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(Author photo by Sonja Sones.)
North Melbourne Books: Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian. He has been sent by spymaster Lord Clivers to the neighbouring goblin kingdom to make peace. Upon arrival, Spurge is welcomed by his goblin host, Werfel the Archivist. Both men are historians and should hit it off, but they quickly start feuding. Goblins and Elves have been at war for over a thousand years and each party is keen to blame the other for starting hostilities. When Werfel's countrymen suddenly accuse him of being a traitor, the historian and archivist put aside their differences and work together, eventually developing a friendship.
It's a wonderfully imagined and executed story, and so believable, despite being a fantasy novel. How did you come up with the idea for the story?
M.T. Anderson: Well, I met writer/illustrator Eugene Yelchin for lunch -- and he asked me if I wanted to collaborate on a book where the pictures didn't ILLUSTRATE the story -- they actually CONTRADICTED the story told in words. I said that sounded fascinating. He asked me if I had any ideas off the top of my head.
I said no.
But a month later or so, I began sending him all sorts of plot fragments to see which one excited us most -- things from across history and across the globe. I'm a big fan of travelogues by those ancient travelers who went to far-flung locales and tried to make sense of the world -- Herodotus, Marco Polo, Xuanzang, ibn Fadlan -- and so I suggested a kind of fantasy travelogue where an elf was going into the traditional land of a "Dark Lord" like Sauron and trying to describe what he saw ... but of course, he's filled with a thousand years of prejudice, so his view is pretty cockeyed.
This also allowed me to investigate goblin culture, which I always wondered about as a kid. The poor goblins get such a bad rap.
NMB: One of the book's main themes is the absurdity of war, and how often history is not written in the service of truth, but to reinforce national myths. When you started out writing, did you have these themes in mind, or did they develop along the way?
MTA: They came out pretty naturally. Eugene and I had met because I'd written a big nonfiction book on Soviet Russia (Symphony for the City of the Dead) and Eugene had actually defected from Soviet Russia. We're both fascinated by Cold War spy stories and propaganda ... so the story just naturally started to wander in that direction as we wrote it.
NMB: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is essentially a brilliant, witty comedy. There's even a touch of Cervante's Don Quixote in its spoofing of courtly manners. Were there any writers that were a conscious influence when you were writing it?
MTA: Yes! Those travel writers I mentioned above ... and John LeCarre ... and, um, P. G. Wodehouse.
NMB: Your collaborator on the story, Eugene Yelchin, provides the amazing illustrations. There are whole chapters that are devoted to Yelchin's drawings, integrating beautifully into the whole book. What was the collaborative process like?
MTA: We would set ourselves an assignment for a part of the book -- "Ok, I'll get the elfin historian to the kingdom of the goblins. You pick it up from there, and do the scene where he's greeted by the goblin archivist." Then Eugene would draw sketches and I'd write something, and we'd trade. We'd massage everything so that it fit together ... or so that it didn't fit together.
The cool thing about working this way was that it meant the book took us in directions neither of us would have gone on our own.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MTA: Well, I'm still a big fan of medieval literature, so I'm reading a medieval epic ("Sir Ysenbras") ... and I'm reading Edward Carey's wonderful novel about waxwork maven Madame Tussaud's bizarre life, Little ... So much great stuff out there to read!
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick Press. RRP: $24.99
North Melbourne Books: Kindred tells the story of both Cradle Mountain, a Tasmanian natural wonder, and the couple whose love of botany and the environment would forge an extraordinary marriage. Kate and Gustav Weindorfer put their heart and soul into the Cradle Mountain area, cataloguing its endless marvels and working to preserve it for future generations. What was it about their story that so touched you?
Kate Legge: I was blown away by their spunk and passion. I wanted to die and come back in their shoes. They first came here in 1910 when there were no maps, roads, or tracks and the mountain loomed in local folklore as a remote forbidding place. Both keen botanists they were intrigued by the diversity of flora sensing the scientific wealth of this landscape. They backed their hunch, embarking on a bold venture to welcome tourists here while seeking to preserve its grandeur as a park. I loved their gumption and their far sighted vision. I loved her daring, often travelling alone in horse and cart over rough and boggy terrain through ferocious storms. I loved his prodigious energy, his optimism, his questing mind, always unpicking nature’s riddles in search of the secrets embedded here. Once I’d met them I couldn’t forget them.
NMB: The book also weaves through quite a bit of natural history and Australian history, making it rather multifaceted. How did you approach the writing process? Did you have a clear plan of how the book would look, or did it take on a life of its own?
KL: I think you know the story has a pulse when characters rebel against carefully laid plans and the narrative path of discovery detours in an unexpected direction. The importance of Waldheim as a hub for scientists and photographers grew in the writing. They came with nets and tripods, drawn here by the biodiversity and the scenery and the photographs taken by Florence Perrin, Fred Smithies, Stephen Spurling, and Gustav were persuaders in the push for a park. These black and white images demanded a prominent role in the book.
One of the other surprises for me was the idea of a chapter called "Welcome to Country" tracing the presence of indigenous Australians in this landscape. Gustav knew Truganini had passed through the valley and early surveyor’s records described indigenous settlements nearer Middlesex Plains but knowledge of their occupation at Cradle is limited because the vegetation is so thick and undisturbed and carbon dating tools relatively recent. Who knows what might be uncovered over time? During the writing of the book I nonetheless decided to address the history of indigenous occupation because whenever I spoke about the Weindorfers’ custodianship of Cradle Mountain people wanted to know about the footprints of our first peoples through these parts.
NMB: There’s obviously a wealth of research that was involved in the writing process. What were some of the main sources you used to tell Kate and Gustav’s story?
KL: My late father was a real historian who would be aghast at his rogue journalist daughter trespassing on his turf. Kindred was a huge research project drawing on letters, diaries, newspapers (which after all, Dad, are the first drafts of history!), scientific papers, books of the period, botanical articles, photographic archives, as well as contemporary writing on wilderness, trees, forests, the Tasmanian high country and previous biographical essays on Gustav and Kate. Others have been here before me and I was grateful for their spadework. I took a vow of silence and applied a jar of bum glue and went from Hobart’s State Library to Launceston’s QVMAG to Sydney’s Mitchell Library to the Victorian Field Naturalists archives even the Royal Historical Society library in Melbourne where I wore white gloves to turn the pages of Daniel Bunce’s 1854 travelogue where he recounted reports of bark paintings in indigenous huts on the plains near Cradle Mountain. The expedition taught me all over again the virtue of our public record keepers and the incalculable value of these repositories of knowledge.
NMB: You’re also a fiction writer, having published two novels. And you write in the introduction that you thought about fictionalising Kate and Gustav’s story. Did your work as a novelist influence how you thought about writing Kindred?
KL: Fiction was so tempting, for the lack of foot notes alone, and the freedom to invent, but this would have robbed Kate and Gustav of the recognition they deserve. I’ve strayed from the straight and narrow, at various times, to flesh out their characters, their relationship, pivotal moments, allowing my imagination to play with the facts, which I hope brings a literary sensibility to the story. The writing is everything. Think Oliver Sacks on Tree Ferns. I knew from the blank stares I would get at the mention of Gustav and Kate that I would have to work hard polishing my prose and narrative pace to bring them to life.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KL: Half The Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra 1955-1964 by Paul Genoni and Tanya Delziell; The Overstory by Richard Powers; Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday; The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.
Author photo credit: Karen Quist
North Melbourne Books: Blue Lake concentrates on a forgotten part of Melbourne’s history: the West Melbourne shanty town known as the Dudley Flats. This slum area was active between the 1920s and 1950s and was located around the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel now stands. Its residents for the most part made a living scavenging through the railway and council tips that were based at the site.
What made you want to write about such an unprepossessing part of the city’s history?
David Sornig: I've always had a strong imagination for the hidden layers of places, some kind of intuition or even some hope that, hiding behind the unremarkable, empty, downright ugly or ruined areas that often go unnoticed in cities, there is something a little more wondrous to see or necessary to understand, places where time can be felt plurally. It's probably the same part of the imagination that appeals to readers of Harry Potter who secretly (or not so secretly) hope that at Platform 9 3/4 there really is a portal to that other world. It was in part what drew me toward setting my first book in Berlin, a city of many historical ghosts and erased histories. I might, in another life, have become an archaeologist.
The area Blue Lake centres on, which includes the now heavily-industrialised expanse of land between Docklands and West Melbourne in the east and the Maribyrnong River to the west has always suggested itself to me to be one of those plural places, but it was an area I had only ever peripherally been familiar with. When it caught my attention three or four years ago I began looking into its history in various archives. I discovered that while there was a truly fascinating history to put together about the drained, dredged and filled-in wetland and the Dudley Flats shanty town, it was incredibly fragmented. I could scarcely believe it hadn’t been told before, so writing it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
NMB: Your book concentrates on three residents of the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. How did you find these particular characters and what fascinated you about them?
DS: During my early research for Blue Lake, particularly as it looked into the residents of Dudley Flats, the names of these three kept coming up in the public record, mostly in newspaper reports. There were very clear public versions of all three: Williams was the failed singer and violent drunk; Peacock was the larrikin-like ‘King of Dudley Flats’; and Rogge was the strange hermit who lived with a large number of dogs on the stranded hulk of his schooner. While all three ended up living on the margins of a stable life in the Dudley Flats area, I couldn’t help but wonder what the circumstances were that had brought them there. The further I went into the archive to piece together their biographies the more clear it became that they were shaped not only by their individual experiences, but also by some of the larger social and historical forces that were at work in Australia and globally during the first half of the 20th century. Economics, geopolitics, war, racism and popular culture all played a role in delivering them to the Dudley Flats area and the way they lived there. These forces, together with the very specific stories and individual tragedies of the three, made them incredibly compelling to me as humans and I felt a responsibility to tell those stories as best I could.
NMB: There’s a great sympathy for the down and out in Blue Lake. In many ways, characters like Elsie, Lauder and Jack make you think about Melbourne today, especially with so many homeless living on the city’s streets. Did the Melbourne you see today in any way help you imagine its past?
DS: Definitely. There were some uncanny parallels that emerged while I was writing the book, particularly during late January 2017 when there was a lot of media attention – and notable tabloid outrage – at what was portrayed as the failure of local and state government authorities and police to act decisively over the summer holidays to clear the group of people who been sleeping rough outside Flinders Street Station. The media concern appeared to have more to do with the ‘embarrassing’ visibility of this homelessness than with its underlying causes. The media accusations of summer holiday ineptitude in Melbourne’s newspapers that summer were scarcely any different to the headlines and stories that appeared regarding Dudley Flats during the summer of 1937/38. It reminded me that the lives of individuals run deeper and are shaped by circumstances that exceed the sometimes-shallow portrayal of them in the media.
NMB: Blue Lake very much has a novelist’s sensibility, with its brooding atmosphere and well-developed portraits. Did you have any particular plan when you set out to write the book or did it simply evolve?
DS: I was tempted, very early on in the process of writing as I came across some of the extraordinary circumstances of the lives of these people, and imagined the kind of knowledge they must have had about the sordid understorey of middle class Melbourne life, aspects of life that weren’t so well hidden on Dudley Flats, to write a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. But that didn’t last for long, as it became clear that my first responsibility was to tell the most accurate (and vivid) version I could of the largely untold story of the place and its people. As the book evolved it seemed that the best way to do this was to represent them first of all with an eye on the archival traces as they emerged chronologically. This very clearly suggested the final thematic structure of the book as it portrays the shift from the precolonial wetland’s unity to its post-settlement degradation, the chaos that took hold if it, the attempt to impose an order on it, and the persistence, even as its cosmetic traces have been mostly erased, of its original coherence.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
DS: I always have four or five books on the go, so sometimes it takes me ages to finish anything, but I’ve most recently very-swiftly consumed Patti Smith’s Just Kids, M-Train and her most-recent little title, Devotion. It’s an account of the meandering and instinctive creative process she follows from Simone Weil to Albert Camus to eventually write a story titled ‘Devotion’ which is also included in the book. As a friend recently said to me: Patti Smith lives in a poem. It’s true and I envy her. I’m also reading Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame of Paris, which I’m enjoying at a number of levels, but mostly for the moment when, after pages and pages of encyclopaedic (and sometimes frankly dull) description of 15th century Paris, it finally lands on an extraordinary few paragraphs that describe the tolling of Paris’ church bells as an orchestra.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Pubished by Scribe. RRP: $35
North Melbourne Books: The Lost Man is set in cattle country, rural Queensland. Three brothers – Nathan, Cameron and the youngest, Bub – are all dealing with their inner demons. Raised by a brutal father, the wounds still linger, even long after he has died. When the middle brother, Cameron, is found dead from exposure to heat by a mysterious old stockman’s grave, it confounds everyone. Cameron knew the land, knew what risks to take and what to avoid. It’s a mystery that will eventually reveal some dark secrets from his past.
How did you come up with the story idea?
Jane Harper: I love writing about the Australian landscape and I became fascinated by the lives of those in far flung outback communities. I was particularly interested in the way the relative isolation impacts people’s day-to-day lives. I wanted to write another Australian mystery and a cattle station in outback Queensland offered such a beautiful -- and brutal -- backdrop for a story with a strong element of suspense.
NMB: The novel has a lot of tough, blokey male characters. The dialogue and descriptions are brilliantly real and bracing. How did you find the tone for these male characters? Were they based on people you’d met?
JH: All the characters are fictional but I hope they feel like real people on the page. When writing dialogue, I pay close attention to people’s pattern of speech and the vocabulary they use. I visited outback Queensland as part of the research for the book, so I listened closely while I was there. I also worked as a journalist for 13 years and interviewed a lot of people during that time, so that experience helps me enormously in paying attention to the various ways people speak and then quoting them accurately.
NMB: The writing process for The Dry has been fairly well documented. What was the writing process like for this new novel? Are you finding it an easier process, or are the challenges the same?
JH: I absolutely loved writing The Lost Man, and that was partly thanks to the experience I gained writing The Dry and then Force of Nature. Over the three books, I have developed my writing process into one that works well for me. I spend a lot of time researching elements of the story, and then I draw up a plan for the novel. I work on the plan for several months, expanding it and refining it until I’m happy with the storyline and the characters. It’s only at that point that I start writing, and I find it is a much easier process with a solid plan in place. There are always challenges that come up as I write, but the experience I gained on the previous books means I have more tools at my disposal to tackle them.
NMB: The Lost Man deals with a lot of timely themes – drought, farmer debt, mental health problems in rural Australia. Was there a conscious effort to try and address some of these issues?
JH: My books are always character driven and a big part of that is considering what issues they would realistically be facing and the impact on their lives. I want the characters and the scenarios to feel authentic so I try to capture the various pressures people are under and present them in a way that is believable and and recognisable to readers.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
JH: I’m cleaning out my bookshelf at the moment, so I’m enjoying discovering a few old favourites. Bill Bryson’s humorous travel books have easily earned their place on the shelf, as have Lee Child’s Reacher books and Marian Keyes’s romantic comedies. The next book I plan to buy is Liane Moriarty’s new novel, Nine Perfect Strangers.
The Lost Man, by Jane Harper. Published by Macmillan. RRP: $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Your new book, Any Ordinary Day, asks the question: how would we cope if some random, catastrophic event befell us? To find out the answer you interview ordinary Australians who have been put through extraordinary events. People like Walter Mikac, who lost his family to the Port Arthur massacre and Stuart Diver, Thredbo landslide survivor. The book also balances these human voices with the latest scientific literature on how we cope when disaster falls.
What made you want to delve into such a confronting topic?
Leigh Sales: It was a combination of things. My job anchoring 7.30 means that every day I see people living the worst days of their lives but I rarely see what happens next. I wanted to believe that life wasn't as cruel and random and hopeless as the news sometimes makes it look. In 2014, I also had a very rough year personally suffering a number of big blindsides and I felt really rattled and vulnerable. I was looking for answers about how to go on when life has knocked you off your feet.
NMB: The interview subjects of the book have faced some horrific ordeals. You describe some of the anxieties you had meeting these people and asking such personal questions. What did you take away from the experience?
LS: I was scared that maybe I would find it depressing to talk to people who had been through some of the worst things I could ever imagine happening to me or my family. But it was the opposite - it filled me with hope. The things that people survive and adapt to are absolutely extraordinary. It made me see how resilient human beings are. I know this sounds cliched but the whole process has been so life-affirming. Writing this book has changed me so much.
NMB: Any Ordinary Day is quite interesting from a journalistic point of view. The book discusses the ethical shortcomings of journalism and you are quite candid about mistakes you have made in the past that you regret. During some of the interviews you describe steeling yourself , trying to hold back the tears. The self-portrait you paint is quite different from that of the confident 7.30 presenter we see on television. Why did you want to show this more human, vulnerable side of a journalist’s working life?
LS: That's interesting that you say that because I rarely feel as if I'm confident or "together", I always feel like everybody else, just chugging along and doing the best I can. I put a big premium on authenticity and I felt that I could not write an authentic book, or ask people to tell me about some of the most intimate details of their lives, unless I was honest and authentic myself.
NMB: Any Ordinary Day is a very humane, empathetic and consoling book. Despite the heart wrenching subject matter, the reader is left feeling uplifted and positive. It affirms that there is much kindness and decency in the world, even when things go horribly wrong. When you started writing and researching the book, did you have any idea where the writing process would lead you?
LS: I was really scared about where it would lead me actually. I felt at a low point in my own life and I was worried that walking towards things that filled me with fear would perhaps send me into a deep depression or spiraling into hopelessness. I felt compelled to do it though, I felt that I had to confront what I was afraid of. I think what I'm afraid of is pain and loss and not knowing what is going to happen to me in the future. Writing this book made me less afraid. I still dread the sad things in life, like the inevitable loss of my parents or other forms of grief or setback, but I am less scared of it now because I know that all of us are far more resilient than we can ever imagine.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
LS: I was a bit late to the party but I recently adored The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. I'm also enjoying The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell.
Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life, by Leigh Sales. Published by Hamish Hamilton. $34.99