Why did you choose the particular setting for The Beautiful Mother?
With its universal themes the novel could have been set anywhere. But I decided on an archaeologist’s camp, where members of a famous family of researchers are hunting for evidence about the evolution of humans. I knew this would give me a chance to reveal exactly how we came to be the people we are today. (Why is childbirth so painful and dangerous? Why are human babies so helpless, compared to other mammals?) I could look at how our hunter-gatherer past is reflected in the personal qualities we have evolved to possess, and discover what lessons can be learned from people like the Hadza, who still follow this healthy, sustainable lifestyle. I’d be telling a story, and discovering truths about myself at the same time.
The meaning of ‘family’ and ‘home’ are concepts at the heart of this book. How would you describe what ‘family’ and ‘home’ mean to you?
I was born in Tanzania of British parents, and our family ended up living in Australia. Perhaps because we moved around so much, between different cultures, we are all very close – our sense of home is tied to the family, rather than one place. As migrants we had a choice between making do with a very small family group in Australia (with all our blood relatives overseas) or creating a tribe that included others. We’ve always gone with the second option. We love having visitors and extra housemates. We cook up huge meals and gather everyone round the table. Our past life in Tanzania still influences us; we have a tradition of singing a Swahili song before we begin to eat. Guests sometimes find it surprising, but they quickly join in. The ritual is a reminder of exactly what home and family means to us.
What do you hope readers take away from The Beautiful Mother?
I want readers to be left with the sense that they’ve travelled to a faraway place and brought back new ideas and perspectives that inspire meaning in their own world. I also want the power of the story and the presence of the characters to linger, long after the final page is turned. I hope readers are left pondering their own relationships with their children, partner, mother-in-law, work colleagues, even the animals in their lives. They are all a part of the story of change.