Q&A with Jock Serong and Bridget Lawless

Bridget:  How hard was it to research the period, and the Furneaux Islands at the time, with their strange inhabitants and micro-society with its own rules and freedoms? And did you sail the journey yourself – the descriptions of sighting each island, its topography, landing spots, etc, are all very detailed and atmospheric.

Jock:  The research in a personal, physical sense was easy to do because I have a long history with these islands. I’ve been going there most of my adult life, and we now spend part of each year down there as a family. The kids love it: they get all insect-bitten and sunburnt and they disappear along the coast and into the bush for hours on end. They catch fish and swim great distances and for a few weeks they’re unrecognisable as their domestic selves. I can immerse myself in a pile of history books and books about boats and fish and birds. There’s a bialetti for coffee and some whisky for the evenings and I can walk and walk. There’s also a few mates with boats who can take me around to other islands. It works very well. I’ve made the trip from where we live in Victoria in all sorts of light aircraft, and once in a small speedboat (which I do NOT recommend). Because the Furneaux Islands stretch out in a long thin archipelago from Victoria, you can island-hop down there (as the Moonbird does in the book), and braver people make the trip in sea kayaks. Anyway, it’s all of that, and a love of maps and charts, that made the physical descriptions achievable. But the historical references are trickier: the islands historically have been occupied by recluses and wanderers, private people who did not want to leave a record for posterity. The Aboriginal (palawa) languages have been battered by colonialism, and although they’re making a comeback, it was hard to be accurate about names and terminology. Equally, it’s very important to try, so I tried to consult a lot with palawa elders.

Bridget:  Eliza, our narrator, lives with many of the restrictions of the time, and the judgments of women that mark her too tall, too odd, too difficult, to land a husband. And she’s burdened with caring for her obstreperous blind and drunken father. Yet she’s a determined, feisty young woman, lacking self-pity, loyal and adventurous. You write very interesting, strong women in your novels, for which as a reader I’m very grateful. Does that reflect your own view of women? And are there women around you who inspire you?

Jock:  I guess I’ve had a life of two halves, when it comes to relating to women. I grew up one of four boys, and although our mother is a strong, intelligent woman, our family home was a very loud, coarse, male place, and a product of its era, the 1970s and 80s. I went to an all-boys school which ran a hard Catholic line that presented women – I’ll be gentle here – in a rather curious light. But I was lucky enough to have great female friends and girlfriends in the years beyond that, and the other half of my life is my own family, a wife and three daughters (one son). A lot of the thinking about the relationship between Joshua Grayling and his daughter Eliza is based upon things I think about my own relationship with my teenage daughters. They’re independent people, strong-willed and very sharp on bullshit. So whereas you can present yourself as this near-mythical figure when they’re little, that wears off and you have to come to equal terms as they grow up and start questioning your nonsense. You’re diminished, rightly so, and you need to find a new basis for the relationship. It’s confronting, but there’s beauty in that process too. The other thing that’s important to note about Eliza is that although I wanted her to be clever and a bit caustic and brave, I also had to be conscious of the mores of the time (for instance the disaster of being single at 32!) and not modernise her too much. You can see it in the language, especially the dialogue. It’s a delicate balance to strike.

Bridget:  The characters aboard the small world of The Moonbird are each striking individuals, beautifully drawn and unique. For example, the Master who wears a selection of dresses and bonnets. The now reunited convict brothers hired as crew were separated as children, one raised Irish, the other Scottish, one simple, the other his protector and tormentor – you’ve given yourself such rich vein of material with them, just by tampering with their backstory so neatly. Is there some specific technique you use to devise such utterly original characters, as you do in all your novels?

Jock:  I felt this time as though the development of the characters was an organic thing that unfurled as I told myself the story. Whereas in the past I’ve started out with clear notions of my people in my head before I started the narrative (for instance, in Backyard Cricket I could see the Keefe brothers and Craigo very clearly), this time around the characters were not all that different to each other at first. It was only as the boat cast off and the voyage began that I started to see ways to differentiate them. Right, you can come up on deck in a dress… Eliza is the obvious exception to that: I felt like I knew her very early on. The small vessel works like a theatre stage, and using a confined space like that means that you have to be constantly vigilant about where everyone is and what they’re doing at all times. Your eye is roving all the time above and below decks to make sure that you’re not constructing something implausible. I suppose islands work in a similar way: you’re compressing the interactions and bringing characters and relationships to the fore.

Bridget:  Australasian history – once the British got involved, and as you write it, is incredibly brutal, its inhabitants thuggish and opportunistic, building societies from the ground up, overlorded by unsubtle colonial rule. In contrast, you draw the native inhabitants as naturally intelligent, respectful, moral and at one with the land, even welcoming to others (such as the Lascars, in this novel) to their communities. You show a deep respect for human rights in your very different novels. Do you think it’s a writer’s responsibility to draw the eye to injustice, in whatever way they can, in their work? Is this a personal mission?

Jock:  Yes, I think it is, but hopefully not in an overbearing, didactic way. The most pervasive injustice in Australia is simply our refusal to countenance all of this. We like to look the other way. John Howard taught us to deny the existence of intergenerational guilt – be “relaxed and comfortable”, he told us. But it’s impossible to look at how our nation is now, and not take into account all of those formative influences. The most sensible way a writer of history can respond to the wilful blindness is to seek out the voices that weren’t heard: our colonial history (like everyone’s, I guess) was shaped by men, and mostly by white, military men. It is possible, though it takes a little work, to find other voices and bring them up the front. Aside from that being a moral position, it’s often more interesting. Looking forwards, when the histories of this pandemic are written, do we want to read endlessly about the mendacity and arrogance of Johnson, Trump, Morrison, Bolsonaro? Or will we seek out the stories of unemployed people, migrant communities, old people who died alone, or women who nailed it, like Jacinda Ardern has? You just get a better lens if you’re prepared to peer around some corners.

Bridget:  Obviously, I can’t ignore Figge. He is one of the most thrillingly frightening and ingeniously cunning bad guys I’ve come across in contemporary fiction – and I read a lot of thrillers! There are elements of horror in passages where he’s at his most diabolical. Is he a special favourite of yours? Will we see more of him in the future? And just for fun, what would you say is his personality disorder?

Jock:  Figge has evolved a lot since I first thought of him. Initially, the three influences were Judge Holden in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Henry Drax in Ian Maguire’s The North Water and the devil in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The idea was that, unlike a conventional villain in crime fic, he has no backstory and readily understandable reason to do the things he does. He doesn’t experience ordinary wants: hunger, thirst, fatigue, boredom. Towards the end of writing Preservation, and in the early days of The Burning Island, I was interested in the idea that he’s immortal, and that he just floats in and out of people’s lives as a skilled imposter, stealing identities and wreaking havoc. Eventually I decided to stick with mortality, so he has aged in this novel and he’s quite elderly in the sequel I’m now writing. I don’t know what’s wrong with him: I think he might be a narcissist. One day I’ll probably get a long email from a psychologist somewhere saying, of course you understand that what you’ve written here is a projection of Jungian archetypes... Sex is a driving force for him, but only sex as power. In a lot of ways I think he is an emblem for one version of colonial history: the figures of unmitigated evil who did arrive among the settlers. He is frighteningly easy to write. I just seem to know what he’ll do in each scene. I don’t know what that says about me.

Bridget:  Who are your own writing heroes and heroines?

Jock:  There are so many writers whom I admire, and they daunt me terribly because I have trouble accepting that the things they do, and the things I try to do, are in fact the same craft, but practiced at a far higher level. Among essayists I love Helen Garner, Don Watson, Sarah Krasnostein, Richard Cooke and Sarah Sentilles. I’m also a big fan of Marina Hyde in the Guardian and of the late A.A.Gill and Christopher Hitchens. I’m an omnivore for novelists, but my favourite Australian crime writers would be Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, Emma Viskic and J.P. Pomare. There’s a fabulous young Tasmanian called Robbie Arnott whom I believe we’ll be hearing a lot more about. For Australian history writing, there’s Kate Grenville, James Boyce, Tom Griffiths and his son the archaeologist Billy Griffiths, Paul Irish, Bill Gammage, Grace Karskens and Mark McKenna.

Bridget:  What are you working on at the moment?

Jock:  I’m currently engaged in two long projects: one is finishing off a PhD which focuses on my previous historical novel, Preservation. The other is the third and final book in the series about the Furneaux Islands, which tells the story of the Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island, a particularly grotesque exercise in religious colonialism which nearly spelled the end for the Tasmanian palawa peoples (they have spent many generations recovering and rebuilding their language and culture). It’s early days for this one: I don’t have a release date and I suspect it’s still far from its final form. This stage is the feeling around in the dark – and bloody Figge’s lurking in that darkness somewhere!