Last Wednesday was the official Melbourne launch of Turtle Reef at Readings Bookstore in Hawthorn, and afterwards at the Glenferrie Hotel. A great evening was had by all! For those of you who couldn’t come, here is a transcript of my Q&A session with the fabulous Kathryn Ledson, friend and fellow Penguin author.
Kath – Lawyer turned author – what happened?
Jen – This is a great lesson in following your passion. I never had a burning ambition to be a lawyer. I simply chose law because I had high enough marks to get into it – and it made my mother happy. The course was great. Studying law is excellent training in critical thinking, and it teaches intellectual discipline. But when it came to practising law, my heart wasn’t in it.
When I was a child, I did have a burning ambition though – to be a writer. Ten years ago I remembered that, and thank goodness I did. Finally I’m doing what I should be doing. In his wonderful essay ‘Why I write’, George Orwell says, ‘If a writer escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.’ Well I didn’t escape from my early influences, and am very glad I went back to my roots.
Kath – Your fans must know how passionate you are about the environment. How did it come about? Has it always been a part of who you are or did a single incident get your attention to its plight?
Jen – A passion and love for the environment has always been a part of me. I think I never outgrew my childhood wonder with nature. Children are fascinated by caterpillars, and autumn leaves and ant nests. I still am. When people find out that I have animal characters in my stories, they often say ‘I didn’t know you wrote children’s books.’ This puzzles me. It’s as if for some reason we’re expected to outgrow our emotional connection with animals.
Kath – You write environmental or eco-romance. Do you think you’ve invented a sub-genre of the very popular “ru-ro”? Are you hoping more authors will join you in using fiction to highlight issues around the environment? (Or would you like them all to stay away :) )
Jen – It’s true that very few people are writing Australian rural fiction with environmental themes. But internationally, other authors are doing it, and very successfully at that. Take Barbara Kingsolver and her New York Times best-seller Flight Behaviour for example. She brilliantly weaves rural fiction with a climate-change theme, when the annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies goes horribly wrong. So I’m already in very good company. I don’t know why more Australian authors aren’t writing adult fiction with animal characters and conservation themes. I think there should be more of it. Readers love these stories.
Jen – Well, simply put, Turtle Reef is the story of a love triangle between a farmer, a scientist and a coral reef. The main character, Zoe King is an unlucky-in-love zoologist who has sworn off men. She moves from Sydney to the Queensland sugar town of Kiawa, for a fresh start, and at first, it’s a dream come true, working at a marine centre, with the wildlife of beautiful Turtle Reef. But things quickly go wrong. First, she falls for Quinn, her boss’s boyfriend. Then, animals on the reef begin to sicken and die. Things aren’t exactly what they seem in picture-postcard perfect Kiawa. When her personal and professional worlds collide, she faces a terrible choice. Protecting the reef might mean betraying the man she loves.
Turtle Reef was inspired by my passion for the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It holds a special place in my heart, and in the hearts of most Australians. I wanted to share my love of the Reef, and pay tribute to its unique wildlife. I wanted to showcase the important part it plays in the human and animal life of Queensland’s coastal communities. And I wanted to entertain readers with a passionate and unusual love story. If Turtle Reef sparks debate about reef protection, that’s a bonus.
Kath – Your character Zoe is a force to be reckoned with but I admit I was sceptical when I first started reading TURTLE REEF. Even though I know and trust your skills as a writer, I couldn’t see how you could pull off what clearly needed to be pulled off. Sydney girl arriving in a tight-knit rural environment, tackling age-old standards to save the reef. Taking on the very beautiful and talented local girl and falling in love with her childhood sweetheart! (What were you thinking!!) But you did pull it off – beautifully so – so, what is it, do you think, that makes Zoe’s journey such a riveting and believable one?
Jen – Zoe is simply a fabulous main character – She’s brave, intelligent, honest and passionate and was inspired by a real life ocean hero, Dr Eugenie Clark, known as the ‘Shark Lady’ who died last month and did her last dive at the age of 92. She was a pioneering marine biologist who dedicated her life to shark research, and defied social expectations about women’s roles in science. But Zoe is also a flawed heroine. She’s naïve, almost gullible at times. She wears her heart on her sleeve and is far too forthright for her own good. And although she’s a zoologist, her knowledge of animals is almost entirely theoretical. In fact she’s actually scared of horses and dolphins. Yet life in rural Queensland, and her job at the Reef Centre brings her in daily contact with these very animals. Throw in a crush on the boss’s boyfriend and a mystery out on the reef, and Zoe faces some serious challenges. That’s always interesting. We can all relate to somebody being thrown in the deep end, so to speak. Fortunately, Zoe’s pretty resourceful.
Kath – TURTLE REEF doesn’t just address issues around the reef. You clearly have a very special place in your heart for children and horses and love to write about them. There’s a beautiful bond that forms between a damaged boy and equally damaged horse. Without giving away too much, can you tell us a bit about it?
Jen – Ah, you’re talking about Josh, and Aisha, the Arabian mare. And you’re quite right, I do have a special love for children and horses. The healing effect that horses have on children is a favourite theme in my fiction. However that positive impact can work both ways. In Turtle Reef, Zoe befriends Josh, a teenage boy with an acquired brain injury. Josh might not have good people skills, but he’s very wise when it comes to animals, especially horses. He’s able to help the mare Aisha, as much as she helps him.
Kath – In TURTLE REEF I loved the character Einstein and learning about her very special attributes. Tell us about your eight-legged friend and the message she has for your readers.
Jen – I’m intrigued by Einstein as well. Einstein is an octopus. These misunderstood creatures are usually cast in such an evil light. Take the giant, murderous octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. I think the octopus gets such bad press because it is an alarmingly alien animal. Eight suckered arms. Three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood around its boneless body. However, I’m a big fan. Jet-powered, master of camouflage, shape-shifter, and highly intelligent. And if people want to know about Einstein’s capacity for maternal self-sacrifice, they’ll have to read the book …
Kath – I always learn so much from reading your books. How much did you already know about the reef, its inhabitants, stuffy old rural farmers and their outdated methods? Was much research required and how did you conduct it?
Jen – Oh, you know me Kath. I’m such a nerd when it comes to these things, an amateur naturalist from way back. I actually did know quite a bit about the reef already. But Zoe is a marine zoologist after all, and I’m not. So last year I took a research trip to Bargara, on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.
Zoe’s love interest Quinn Cooper is a fifth generation cane grower. I had a lot to learn about the joys and challenges of sugar farming. The cane trains were especially fascinating. Did you know that Queensland has 4,000 kilometres of narrow gauge track? And that these picturesque little locomotives still transport almost forty million tonnes of sugar cane to the mills each year? Breathing life into Zoe’s character was even more interesting. It involved some island hopping, some snorkelling on coral reefs, some whale-watching and sitting around on moonlit beaches with hatching turtles. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it!
Kath – Finally, you know so much about it all, but can you tell me this: if I punch a Tiger shark on the nose, will it go away?
Jen – It does sometime works. Sharks are reactive animals, big sooks really, and don’t like getting hurt any more than you or I do. Their noses are vulnerable because they bear organs called Ampulae of Loranzini which are used to detect slight water pressure changes like the movement of an injured fish flopping around. These organs are very sensitive and hopefully a good hit to the nose will work – or a jab in the eyes. Hope you never have to try it Kath!