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.
– 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.