I caught up with Kevin Rabalais in the Green Room. I was curious to know what an American author could bring to a classic Australian story or myth, this one being the expedition of Burke and Wills. Rabalais moved from New Orleans to Australia to work on his historic novel Landscape of Desire.
He first read the story in his home state of Louisiana and became fascinated particularly in Robert O’Hara Burke. Here was a man known for being unable to find his way home after a night at the pub yet who was chosen to lead the best-funded expedition ever to cross the Australia, says Rabalais. “But what started out as a story of sweaty men in the desert turned out as much more of a love story when Burke fell in love with an actress half his age,” he says. As he travelled further north Burke would ride back each night in order to see the actress and then he’d go backstage in order to propose marriage.
I asked Rabalais what difference it made to have an American author looking at such a quintessentially Australian story. “The outsiders view in literature has always been essential and I think otherwise we end up missing our own stories,” he said.
“The Burke and Wills story might be more fascinating to me as an outsider than to people who grew up learning it and having to read it,” said Rabalais, “whereas American history might fascinate an Australian novelist as it did Peter Carey whose upcoming book is a historical fiction set in America.”
I attended a workshop with novelist Linda Jaivin last week who also writes historical fiction, and found the layers and paths of research she delved into to be fascinating. I asked Rabalais about his research techniques and about mingling imagination and fact.
“The imagination does incredible things when we write because writing teaches us to think more intensely than we might otherwise so we come up with details that even the research might not have hit upon,” he said. Rabalais was much more willing to follow his imagination and to describe things that he saw in his imagination because he knew that these things were not seen by the explorers in the 19th century. “I needed to rely on the imagination,” he said.
When you publish a book the author is the only one who can no longer read it, says Rabalais. The danger is in writing a book that only you can read and that’s what happened with James Joyce and Finnegans Wake, and he was the only one that understood what was going on, he said. “Once the book leaves you and you’ve read it so many times a true book that a life of its own, and has things that even you will never see, and that’s one of the exciting things of being a reader.”