An interview by Rod McLary on behalf of the Queensland Reviewers Collective
To me, Wolfe Island seems set in a world which is uncertain and insecure. A world which is under threat even from the ocean which appears ready to swallow Wolfe Island at any time. In fact, water in all its forms – ocean, rain, snow, ice – is a constant factor in the novel. Is it correct to suggest that ‘water’ may be a metaphor for external threats to what seemed once to have been an idyllic life for Kitty Hawke?
It’s certainly true that water is a recurring image in Wolfe Island; how the reader interprets that is up to them. It is a literal threat, as it has been to people for millennia. Mythical representations of flood (for example the biblical myth of Noah’s ark and many others) suggest people’s age-old fear of its uncontrollability and unpredictability. As Kitty’s father says: ‘water is perilous in all its forms’.
The theme that I have become more aware of since publication is fragmentation. The erosion of Wolfe Island is a metaphor for so much: the crumbling of the USA (and Australia), ‘civilisation’, capitalism, the West, decency, justice, human rights, Kitty’s family, people’s ways of life, and so on. It’s there in the book’s structure and in Kitty’s way of thinking.
I don’t think of correct or incorrect interpretations. It’s not what I had in mind, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It makes sense. When a book heads into the world it stops being the writer’s, and it’s so interesting to find out what people think.
The mainland through which Kitty and her family travel is an anonymous country characterised by suspicion and threat. The family is threatened a number of times but there are also occasions where kindness is extended to them. Is this a reflection of the world today where strangers – or refugees – are treated with suspicion and fear?
I am interested in the range of human behaviour that I see around me within Australia as well as overseas, particularly in terms of responses to refugees politically and personally. White nationalism is on the rise globally, but there are many good people who oppose this, advocating for refugees’ rights and political change.
The fear of the unknown and of strangers is age old, as is the exhortation from all major religions to welcome the stranger in our midst. They represent the competing drives in human populations, each as visible in history as they are today. I’m trying to represent that duality, acknowledging that there are periods in history when ‘unkind’ people appear to have the upper hand.
Kitty Hawke – despite her slightly humorous name – is a formidable character and one who is prepared to kill in order to protect her family. Was it a challenge to write a character who either directly or indirectly causes the deaths of four people but who continues to engage the sympathy of the reader?
Kitty Hawke, the first person narrator of Wolfe Island, arrived fairly fully formed. I heard her voice clearly and murmured it aloud all the time I was writing. It was one of the things that anchored me to her and allowed me to follow along and observe her, and to reveal herself in ways that often surprised. She can be ferocious – not unlike her wolfdog, Girl. I was occasionally shocked by what she did, and though I questioned what she did, I never judged her. I wasn’t going through what she was, and I wasn’t her. Reminding myself that her mother said she was ‘a quarter wolf at least’ from time to time helped.
The only particular difficulty is to maintain fidelity to character – to the person you are writing onto the page – leaving aside your own morality and likely responses to situations. I thought Kitty had good or at least understandable reasons for doing what she did, and I didn’t judge her. I felt such affection for her and I think that came out in the writing in a way that might engage the reader. It wasn’t something I consciously worked towards.
A significant event in Kitty’s life is the early death of her son Tobe [or ‘To Be’ perhaps?] the circumstances of which are not explained. Kitty also visits his murderer – who is not named – while he is in prison and before he is executed. As I was reading the novel, I was expecting at some stage that the circumstances would be disclosed by Kitty and the reader would understand why she blamed herself. Was this a conscious decision of Kitty’s not to record the details of his death in her notebooks?
The way Kitty notes information – in a way that might feel incoherent – suggests to me that she finds it hard to face high emotion. She recalls distressing things obliquely, at intervals and in fragments.
The information about Tobe’s murder comes out in a key section that compresses several of Kitty’s visits to the prisoner (pp.249–250), when the layers of stories the prisoner has been telling the world (and himself) fall away: ‘it [the murder] was an accident’, ‘the guy [Tobe] was trigger happy…He was going to get me’. Then, when Kitty says, ‘I heard he was saving someone’, the prisoner’s reply makes it clear that he was sexually assaulting someone – ‘A little shy, you know? … She was coming round’, and claims he shot Tobe for his ‘protection’. We take it that she knows the circumstances of Tobe’s death: ‘Doing something right is not the worst way to die,’ she says later (p. 327).
Kitty is not an especially ‘conscious’ person, I would say, especially after so many years spent living ‘in the moment’, as much an animal as any other creature on Wolfe Island. Writing helps to restore her sense of peace after Cat etc. arrive, and she begins to record her observations and her memories of the past.
Tobe’s murder makes Kitty reflect on the ways she feels she has failed him, and the guilt she feels about that. ‘School didn’t suit Tobe’s quiet ways.’ (p.81) ‘Tobe wanted to stay. I should have backed him up.’ (p.84) ‘I was no help to him. Now, I think education, conservation, water management, ecosystems, biodiversity. I was stupid.’ (p.91) It’s on the last night that she goes to visit Hart in Blackwater that Tobe is murdered. ‘That was the night that Tobe met trouble. I will never stop wondering if things might have been different if I’d lived in town all those years.’ (p.94)
This is a book in which fragmentation is a recurring theme. Kitty’s world, her home and her family are in pieces. The reader’s job is to gather these fragments and build a picture of the past. But I think the reader can feel what Kitty is feeling even if they miss some of the pieces. People are often enigmatic to others and even sometimes to themselves. Silence can be as eloquent as words.
(About the name Tobe: I came across it years ago, and remembered it. It has the slightly archaic sound of a name that might be found in a forgotten and seldom visited corner of the world. It immediately came to mind when I began writing Wolfe Island. Some names in the book do have significance; others, such as Tobe (rhymes with ‘robe’) are just names that seemed to suit.)
We first meet Alejandra when she is about seven years old. She returns to Wolfe Island ‘some years later’ as a young woman ‘and was exactly what she was going to become’. She says to Kitty that she will not waste this life. Does she represent a hope for the future and a vindication for Kitty for what she has endured and what she had to do to protect her family?
It’s difficult for me to answer this question. I don’t think in terms of what events or characters represent. I feel it’s up to the reader to make this sort of judgment. My wish or aim was to follow these people and see what they would do as events unfolded. Do I believe that the events could have happened as depicted for these people in the circumstances depicted? Does it feel true? Do the characters ring true? I could see Alejandra as wounded but resilient, and see how the short time she spent on Wolfe Island with Kitty and Girl was almost like armour that kept her going through subsequent hardship. I don’t think Kitty takes any credit for that, but is relieved, and perhaps also awed, at what Alejandra has become. Kitty is more humble than anything else in the face of Alejandra’s suffering and survival. But I will say, from a reader’s perspective, that yours is a very plausible insight – thank you for it!
Our thanks and appreciation to Lucy Treloar for the interview.
Please see our review of Wolfe Island in the pages below.