Thanks so much to Stormbird Press‘s Donna Mulvenna for allowing the reprinting of this interview. She talked with Amy Barker about her new novel, Paradise Earth, published by Stormbird Press in early 2020. Amy was the winner of Australia’s 2008 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author. Her stunning debut novel Omega Park won the 2012 IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Ena Noël Award, and was shortlisted for the 2009 FAW Christina Stead Award.
The aftershocks from 1996 continued, year after year, often in the life of the individual more devastating than the Port Arthur massacre itself. Yet always the subsequent tragedies could be traced back to that unspeakable Sunday.
About the Book
Coming home to Tasman Peninsula with her Northern Irish partner, Ruth journeys into her own psychic trauma as well as that projected onto the raw, monumental coast. When Ruth’s brother, John, helps his fourteen-year-old son apply for a firearm permit – almost two-and-a-half decades after Port Arthur – they risk condemning those who do not remember the past to repeat it.
A Port Arthur survivor, Marina has returned to the Peninsula with her brother Moon to pack up Doo-No-Harm, the family holiday home, after their mother’s death. Marina’s personhood was so violated by her early life experience that she has been left an angry she-wolf about to set out on the hunt. In a convoy of duck rescuers, the siblings head for a confrontation with shooters on the wetland.
In these lives choreographed by trauma, damage, and the ramifications of willful forgetfulness, transformation can only occur after an extremely painful lesson.
Chat with Author
Donna: Hi Amy. Paradise Earth. It’s just fantastic. I pushed many aspects of my life aside so that I could keep reading. One of the things I loved most was the powerful way in which you introduced readers to issues that divide communities throughout the world today. Can you tell us what motivated you to write about the events surrounding the Port Arthur massacre and how you are able to write with such profound empathy for each character?
As a writer, there is really no higher compliment you can receive than a reader telling you they felt compelled to continue reading your book so I appreciate that. I certainly felt compelled to write Paradise Earth. I found myself uniquely poised to write about the events in a work of fiction. While not at Port Arthur on the day of the massacre, I spent my formative years on Tasman Peninsula, with both victims and members of the gunman’s family. If I had been more directly affected, I imagine I would not have been willing, nor able, to explore the events in a novel. At the same time, without the personal connection to the subject matter I would not have found the courage to approach it. One of my main motivations to write Paradise Earth was to explore the unanswered questions – those of the community, survivors, and all those affected – that still surround the massacre.
Regarding issues that divide communities, as one of my characters says in the book, there are a lot of good people who own guns. In Australia, we’ve determined that there’s no place for guns that are nothing but human-killing devices and after Port Arthur these were banned. The novel examines the genuine reasons for private firearm ownership (including self-loading and pump action rifles and shotguns) that remain, i.e., recreational hunting and primary production.
As a work in progress, Paradise Earth won the 2013 DJ ‘Dinny’ O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship, the judges commenting that the narrative “is deeply inward and managed with a keen eye”. It is due to be released in April 2020. How long has it taken to write the book and why?
I began writing Paradise Earth in July 2009, during the week leading up to the release of my debut novel, Omega Park. In all the excitement, I sought sanctuary at Varuna, The National Writers House in the Blue Mountains, where I found time and space to write the opening 15,000 words of a first draft. So it has taken me essentially ten years to write the book. The best way I can think to explain the process is that during that time I didn’t only write one book but a series of books. With each new book, while things like the main setting and core characters remained, there was always a completely new plot, certain characters were killed off and others introduced. Even the core characters grew and changed from one book to the next, for example, entering different professions or becoming parents.
The reason for a constantly evolving novel is so that it remains connected with the outside world. That means while you are writing you are monitoring important events or news relevant to your subject matter, collecting this information and then reflecting it back within the world of your novel. With a major project like this, you have to be able to adapt.
You hold degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing. I have to ask… can anyone learn to write like this or do you possess an innate gift?
I was writing from a very early age. I have “work” from when I was about five years old. I remember in my final year of primary school winning a competition amongst all of the students in my grade to create the dust jacket of a novel. It was the cover art and a blurb for the back cover. Then in high school, my English teachers would tell me they would “be first in line to buy the bestseller.” Personally, I consider it a gift but such a gift is not much use without discipline, commitment, and sacrifice. Anyone will learn valuable things by doing a creative writing or related degree but knowing what I do about the life of a writer, I wouldn’t advise anyone to pursue it as a career unless they felt they had no other options, that it was their calling. If you love something as much as you love writing, and you’re as good at it, then don’t write. Choose the other thing. As the author Hubert Selby Jr. put it, “Being an artist doesn’t take much. Just everything you got.”
I believe you were well on your way to becoming a lawyer, when you had a drastic change of direction and pursued writing instead. What initial steps did you take to become a writer?
I did in fact re-enroll in law, right before my credits were due to expire for prior studies, my last chance to get my degree, with the sole aim of practicing animal law. A few weeks into the semester, I was offered an internship with a film producer (the first money I ever earned from writing was having a feature film screenplay commissioned and optioned), so I quit again!
The initial serious step I took to becoming an author was to apply for an elite course, a Fine Arts degree that only accepted twelve creative writing students each year. As part of the application you had to submit a folio of your work. I used this as a test for myself, to see if someone qualified might think that I possessed potential and/or talent. As it turned out, I was ranked first amongst all the applicants that year and I graduated with distinction after three years of study. In my final year, I began work on what was to be my debut novel, Omega Park, working with a supervisor. Five years later, Omega Park was published.
Amy, you have won multiple awards and received wide critical acclaim for your first novel, Omega Park. What has that early acknowledgement meant to you? And did it change how you wrote Paradise Earth?
The kinds of acknowledgements you’ve mentioned certainly help to increase your confidence. After the publication of Omega Park, probably the most meaningful thing I read from a critic was a comment about me being a courageous author who is not afraid to tackle confronting issues of contemporary Australian life. When writing a book like Paradise Earth, you reflect on this kind of feedback time and again, particularly during trying periods. It provides ongoing encouragement.
What do you like most about Paradise Earth? Do you have a favorite moment, character, or line? And when you began writing were their moments when your inspiration surprised you?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. Honestly, what I like most about Paradise Earth is my personal connection to the subject matter. To have felt that I not only ought to write this novel but that I must write this novel, that this was my novel to write, to have completed this long and often times challenging mission (“task” just doesn’t do the journey justice), and to have found it the absolutely perfect publishing home. The existence of this novel gives extra meaning to my past and adds value to life experiences. It really is much more than just a work of fiction to me.
Stormbird Press is a relatively new press whose mission it is to defend nature and empower communities through the power of story. Why is it important to you to align yourself with an organization that is trying to make positive change in the world?
Stormbird’s mission is one very close to my own heart. I consider signing with Stormbird Press to not only be a great opportunity but an excellent investment. As an author, my success is Stormbird’s success and as a publisher whose mission I deeply care about, Stormbird’s ultimate success is my success. In my view, this is true partnership and the kind that is difficult, if not near on impossible, to find as an author in the publishing world. I can’t imagine any other existing publisher that would have been the right one for Paradise Earth so I am very blessed.
What do you hope people will learn from your portrayal of the Port Arthur massacre, its effects on individuals and community, the legacy of violence, and the suffering on the physical landscape?
I would hope that a reader might learn that the Port Arthur massacre is in many ways still an open wound – in the lives of individuals within the Tasman Peninsula community and beyond, as well as on the place Port Arthur and its surrounds. As such, the massacre remains an event deserving of our attention, understanding, and compassion. Most of all, I hope that readers might be provoked to ask questions about aspects of the current state of the world and what Port Arthur can still teach us about the reality that hurt people do hurt people and so not only our compassion but our common sense should tell us that to do no harm should be our ever present goal if we don’t want cycles of violence to continue and the past to repeat itself.
Have you found it particularly challenging having factual events and such a notorious figure as a key focus of your novel? How do you find that balance of fact and fiction, particularly with such sensitive subject matter?
Everything in the novel surrounding the gunman and the massacre is based on facts and the real historical events. My characters are the only fictional creations, as well as a couple of locations on Tasman Peninsula: a local cemetery and a fishing spot. Writing about this, or any other real world tragedy, is always going to be an ethically charged process. As an author you must listen most carefully to the voices of those affected, particularly those directly affected by the event. If you do that, it won’t be easy but you will have a constant guide throughout what might otherwise be a perilous journey.
One of the reviews of Omega Park stated: “Despite a cast of memorable characters, the real hero in this debut novel is the setting, a uniquely Queensland environment, but one sadly underexplored in fiction.” The same might be said of Paradise Earth. Why is the strong evocation of “place” such an important aspect of your work, which in some respects, could be seen as a central character?
When I think about it, I did begin Paradise Earth simply with place rather than a story. The time I spent living on Tasman Peninsula as a child affected me deeply and continues to affect me now. There is no other place quite like it. When it came time to write my second novel, I wanted to capture, or at least represent this place, in a work of fiction. What I soon found is that it is impossible to write about Tasman Peninsula without writing about Port Arthur and once you begin writing about Port Arthur, the events of 1996 in particular, this is such a vitally important subject matter that it subsumes any other potential narratives. I know that at least one of the reasons I feel such an affinity with the Peninsula is its unique geology. The coastline is stunningly beautiful and yet this unique beauty is the result of damage: millions of years of wind and wave erosion. This appeals to me as a powerful metaphor of the human psyche, that it is possible our own personal damage can result in a beauty that makes us unique, who we are, if you like. It’s a question of embracing it. I would challenge anyone to spend a significant length of time on Tasman Peninsula and not be affected by it in a profound way. As an author, I feel much obliged that I have a medium to be able to share my deep and lasting impressions with others in what I hope is a meaningful way.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.