Hi, Joy and welcome to my blog, The Book Muse.
First of all, I loved The Burnt Country, and would like to go back and read The Woolgrower’s Companion, to see what happened before 1948.
In The Burnt Country, Kate is determined to keep running her farm. Where did you get your inspiration for Kate, and the characters who surround her?
I’m so glad you loved The Burnt Country ! Kate, my main character, is modelled on the country women I knew growing up in the bush: my grandmother, my Mum, and the wonderful ladies in whose homestead kitchens I’d sit with my siblings and a pile of kids, to be fed homemade ginger beer (the non alcoholic kind), scones straight from the oven or pikelets off the pan. Delicious.
Were there many people, like Kate, in the mid-twentieth century who defied the Aborigines Welfare Board to protect people they knew or worked with? Or was Kate an anomaly in a world and society that was racist and sexist, and didn’t like threats to what they knew?
It’s fair to say Kate was never the norm but it’s also true that her brand of activism was not unique. The remarkable academic Professor Victoria Haskins in her book, One Bright Spot,chronicles her great-grandmother’s attempts to help her Aboriginal ‘domestics’ employees against the worst excesses of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board. She also worked alongside Indigenous activists in 1930s’ Sydney. It’s also the case that entire branches of the Country Women’s Association fought hard in their districts to improve the conditions of Aboriginal women, as Dr Jennifer Jones lays out in her book Country Women and the Colour Bar.
You touch on Prisoners of War through Luca, and the discrimination he faces post-war as well – this is a running theme throughout the novel and I think you executed it well, as I believe the readers will hopefully empathise more with these characters than others. Is this your intention, and what sort of responses do you think people will have?
I very much wanted to look at discrimination and Daisy, Kate, Luca: they each face different forms, but it’s all prejudice. So far, readers have responded strongly —positively— to The Burnt Country. If people, even for a moment, think differently, or consider their own even subconscious bias, that’s a big win for me as a writer.
I loved the focus on Kate beyond her relationship with men. I felt this made the novel and the story even more powerful within its setting, as she was allowed to be who she was as a farmer, not as someone falling in love, even though she is. Is this what you intended for readers to see and experience with Kate?
I’m so glad this appealed! It bugs me that popular culture still largely represents women as mono-faceted: we’re either wife material, or wives and mothers, defined always as an appendage to others. To men. But that’s not how I see myself or how women are. I wanted to show Kate as a real woman, yes, with a very human desire for love and companionship but also as a person with deep duties and responsibilities.
The setting you have created for Kate and the rest of the characters is a very distinct one, and you make readers feel like they are there on the dry land, in the bushfire and in the homesteads. How much fun did you have creating these images and feelings for both the characters, and the readers?
I write from home in London, a long, long way from Roma in western Queensland where I was born and grew up. At first, that gulf between me the land that I’m writing about, I saw as a loss and a writing disadvantage because I couldn’t just walk outside to check the shape of a leaf or the colour of a grass. But distance forces a kind of discipline too. I have to see the leaf clearly in my head, or smell the scent I want to describe. If it’s clear in my mind, then I hope it will be a vivid image too on the page and in readers’ imaginations.
My books are love letters to the Australian bush and its peoples. I miss Australia very strongly but I hope I don’t sentimentalise it either. A reader will see both the pink of a rainless sky and the pain of animals dying from drought.
How much of your family history and stories from the country did you draw on in your research?
The Burnt Country draws on family stories, mainly from my grandmother. She was a great teller of stories, sprung from such a long and varied life. A fifth generation grazier, she lived almost all of her 102 years on a sheep place in northern New South Wales. We would visit her when I was a kid, and she was always a great teller of stories. She loved family history too so that was an underlay to the carpet of her anecdotes. She was one of those remarkable country women, kind, incredibly hard working and with a surprisingly wicked sense of humour!
If you don’t mind sharing, did you have any favourite family stories that inspired your writing and the way you write about the land with such love?
My favourite story will always be one from my grandmother. But it’s not a grand story of her bravery or her resilience but a domestic one: her raising of wallaroos. If my cousins or the rouse-about on the place saw a dead wallaroo by the side of the road, they’d always check the pouch. Any live joey would be brought home to my grandmother and she’d try to save it and then raise it. Each had a glamorous name like Matilda and Julia, and she loved them dearly. It was mutual. They’d follow her about the garden. She once brought a wallaroo with her when she came to visit us. We only realised when its ears popped up out of the bag she was carrying.
Research processes are something I enjoy reading about – for this novel, and your previous one, where did you start researching, and what are some of the most interesting sources you found in your journey?
What were some of the more challenging topics to research, and why?
Historians, other academics, veterinarians, sheep and fire experts: they were all essential to an authentic story and so enormously helpful. But the most challenging research was on Aboriginal historical aspects.
I found it disturbing and confronting to learn about really quite recent Australian history: the brutal policy and force of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board (as it was known from 1940), about the domestic servitude of young —very young—Aboriginal girls. In addition, for The Burnt Country I explored an aspect I knew littleabout: ‘exemption certificates.’ These certificates were granted by the relevant state Aborigines Board and relieved a person from the strict laws regulating all Aboriginal people. But the conditions could be draconian and often divided families.
I was very fortunate to get guidance from a distinguished academic, Dr Katherine Ellinghaus. Through Dr Ellinghaus, I was wonderfully able to meet Aunty Judi Wickes, an academic and an Aboriginal Elder, who has explored the terrible impact of exemption certificates in her own family’s history. Aunty Judi was enormously helpful in guiding me on the implications for the exempted person and their descendants.
I found it easy to read this not having read the previous book – but would you recommend people read them in order, or does it not matter?
I’d be thrilled for people to read both and if they can, in order, with The Woolgrower’s Companion first. But The Burnt Country (the second book) is standalone so can happily be read by itself.
Finally, are you planning further stories for Kate and her friends, or is there a new project on the horizon?
I have the beginnings of an outline, in note form, for another story set in and around the Longhope district. But that’s competing with another novel where the outline is further along and quite detailed. So we’ll see which one grabs me to be written first!
Thank you for joining me here, I always enjoy reading books by Australian women exploring a diverse range of topics and stories.
My pleasure! Thanks so much for having me along.