas does a disservice to what I believe writing is for, and that’s responding to life. How can you write about life without humour or without talking about sex? Frankly, I don’t want to read a novel written by somebody who doesn’t wank or chuckle (at least, occasionally).
NMB: Ford goes through a lot in the novel – shame, guilt, confusion – to arrive at a tentative resolution of his life and family problems. Do you think Ford triumphs in the end?
TM: I have no idea. And I like not knowing. The novel’s resolution, I think, is open to interpretation, and ultimately it will come down to whether you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty type of person to determine what you extract from the final moment of the novel – there’s a reason I’ve employed a non-literary device with which to end the book, after all. I didn’t want for there to be even so much as a last word, I just wanted the reader to be left with a feeling, whatever it is to them, and for that feeling, hopefully, to echo for a moment or two after they’ve closed the cover.
NMB: The novel is also a love letter to Coburg. How much has the suburb changed since you grew up there?
TM: A lot! I’m actually back living with my mother right now as a result of the pandemic having added more precarity to an already precarious work-life. The simplest summary of the changes is to look at the real estate: houses that were worth about $350,000 when I was a child are now going for well over a million, and in many cases they’re being knocked down to accommodate multiple units (or “dog boxes”, as Mum calls them). On our street, three doors down, a gorgeous weatherboard was knocked down and three “dog boxes” were erected in its place, each one going for $1.2 million. That’s crazy money; it’s hard to reason why people are paying so much more for so much less. It seems inevitable to me that the type of person moving into that kind of house is going to be a pain in the neck.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I’m about to dive into the new Martin Amis, and I’ve recently gone and read all of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing back to back. Mostly, though, over the last two years I’ve been on a long streak of bleak, romantic novels – affairs that don’t work out, that kind of thing – as well as on a quest to read more ‘campus novels’.
But I’d like to recommend, if I can, Relatively Famous by Roger Averill, a fairly recent and underrated Melbourne novel. Get on it!
Everything in its Right Place, by Tobias McCorkell. Published by Transit Lounge. $29.99
Photo credit: Phil Timberlake
North Melbourne Books: Skunk and Badger is a classic odd couple story, with a couple of twists. Badger is a rock scientist, and when Skunk suddenly turns up to move in, he brings a flock of chicken friends that create a lot of chaos. Badger gets exasperated with Skunk and his eccentric way of living, and decides he can no longer stand it, but then soon realises his feelings for Skunk are more complicated.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Amy Timberlake: By daydreaming when I was supposed to be working on another book project! For research for this other project, I re-read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and thus, a daydream began. I started to wonder what kind of story I would write if I wrote a story in the style of those Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I didn’t want to make another “Winnie-the-Pooh” but what would happen if I wrote something episodic with animals who say, wore sweaters and lived in a gentler world? What kind of story would I tell? I also thought it would be great to write something that appealed to a wide range of readers so the story could be read aloud and everyone in the room (age six to ninety-six) could enjoy it. Eventually, I wanted to try it. So I set that other project aside and wrote Skunk and Badger.
NMB: In the book we learn how complicated our emotions can be, and that when we get irritated with people, we can also be growing fond of them at the same time. Did you have a particular theme in mind for the book when you wrote it?
AT: When I’m working on a story, I don’t have themes in mind at all. I let the story go where it needs to go. I will say that I wanted the emotional life to be as true as I could make it. I like emotional complexities in my books.
NMB: There is a scene when Skunk lets loose with his spray. You describe in vivid detail what a skunk’s spray smells like. Have you smelt it yourself, or did you write from imagination?
AT: Oh yes! Skunk spray is a smell we know well here in the United States. Open your window on a summer evening and it may waft through your window stirring you from sleep. Skunks are forever trying to teach dogs to back off. Dogs seem to be slow learners.
NMB: Jon Klassen’s illustrations are as wonderful as you would expect. How close did you work with him in deciding what needed to be depicted visually and were there a lot of conversations about chickens?
AT: Ha! Chickens! Yes, I can see how it would seem that we’d need to have a lot of discussion about chickens given what’s in the text! Hmmm... I may have passed along the title of a chicken breed book, but that’s it. The truth is, Jon and I didn’t speak until the project was near completion.
I did see illustrations through my editor, Elise Howard. And the illustrations were gorgeous — every single time. Jon always got the emotion, the style, the feel of these scenes exactly right. Sometimes the art was so good it felt eerie — for instance, I thought I’d seen his illustrations before I’d actually seen them. I don’t know how he did that. All I can say is that Jon Klassen is really good. Wow.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
AT: I’m doing this thing where I read all the novels written by a writer I love. It’s been great! So for instance, I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s novels (and just read Big Sky, the most recent Jackson Brodie to keep up-to-date). I’m finishing up Margaret Atwood now with Life Before Man. (I don’t read in order published. This one is from the late 1970s.) Next up to finish? Paulette Jiles, my favorite writer of North American historical fiction. If you haven’t dipped into her work yet, I recommend News of the World, The Color of Lightning and Enemy Women. And after Paulette Jiles, I’m going to work on a writer from your continent, Tim Winton. I cannot wait to read more of Tim Winton’s writing!
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Published by Allen & Unwin. $22.99