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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.