- Read the latest author interviews from our monthly newsletter
Idan Ben-Barak Julian Frost (photo: Matt Bates)
North Melbourne Books: Quog and Oort are on their way to Kevin's party, but the engine has fallen off their spaceship. They need to open the spaceship door and retrieve the engine. Oort is a gas cloud and has no hands. Quog is a blob and she doesn't have hands either. How to open the door? Quog decides to grow some hands, but finds it not as simple as that. She needs to learn a few things first.
The round, bouncy illustrations are a lot of fun and the spaceship is especially cute. It looks like a tumble dryer! How did you come up with the idea for the story?
Idan Ben-Barak: Julian did! This book is largely his brainchild. I helped. The relationship between us in making the book turned out, quite coincidentally, to be reflected in the relationship between the two main characters: one does all the heavy lifting and undergoes significant changes, and the other kinda floats around in the background much of the time.
Julian Frost: The way we make books isn't so much coming up with ideas, as remembering the ideas that blew our tiny minds when we first understood them. We're just trying to give that experience to others. Then we just add silly jokes and aliens, and there you go. (Compulsively adding silly jokes to everything turns out not to be an advantage in many areas of adult life, so it's lucky they let us make kids' books.)
North Melbourne Books: Argh! There's a skeleton inside you! is very interactive and science based, despite the main characters being an animated blob and a gas cloud. The reader has to perform various actions and learn about all the different components of the hand, such as bones, muscle and nerves. Did you have to do much scientific research, or were you already an expert?
Idan Ben-Barak: The essential concepts are fairly fundamental, and I was comfortable with them. I did spend a few hours making sure we got the facts right, especially in the final spread where we go into some detail about the body's systems, but (again) most of the work was Julian studying anatomical images to make his illustrations as accurate as possible.
Julian Frost: Idan and I both have hands, and we haven't forgotten that amazing feeling of realising that your body is packed tight with miracles, so we're pretty much experts! But we did look in some books too to make sure we drew the right bits in the right places.
North Melbourne Books: How do you both collaborate as a team? As the illustrator, does Julian get much input into how the story is written? And as the writer, does Idan get to choose colours or make suggestions?
Idan Ben-Barak: I can definitely suggest things. Our process for the two books we've written is very iterative - lots of conversation going back and forth between us. The first draft I write includes a lot of visual detail: picture books are primarily a visual format, the text is secondary and I try to have as little of it as possible. Then Julian takes over and reworks the entire thing, invariably for the better. I expect I'm allowed to suggest colours etc., but why would I? I don't value my own judgement in this field very highly, and he is demonstrably an expert in it. I stay out of his way as much as possible.
One area where I do sometimes ask for amendments is when the science of it isn't quite right in the story. When that happens we need to think about it, and ultimately come up with a solution that serves both narrative and fact. It's not always easy...
Julian Frost: Ignore whatever Idan says. We do everything together. Here's a picture of us writing the story:
And here's one of us drawing the pictures:
(Idan is left-handed.)
And here are the trousers we get into every morning:
North Melbourne Books: We learn that Quog is a girl blob, but what about Oort? Is it genderless, or non-binary or simply a floating gas?
Idan Ben-Barak: Don't go there, man. Trust me.
Julian Frost: Oort is actually a flock of microscopic pink space chickens. We all know that individual space chickens are dumb, but few people realise that when flying in formation their collective intelligence is sufficient to speak short sentences and see with x-ray vision.
North Melbourne Books: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Idan Ben-Barak: I have about ten books on the go at any one time; some take me years to get through. the most recent ones I've finished are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Under Milk Wood. Next up is The Writer's Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.
Julian Frost: Red Mars, and The Unwomanly Face of War
Argh! There's a Skeleton Inside You! by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost. Published by Allen & Unwin. $19.99
North Melbourne Books: Australians eat roughly three times more meat than the global average. The main argument of On Eating Meat is that Australians should eat less meat, of a better quality that is also ethically produced. This would provide a win for the environment, animals and human health. Sounds easy, but there are many impediments to achieving this goal, mainly seductive cheap prices and a lack of information about how commercial meat production works. What are the most effective steps consumers can take to bring about the sort of change you advocate?
Matthew Evans: The nice thing about this change is that we are all (well, all meat eaters), empowered through our purchases. And because we eat three times a day, and have to eat, we’re all given this opportunity to make better decisions quite often. I think the first thing to recognise is that all meat isn’t equal, that all farming systems aren’t the same, and that every time you make a better decision you encourage better farming.
That’s true whatever you eat. Farmers only do things because we ask it of them. If we want better quality housing for pigs. If we want less antibiotic use. If we want animals to be able to express their instincts, then farmers will do that on our behalf, but it might have an in built cost. That cost can be offset by buying less meat, but better quality higher welfare meat. It might involve wasting less of what is produced. But ultimately, it’s small decisions by meat eaters that has the greatest potential to change the momentum in our farming systems.
For most of us, eating less meat won’t destroy our gastronomic and cultural well being, it could well be better for our bodies, and it is potentially a great thing for animals, the planet and the farmers who grow things in our name.
NMB: It was alarming to read how much secrecy there is around intensive animal farming. You tried to get access to these big farms but were frustrated at every step. So much secrecy makes you wonder what there is to hide. Isn’t there enough government regulation to ensure intensive farming operations are being run to community standards, or do we need more?
ME: Government regulation is about keeping industry running, and the day to day inspections and checks are governed by people who are part of a very small clique. What their standards are don’t necessarily match community standards. Most Australians would be appalled at how some of our animals are raised, how confined they are, how restrictive the conditions are in terms of normal, instinctual behaviour. Leaving it to the industry groups, who hold power in many settings relating to regulation, and the people who don’t necessarily share general community standards because they are steeped in the industry, is a recipe for disaster.
A good example is the sow stall, essentially a tiny pig cage that doesn’t allow the mother pig to turn around or walk, but only stand, eat, defecate, and lie. These are still used routinely in about 30% of Australian piggeries, and the mother pigs live in them virtually all their adult lives. You and I would see them as a cage, a jail. The industry sees them as a way to stop sows fighting.
Do they meet general community expectations? No, according to research, and according to one of our largest supermarkets, Coles, who insisted that all pork sold under the Coles brand was sow-stall free a few years ago. The industry resisted, but Coles knew their customers cared, so forced the change on the farms. There is no way this would’ve happened if the industry was left to decide it for themselves. Because of this change, based on small customers (you and I), and large customers (Coles), 70% of mother pigs in Australia are now more able to express social behaviour and at least move in more ways than just standing and lying down.
NMB: Your book has a wealth of fascinating research that will amaze and shock eaters of all persuasions – carnivore, vegetarian and vegan. As a consequence, the book also raises a lot of ethical questions, giving On Eating Meat a philosophical aspect. Did you change your mind about anything during the writing process, or learn anything that came as a complete surprise?
ME: I think the biggest surprise came in the complexity of farming systems, and discovering the research which points to animals being part of a good farming system in some cases, and able to produce more variety, more nutrient dense food, in the broader picture. I guess it makes sense that an ecosystem, which a good farm should be, is reliant on animals as well as plants, and that to exclude animals is arbitrary and goes against ecological principles. But to see it on our farm, and in the research that is now emerging, made more sense of our historic and cultural attachment to using animals for food.
All farming land isn’t the same, and while we’ve ignored basic principles in much of the way we grow food (both plant and animal based) in recent history, the future is not necessarily meat free. But it has to include a much cleverer use of land and fossil fuels than we currently practice. The other thing that really surprised me along these lines is that 70% of the world’s food is produced by smallholders, small farms, (and much of this by women). We tend in Australia to think of big monoculture farms as the norm (partly through our geography and partly because so much of the media and talk around animal production is tainted by American stats), but the reality is small, multi-species farms are often the norm, feed much of the world, and can provide a blueprint for how we can feed a growing population nutrient rich food in the longer term.
NMB: It seems like you have a love-hate relationship with vegans, as they are both praised and criticised in your writing. In essence, you’d like to work with the vegan community to bring about better animal welfare standards. Are you confident the book will open out the debate a bit more on this front?
ME: Not really love/hate relationship, but yes, I do bring up some criticisms of some vegans. I also praise and criticise farmers. I think some vegan principles are great, but I don’t see militant veganism as helpful. It’s a belief system, just as some paleo people have strident belief systems, and as do Buddhists and Christians and Hindus. But trying to force your belief systems on someone else is doomed to failure. Some activism is helpful in motivating those already converted, but it’s a proven strategy that attack, threats, and anger don’t change minds.
The problem isn’t that some people don’t want to eat meat, and some people want you to eat a whole lot of meat, it’s about those at the radical ends imposing beliefs on others. We don’t force people to ride electric bikes (probably a lot better for the environment than a car). We wouldn’t put up with people lying on the street in Melbourne stopping traffic to condemn all those that don’t use wood that is Forest Stewardship Council approved. It wouldn’t be okay for 2% of the population to insist that we all home school our kids because moving kids around in buses and cars lead to wallaby deaths and greenhouse gas emissions. It isn’t appropriate for me to write death threats and abusive emails to people who eat processed food no matter how much I think it’s an abomination, and I don’t think that people who practice anti-social behaviour in the name of veganism should be let off the hook either.
Meat eating is a small impact in terms of all human impact on the world, and if you want to have no impact on animals and the environment, the only way is to not exist. We have to recognise that everything we do has an impact, and that we all have different priorities, based on our income, our geography, our ancestry, our history. We can all make our own choices around ethics, based on our own belief systems, but being preachy about someone else’s meat eating while you’re wearing non-organic cotton, or have bought cherries where the nets kill thousands of birds each year, smacks of the hypocrisy that those very people rail against.
The great news is that most vegans, like most of the rest of us, don’t define themselves by their diet or one aspect of their belief system. Most vegans define themselves as humans, who would like to see us do better for the animals in our care. And so it’s easy to work with people willing to have grown up conversations about the best way forward, about lives won and lost, and the best way to build communities, societies, nations, while not buggering up the world in the process.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
ME: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a brilliant look at what we do, and don’t, know about plants. Like how they talk to each other. How they emit sound. How they tend to sick neighbours. How they have memory despite no recognisable central nervous system. It’s a good way to start to understand what we don’t understand about forests and the environment we so readily take for granted. A more esoteric read is Thus Spoke the Plants by Sydney based researcher Monica Gagliano, which explores some similar themes in a more personal, mind altering way (and yes, while Monica is a scientist by trade, she does take a few mind altering things along the way).
Rusted Off, by Gabrielle Chan, about how the bush feels alienated from the city, and from the political cycle. Written by a journalist who moved from the city a long time ago, she has insights into the widening gulf between the bush and the suburbs, and what that means for all of us.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Well, I’m excited about it in anticipation! I'm just about to launch into this one. I reckon Tim captures the landscape of WA beautifully, and he paints characters so well that there’s hardly a book of his that hasn’t left me really moved. He captures our flaws, our hopes, our strange alliances so well, and does it with a good Aussie voice, which is all too rare.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Murdoch Books. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Last birthday Henry Bear made a wish, one he regrets. He wished his parents were more fun. As a result Mama Bear and Papa Bear now encourage him to eat cake for dinner and stay up late watching TV. Mama Bear scoffs that school is boring. As a result, Henry Bear is always late with his homework and is falling behind. When Henry Bear meets new girl Marjani at school, he tells her his troubles. She has an idea. With another birthday coming up, why not make a new wish?
Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a delightfully told cautionary tale about the perils of getting what you want. What made you want to create this particular bear story? Are you very fond of bears yourself?
Liam Francis Walsh: I wouldn't say I'm unusually fond of bears - especially when I'm all alone in a deep forest trying to peacefully enjoy a blueberry pie. I may be more fond of them, now, than when I started; they're fun to draw! I'm a great fan of Richard Scarry, so getting to draw any animals wearing clothes is always a treat.
That said, in the book's earliest incarnation the bears, who live in a charming bear cottage and are referred to as Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Little Bear, were kind of satirical, kind of a send-up of a very cliched, twee type of picture book. The book itself was a sort of meta-story about a harried children's book author trying to finish the hackneyed bear story as the reader is reading it. In other words, the real story was the story of the tardy author, and the bears were kind of circumstantial. When I showed that story to my editor he saw more promise in the adorable bears than in the balding author (clearly this man knows nothing about kids), and encouraged me to explore that part of the story more fully. He was right, and I love seeing how the story came together.
One of my favorite authors in any genre, Alan Moore, said about writing that (and I paraphrase) you can start with an idea, or a character, or a scene, or a plot, or a line of dialogue, or a world, but no matter where you start you still have to do all the rest of the work. Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a perfect example of how a story is often grown, more than it is conceived.
Finished artwork from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: The story has a lot of humour. It's hilarious how Mama Bear urges Henry to eat lollies and chocolate cake for dinner. Does your work as a cartoonist sometimes influence your children's books?
LFW: Absolutely. And in many different ways: from finding the right composition and the right gesture, to timing a joke, to trying to predict and control the reader's expectations in order to subvert them to humorous effect, and on and on.
My wonderful literary agent, Dan Lazar, encouraged me early on to try to think of each page or spread as a cartoon, in order to make sure that each one could stand on its own, and to avoid having any boring beats (like characters just going from one place to another), or wasted space. I don't separate cartoon ideas and story ideas; they all go in the same notebook and then I see what they develop into when I start playing around with them. Humor never stops being fascinating and slippery.
Original sketch from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: Henry Bear's new friend, Marjani, is an interesting character. She appears to be wearing a hijab. Did you make a conscious decision to add some cultural diversity to the story or did Marjani simply appear on her own, a more spontaneous creation?
LFW: I've been consciously trying to create diverse worlds in my cartoons and stories for some time, now. When I lived in New York City I used to be able to duck the question by saying that was just the world I saw around me, but now that I live in rural Switzerland, which is quite homogeneous, I'm regularly reminded how easy it is for people to fear the unfamiliar, and that makes it feel more imperative than ever that I use my soapbox (be it ever so small) to take a stand for tolerance.
When I was writing the book, in 2016, the refugee crisis in Europe was headlining the news, and some of the neighborhood kids told me refugee children from Africa were beginning to appear in their classrooms. Now, I'm not someone who pretends that migration is an uncomplicated problem with obvious solutions, and I have little use for religion, but (having been the outsider arriving at a new school several times in my life) I really hoped the children in the Swiss schools would be welcoming.
That's how the line, "Henry knew you should always be extra friendly to new students," got in the book, and stayed in, in spite of my editor's occasional hints that it might be a little clunky. To me, it's the heart of the book. If Henry hadn't been kind and welcoming to Marjani, in spite of her other-ness, he'd still be facing a revoltingly huge slice of chocolate cake every morning for breakfast. So, that's a round-about way of saying Marjani was originally just a new kid, but she became more interesting and poignant to me when she put on her hijab.
Original sketch from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: The township where the bears live looks wonderfully inviting, with its gorgeous townhouses, cobblestoned roads and sumptuous cake shops. It looks like a very nice place to live! Is the bear town based on any real place?
LFW: Four years ago I moved with my wife to the canton of Ticino, in Switzerland, where she's originally from. Ticino is located at the southernmost tip of Switzerland, and is surrounded on three sides by Italy. Both geographically and culturally it's more Italian than Swiss, and the official language is Italian. It's absolutely lovely, and I delighted in sourcing elements of the bears' world from scenes and details I've seen on my frequent long walks. The cobbles, the bakeries, the arches and tiled roofs: they're all here, but of course I tossed them up and elaborated on them and rearranged them to suit me.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
LFW: I was just at my parents' home in Wisconsin (USA) and started rereading the Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel, which were my favorite books as a beginning reader. Boy, are they wonderful! Little, funny gems, each and every one. I had a fun time reading Philip Stead and Matthew Cordell's Special Delivery (2015) aloud to my 5 and 7-year-old nephews (I can't think of it without wanting to shout, "Chugga-chugga-chugga! Beans-beans-beans!"), and the three of us had a ball going over every detail on every page of Full Moon Soup, by Alastair Graham. That book is just jaw-dropping. In my grown-up time, I'm enjoying the Delilah Dirk series of graphic novels, by Tony Cliff, and the wonderfully moody supernatural detective thrillers of John Connolly.
Make a Wish, Henry Bear, by Liam Francis Walsh. Published by Roaring Brook Press. $26.99
North Melbourne Books: It's been twenty years since we've had a biography of Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister. What made you want to take up the challenge? What appealed to you about researching Menzies' life?
Troy Bramston: The discovery of a series of interviews that Menzies gave in the 1970s for his official biography that was never completed was the motivation. I was lucky to secure access to them at the National Library of Australia and when I sat down and read the transcripts and listened to the tapes, I was stunned. This was a Eureka moment for a historian and they deserved to go in a book that told the story of his life and examined his legacy. So many historians have ignored his papers at the National Library - 650-plus boxes - so I went through them and found lots of new material: diary notes, letters, memos, photos and verse. I wanted to make sure what I wrote was written as much as possible on primary sources and would be fresh.
NMB: Robert Menzies uses new material, most notably previously unreleased interviews with Menzies. You also conducted many interviews yourself with people who knew Menzies. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learnt?
TB: I interviewed the surviving ministers, several of his staff, some public servants and his daughter, Heather Henderson. They all knew different aspects of Menzies, which was useful in unpacking what he was really like in cabinet, in the party room, in his office and at home. I was struck by his shyness and his kindness towards staff, which is not the Menzies that the public got to see. He had a friendship with John Curtin and Ben Chifley - two Labor PMs - which was much deeper and genuine than I had realised. The Menzies-Curtin letters are very affectionate. I discovered that Menzies cried the night Chifley died, and did not mind who saw him.
NMB: Menzies can be a divisive figure, yet your portrait remains balanced and judicious. We learn of a man both brilliant and flawed. What's your view of Menzies' character and legacy?
TB: This is a great story of a man born in 1894 in a small country town in Victoria who became prime minister. He wasn't from the born-to-rule set or the establishment. He was a man of decency and integrity, and he was in politics because he believed in public service. That matters. He has some big achievements such as expanding universities, funding non-government schools, developing Canberra, the ANZUS treaty and signing a trade deal with Japan. But there are significant misjudgements such as the Vietnam War and he maintained the White Australia Policy, was reluctant to condemn South Africa's apartheid regime and had retrograde views about Aboriginal Australians. But he reflected the views of many people born in the 19th century. So I tried to provide a balanced account of his life and legacy.
NMB: Federal politics today is particularly volatile in turning over prime ministers. What can today's politicians learn from Menzies?
TB: He lived a long life with many ups and downs and he was often written off but he always learnt from his mistakes, rebuilt his standing and consolidated his position. So how he did it and became the longest-serving PM makes for a compelling story. The most relevant aspect of his legacy today is how he practiced politics rather than the enduring nature of his policies. Politicians can learn a lot from him, such as how to manage a party, run a proper cabinet process, articulate values and communicate effectively, and develop and implement policy.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I'm reading Robert Caro's Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, which is terrific, but of course his fans (like me) would rather read the concluding volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography! I enjoyed Jon Ward's Camelot's End about the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1980. And I recently read Sally Young's Paper Emperors about the newspaper industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Scribe Publications $49.99
(Author photo Julian Dolman).
North Melbourne Books: When eleven-year-old Tippy Chan's mother goes on a short holiday, she is left in the care of her fabulous and fun Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Suddenly a grisly murder happens in their small town, Riverstone, causing Tippy and Uncle Pike form The Nancys, a crime solving club inspired by their joint love of Nancy Drew mysteries.
The story is a mixture of glittering comedy, great characters, a gently ironic, sometimes droll narration by Tippy and a page-turning crime mystery. It's quite an original book. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?
R.W.R. McDonald: It started in 2006 with an internal thread of thought from Tippy (before I knew it was Tippy). The thought was this kid talking about her friend Todd Landers and her looking for clues in a murder. It really followed on from that. I wanted to know who this kid was and why and how she would be investigating a murder. From there her irresponsible babysitting Uncle Pike came into focus and his new boyfriend Devon and it led on from there. For ten years they rattled around and formed until I started writing the first draft. I was discovering them, the other characters, and the story as I went along.
NMB: Tippy is a great character. She's only eleven, but is mature beyond her years, still dealing with the grief of losing her father. Was she based on anyone?
RM: My two incredible daughters are around Tippy’s age and similar in some ways but I had made a conscious decision from the beginning of writing The Nancys not to plagiarise their childhood or dialogue. For research though my daughters were fantastic sources of information and for running lines with, for example asking them whether they or their friends would use certain words or phrases etc.
I never base my characters on real people. For me they are their own entities, they may share a similar trait to someone, or sometimes I can recognise a part of myself but otherwise they seem to come into their own as I write further into the story.
I got to know Tippy over many re-drafts. Early on I was very protective of her, not wanting her to feel any pain. It wasn’t until I let go and allowed her character to experience the world that I got to know her better.
NMB: We learn that Uncle Pike fled New Zealand for Sydney as a teenager and when he returns to Riverstone, there is still emotional baggage from his past that needs to be sorted out. It's tempting to ask, did you add any autobiographical elements to the story?
RM: I guess all of the novel has some part of my lived experience in one way or another (except for the murder of course!). I did leave home for boarding school as a teenager and from there never returned home to live except to visit my family. As I grew older and travelled I slowly began to see the beauty in a place I once described as a “dump” – albeit only in my teenage years!
What I did not anticipate in writing a novel was the almost meta-data effect. Seeing patterns in the story which I had not consciously intended. I think it is fascinating tapping into the subconscious through writing, things appear on the page that at the time you have no idea what they mean or why they are there – for example a line of dialogue from a character which makes no immediate sense but you just know it’s important - and it is only much later, sometimes a couple of drafts later, that suddenly something clicks and you realise why it was there the whole time. It really is a type of magic.
NMB: The Nancys has many comic elements. There are so many brilliant characters, especially Uncle Pike and Devon. You have an ebullient style. It reminded me a bit of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, perhaps crossed with The Wizard of Oz (Tippy does overcome a lot with the help of her mercurial uncle and his boyfriend). Who are the writers that inspire you the most?
RM: All of them, published and unpublished, but that is probably cheating the answer. Writers who have informed and challenged my idea of story are across genre and form. This list really is only the tip of the iceberg: Roald Dhal, Virginia Woolf, Dr Seuss, Margaret Mahy, Hunter S. Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, e. e. cummings, Carolyn Keene, Victor Canning, Ngaio Marsh, Marianne Keyes, Ben Okri, Sylvia Plath, Maurice Gee, Toni Jordan, Salman Rushdie, Emily Bronte, Agatha Christie, Paddy O’Reilly, Kerri Hume, Witi Ihimeara, Toni Morrison, Charlie Kaufman, Stevie Smith – really the list goes on and on!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
RM: The Shining Wall by Melissa Ferguson and Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic with Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng and Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone lined up next. My to be read pile keeps growing!!!
The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99
(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