About the author:
Joy Rhoades was born in Roma in western Queensland, with an early memory of flat country and a broad sky. Growing up, she loved two things best: reading and the bush, whether playing in creek beds and paddocks, or climbing a tree to sit with a book. Her family would visit her grandmother, a fifth generation grazier and a gentle teller of stories of her life on her family’s sheep farm.
At 13, Joy left Roma for Brisbane, first for school and then to study law at university. After graduating, she worked all over: first Sydney, then London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and New York. It was in New York that she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the New School University, and wrote much of The Woolgrower’s Companion, a novel inspired in part by snippets of her grandmother’s life and times.
She now lives in London with her husband and their two young children, but she misses the Australian sky.
The Burnt Country is an enthralling story about integrity, resilience, and resistance. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel?
The Burnt Country is the story of one young woman’s fight to clear her name—and avoid prison—after a catastrophic bushfire. And the novel asks the question: do you owe a duty to yourself? It’s 1948, in the remote Merino country of northern New South Wales. Young Kate Dowd, is struggling to run Amiens, her sheep station after her father’s death. She is coping, just, but she annoys her older neighbour, John Fleming. And after a run of good rains, the long pastures are drying out and the Longhope district is facing a high fire risk. When a devastating bushfire strikes, Fleming accuses Kate of causing the fire. The return of Luca Canali, a former prisoner of war, to the district puts Kate under added pressure. How could she contemplate a love of her own? The district would tolerate no more scandal and Kate has responsibilities to those on Amiens who depend on her.
What inspired the idea behind the story?
I’m fascinated by character. I wanted to explore how a young woman might react to the quiet but unrelenting pressure of a district turning against her. I also wanted to expose poor Kate and her community to the ravages of bushfire, showing how the split second decisions we make in face of danger can shape lives for years to follow.
The novel is set in 1948 Australia. What sort of research did you have to conduct when writing this book to ensure you captured the essence of the time you were writing about?
I already knew a bit about the era and the district (the northern tablelands) from the research I did for my bestselling debut novel, The Woolgrower’s Companion. But for The Burnt Country I needed to understand bush fire: all the ways they start, how they burn and move and smell, and how they’re fought. So I turned to several fire experts, in both NSW and QLD, to help me write scenes that were authentic. It’s worth noting that The Burnt Country is a stand-alone sequel to my debut novel The Woolgrower’s Companion. That just means that many of the same characters appear but you don’t have to have read The Woolgrower’s Companion to read and enjoy The Burnt Country. They’re entirely independent books.
The Burnt Country is set in rural NSW – rural fiction is undeniably on the rise, especially in Australia. Why do you think people are drawn to stories set in country locations?
I sense a movement of urban dwellers, a yearning for connection, to their own community but also to the environment. I half-wonder if this new longing may be an unintended consequence of climate change. People, city and country folk alike, increasingly recognise that we’re simply one (destructive) part of ecosystems everywhere, that now we must move urgently but critically, to salvage and protect. My theory is that readers want to see the environment, whether for real or on the page and they want to see connected communities too. Fiction set in rural locations is part of that.
What was your favourite book of 2018, and which book are you most looking forward to reading in 2019?
My favourite book of 2018? There were so many books I loved! On the experimental fiction front, I loved MILKMAN, a novel set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And next on my TBR is a novel by the wonderful writer Louisa Treger, called THE DRAGON LADY.