A Character Called Place

Three acclaimed authors discussed three diverse places in their latest books: from Thirroul, NSW (The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay) to Wisconsin, USA (Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth) and The Kimberleys, NT (As the River Runs by Stephen Scourfel).

Ashley Hay, author of six books, the latest is The Railwayman’s Wife. She grew up in Austinmer, South Coast, NSW. She has always loved its dramatic geography; the vast ocean and the Illawarra escarpment that asserts itself between mountains and ocean. Only after she lived in different places then returned and took other people there, did she realise how special it really is.

Amy Espeseth – writer, publisher, academic and author of two novels, was raised in Wisconsin. A harsh, cold, isolated place where it snows for nine months of the year and temperatures plummet to minus 40 degrees C! She described it as a poverty stricken place with religious fundamentalists – where people hunt, fish and love Jesus. Amy escaped to Australia to start a new life but ended up recreating her childhood in Sufficient Grace.

Stephen Scourfel is the author of two novels, a book of novellas and twice awarded Australia’s best travel writer. Originally from rural England, Australia is a learned place for him. He found a sense of place in The Kimberleys whilst mustering on horseback in camps. He uses science and geology to understand the place, the flora, the Indigenous people, a place where the oldest known life forms on earth exist. All this is featured in his latest novel, As the River Runs.

Ashley found it difficult to write about Thirroul. She was too close to it. She found a way of taking imaginative possession of it through moving to Brisbane – there she couldn’t physically see it so she had to remember. Ashley researched extensively to add extra dimension to a place she thought she knew. Amy also wrote a lot from memory. Her personal experience of hunting features a lot in her writing and reflects the life, the place and the people of Wisconsin.

Stephen believes that the character can be a result of the place. By moving place you can give yourself a new persona. In As the River Runs, Dillon is weak and self- righteous in the city, he doesn’t fit in. In The Kimberleys, however, he has strength and earned respect. Stephen observed that people move and behave differently according to the landscape. In Amy’s experience, reflected in Sufficient Grace, people are shaped by the harsh environment. The community, rituals of fishing and hunting, and religion help them together, to survive the harsh winters.

In The Railwayman’s Wife, Ashley wants the characters to learn about the space. The landscape presses in on them in different ways. Frank and Roy make sense of the place coming back from the war. Ani comes to Thirroul and sees the ocean for the very first time. Ashley described the extraordinary moment of revelation that emerges when you first glimpse the ocean from train. You can feel a change in the energy on the train, packed with city commuters, coming home to that magical place.

Stephen talked about the huge responsibility writers have to people they write about. He said there is no greater test for writers than to write about people they’ll see again. People look for themselves and see themselves in your characters. Amy also felt torn between being honest about her experience and protecting her family, church and town. For her it was easier because a lot of her people wouldn’t read a book like this and because she was so far away it gave her freedom.  She did stress however the need to write the truth no matter what: ‘If you can’t be rid of the skeletons at least make them dance.’ And ‘If someone feels embarrassed or ashamed of how they behave or treat you in your book then they should be.’

Ashley borrowed aspects of her father’s life in The Railwayman’s Wife. Her father consented but in hindsight she feels she’s been disingenuous because actually she’d borrowed without permission from many others lives – anecdotes, streetscapes and images from family photos.

Characters and places are intertwined; a place can shape a person’s character, thoughts and behaviour. Place is frequently featured at writers’ festivals and judging by the queues at this event, nobody gets sick of it. Each person and each book bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility about place.

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