I'll be making my first (post-publication) festival appearance next month at the Perth Writers' Festival. There are many reasons why this is a wonderful thing. For one, I'm looking forward to have an excuse to pop back to Perth in the height of summer. It's been years since I was there for hot weather, so I'll be making the most of Cottesloe Beach. Actually, I may need to buy bathers.
Blue waters aside, I'm excited (and nervous) at the thought of sitting on the other side of the desk at various panels. I've done this a few times before, but that was before I had an actual book to promote or defend or dissect. It doesn't help that there are many highly-regarded authors also appearing at the festival. (Margaret Atwood! China Mieville! Kate Grenville!) I will be trying my best not to look like an impostor. But then, as it's a writers' festival, I kind of figure everyone else will be doing the same thing.
I'm doing four sessions, not all of which have been announced. You can read about two of them here:
I'm also one of the authors chosen by Melbourne's Centre for Youth Literature for this year's Reading Matters program. This is very exciting, even if it doesn't mean a swim. I'll be joining some very talented folk, some of whom have been announced at the link below. If you're in Melbourne and are interested in Young Adult fiction, I recommend you come along.
In other news, I recently finished recording an audiobook version of Fire In The Sea for Vision Australia. At this stage, it will only be available to their members, sorry. It was a strange process, reading something that couldn't be changed or edited. I rarely read my stuff once it's seen print and now I kind of remember why. For the most part, however, it was a lot of fun bringing the characters to life. It reminded me that I've missed podcasting. Maybe it's time to go back. Once I've finished the sequel.
Finally, I became a father for the first time nine weeks ago. So far so good. Although I'm sure I used to have more time to write.
I've been busy with baby things, after the arrival of my daughter at the end of November, but I did manage to find time to complete a video interview for book review blog A Book With A View. You can watch Part 1 (of 3) below.
They passed one of the abandoned lighthouses on its rocky spit, where a faded sign welcomed sailors. And then the harbour was gone and they were in open sea.
The sign at the mouth of Fremantle harbour isn't quite as I remembered. It is no longer faded and no longer mentions sailors. Perhaps its updating reveals a new sense of professionalism in a city gripped by a mining boom. When I was growing up in Perth, our one claim to fame was that astronaut John Glenn once saw us from space. Everyone had left their lights on for the occasion and the electric sizzle stood out against all the empty darkness that surrounds one of the world's most isolated capital cities. For decades after that, we called ourselves the city of lights.
Although it's isolated from everywhere else, Perth is actually two cities. Its twin, Fremantle, is the prettier half. Perth is all concrete and modern, with glass towers and open shopping malls; Fremantle has older, more genteel buildings and is a knot of high streets and cafes. It's main feature is the harbour. At the harbour, the Swan River meets the sea. Vast ships unload new cars and mining equipment, while floating cages spirit away scared and stinking sheep.
Yet, despite all this industry, much of the harbour always feels oddly quiet. In the heat of the day, when there's no shade to be found anywhere, some of the quays are more or less abandoned. Which makes them the perfect place to set the sudden, violent sequence where Sadie first meets the villainous Drowners.
1. The Harbour
Three figures shot up from the harbour depths. They rose ten metres in the air, trailing saltwater, and then dropped onto the wharf. Their hair was knotted and foul and their faces warped and discoloured. They wore tight-fitting, tarnished armour: chain-mail vests stained with verdigris and heavy bracelets on bony wrists. Helmets masked their eyes and exaggerated their brows into curled horns. One carried a double-bladed axe, one had a sword strung from his rotting leather belt, and the last gripped a trident.
This is the patch of bitumen on which Sadie and Jake first encounter the Drowners. It's at the very end of the docks, close to the open sea and the new(ish) maritime museum, just out of the way enough to ensure nobody will be running to the rescue.
It's a place I've kept returning to, over the years. I fell in love with the idea of travel at a very young age, so was always excited seeing all these ships arriving and departing to places I couldn't imagine. This place truly felt like the edge of the world. And there is romance in a ship that an aeroplane lacks. One day, I was going to board one of these vessels and disappear over the horizon. Of course, I never did. By the time I was old enough to go anywhere, the only people who travelled by sea were well-off retirees. The furthest I went by sea was Rottnest Island, a narrow strip of sand and shrub about 25 minutes' voyage from Fremantle.
I think my love of the sea is probably pretty evident in Fire in the Sea. It's in the title, after all. I spent most of my childhood around it, in it, or bouncing across it in friends' boats. The sea has possibilities, romance and, most importantly, deep and dark secrets.
The toes of her boots were on the raised wooden edge of the pier. She stared down at the dark green water. Low waves washed against the barnacled timber posts. Sun glittered irresistibily.
It's a drop of a couple of metres from the pier to the water and, frankly, it's not the sort of water anybody should go swimming in. It's deep and dirty and currents are likely to pull you out to sea or under a boat. If you go in, you're not getting out easily.
People used to come and fish here, long into the early hours of the morning. One Esky for the fish, another for the beer. A small radio playing classic hits. Something by Cold Chisel, maybe.
If you're sailing up the river, out to the sea, then you'll emerge from the harbour at the left of this picture. The dock where the fight scene takes place is between the two tall buildings that can be seen around there. To get to this point by car (this was taken on the rocky spit that features the red lighthouse) is a little more difficult, as you need to go right out of Fremantle, across the river and then drive through a labyrinthine industrial wasteland. Still, it's a nice view when you get there.
Tom and Sadie sail through this scene, from left to right, towards the end of the book. It's a journey I've made myself on several occasions and it's always quite exciting when your boat suddenly hits the swell and surge of the ocean.
The view from the end of the spit, with the lighthouse and welcome sign at your back, looks like this. There are always container ships lurking on the horizon, waiting for a space at port. Somewhere in the water out there, Sadie's destiny is waiting.
Here is another picture of the lighthouse. For no other reason than I like lighthouses. It was my dream to one day live in one. (Not this one, it's too small.) Now that I'm older, I'm not sure I like the thought of all those stairs.
2. Frobisher's office
Jake had stopped, peering up at a dusty sign above a warped, flaking door. The Law Offices of Horace Frobisher, it read, First Floor. Jake went up, three stairs at a time, threw open the frosted door that topped them and called for the lawyer.
High Street is now a little less rundown than I describe it in the book, mainly because a university has bought up so much of it. But there are still plenty of little shops, some more temporary than others, and little patches of scruffiness. I was very pleased to see that Frobisher's office is still waiting to be poshed up.
Well, actually, Frobisher's door is a little scruffier than I had imagined. Perhaps he's gone away?
This place was actually a flat where my best friend's dad lived after a messy separation. I came here when I was about ten, I think. It was probably the first bachelor pad I'd been in and certainly the first flat above a shop. Imagine living above a shop, I thought! How exciting. It's stuck in my mind ever since.
This is the side view of the flat, from a different street around the corner. The first floor windows belong (or belonged) to Frobisher. On the other side of the flat, there's a dirt carpark, which Jake drops down into when he runs off. Those crumpled gates are currently blocking his exit to the street.
Next door to Frobisher's building, back on High Street, is this mysterious club. Is that a Minotaur above the door? Coincidence? Yes.
Actually, I wish I'd remembered this when I was writing the book. I could have had a lot of fun with the Buffalo Club.
A little further up High Street (not directly across the road, as in the book) is this army surplus store. You can see here the shade from which Sadie is watched by a mysterious figure in an overcoat. He wasn't there when we stopped by.
From here, it's a short walk (as Sadie discovers, to her peril) back to the harbour.
The civic centre had once been the home of someone important, although Sadie had never been interested enough to remember who. To Sadie, it had always been a safe place. When she was a young girl, her mother had held no qualms about leaving her there to play. Tonight it felt like a trap, its dark places concealing unknown terrors. She thought of that beast in her backyard. She thought of muggers and murderers. She thought of the strange boy beside her.
The Cottesloe civic centre was always going to feature in Fire In The Sea. It's an eccentric, rather wonderful place; a rich man's folly. A mining magnate bought the land in 1911 and turned it into a weird Spanish estate. There are crumbling stone walls; several levels of grass plains for weddings, picnics and playgrounds; and a white villa now used by the council for their meetings. It's like a more modest version of Portmeirion.
Like Sadie, I was often left to play here. I kept coming here, even when I was older. I thought about getting married here. The guitarist from R.E.M. actually did.
It's a stunning setting, just a short walk from Cottesloe beach. Its positioning atop a hill means you can gaze out across a handful of rooftops into endless blue nothing. Just the place for Sadie and Jake to test the distance between them.
A winding path led around to a wide concrete stage where wedding parties would pose for photographs. Jake stood before it, arms folded, like some night watchman. His jaw was set and his brow lowered. He stared out to sea as if waiting for bad news.
This is more or less the view Jake would have, when looking for bad news. (Obviously, it would be dark.) He and Sadie are standing on this:
A stage that is indeed often used for weddings. Like so:
(That wedding was playing Bryan Adam's Everything I Do (I Do It For You) as their wedding march. Don't do that.)
I actually posed there for some photos after my own wedding. Which is strictly against the rules, so let's keep that between ourselves.
His hand, when Sadie took it, was cool, despite the hot night. He led her down off the stage and around to the small rose garden, where a dozen bushes were in bloom. The heat of the last fortnight had singed leaves and wilted petals, but a few buds still held a crisp shape. Studying each bush in turn, Jake picked one and gave it to Sadie.
The rose garden is to the left of the stage, if you're facing it, and down a short flight of stairs. As you can see from the sign, Jake is recklessly flaunting council regulations.
Here's another picture of it. I don't know who that woman is. (Actually, it's my wife. She didn't get a rose. I'm very law-abiding.)
As it is, both Jake and Sadie are breaking civic centre rules, just by being there after dark:
I think the civic centre was always irresistable, as a child, as it didn't really seem to belong in Cottesloe. It's a little piece of another world, the closest I was going to get to somewhere like Narnia. (Okay, that's a bit of stretch... it never snowed, but there are a few lampposts.) I spent hours as a boy making up stories and games that used this place as a backdrop. I hunted smugglers, ducked vampire bats and completed impossible obstacle courses. Really, it was inevitable it would show up in my fiction. At present, there's a short scene set there in the sequel, but there's no saying it will survive the edit. I hope it does.
It was an afternoon like any other. The four of them, lazing on the terraces at Cottesloe beach. Kimberley arranged on a carefully laid-out towel, touching up her lip gloss. Her twin Heather, twenty-two minutes younger and twelve times as serious, turning over tarot cards. Tom sitting away from them, staring out across the glaring white sand.
Fire in the Sea opens at Cottesloe beach, a place where most of the best bits of my childhood were spent. It's a white sand beach, where the clear waters are calmed by a rocky groyne. On one side of the groyne, surfers wait for waves. On the other, children wade in warm shallows. During the summer, it's packed with tourists and suburban teenagers who walk up (and then down) the hill that separates the Cottesloe town centre from the beach. It's about a ten minute walk. People whose houses line that street campaigned to have the footpath moved away from their front fences and shoved up against the kerb, tired of the racket day-trippers make.
I always liked this beach because it was a miniature adventure playground. If you were young and tired of swimming, there were crabs to be found in the rocks of the groyne. If you were slightly older and reckless, you could dive from the rocks of the groyne into a narrow hole in the surrounding reef. (This was discouraged after someone broke their neck.) If you were even older than that, you could sunbake on the grass terraces and watch the younger kids enjoy themselves. Off the coast are speedboats and container ships, the latter queuing up to enter the harbour.
I wanted to open the book here for a couple of reasons. Mainly, it's a place that captures much of Perth's character: big skies, blue seas, heat and hedonism. But it's also somewhere that feels as if it's on the edge of the world. Sadie is as far as she can go, pressed up against the horizon. And every ship she sees waiting is a reminder of the outside world. The real world. Of course, she learns that home can be just as real, just as important and (in her case, at least) just as exciting.
2. The Reef
Sadie tightened the strap on her face-mask and dived in. She swam down along the edge of the reef, where curtains of kelp draped into the depths. Small silver fish sparked about her. The voices of the fishermen above dissolved beneath the comforting rumble of breakers.
I spent quite a bit of time snorkelling here in my teens. The reef is on the far side of the groyne and the water is a good deal colder, deeper and wilder. It was a great place to pretend you were Sean Connery, with a knife strapped to your calf. (My brother's knife, I never bothered to buy my own.) I never killed anything, certainly no sharks. Since I left, Perth has gone shark crazy. A combination of excessive fishing and the flushing of abbatoir by-products into the sea has lured white pointers closer to shore. I remember at least once, diving around sunset, that we glimpsed something in the water and pretty much ran across the waves back to the rocks. In that case, it was a dolphin. Other times, it might have been a playful seal, wanting to nip your flippers. In Sadie's case, it's something else entirely.
3. The Groyne
Sadie glanced down at her sandy feet, and when she looked up, a dozen of the Drowners were with them. Each standing on a rock, each with a gnarled hand to the barnacled hilt of their sword or axe-handle. With six on either side of the path, they formed a loose aisle, as if presenting themselves for inspection. Jake stood at one end and lightning flashed at the other.
A key scene takes place on the groyne — the first confrontation between Jake and Lysandra. It's a place I remember as being suitably dramatic. As soon as the wind picks up, large waves begin crashing over the groyne. When I was a child, there were power lines strung from poles along its path. They were blown down one too many times.
In Fire in the Sea, the groyne also functions as something of a threshold for Sadie. On one side, the quiet life she has. On the other, the promise of adventure and danger. From the start, she's ready to change sides.
3. The Path
Then, suddenly, there were two other figures on the grass. Neither Sadie nor Tom saw them arrive — they were, at once, just there. One knocked the man to his knees. The other grabbed him by the throat. Choking him.
The dramatic scene at the end of the first chapter takes place atop the same terraces on which Sadie and her friend have lazed away the day. The bike path runs from Fremantle harbour, all the way to the beach at Swanbourne. It's a track I've ridden along on BMXes and mountain bikes. In my twenties, I rollerbladed along it as a vague gesture towards exercise. In my thirties, I tried jogging along it. It's a lot longer than I remembered.
I don't remember exactly why I had Mr Freeman attacked here. It would have made more sense to have him attacked in the car park on the other side of the beach. I think I just liked the image of his attackers leaping across the vast green banks. I'm a very visual writer, I think. Maybe it comes from a day job reviewing films. I can't help wondering how each scene will work on screen. Clearly, we need to find someone to make the film version so I can find out.
For most of us, a book is the first voyage we ever undertake. While TV and film can offer glimpses of foreign climes, it takes a book to sink your feet in strange sand or to waft the spiced scents of a market beneath your nose. Maybe this is why I was never very interested in reading books set where I was growing up. I knew what Australia was like. I’d spent a year travelling across and around it before I started school. (For those curious: it’s hot, dusty and very, very big.) Instead, I sought out books set in cold, crowded places. There was exoticism in snow and soot and underwashed masses.
It wasn’t until I left Perth that I started reading about it. As a leaving present, a friend gave me a copy of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet — a book I’d had shoved in my direction for years. I was probably ungrateful. But, travelling around Europe, I became consumed by that book. I loved its crudeness, its poetry and, yes, its strong sense of place. Growing up, I had always felt that Perth wasn’t really part of the world. The world was over the horizon — that place ships and planes disappeared to, that place where adventures happened. Cloudstreet showed me that you could write about my small, isolated city with the same intensity and detail as you could London, New York, Hong Kong.
That book was a turning point for me. Writing about Perth for Dumbo Feather, I said “Seeing my abstracted, forgotten town in the pages of a Penguin novel shrank that vast space between the world and my street.” I learned that stories — real, big, proper stories — could happen there, on those same hot pavements I grew up on. When it came to writing (Text-Prize-winning-onsale-now-novel) Fire In The Sea, I wanted to jam a big Hollywood-style narrative into those small streets. Because I felt those sort of stories didn’t have to always happen in the US.
Some years ago, I was warned by an American agent against setting stories in Australia. There was a perceived notion that Australian-based stories don’t sell. Being a contrary sod, I was determined to prove her wrong. But, in some ways, I wonder now if I took less risks with Fire in the Sea’s narrative because setting it in Perth already seemed like such a big risk. It’s certainly the most traditionally-structured story I’ve ever tried to write. I wanted its narrative to be big enough, strong enough, perhaps even familiar enough, to reassure a reader that Australia wasn’t an alien world. They knew this story, they knew these people, they could come to know this place.
There was also a great sense of excitement for me in writing about places I knew well. Places that few people had ever written about. Capturing Cottesloe in print, in a big, impossible story about mythological battles and exiled demigods, felt like a special sort of achievement. It was as if, by fictionalising these places, I had somehow made them a little more real. (Which tells you a little about how my brain works. The unreal is always more real.)
For that reason, I haven’t cheated much with the geography. I’ve used real street names and addresses, for the same reason you wouldn’t rename Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly Circus. The only real exception to this is Jacob’s house on Ocean Street. While the house is absolutely based on a house that stood derelict while I was growing up (it’s since been refurbished), I changed the name of the street. Everywhere else is where it should be. At times, I’ve described Perth as it was when I was 16. At other times, I’ve acknowledged recent changes. Sadie’s world is probably something of a compromise between reality and memory.
Two weeks ago, I popped back to Perth to visit family and thought I’d make the most of the opportunity to document the places of the book. For the rest of the week, I’ll be posting a guided tour of Fire In The Sea, in which I’ll revisit a few key scenes and, maybe, explain why they happen where they do. And, as it's my blog, I’ll probably throw in a few anecdotes and then draw a tenuous link to relevance.
FIRE IN THE SEA has been in the shops a few weeks now, but the official launch has been announced for September 6. Why is the launch after the release of the book? There are some very good reasons for that. Right now, I can't remember exactly what they are.
All are welcome to attend. Simply RSVP to the address on the invite and we'll reserve space for you. It should be great fun!
I've been a little too busy to keep the blog updated this last fortnight. The good news is that this is because I've been hard at work on the sequel to Fire In the Sea. Which is coming along very well, thanks for asking.
A few interviews I've done have popped up online.
The West Australian newspaper ran a small piece in which I talked about being bored in paradise and dreaming of the apolcalypse.
ALPHAReader ran a Q and A in which I talked about plotting, Emma Stone and why writers should have dogs.
The good reviews continue rolling in. If you've found yourself a copy, please do leave a review over at Good Reads. I'm keen to hear what you think! (And we want to keep the rating nice and high...) If you bought a Kindle version via Amazon, please leave a review there.
Finally, I've had a few queries about the possibility of an Audiobook version. I'm keen for this to happen, but there are no plans at present. You're welcome to let my publishers know that you're interested, but at this stage it will depend on how well the book sells. Fingers crossed!
As anyone who's listened to my podcasts will know, music plays a large part in my writing. I was very excited by the launch of Spotify in Australia, as I knew it would give me the chance to share a soundtrack for Fire in the Sea.
While working on a book, I often start by creating a playlist that captures the feel of the piece. I think music has always been my chief inspiration. I’ve always been striving to capture that strange effect a good song can have on you — that sense of possibility and memory and hope and beautiful despair.
For Fire in the Sea, I tried to choose songs I thought Sadie (or her parents) might listen to, but also songs that spoke to me about heat and dust and blue skies and heartbreak.
The key track for me was Wye Oak’s Civilian, from the album of the same name. There’s something in that line ‘I still keep my baby teeth in my bedside table, with my jewellery’ that spoke to me of that space between childhood and adulthood; of things that we can’t quite bring to let go, even as they gather dust.
Anyway, here’s a selection from a much larger list. Hope you enjoy it!