Judy Nunn’s latest book Sanctuary is a thought-provoking, heart-warming novel about what happens when nine refugees, from many countries and cultures, are washed up on a deserted Australian island. We spoke to Judy about her inspirations, becoming a novelist, and her favourite books.
What made you choose this subject of refugees arriving on Australian shores for your latest novel?
The location is fictional, but it was inspired by an overnight stay at the Abrolhos Island. Big Rat Island to be precise, where there are little fishermen’s huts, and when the season is not in its peak, they’re deserted.
We were invited as part of the Big Sky Writers’ Festival. To stay overnight there is something special, they are the most incredible islands. We writers were wandering around and saying what an extraordinary place to set a novel. You’re in the middle of nowhere, really nothing more than a vegetated reef, it’s so desolate and as you watch the sun go down, you could be anywhere, it’s so eerie.
It was my husband Bruce who said, ‘Just imagine, instead of all those murder mystery mayhem stories that we were running by each other, what would it be like if a boatload of refugees landed there desperate and discovered these little huts that had everything they would require – fishing lines, water tanks?’ I said, ‘Oh darling it sounds so political, you do it.’
It was only years later I was seeking inspiration and could not get rid of that thought. I decided to bite the bullet and instead of making it historically earlier boat people, say the Vietnamese in the early 70s, I made it contemporary.
So it was actually that location that inspired me and the possibility that this could happen, but I knew I couldn’t set it there because everyone knows everybody, so I invented an island to the north and made it contemporary.
It’s simply about human beings. I make no political statements in any of my books, I don’t wish to, so there’s no great creed I’m putting out there to take sides. I know there are contentious issues that people believe in one way or another but I don’t make any statements like that. Of course the characters in my novel, in the little fictional village of Shoalhaven, have their views.
But by telling the story of these characters you put a human face to the plight of refugees?
Absolutely, because I love exploring and creating characters, and in exploring and creating characters, obviously areas of conflict really develop those characters. I’ve been to war zones and areas of conflict in my novels before in great detail. I find it absolutely harrowing every single time I do it. I’ve been through World War One, World War Two, the Vietnam War and visited several of these conflicts in previous books. It’s a very harrowing thing to do and I’ve been speaking to people who really know and refugees who have been through the things they’ve been through, in the various countries they come from. My small band of survivors come from several different countries, and therefore are of different ethnicities, different cultures, different religious beliefs.
They’re marooned on that island and realise that they are saved. Some of them are unconscious when they arrive, they’re dehydrated, they’re starving and that’s all that lies in front of them, to discover. They need to bond, they’ve literally become a family. They have no idea where they are, at first they think they might still be in Indonesian waters. Unbeknownst to them, they’re forty kilometres away from the coast of Western Australia. It’s suspenseful in that you’re waiting to know what will happen when these people are finally discovered as they inevitably must be.
But it’s not a downer of a novel. It’s really about the human spirit.
Some of the fishermen, such as Lou who finds the refugees, offer some human compassion?
Very obviously, there are opinions put forward in the book. As you will have gathered, that little fishing village is actually a microcosm of Australia. There are guys who sit in bars and talk and it’s like country towns everywhere, that’s where opinions are aired and there are know-it-all people who get to profess, but I as the narrator don’t intend anything other than to write about these people as human beings. We see these people on television, hear the reports coming through and we switch to another channel. But here we see these people as human beings as we all are.
How did you research for all those different people?
I spoke to an absolute darling refugee couple, Iranian, a lawyer and his wife, and I had copious amounts of material. We’ve met on several occasions and they were extraordinarily helpful on a practical level. I read so many stories, so many personal stories that I wouldn’t even begin to put into the book, we don’t need to go into that degree of harrowing material, quite frankly. Within the book there are only three chapters where I retrospectively go into the background of the characters, one is an Afghani couple, another one is an Iranian young man and the other is a Syrian. There are Egyptians who are Coptic Christians so I attempted to explain why they made this long journey to Australia.
There a believability factor around the fact that they make it so far south but fact is so often stranger than fiction – there was a boatload of Sri Lankan refugees that came right ashore at Geraldton, right up on the beach at Geraldton in front of the Dome café at lunchtime when everyone was having their lunch. They didn’t actually founder on all the treacherous reefs around this area of Australia, and they got through coast watch coastal surveillance in broad daylight
Your books have sold more than a million copies throughout the world. Did you ever dream of that kind of success when you started writing?
No I never did, but I have been writing for a long time. I started while I was acting as many as long term actors do. It was when I was doing Home and Away which I did for many years that I just wanted a further creative outlet, so I started writing my books. By the time I had left that show which was thirteen years I’d had five books published. I had a readership and the start of a different career so that was a lucky bonus for me!
What books and authors do you currently read and admire?
I have a kinky affection for Lionel Shriver, and Margaret Atwood. I’ve been reading their latest books recently. I adore Aussie Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North on every single level both as a gripping read, and one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever read. It has absolutely graphic horrendous material of the War and building the Burma railway and beautifully poetic prose. I thought it was one of Australia’s great novels.