This is your first fictional novel; why did you decide to publish with Fremantle Press?
I feel so fortunate that Fremantle Press chose to publish my novel. I had seen their CEO present at a Perth Writers’ Festival a few years ago and came away with the sense that this organisation is really driven by the desire to find and empower new voices, to tell new stories, and while they’re of course keen to create commercial success stories for their books and writers, they’re not defined nor reduced by that imperative. Basically they love books and writing and so do I.
How did you get into writing?
From the youngest of ages, I’ve been a keen reader of fiction (Enid Blyton, Jenny Blume et al) and someone who most easily expresses themselves in words – not necessarily well but freely and prolifically – and so I decided pretty early on that the profession that best aligned with this was journalism. You get paid to tell stories. I didn’t think of being an author as a career, and maybe that’s why it took me so long to write a novel. I studied journalism at uni in Brisbane and went on to work for various newspapers and magazines for the next 25 years.
Did you have to change your writing process to write Afternoons with Harvey Beam in comparison to your nonfiction work?
Yes and no. I’ve always been deadline-driven, and probably always will be, so writing something of this length necessitated me breaking it down into self-imposed daily and weekly deadlines. That said, a novel isn’t just 70 x 1000-word stories … there has to be a narrative arc guiding the whole thing and that was the biggest difference for me between my journalistic/non-fiction and fiction writing. I had to put myself into a headspace I’ve never previously inhabited. It was confronting and creatively debilitating at first, but it gradually became easier. It’s not unlike starting on that 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle: initially it’s very intimidating and the idea of reaching the end seems like a bridge too far, but as you move on, the remainder grows smaller and the picture gets larger and richer in detail and it just somehow becomes more doable and also ultimately enjoyable. I think the biggest difference about writing a novel compared to writing journalism is that your mind is on the story 24-7 with a novel. You’re living it and breathing it; you have to stay in the zone.
What made you want to write about a talk-back radio host?
I love radio. It’s survived and thrived and I’m grateful for that. Good radio is intimate and compelling and it’s all about people. It may well be the most human of all mediums. But really, I created the character of a radio host because I wanted to be a step removed from my journalistic reality of print. If you write too closely to what you know, you’ll end up being autobiographical and I definitely didn’t want to do that.
Did your idea for Harvey’s story come to you all of a sudden or did it evolve gradually?
The narrative of Harvey’s journey was a slow burn. The idea germinated for a few years before it took root. That said, maybe it’s been germinating for decades … some of the themes feel like things I’ve been thinking about since childhood. I’ve wanted to write a novel since my early 20s. I thought I had forever to do it and suddenly I’m 40 and it’s like, shit, probably should start this thing.
Harvey reflects a lot on how his home town has and hasn’t changed; how do you feel change affects country towns?
I think this is a really big part of the book and anyone who moves away from their hometown will grapple with and understand some of the issues hometown-defection raises. Your hometown shapes you – it simply does. Your oldest friends were there – they may still be there. Your family may still be there. Moreover, child-age you is still there. You’re still there. And reconnecting with your hometown and your childhood, and working out what has and hasn’t changed about both those things, will probably lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself in middle age. I’m still inextricably linked to and fascinated by my hometown of Mackay, Qld. I follow all its Facebook pages and still comment about issues and debates as though I have a right to, which I probably don’t.
This is a story largely about family and about how complicated family can be. How has your own family influenced your writing?
My family is probably no more or less dysfunctional than the next one. But the fact that I’m fascinated by family and the way it shapes us (or doesn’t) makes life harder for my family, because I’ve been watching everything over the years through active rather than passive eyes. I’m very sensitive to the way family dynamics set up all future relationships. I think families are possibly the most interesting of all social experiments, albeit one born of natural connections. But if aliens were to visit us, they would probably look at the model of ‘family’ – a small group of potentially vastly different individuals thrown together in a controlled environment for 18+ years – and say “what a ridiculous idea – this will never work”.
What led you to move to Western Australia?
My husband’s job led us to WA eight years ago. That job has long fallen by the wayside, like so many mining-boom jobs, but we’re still here. We’re never leaving. The music stopped and this is where I want to stay. I had never even been to Perth when my husband’s job offer came up. I Googled Perth and it said “Perth is the most isolated capital city on the planet” and I thought … perfect. I love what isolation does for the Perth psyche. I love the rich history of this place; the vastness of WA, the raw beauty. The beaches … oh my god, the beaches. Because of Perth, I learnt to surf in middle age. I love that when people from the east coast want to visit me, they really want to visit me. I’ll never be considered a local (that requires 40+ years of residence) and that sh*ts me, but I personally feel very connected to Perth and WA. I have taught several hundred journalism students at WA universities in recent years and they are connections I treasure. Aside from my hometown, I have embraced this city and this state more than any other place and I just can’t believe at times how much talent and wonder and character resides here, often ignored by the east at its peril. It’s a wondrous place and I feel so grateful to be here and somehow as though my journey here was destined. What I’m particularly happy about is that my two youngest kids, and even my eldest who was 14 when we moved here, regard Perth as their natural home. All their friends and experiences have been carved out here. How lucky are they? My eldest is a Freo tragic and so am I. What a truly amazing place.
What’s next for you?
I found the experience of writing this novel to be transformative. I would love to do it again. Can I? I hope so. I think there’s another story in Harvey Beam. I like him so much as a character, as flawed as he is. I feel like we would be good friends in real life. In the meantime, I will still keep earning a living by doing and teaching journalism. It’s all I know.