Monday, July 17, 2017

Hinterlands and Understories

I've recently had the pleasure of launching two books, Hinterland by Steven Lang (UQP, 2017) and Understory by Inga Simpson (Hachette, 2017). They are rather different works, the first a novel of manners, the other a nonfiction work of nature writing. But they're connected by their setting in the hills and valleys inland of Queensland's Sunshine Coast, and a desire to figure place as a key element in storytelling.

I gave speeches at both of these launches, edited versions of which are given below.



This book is, in many respects, one about place – or, places, and the way in which different places can influence one another; how they come to develop a kind of conversation about influence and exchange: about whether to accept changes that come from outside our immediate surroundings, changes that are sometimes forced onto us; and about how we communicate our own, local points of view, character, desires to the wider world. How we might come to influence them with our stories and points of view.

I’d to talk a bit more about place now. It’s a touching point between my own work and this book, and certainly it’s one way of reading Hinterland.

I arrived in Australia as a teenager, and I’ve been driving up the scenic hill road to Maleny pretty regularly ever since. It was one of the first places that I was taken to visit when my mother and I migrated from Europe in the 1980s. I recall that we climbed up the road quite slowly in a long, white Ford Falcon 500 with its windows down. I sat in the back seat; the engine noise got louder as the car strained a little, but the air outside cooled as well, freshened, and then at last we reached the crest of the wave, and a winding road that we followed until we arrived at a damp, wooded car park which was at the entrance to a rain forest walk. We were going to do the track, and in a moment I’d have my first ever encounter with leaches.

It looked like the entrance to another world, one hidden by a high canopy and revealed only in the shots of light that made it through. But there was also something quite familiar to me here. I’d spent my early childhood in Iceland and England. To me, the Glasshouse Mountains seemed connected by their shape to the volcanic island of my birth. And, nearer to us on the other side of the road, I saw pastures where dairy cows were grazing, very much as in the rolling farmlands of Cheshire, from where I’d just arrived.

And yet no doubt the reason I’d been brought to Maleny, was actually so that I might experience the distinctiveness of this place: how this hinterland environment was different from the landscapes that I’d come from, different from those of the coast, too –that is, the Australia I’d been expecting.

But through it all I recognised something deeply familiar, more so than the surface terrain. I saw that this was a kind of island. Before we walked into the forest, I sensed that I’d arrived at a place apart, away from the greater wonder of Australia: rather like Iceland and Britain are islands apart from the Continent.

I’ve been talking about Maleny. That’s because I think that’s very probably the place we’re reading about in this book, a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland; although, Steven has given it the name Winderran.

But as crucially we’re reading about a town that has this powerful sense of its apartness about it. The hinterland is home to a community that either all know each other, or grew up together, or are at least spatially aware of each other – and perhaps more acutely aware of change as a result being such a constant in each other’s lives. There are well-established families with long reputations to protect. And new arrivals, who are needed, but who may disrupt the patterns of life, customs. However well-meaning these new people are, they sometimes seem more like pirates, for they take away the certainties of the old ties and family connections.

Ideas can be pirates, too. Or, more to the point, government proposals can be. Much of the tension in this book comes because of a proposed damn that threatens to engulf farms and forests, and at the same to time sweep away much of the community’s sense of self-determination. The town doesn’t need the damn; the demand comes from the outside, and really the need of the coast. Suddenly, the village of Winderran is being told to change in order to meet the demands of the world beyond it. It’s being made to look different.

The literary result of this threat, of course a real one, is here a rich type of work that’s called a novel of manners, or novel of manners and morality – some way into the book, Steven does hint to us that this is the kind of story he’s telling, with a reference to the genre. This, then, is in a way a nineteenth century novel – not old-fashioned, but very definitely a study of how a particular community deals with key ethical issues of its age, here water, and how that community reveals itself through its reactions to that issue.

The hinterland is separate, but if it does form a micro-climate, it’s also one where the elements are familiar to us all: entrepreneurs running a little wild without much clear sense of purpose; muscular Christianity with perhaps too much sense of purpose; counter-culture and protest; illness – time and again, characters are understood by the way they cope with physical decline. There’s even a writer in this book, although it has to be said he’s not the most likable of the cast: he’s more or less thrown in his writing in order to pursue a career in politics. How could he?

And the cast is large one. It’s there to give us a full portrait of the town, and the range of manners to which it bears witnesses. But ultimately it is two people, a nurse called Eugenie and a newcomer, Nick, who form the most important setting of the book, its ultimate island, if you like – the one that two people manage to make when they look for each other, and look out for each other, and find a space together, even among a crowd or in a busy village life. This is a book filled with many places in that village: the hall, meetings, creeks, dinner parties, empty roads at night, a surgery, and then also the private world where people at least try to keep the rest of the village out.

In this, I was reminded of a poem by John Donne. In his work, ‘The Sun Rising’, the poet makes fun of the sun for thinking that it illuminates the world. Doesn’t it realise that the world has been contracted to a single room, the one he shares with his life, a location of its own, governing all. This is a kind of fantasy, of course: there is no perfect isolation, no one place where the sun has done its work if it but rests there. I learnt this from going back to my birthplace of Iceland, a country that stood apart from the rest of the world for a long time, and more or less fell in love with its separateness. Being separate can create a feeling specialness, and over the years Icelanders have learnt to make fun of their exceptionalism, even if they still believe that the sun need only shine there in order for it to shine everywhere.

But these days, when I visit Maleny, it’s with the warm memory of the first time I went up, and recognised and really enjoyed the separateness of the town and its environment. As in Reykjavik and I’m sure in many other places like it, the slight air of isolation has created intensity and energy, and Steven’s book responds to that energy, and very faithfully I think, reproduces it as a portrait, an island study revealing many colours, weathers, and tracks.

The last couple of times I’ve visited I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting with Steven at literary events. He’s an important part of the cultural life of the town. Sometimes, as I read the book, I found myself looking for him in the characters, and wondering which aspects of his life have found their way into their depiction. When we write about other people, especially fictional people, we have to give a lot of ourselves.

What’s most important now, of course, is that this book is now leaving its inland island home and voyaging outwards, towards readers curious about how this remarkable region thrives, and fights, and loves. In this book we are very much invited into the town of Winderran, and we’re asked to meet the people there as we would, I think, meet them in life: each made up of good and bad qualities, complex people, neighbours who are sometimes good to have around, but not always good to have around.



This is a captivating work, and also a book about quiet moments, about place, about stillness: we’re in a cottage, we’re hearing about years spent living among trees that surround it, and Inga’s desire to understand and protect these trees, the habitat they form, and to honour the country that she lives in, including the many stories that the country holds: Indigenous stories, stories of European colonization, the stories the plant life, and of course her own.

The chapters of Understory form a kind of woodland – a very varied one. Each chapter is named after a variety of tree found on her property. These chapter titles turn out to be thematic as well as botanical: we learn about each particular species, but alongside that we also learn about how trees can, in a sense, speak or help us to speak – and so how in this way join the story of those who live with them. Inga’s curious about the natural world that surrounds her, and observant, too: she reads voraciously, but she also watches life as it develops its own patterns around her, its own chronology and tempo. She is drawn to that, and wants to include something of this new chronology in how she lives.

As Inga writes about her experiences, she becomes a more astute observer, too. In this way, the book celebrates a symbiosis between reading, writing, and living: breathing it in so that we can express ourselves. We get to walk through the forest with Inga, with her as a kind of fellow student, but we also learn about the difficulties of the choice the she and her partner make when they leave the city. This book doesn't complain, but nor does it shy away from the realities of building a kind of retreat.

I expect we all have our own ways of retreating from… what, the world, the routines we’ve gradually accepted as normal and sane, enough. Or, we all have our own ways of finding retreat. Maybe that’s better than the verb. Retreating sounds a little too much like leaving, or running away in the middle of a battle. This is book isn’t about that kind of retreating, it’s not escapist; it's about moving towards the world, not away.

As a beginning, this means moving to the ten-acre property that Inga and her partner buy. It’s their family’s own retreat. She and N, the name that Inga gives to her partner and the other major person in this book, are looking for change: from jobs that don’t quite fit them, from crowded city housing, traffic noise, concrete. But more so than leaving these things, they’re on the move towards a fuller writing life.

To start with, Inga seems a little concerned about what she’s leaving behind. The cottage has some problems, and she’s going to be a long way from her gym. But she soon realises that the work of maintaining a property of this size will make up for missed workouts. Setting up in a new place is demanding in many ways: it puts a strain on those jobs in the city now a long commute away; living in the country makes it hard to even keep a job. It creates a new family dynamic. But, still: who wouldn’t swap crowded urban living for trees, wonderful bird and animal life, and a little bit of distance from all this rushing we do?

Well, to be honest, probably I wouldn’t. Or, better said: I wouldn’t manage it very well.

I love cities and all the noise. I’m not very handy, and, I have to admit, a bit afraid of chainsaws and power tools. But of course I get it, and in this case I get it because Inga allows us into her life, her desires and hopes, her story. This is a generous book, because it’s looking at the world generously. Her cottage is just a cottage in the forest, but, as Inga puts it, “it isn’t what is there, but what we see. It’s what we bring to a place, and what it gives us.”

Clearly, for Inga this is where she should be living. As much as escaping the city, she’s moving towards a world that is right for her. She begins to read nature writers, and realizes that in her writing she is joining a community of writers who have sought out something similar. Other forms of retreat develop. Some of these are less than straightforward. When the property next door comes up for sale, Inga and N are desperate to buy it. They’ll have to borrow a lot more money, but doing so will allow them to begin a writer’s retreat, where they might create a place for people, like them, who wants to write more.

At this point, the year is 2008, the banks are enormously confident and very willing to lend money – what could possibly go wrong?

I think this must be around the time I first met Inga. I’d just come back from a few years living in Iceland, and I’d begun a lecturing job at QUT. Inga was finishing her PhD in creative writing, and I was part of a final panel that read her thesis just before it was submitted. What came through then, as now, was Inga’s ability to pair creative writing techniques with different, searching kinds of inquiry.
Inga manages this movement between styles and modes of address very fluently. The book is an interplay of past and present, intimate perspectives and expansive ones. But the techniques she uses are not there for their own sake; the writing is never showy: they serve the work, one that subtly combines reflection about the writing life with botanical observation, family, philosophy, and a story of the ten years that follow the purchase of the cottage, and the writer’s retreat next door.

Across the years, it becomes apparent that what we’re really reading about is the strange and often strained, but magical, task of trying to create what you want, what you protect and nurture: literature, the natural environment, relationships – and memory, too.