An Interview with Joy Rhoades – author of The Burnt Country

portrait photo of Joy Rhoades

An interview by Rod McLary on behalf of the Queensland Reviewers Collective

You are an Australian with a deep connection to western New South Wales and Queensland through your grandmother and your own early life in Roma.  You have described your grandmother as a ‘gentle teller of stories’.  Are both your books [The Woolgrower’s Companion and The Burnt Country] a form of homage to your grandmother and her life on a sheep farm?

Yes! I feel a visceral connection with the bush, and I admired my grandmother very much. Both things have gone into my books. My grandmother lived almost all of her 103 years on her family’s sheep place on the tablelands in northern NSW. But I aim not to sentimentalise that life, and the reader gets both: the beauty of the landscape and the perilous nature of life on the land, at the whim of rainfall and commodity prices. The courage in that precarious existence, against a starkly beautiful landscape, is what I want to bring out on the page.

The Burnt Country begins with Kate grieving for her father and considering the tasks ahead for her as the owner of Amiens.  Suddenly, Jack bursts into the room and, before he leaves again, he strikes her.  This scene has an immediate impact on the reader and, I think, tells the reader that deeper issues are at play.  Was it your intention to draw attention to the issue of domestic violence as perhaps one element of the general attitude to women that we see further into the story?

As a writer, I want to catch a reader’s attention at the very beginning, immediately making clear what’s at stake. So for me, the opening scene must set up Kate’s life for the reader. It needs to show what she’s up against, and the world of 1948 in which she lives. Normality in 1948 was, at best, a widespread disregard of women, and at worst, more pervasive abuse. That’s what I’ve aimed to show. But I aimed to ‘show, not tell,’ as writing books say: )

Harry – the thirteen-year-old boy – is a very interesting character and you have accurately captured the essence of a boy caught between childhood and adulthood.  There are times that Harry wants very much to be the ‘man’ and help out but the child in him sometimes lets him down.  In writing about him in the book, did you also see in your mind’s eye what kind of person he would be when he became an adult?

I love young Harry, still a man/boy mix. He’s one of my favourite characters, funny, irreverent, irrepressible. I hope he’ll make a fine young man. As a writer, I get attached to characters and am thrilled when readers feel the same way. I’ve got a Harry book in my head, actually, where he takes more of centre stage. Not sure yet if it’ll get written for a while as I have another story line, completely unrelated to Kate, Harry or Amiens, that’s wanting to get itself written first.

Your first book is referenced in this one through the extracts at the head of each chapter.  I must say that I was surprised to read at the end of the book that The Woolgrower’s Companion 1906 does not exist.  Were the extracts from your imagination or were they distilled from your observations of life on your grandmother’s sheep farm – or a combination of the two?

I’m always secretly thrilled when readers are surprised that the epigraphs don’t come from a real Victorian guide to sheep-growing : )  I love Victorian literature –that cumbersome, stately, verbose language of Dickens and Eliot. And by the end of writing my first book, I’d started to know a little about raising sheep. That’s when the idea hit me: I could do what the fabulous Annie Proulx did in The Shipping News and put an epigraph at the start of each chapter of the novel, that would hint at what was to come, but in the guise of a tip about how to raise sheep. The sheep information that I’ve Victorianised, language-wise, is largely from my own knowledge, or from tips from graziers and a book by a wonderful TAFE teacher, David Crean, on sheep-raising.

Perhaps the most serious issue in the book is the community attitudes towards Daisy and Pearl and by extension to the Aboriginal peoples generally.  You write about the Aborigines Welfare Board and its intention to take Pearl away from Daisy.  You also write into the dialogue of some of the characters expressions such as ‘Abo’ which are confronting and demeaning.  It suggests that this issue is one which is very important to you.  Did you both in Roma and at your grandmother’s property, have contact with Aboriginal people and their children?  Did this contact inform you as you were writing of Daisy and Pearl?

Absolutely. But when I started researching the history of Aboriginal people on pastoral properties, I found very little information. Then I came upon Shared Landscapes, by Professor Rodney Harrison. My awakening to the ‘writing out’ of Aboriginal people from Australian history, made me even more determined that my novels should include Aboriginal characters. I aimed to approach the writing with sensitivity and respect, and so I sought guidance. The late Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert helped me enormously on both my novels, and I will always owe her such a debt for teaching me with such kindness. Her remarkable memoir is out September 2019. On my second novel, The Burnt Country, Aunty Judi Wickes was enormously helpful. Her dissertation on certificates of exemption was invaluable, and she shares her own personal responses as well. The more I learn, the more I know I have to learn.    

My thanks and appreciation to Joy for the interview.

For a review of The Burnt Country, see the pages below.

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