Tell us about your book.
The Burning Island is the story of Eliza Grayling – a spinster (and I use that term in the judgemental way it was wielded in that era) who lives alone, devoting herself to the care of her blind, alcoholic father Joshua. She’s tall, fiery and fed up.
Along comes a secretive merchant, Srinivas, who persuades her to take her father on a boat journey into Bass Strait in search of a vessel he has lost there. He believes that the sealers in the strait, known to be lawless, had wrecked it by the use of false lights, and had taken his cargo and murdered those on board. And he thinks the incident might be the work of an enemy from long ago. Readers of my previous novel Preservation will recognise some of these names and will know what I’m alluding to.
So it’s a voyage into the wilds in search of a madman, and in that sense, it works a little like Heart of Darkness but switching the Congo for Bass Strait. The answer to the quest, of course, is not in the place where it might be obvious.
The book is also significantly concerned with the tyereelore, the population of Aboriginal (palawa) women from Tasmania who lived in Bass Strait with the sealers. Theirs is a very contested history: some were abducted and worked like slaves. Others may have chosen and embraced their lives. There was violence and successful marriages. I’ve researched them carefully for this novel, and I still find them enigmatic. Among them was the warrior Tarenorerer, who stole and used guns against the settlers in Tasmania, and was a hated and feared freedom fighter.
And casting his shadow over all of those communities was the missionary George Augustus Robinson, who aimed to clear the islands of tyereelore, and turn them all into Christians. Caught up in these battles: the tyereelore against the missionaries, her father against an unseen enemy and his own slow decline, Eliza undergoes a personal transformation that, I hope, is a profound one for the reader.
If I looked at your internet history, what would it reveal about you?
It’d reveal that I have a problem with rabbit-holes. Day after day I go off looking for some specific morsel of research, only to find a completely different gemstone of strangeness glinting away in the bedrock. The original task is forgotten and I’m miles from the central inquiry, wondering how I can work something bizarre into the story, rather than the story dictating what it is I’m looking for. In Preservation, the water carriers of Calcutta, with their inflated animal skins, was an example of this. In The Burning Island, look out for the very strange affliction St Anthony’s Fire.
What are you hoping the reader will take away from your book?
I’m always looking for different versions of Australia, as far from the lazy clichés as I can get, and perhaps even versions that trouble us and challenge our complacency about the way things are and were.
In The Burning Island, that thinking extends to the palawa peoples and the dreadful wrongs that were done in the name of ‘civilising’ Aboriginal people. I’m often surprised at how important the Furneaux Islands were to colonial history, and yet how overlooked they are in that history.
I’d also like readers to be left with strong images of the beauty of the islands and the waters of Bass Strait, and a sense of the love between Eliza and Joshua, as complex and messy and infuriating as it is…
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
It was challenging ensuring that I wrote truthfully and fairly about a contentious part of our history. Because the sealers had control of the Furneaux Islands in the time that I wrote about, they left few or no written records of their own society. They were often old convicts, or runaways, or recluses of one kind or another, and they had no interest in recording their own deeds. Most would have been illiterate. For the tyereelore, English was often not their first language. So the records I depended upon to research my novel were often written by missionaries or agents of the government. I was very reliant on the doctoral students and historians who had done hard work on the archives, and even then there were sharply differing points of view about what was going on in the strait in 1830.
It meant that often I was chasing mere whispers about characters and their motivations. There’s so much work to be done on this part of Australian history: archaeology in the ground and the sea, and the ongoing sifting of written records and oral testimonies.
Does the creative process get easier for you with each book?
No – it gets significantly harder! When I started out I imagined the process of being published as a little bit like climbing a tree by driving pegs into the trunk. You’d put a peg in, get a little higher, drive in another peg, and one day the whole vista of the forest would become visible. That is, each novel would build incrementally on the previous one, and with time and patience, it would become a career. I still think it’s true, but that’s just thinking in career terms: the creative process is another thing entirely. Once you work through a concept and publish it (or to put it another way, you get away with it), there’s an irresistible urge to try something new. There is for me, anyway. Barbara Cartland probably thought otherwise. I’m restless and I bore easily and I’m intensely curious about the world, so the idea of settling upon a method or a genre or a set of characters for very long is anathema to me. That means that every time I start a novel I’m thinking to myself – how on earth do you do this? I’ve seen that described as ‘I don’t know how to write novels – I only know how to write this novel.’ The Irish writer Keith Ridgway had a wonderful way of putting it (of course he did – he’s an Irish writer): he said a novel isn’t something he did, it’s something that happened to him. ‘It’s like crawling out of a car crash to find people holding up scorecards.’