Last Thursday evening at Readings Carlton (Melbourne) I was thrilled to launch my latest novel, Billabong Bend. Penguin publisher Sarah Fairhall did the introductions, and friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson did a Q&A with me about the book. Here are Kath’s questions and a rough transcript of my answers.
First, please give us a quick run-down on what Billabong Bend is about.
Billabong Bend is a star-crossed love story between a floodplains farmer and a cotton grower, set in the heart of the NSW northern riverlands.
– For riverine farmer Nina Moore, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River is the most precious place on Earth. Her dream is to buy Billabong Bend and protect it forever, but she’s not the only one wanting the land. When her childhood sweetheart Ric Bonelli returns to the river, old feelings are rekindled and she thinks she has an ally. But a tragic death divides loyalties, tears apart their fledgling romance and turns her dream into a nightmare.
– On one level, Billabong Bend is a novel about first love. That original, blinding passion that is never forgotten. When you believe that anything is possible. When you first believe in something bigger than yourself. But it’s also the story of a river, of water use in a thirsty land, and the division and conflict it inevitably causes. And if you love birds like I do, particularly our magnificent wetland birds, you’re in for a real treat!
Your character Nina has some intriguing relationships and friendships with the ageing Eva, the child Sophie, a couple of blokes vying for her attention. But those she seems to treasure the most are with non-humans. In particular, there’s a passionate affair with a river. Can you tell us about that?
– I call Billabong Bend a star-crossed love story. But some people have called it more of a love triangle, between Nina, Ric and the river. I think there’s some truth in that. Nina is in love with the river that flows through the landscape of the novel. And no wonder. For a floodplains farmer like Nina, the river means life itself. She depends on it to flood, to overflow into the little dry creeks and billabongs, to revive and nourish her land.
– Without water lying on the floodplains once in a while, they die. That’s how they’ve evolved. As a fifth generation flood plains farmer, Nina has learned to live in harmony with the river’s ebbs and flows. It’s second nature to her.Thirsty cotton farms and their vast water allocations threaten more than the river. They threaten Nina’s whole way of life.
I was intrigued by the detail. The river really is a character in its own right. How do you know so much about the environment surrounding Billabong Bend?
– The idea for the book arose many years ago, during long, lazy days spent in the riverlands. I’ve always been an amateur naturalist, and there are also some wonderful books out there about the Murray-Darling Basin. The River by Chris Hammer comes to mind. But no amount of research beats time spent in a landscape. Reference books can’t buy you drinks at the bar and tell you stories. Statistics can’t show you the beauty of the river at sunrise.
– Last year I took some trips back up the Murray and saw for myself the changes wrought on habitats and wildlife by drought and low flows. I wanted to write about what I saw.
I love that Nina is her own woman. There’s a romance in this book – actually, more than one – but we get the sense that Nina doesn’t need any man. Do the men measure up?
– It’s true that she doesn’t need a man, and yes, the men don’t measure up, at least not in the beginning. Nina is fiercely self-sufficient, and inclined to try to do everything herself. Part of her character arc is learning to accept help, when it’s freely given for the right reasons. And part of Ric’s journey is to rediscover his roots, remember who he is, and what the river once meant to him. Only then might he become the man Nina wants. But he can never become the man she needs. Nina’s far too independent to let that happen!
Nina has a particular interest in a 9yo child called Sophie. How does Nina help bring Sophie out of herself and the house?
– Little Sophie is one of my favourite characters. She’s had a difficult life, growing up without her father or grandparents, being raised by a mother who suffers from depression and mental illness. When Sophie first comes to the farm she’s defiant and unhappy, spending all her time in front of the TV.
– Nina takes an interest in Sophie. After all, she’s a lonely little girl who loves animals, very much like Nina was at the same age.They connect through their mutual love of horses and the local wildlife, and of course Nina is eager to pass on her knowledge of Billabong Bend. In a way, Nina needs Sophie more than she needs anybody else in the book.
I suspect there’s a lot of Jennifer Scoullar in Nina. Is this true?
– Nina is far more practically competent than I am. She can service a tractor or use a rifle, just as easily as she can fix a pump or fly a plane. One thing we do both share however is a passion for rivers. Hardly surprising, since Billabong Bend was inspired by my own love for the northern riverlands, and for the Murray Darling basin in general.
– River stories are central to bush culture, and have been ever since the Murray-Darling was carved from a mythical landscape by the Rainbow Serpent. I’ve always been fascinated by the river’s place in literature, and I’ m in fine company. Rivers are revered by some of our finest writers.
– Mark Twain for example, had a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi. And the great poet TS Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets
‘I do not know much about Gods: but I think the River
Is a strong brown God – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier,
Useful, untrustworthy as a conveyer of commerce;
Then seen only as a problem for the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown God is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever implacable,
Keeping her seasons and her rages, destroyer, reminder,
Of what men choose to forget.’
– Nancy Cato in her classic trilogy All The Rivers Run compared the Murray to ‘ a … dark stream of time which bears all living things from birth to death.’ Rivers are romantic, mysterious, dangerous, life-giving and achingly beautiful. I’ve tried to touch on some of these themes in my latest novel Billabong Bend.
(Thanks to Troy Hunter for the photos)
Leave a comment telling me about your favourite river, and go in the draw to win a copy of Billabong Bend! (Aust & NZ only) Competition closes June 23rd.
BILLABONG BEND is already on my radar.
If I have to choose a favourite river it would be the Murray. When I was a child we tented our way around Australia. I can vividly recall eating cheese sandwiches by the banks of the Murray. Great trip, great memories.
Thanks Mary – good luck!
I agree with the Murray River – we travelled on it for some distance a few years ago. It’s tranquil, peaceful and thankfully in better condition than it was some time ago. I loved Billabong Bend and would love to win a “real” copy 🙂 Thanks for the opportunity Jen 🙂
Thanks Brenda – you’re in the draw!
My favourite river is the Snowy River. Growing up in the Snowy Mountains and belonging to the Snowy River Pony Club was the highlight of my young life. I grew up with Elyne Mitchell’s “The Silver Brumby” series and the works of Banjo Patterson. I lived and breathed horses while growing up in Thredbo. We later moved from the ski slopes to the land and crossed the “Snowy” every day to go to school. It is no longer an impressive river, more of a trickle, but still so special in my heart.
Now I live a long way from the Snowy; we wakeboard on The Clarence River in Grafton and regularly make the trip from the Gold Coast to the picturesque Clarence Valley. Maybe the magic of these rivers stays in our blood, keeps calling us back?
Good luck with Billabong Bend, I’ll be sure to go and check it out now.
Thank you Jennifer.
Wow, I’m jealous! What a wonderful picture you paint. Such a shame about the Snowy. We need to value our rivers! You’re in the draw Sophie, thank you 🙂
My favourite river is the Mighty Murray! Especially at Echuca where my family love to go camping and water skiing throughout summer.
Can’t wait to read Billabong Bend 🙂
Thanks Kelsey. I think the Murray is my favourite too, just for sheer grandeur and importance
I have to be boring and agree – the Murray river. The difference from one part of the Murray to the next is astounding, then there’s the views. I have some stunning photos of the murray!
There’s nothing boring about choosing the Murray Caroline! Good luck in the draw
The Brisbane River, visiting Brisbane from the UK we all fell in love with Brisbane and the beautiful river that winds through the city like a snake – now its our home.
The Dordogne river it is just gorgeous and dotted with lovely old villages along it’s banks
Is that in France? I’ve always dreamed of going on a European river cruise …
The Nepean River is beautiful to see on a paddle boat with the amazing rock formations and colours of the rock when the sun sets. It’s so magical.
My favourite would be the murry river living in south australia with all the wonderful wildlife you find when you go then and see in beauiful life and landscape.
Yes, I love those golden limestone cliffs down the South Australian end …
I grew up on the Hawkesbury River, it was like our playground with Water-sking, the rope swing and even being daring and jumping off the bridge. It was so different back then..
Yep, kids aren’t allowed to take risks any more. What wonderful memories Caroline!
The River Nile intrigued me from Year 8 when I had to do a ‘project’ on it, so when I finally visited Egypt in my early 30s, a three day felucca trip along the mighty Nile was high on my list of ‘must-dos’. It was an amazing trip with three female friends and one male companion (whom all the Egyptians referred to as Mr Lucky because of his blonde ‘harem’). Our tour guides were amazing and told us many wonderful tales and facts about the river during this unforgettable experience! Even writing this now many years later, brings back some great memories!
I’ve always wanted to see the Nile. What a wonderful experience!
Love the River Murray in the Riverland region of South Australia, some lovely spots to kayak along, weaving in and out of the trees and reeds. so peaceful and tranquil.
Yes, the Murray is winning so far!
The River Torrens: as a child this was the river we caught popeye to the zoo in..it was the bestriver in the whole world
That’s the first nomination yet for the Torrens. Thank you Sonia!