Briefly tell us about your book.
The Cedar Tree spans the 1860s and the 1940s and two distinct Australian locations, the NSW Richmond Valley and the Strzelecki Desert. The story follows two generations of the O’Riain family. In the spring of 1949, Stella O’Riain flees her home – a sheep property on the barren edge of the Strzelecki Desert. She leaves behind the graves of her husband Joe and her baby daughter. With no money and limited options, Stella accepts her brother-in-law Harry’s offer to live at the O’Riain cane farm in the Richmond Valley. There she hopes to get answers to the questions that plague her about her marriage. However Harry refuses to discuss Joe, even forbidding her to speak to the owner of the neighbouring property.
Nearly a century earlier in County Tipperary, Irish cousins Brandon, Sean and Maggie O’Riain also fled their homes – as wanted criminals. By 1867, they are working as cedar-cutters in New South Wales’s lush green Richmond Valley. But while Brandon embraces the opportunities this new country offers, Sean refuses to let go of the past. And one cousin is about to make a dangerous choice that will have devastating consequences down the generations . . .
What inspired the idea behind this book?
When I began crafting The Cedar Tree, I wanted to explore the idea of what it means to be free; individually, as a community, a society and as a country. Whether you’re Irish, English, Italian or Irish Australian. How far an individual/s is willing to go to obtain their liberty, is matched only by the cost associated with gaining that freedom. And then there is the very real question of what happens afterwards. Can a person ever truly begin their life again?
What was the research process like for your book?
My background research was quite involved for The Cedar Tree. I read numerous accounts of pastoral life and the early squatters (in both the Richmond Valley and the Strzelecki Desert in far west of NSW), period dressing for men and women of differing socio-economic backgrounds, the cedar-cutting industry and the religious and cultural bigotry between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Northern NSW in the 1860s; as well as the effects of the Irish famine on subsequent generations and the great emigration wave from Ireland to Australia during the later part of the 1800s. I also studied the development of the sugar cane industry in the region as well as the effects of the NSW 1861 Robertson’s Land Act which eventually broke up the hold the squattocracy had over huge tracts of land and opened much of the country up for selection and sale to new settlers. Land disputes were rife during this period.
I then spent a week in the Richmond Valley exploring the area for the fictitious ‘locations’ of the English squatter Mr Truby’s Run, the O’Riain cane farm as well as the fictional river village. While there I visited a number of historical societies including the Ballina Naval & Maritime Museum, the Mid-Richmond Historical Society & Museum at Coraki who provided access to early pastoral lease maps of the valley as well as pioneer settler accounts, and the Richmond River Historical Society Lismore.
A section of the novel is set in what was once The Big Scrub, located between Byron Bay, Ballina and Lismore, in Northern NSW. During the course of my research I learnt that The Big Scrub was once the largest expanse of lowland subtropical rainforest in Australia, containing a prized possession, cedar. The forest covered 75,000 hectares prior to European settlement. By 1900 less than 1% remained. The term ‘Red Gold’ was coined for cedar timber because of its value, which was prized by the likes of the Royal Navy, furniture-makers, ship and house builders. The timber industry is credited with the establishment of inland towns and the creation of a strong shipping industry. However, the demand for ‘red gold’ and other quality timbers decimated The Big Scrub.
For the 1940s section my reading concentrated on the Italian culture in Australia and the importance of arranged marriages and more specifically attitudes towards Italians during World War Two and the settlement of the far west of NSW. As part of the research for The Cedar Tree I flew to Broken Hill from Moree via Sydney, hired a four-wheel drive and headed north-west for nearly three hours. My destination was an outback station on the NSW South Australian border, where the wild dog fence stands as a dividing line between states and a Royal Flying Doctor airstrip close to the homestead reminded me of the challenges of isolation. I selected this area specifically for its contrast to the lushness of the Richmond Valley and also its remoteness, so that my character Stella’s expectations of her new married life – one she’d chosen not only for love but to also escape her strict Italian culture, were constrained by more than just her husband’s attitude. I spent my nights in the main homestead, delving into archives, while the days were spent walking deep into the desert, the taste of salt on my tongue.
Most of my general research began before I started writing. The field trips took place during the writing process as by then I had a firm grasp of my characters and most of the narrative. Being out in the field is an invaluable process. The land is a living breathing entity and writing pastoral history by its very definition means that my characters are moulded by their environment. Our extraordinary landscape might be the backdrop to the narrative in The Cedar Tree however it is the tapestry the story unfolds upon and is crucial in parts of the novel in terms of highlighting the difficulties and constraints experienced by the characters in the novel.
What are you hoping the reader will take away after reading your book?
I would hope a reader would consider the real cost of freedom and whether the characters in The Cedar Tree are all deserving of sympathy.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Writing is all about drafting and redrafting. Make that manuscript shine like a pearl.