Great writing has the power to transport the reader to another place and time. It can capture small details of the landscape and use those details to build an intricate world, a place where the reader can get lost for hours without ever leaving their seat. Of course the characters must also be well developed and the story arc must hold our attention, but unless the writer has successfully managed to create a real sense of place, then the reader will forever be aware of their own humble surroundings.
And so it was with great excitement that I hunkered down in my seat at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival to hear four very individual Australian writers talk about ‘Writing Country’. Acclaimed author, Sophie Cunningham described how it took writing a book about Melbourne – a place she had lived for 38 years, for her to look closely at the landscape around her. Delving into a place that holds the past, both environmentally and personally gave Cunningham a fresh perspective on her surroundings and enabled her to do justice to the city she holds so dear.
The thing about writing country is that it does not matter whether you are writing literary fiction, crime fiction, memoir, science fiction, romance or fantasy. Regardless of the genre, evoking that ‘sense of place’ is the one thing ALL good writing has in common.
Alex Miller described landscape as ‘a sacred obligation drawn from memory and imagination’. With seven books under his belt and many of them set in England where he grew up, Miller spoke about the process of writing Autumn Laing as ‘one memory triggering a sea of memories that had long been lying dormant’.
Part geology lesson, part personal history, Tony Taylor’s novel, Fishing the river of time evokes the depth of his relationship with nature. “It is about the connection to country, and building that relationship takes time. Time is so much a part of place,” Taylor says.
Reading from her new novel, The Oldest Song In The World, it was Sue Woolfe’s exquisitely rendered descriptions of the Australian outback that made me want to leap out of my seat and buy a copy of her novel. In the chosen passage, Woolfe’s protagonist describes leaving the city and arriving in the Australian desert, to what she initially perceived to be emptiness, isolation and a great big void of nothing. But after listening, really listening to the landscape, she begins to notice insects chirping and scurrying, the sand moving and blowing, and the sky so full of diamonds one night- and the next so black you could not see your hands. That empty space was not only a panty’, Woolfe says, ‘but a cathedral – filled with voices singing the oldest song in the world’.
I’ll end now with something Cunningham shared; a lovely quote that came from an Indigenous man she interviewed in Darwin about his memory of the Cyclone Tracey disaster.
‘Us mob don’t think of a cyclone as a disaster, he said. If there are no buildings, then there’s nothing to lose’.
In life and in writing, country is the character of central importance.
Michelle Sim is a student at Southern Cross University.