Q&A with Judy Nunn, author of Sanctuary

Q&A with Judy Nunn, author of Sanctuary

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.

Read our review of Sanctuary here and grab a copy here

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                      Publisher details

                      Sanctuary
                      Author
                      Judy Nunn
                      Publisher
                      Random House
                      Genre
                      Australian Fiction
                      Released
                      16 October, 2017

                      Synopsis

                      In Judy Nunn's latest compelling novel, compassion meets bigotry, hatred meets love, and ultimately despair meets hope on the windswept shores of Australia.On a barren island off the coast of Western Australia, a rickety wooden dinghy runs aground. Aboard are nine people who have no idea where they are. Strangers before the violent storm that tore their vessel apart, the instinct to survive has seen them bond during their days adrift on a vast and merciless ocean. Refugees from wartorn lands, fate has cast them ashore with only one thing in common ...fear. Rassen the doctor, Massoud the student, the child Hamid and the others all fear for their lives. But in their midst is Jalila who appears to fear nothing. The beautiful young Yazidi woman is a mystery to them all. While they remain undiscovered on the deserted island, they dare to dream of a new life. But good things aren't meant to last ...Forty kilometres away on the mainland lies the tiny fishing port of Shoalhaven. The people who dwell there have opinions. Many and varied opinions. The refugees are about to become the centre of attention - and Shoalhaven a microcosm of Australia at large ...About the authorJudy Nunn's career has been long, illustrious and multifaceted. After combining her internationally successful acting career with scriptwriting for television and radio, Judy decided in the 90s to turn her hand to prose.Her first three novels, The Glitter Game, Centre Stage and Araluen, set respectively in the worlds of television, theatre and film, became instant bestsellers, and the rest is history, quite literally in fact. She has since developed a love of writing Australian historically-based fiction and her fame as a novelist has spread rapidly throughout Europe where she is published in English, German, French, Dutch, Czech and Spanish.Her subsequent bestsellers, Kal, Beneath The Southern Cross, Territory, Pacific, Heritage, Floodtide, Maralinga and Tiger Menconfirm Judy's position as one of Australia's leading fiction writers.
                      Judy Nunn
                      About the author

                      Judy Nunn

                      Judy Nunn’s career has been long, illustrious and multifaceted. After combining her internationally successful acting career with scriptwriting for television and radio, Judy decided in the 90s to turn her hand to prose. Her first three novels, The Glitter Game, Centre Stage and Araluen, set respectively in the worlds of television, theatre and film, became instant bestsellers, and the rest is history, quite literally in fact. She has since developed a love of writing Australian historically-based fiction and her fame as a novelist has spread rapidly throughout Europe where she is published in English, German, French, Dutch, Czech and Spanish. Her subsequent bestsellers, Kal, Beneath the Southern Cross, Territory, Pacific, Heritage, Floodtide, Maralinga,Tiger Men,Elianne, Spirits of the Ghan, Sanctuary and Khaki Town confirmed Judy’s position as one of Australia’s leading fiction writers. She has now sold over one million books in Australia alone. In 2015 Judy was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her "significant service to the performing arts as a scriptwriter and actor of stage and screen, and to literature as an author."

                      Books by Judy Nunn

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                      1. Jill Drowley says:

                        Lovely lady,great author.

                        • Ruth Sullivan says:

                          Love all your books Judy Nunn just finished Santuary what a cracker but please you meed to write a sequel. I can imagine the doctor and his wife setting up life in Australia and the the others all developing their lives in safety. Just for a change lets hope for a happy ending. Thanks for your amazing work.