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Highly-Anticipated Debut Fiction: Q&A with Chris Hammer on writing his new novel Scrublands

July 31, 2018

About The Author

Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV’s flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than 30 countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age.

His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award.

Chris has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.

Purchase a copy of Scrublands here, read our review of Scrublands here or read a sample chapter here 

Scrublands is your much-anticipated debut fiction novel. Can you tell us a bit about the story?

It’s crime fiction, but it’s not your typical police procedural. It’s not one plot, or two, but several interwoven strands…

A journalist arrives in a remote country town a year after a traumatic mass-shooting. He isn’t looking for anything new; his assignment is to profile how the community is coping. But the longer he stays in the town, the more he uncovers – not just about the shooting but about all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors, extending to more and more characters and back into the past, as he peels back the layers of a town on the edge.

You travelled around Australia at the height of the 2000s drought to research your non-fiction book The River, and this trip inspired Scrublands. Can you share some of your experiences from the trip? Why did they make such an impact?

That trip left a lasting impression on me. The drought was devastating, but typically farmers and townspeople would initially put on a brave face when they met me. But the more I delved, the more I came to understand the quiet desperation: foreclosures, depression and suicide. But also the resilience, the strength of community and the compassion.

Scrublands is set in a tiny, isolated country town – one school, one hotel, one supermarket, all way out in the middle of nowhere. What is it about small rural towns that make them such great stages for drama?

On one level, it allows a writer to construct a small, self-contained world, operating to different rules than the rest of the country. The reader enters this world and is soon familiar with it: the physical space, the characters, the dynamic. It helps reading become an immersive experience.

On another level, the town itself becomes a character, a reflection of the lives of its inhabitants. In my book, it reinforces the sense of isolation and desperation, that the inhabitants are on their own, stranded out on the plain. It’s the same with the weather – with the heat and lack of water – it also becomes like a character.

Scrublands’s main character Martin is an ex-conflict zone reporter. As a journalist and former international correspondent, did you draw on any of your own experiences when crafting Martin’s story?

Let’s be clear: I am not Martin Scarsden!

That said, there are certainly elements of his character informed by my past. For example, I did report from Gaza after Hamas took control and it was blockaded by the Israelis.

I also know many foreign correspondents who carry the scars of their profession. PTSD is quite common, especially amongst photographers and camera crews, and not just from reporting on war zones, but also from reporting on major natural disasters.

I’m lucky: my exposure to such things was minimal compared to many of my much braver colleagues. I don’t think Australians appreciate how confronting some situations can be for those reporting them; not just overseas, but here in Australia with bushfires, murders, car crashes etc. A dead child is very difficult to unsee.

And finally, just because we’re always on the lookout for new book recommendations – what are you reading at the moment?

I didn’t read much at all while I was writing Scrublands, so since I finished I’ve been desperately trying to catch up, especially all the great new Australian writers of crime fiction.

I really enjoyed Sarah Bailey’s books, The Dark Lake and Into the Night, and Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin. And, of course, Jane Harper’s The Dry and Force of Nature. Mark Brandi’s Wimmera is another extremely atmospheric crime novel set in rural Australia.

I’ve also been working through a back list of non-crime. Richard Flanagan, Christos Tsiolkas, etc. I loved Sofie Laguna’s The Choke for its compassion and its beautiful writing. It’s not a crime novel, but it’s also set amongst rural poverty and disadvantage.





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  1. Kay Wood

    Hi Chris, Thank you for your riveting novel, excellently written and paced. I am most interested in good fiction or non fiction from our talented Australian writers and I must admit, this really was a non-put-downer for me! Being familiar with the type of setting that you chose brought the town and the people alive for me and I valued the authenticity of scenes that you set, obviously attributed to your own experiences both oversea and at home.

    Did I predict the outcome at any stage? Yes, but my predictions didn’t eventuate and I quietly edged to the finale hoping that it would neither fizzle out (it certainly didn’t!) OR have a schmaltzy ending.

    Your book has been chosen by our Book Club and we will discuss it in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I might just move to “The River”

    Best wishes
    Port Macquarie NSW

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