Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Katherine is the winner of the 2020 Vogel Award with A Treacherous Country, which I am really looking forward to reading and reviewing. This is one book that due to its secrecy due to the prize announcement, did not have much publicity planned, so this is one interview that is helping to get it out there. Katrina had some fun with these questions as all my participants have, and I enjoyed finding out about her book, and her reading and writing life.
Hi Katherine, and welcome to The Book Muse
- First, congratulations on winning the Allen and Unwin Vogel’s Literary Award. Where did you hear about it, and what made you decide to enter?
Thank you very much, and thank you for including me in The Book Muse!
I’m not sure exactly where I heard about the Vogel’s; I’ve known about it for years. Every year I’ve thought to myself ‘Is this the year I enter?’ and last year was it. I had an infant daughter, and I was so exhausted I was hallucinating. I’d be sitting up in bed, holding the baby, and getting annoyed with my husband that he wouldn’t take her so I could sleep. He’d say, ‘Darling, the baby you’re holding is imaginary. I’ve got our baby. You can sleep.’ I really needed something to do with my mind, so I googled the Vogel’s and saw that I had about eight months until the deadline. I felt the value for me in entering would be in the deadline and the wordcount: it would really compel me to complete something. So I did! I needed a bit of structure in my life.
- Your winning manuscript, A Treacherous Country, was published this year – can you tell my readers about your book, and the history and people behind the story?
A Treacherous Country is set in Van Diemen’s Land in 1842. The narrator is a young Englishman who has been sent to find a woman called Maryanne Maginn, who was transported there decades before. He’s very pliable, though, and easily led, and has won a distracting pair of newfangled harpoons in a card game. Through the harpoons, he gets caught up in the world of shore-based whaling. On his journey, he reflects on the situation he left behind at home – the young woman he proposed to, and his family of origin – and comes to the point where he realises he has to adjust his perception of things, and make a decision. I like an air of mystery, and keeping some facts back, so the young man’s motivations are revealed slowly.
The whaling industry was in decline around the time I set my novel, because the species was being hunted out. Nowadays, however, southern right whales are being seen with increasing frequency in Tasmanian waters. I remember standing on a friend’s verandah and watching a whale and her calf slowly swim north. It spurred me to think about how long their memories are. They almost became metaphorical for me.
- Tasmania seems to be getting a lot of attention lately – what do you think it is about Tasmania that is sparking so many different stories?
I feel like there are probably many elements to this! A significant aspect of it, I think, is that being from a small place has a kind of distinction to it, just because it’s something you share with relatively few other people. If you add to that the fact that we’re on an island, this becomes intensified. The isolation is both physical and conceptual. That tends to make its mark on your identity, for better or worse.
Another is that Tasmania, in many ways, feels like a microcosm of a larger place: we have big stories, and deep, dark histories, but it’s all condensed into a small place, so it feels more immediate.
As for why it’s getting more attention lately…I do think that people are increasingly drawn to the relative seclusion and safety Tasmania seems to offer. There is a kind of comfort in being on a little island off a bigger island, tucked away in the Tasman Sea.
- The Vogel’s announcement had to be made online due to the COVID-19 pandemic – what other events did you have to cancel or put on hold surrounding publicity for your book?
It’s hard to say, because the secret nature of my book meant that we didn’t have much publicity lined up. The party was definitely the big one!
- Prior to entering the Vogel’s, did you think about submitting to other prizes or publishers?
Not this manuscript, because I wrote it specifically for the Vogel’s. But I have certainly submitted other (shorter) works for consideration elsewhere.
- What drew you into the genre of historical fiction, and is the story in A Treacherous Country based on known facts and stories, or did you go searching for these facts to craft your story?
I’m drawn to strong stories, rather than a particular genre. I love a story with resonance. I love it when things clunk into place, and you think ‘Ah, of course!’. It’s just that this story was necessarily grounded in the past.
It really did unfold organically for me. It’s not based on known stories, but I tried to be as factual as possible. I allowed myself great scope for invention, but checked up on every invention so that it would be rooted in plausibility – was it possible? How would it have looked? How would it have been explained?
- How important is authenticity of the voice of your story and characters to you, and by extension, the reader?
It’s pretty important. I wanted to create a natural-feeling world, inhabited by real and likely people. I wanted my narrator to feel familiar: like a tangible person who happens to be living at a certain point in time.
- When not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love walking, reading, and creative pursuits like knitting and drawing. I quite like cooking, but really only because I like eating and sharing food. I love a glass of wine, and movies. But listing all these things feels a bit like I’m pretending my life is this slow and elegant series of quiet pursuits. Mostly I’m playing froggies with my daughter – or horsies – or doggies…and enjoying the cognitive dissonance of eating golden syrup dumplings while wearing tummy trimmer jeans.
- Do you also read historical fiction, or do you prefer reading a different genre to the one you write in?
Yes, I love historical fiction! I don’t limit it to that, though. I love a compelling mystery. I love a good classic, or sci fi, or the kind of contemporary drama that inevitably gets described as ‘searing’ or ‘luminous’ or ‘searingly luminous’. Whatever’s good.
- Prior to entering this prize, had you written anything else, worked in the arts in another capacity, or is this novel completely different from what you had been doing previously?
Yes, I’ve had a couple of publications with the excellent Going Down Swinging, and a couple of other publications too long ago to mention. Both pieces I’ve published with GDS are set in the future, actually. One is set in a post-apocalyptic Hobart, and the other in an imagined sort of neo-noir neon city. This novel is different in genre, but similar in that I’m interested in the challenge of telling human stories within a context that creates a degree of remove – like the future or the past. I love anything with a sense of the strange.
- Do you have a preferred writing method?
I started typing ‘Half-drunk and at 3 am,’ but only out of habit. My twenties are over. I write on my laptop, and I’m good for short bursts. I might do forty-five minutes, go and make a cup of tea, and do another forty-five. Or an hour, and then a walk, and then another hour, and then binge-watch a whole season of Buffy. That kind of thing.
- How much research do you like to, or feel you need to do before putting the first words of the story onto paper?
I do it as I go. I tend to get the spark of inspiration from something, find the voice, and find the fabric of the story, and that leads me to the research I need to do. I love the different directions the research takes me. For instance, I did a lot of reading about language for this novel. There was a great deal of delving through quotations in the OED to check the use and age of various words and phrases. And then I found myself looking through old newspapers on Trove looking for advertisements to work out the prices of things, and what people found useful. Next I’d be looking at diagrams of rowing boats and sketches of different kinds of harpoons. And in between, always, writing.
- Do you have any favourite authors who have inspired you?
Oh god yes. For a while I was quite a derivative writer; I’d read something that got me so excited I’d race off and start writing in that style. That’s OK, that was just part of the process of finding my own voice. But writers like Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro will always make me want to write like them!
- Now that you’re working in the arts, what is it like to be in this industry?
It’s wonderful, but I don’t think I can answer with any real depth because apart from small forays into publishing, this is new to me.
- Do you have a favourite bookseller and which books have they recommended to you that you have loved?
Hobart has some really great bookshops! There’s the Hobart Bookshop, Fullers, Cracked and Spineless, the State Bookstore…all favourites. I’m pretty self-directing when it comes to reading, so I can’t recall any specific recommendations, although I’m sure there have been!
- The cover of your book is amazing – what was it like the first time you saw it, and do you feel that it captures the essence of your story?
It was wonderful! I felt quite awestruck at the skill and style of Sandy Cull, the designer. It made the book feel more tangible. It was at a time when we were discussing changing the title, and seeing the new title in all its glory like that made me really feel like it was the right choice.
- You reference Greek mythology at the beginning of the novel – and Homer’s Odyssey – what bearing does this have on the novel?
There’s the obvious correlation of a person on a quest, and I’m sure other similarities could be drawn. But I’m not very fond of Odysseus! I don’t mean to downplay the importance of Homer (that would be silly), or the wonderfulness of the Odyssey and the Iliad, but I wouldn’t want to write about Odysseus. My narrator references the Odyssey because he has the scraps of classical knowledge that have come from being a well-brought-up but not particularly well-educated 19th century gent, and he doesn’t have much life experience of his own to rely on.
- Following on from the previous question, would you say this element suggests this is an Australian retelling of the Odyssey?
I wouldn’t say that, although I suppose any story of a journey might invite comparison to Homer. I suppose a key difference between my book and the Odyssey – apart from personality and stage of life – is that Odysseus is actively journeying home, and my narrator is journeying towards a less tangible end.
- How long did it take you to write this novel, from germination of the idea to the finished product?
About eight months, from when I googled the Vogel’s award to about twenty minutes before midnight on the final day it was open.
When I first started working on something to submit, I looked at a manuscript I’ve been working on for years. For my state of mind at the time, I actually found it too difficult – just not the thing that was really working for me. I found a little, unimportant side character I’d written about in that original manuscript, and expanded and developed his story into A Treacherous Country. So while it was new, the idea did grow from an older idea.
- Do you have more novels planned for the future?
I do! I’m working on that older manuscript I mentioned in the previous question. It means a lot to me, and I think about it a great deal. I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it last year. And there are other things on the go – it would never do to have everything finished and be able to get a good night’s sleep, after all.
Any comments about anything I may have missed?
Thank you Katherine, and best of luck with future writing,