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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