It’s been a worrying time, with bushfires threatening our farm beside the Bunyip State Forest.. We had to evacuate, horses included, but are now home, and trying to get back to normal. So I’m pleased to belatedly announce that Journey’s End is available internationally. Here’s a Q&A with editor Kathryn Ledson about the book.
(1) For a lawyer, you know a heck of a lot about wild places and wild creatures. Where did this passion come from? Was it childhood influence or something that coincided with your change of career?
I think I was born this way. Perhaps we all are, it’s just that I never outgrew my natural childhood wonder at nature. I didn’t grow up in the country. We lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between us and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.
That was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as stunning moths as big as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with snake-like grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. That heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.
(2) You write in a genre that we’re calling eco-romance. Some people are quite misguided about novels with romantic elements. They are often dismissed as being light-weight, poorly written, and so on. Your novels are far from poorly written – in fact, they are beautifully written, and touch on issues that others might prefer left unsaid. Can you tell us about some of the issues you’ve brought into the light in your other novels?
A compelling story is always the most important thing for me, but I also explore rural conservation issues in all my novels. Brumby’s Run has cattle grazing in Victoria’s high country. Currawong Creek has coal seam gas mining on the Darling Downs. Billabong Bend has water use in the Murray Darling. Turtle Reef is about protecting the Great Barrier Reef. And my first novel, a little eco/thriller/horror story called Wasp Season, is about invasive species – namely European Wasps. The wasp queen has her own point of view!
(3) Let’s talk about Journey’s End – tell us first about Kim Sullivan.
Kim Sullivan is the main character, and is a Sydney botanist. She and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment. They dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. However, when Kim is tragically widowed, selling up is the only practical option. She and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale. The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all.
The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals …
(4) You write emotion so well, Jen. I found myself hopping from laughter to tears to anger, even shame. All of your books have well defined themes. So what’s Journey’s End really about?
In some ways the novel is about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s also about Kim finding the courage to step outside her comfort zone and rediscover what’s fundamental and authentic in her life. When she sets about rewilding Journey’s End she not only restores her land. She restores her mind and spirit as well.
(5) We’ll talk more about that in a minute… I remember you saying once that if your characters must inhabit the city, then you get them to the country, as fast as possible. I’m keen to know about Tarringtops – where the property Journey’s End resides, and where Kim Sullivan takes her children. Does Tarringtops exist? Did you go there?
Tarringtops is a fictional blend of Barrington Tops and Tapin Tops – real national parks high on the Great Eastern Escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. And the character of Kim Sullivan is inspired by my old school friend, Kim Gollan, a real-life bush regenerator. Presently she’s on remote Lord Howe Island, restoring habitat for the Lord Howe Island Giant Phasmid, the world’s rarest insect.
Twenty years ago Kim and her husband Pete established the Dingo Creek Rainforest Nursery at Bobin on the edge of Tapin Tops National Park. I’ve had the great privilege of staying at their nursery, and having a guided tour of Tapin Tops’ subtropical rainforest by two passionate botanists who love and understand it.
(6) I was completely convinced that Kim Sullivan is an expert horticulturist, and it’s hard to believe you’re not. How do you know so much about, for example, wild orchids, dingoes and trophic cascades? What sort of research do you do?
Well as you can imagine, having real-life Kim as my friend helped a lot for this particular book. But I’ve been an amateur naturalist all my life. I’m fascinated by everything wild and have some kind of David Attenborough complex. I read a lot of non-fiction. At the moment I’m reading a book called Once and Future Giants – What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Mammals. Also a book about Australian wildflowers, a book on Tasmanian history, and the 40th anniversary edition of Born Free by Joy Adamson, A Lioness of Two Worlds
Novels with similar subject matters are also must reads. For example, one of my works in progress has a fair bit of falconry in it. Reading novels such as H is for Hawk and My Side of the Mountain adds to the knowledge bank. I also immerse myself in locations when I can by taking research trips. When you visit a place, maps turn into landscapes and you get a feel for the people. And of course there’s always Dr Google.
(7) Journey’s End takes us beyond Australia’s borders and touches on a very topical issue – racism. Tell us about Taj.
Taj is an Afghani refugee who has been given asylum in Australia through the Interpreter Resettlement Program. He comes from Nuristan province in the north-east, an area which doesn’t conform to the stereotype of Afghanistan being a place of deserts and bombed out landscapes. Nuristan is instead a place of mountains, rushing rivers, and vast stands of oak, cedar and pine. These wild forests of the Hindu Kush reach all the way to the snow-capped summits of the Pamir range, known as the roof of the world. Next stop, China. Snow leopards and bears still live there. Wolves too.
Taj is Tingo’s town handyman, but like many refugees, he once had a very different career. I’ve met a Pakistani taxi driver who was an orthopaedic surgeon back home, and a cleaner who was a lawyer. It’s hard starting out in a new country and Taj has a haunted past. It takes him a while to find his feet.
(8) As well as animals and the environment, children always play an important role in your novels. Taj has a very special relationship with both Kim’s children. Can you tell us about this?
Kim has two children, 11yo Jake and 7yo Abbey. Both children have highly emotional responses to Taj, who is working around the house and yards, preparing the property for sale. Jake hates him. The children’s soldier father was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and perhaps understandably, Jake can’t get past the fact of where Taj comes from. Abbey on the other hand loves him – she is drawn by the gift Taj has with animals, and by his gentleness.
(9) Journey’s End is a love story in more ways than one. There’s a gentle, budding romance, and a worrying one. This book explores the love between adults and children, humans and animals, female friends, animals and nature. For you, as its writer, which of these romances came most easily to the page?
As you might guess Kath, the romance with the animals and nature came most easily. Followed closely by the love between the animals and the two children. I completely understand that intense childhood connection with the natural world. Because, as I said before, I never outgrew it.
However, this time I didn’t have my usual struggle writing the human relationships. I think this is because of my respect for Kim and the fact that I’m secretly in love with Taj. He’s a wolf-whisperer. What’s not to love?
(10) What about your writing process. I was well into my third book before I discovered mine. Do you have one? What’s yours?
I write very consistently, daily if I can. I’m not a fast writer – a thousand words a day is about as much as I can manage, and I often write less, but it’s amazing how quickly the words add up. I edit as I go, producing very clean manuscripts that don’t require much redrafting.
I do chapter summaries as I write, noting characters, POV, location, and main plot points. This is an invaluable tool during the redrafting process. If I want to add scenes I can see straight away where they will fit in best. I roughly plan the book before I start, putting plot points on a whiteboard, following a three-act structure. It always changes a lot in the writing, but it helps to have some sort of guide.
(11) I think your books are more than just greatly entertaining. They’re important and I think should be widely read. For example, I love that you’ve shown in Journey’s End how we can SHARE our environment with its indigenous plants and creatures, instead of culling or destroying them. What else would you like your readers to take away from this story?
Journey’s End has several main themes. It’s about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s about finding the courage to live an authentic life. It’s also about overcoming prejudice. Both Taj and the dingoes are unfairly judged throughout the story, Taj by Jake and the dingoes by the town. Prejudice is a very destructive force that is based in fear. It’s only when people confront their fears that positive change can happen.