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Author photo credit: Michelle Danno
North Melbourne Books: Growing up on a rural cattle farm, nine-year-old Parker Davis is having a bad time. He fights with his mother and under the malign influence of his cousin, Ruben, does something terrible to a local boy. The act remains a secret, but the guilt never goes away. Many years later all these unresolved feelings dramatically come to the fore on a camping trip with his teenage school friends.
Denizen is a brilliant debut, with totally believable characters and a nail-biting suspense that never flags. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
James McKenzie Watson: Thank you so much! When I was a teenager, my medium of choice was filmmaking, and I enlisted (read: forced) my family and friends into starring in feature length films whose epic productions are why my high school attendance was 40%. A lot of my early manuscripts were based on these films.
Denizen has its earliest origins in a movie I made when I was 15 called The Creek, about a group of teenagers whose camping expedition to a dry creek bed goes horribly wrong. However, once I started writing it, it quite organically evolved into something different – an exploration of the unique forms mental illness can take in the bush, and the singularly terrible outcomes this can lead to. I grew up in regional NSW and struggled a lot with mental ill health as a teenager – writing Denizen was an incredibly cathartic way of exploring my feelings about that time.
NMB: The story moves back and forth between childhood and young adulthood, offering an often bleak portrait of life in rural New South Wales. How did you go about creating such an atmosphere?
JMW: The honest answer is that that bleak atmosphere is what I remember pervading the bush throughout my own adolescence. I tried to make the landscape almost a character in Denizen because that’s how I remember feeling as I was growing up – that the land was a vast and powerful entity, ruggedly beautiful, but utterly indifferent to the people living on it. I think most country Australians are familiar with the ways in which this can manifest – drought, fire and flood, but also mental illness. The isolation of the bush can be hypnotic, almost possessive. I tried to instil that sense of indifferent omnipotence into the book, and in doing so, took a lot of inspiration from the way authors like Cormac McCarthy and David Vann do this for the remote and rural United States.
NMB: Denizen deals with a lot of timely themes, especially mental health issues in rural Australia. Was there a conscious effort to try and address some of these issues?
JMW: Not in the early drafts. Back then, it was just me writing what I knew, what interested me and what I felt I had things to say about – which turned out to be mental health issues in rural Australia! I’m a passionate believer in the idea that you don’t know what you’re writing about until you finish a draft and that was definitely the case here. It was only once I had a first draft that I realised it was a story about mental illness in rural Australia and that I could more robustly weave those elements through it.
NMB: Who are the crime writers that really inspire you? Are there any that particularly helped you in writing Denizen?
JMW: I actually don't at all think of myself as a crime writer or Denizen as a crime novel. In fact, I think I'm especially poorly read when it comes to crime – it's something I need to work on! The writers and books that inspired Denizen tended to be dark, gothic thrillers that turned on high emotion, taboo and morality – authors like the previously mentioned Cormac McCarthy (whose novel Child of God was a huge influence on Denizen) and David Vann (Dirt, Goat Mountain). I also found reading astutely introspective, emotionally insightful authors like Karl Ove Knausgard and Helen Garner incredibly helpful in writing Denizen’s internal drama.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
JMW: I recently finished Yumna Kasaab’s Australiana, which I absolutely loved. I was, of course, drawn to it because of its subject matter – Kasaab explores rural Australia in bold and unusual ways, bending form and expectation as she does. I especially loved a dark and brilliant section set in the Pilliga forest, an expanse of bush very near where I grew up, in which Yumna does to regional NSW what The Blair Witch Project did to Maryland, USA. I’m about to start Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Town. The buzz this novel has had is unbelievable and I can’t wait to get into it! I’m so excited by the fact that so many brilliant writers are currently tackling rural Australia in their fiction.
Denizen, by James McKenzie Watson. Published by Viking. $32.99