February 2, 2012 by markstani
Chris Womersley’s Bereft, a haunting post-First World War tale of a young soldier’s return home to the Australian Outback to settle dark scores from his past, is out now (pub Quercus). My review is here, and you can read a sizeable excerpt in the Quercus flip-book here.
Why did you decide to set your story in the aftermath of the First World War; and were any of the characters hewn from real-life?
The decision to set ‘Bereft’ in the aftermath was more or less accidental. A historical novel was pretty much the last sort of book I ever imagined myself writing but around the time of its germination I became fascinated by millennium movements and fancied setting something in a period in which characters might imagine the end of the world was at hand. The year 1919, in the aftermath of war and the Spanish flu pandemic, seemed like such a time. It was only after I started writing ‘Bereft’ that I realized that the Walker family and their attempts to deal with the grief of losing their daughter/sister mirrored that of entire nations mourning their dead.
None of the characters were based on real people, although the knowledge that my grandfather George (who makes a fleeting appearance) fought in WWI and had been gassed in France was something of a spark for the book.
You don’t spare the reader the horrors of the battlefield. How important was it to stay unflinchingly honest to the facts in that respect?
Initially I resisted the idea of writing anything in the way of a battle scene, but realized partway through writing the novel that such having a scene was inevitable. It was necessary to present something of the horror of battle without making it so explicit that it turned people away or, equally, was too timid. I guess the challenge for me was to try and present it in such a way that was new for readers, which prompted me to invent the image of the dead birds littering the ground in the aftermath of battle.
In your opinion, how well does Australia remember its War veterans, and do you feel the wider world sometimes forgets or relegates the role Australians played in the conflicts?
World War One occupies a curious place in the Australian imagination. Certain battles (Gallipoli, Flanders) are generally touted as being the crucible in which the Australian identity was forged, which is something I feel slightly queasy about. More than 60,000 Australian soldiers died during the war and Armistice Day and Anzac Day (the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing) are widely commemorated. Frankly, I am unsure how the wider world sees Australian participation. For Australia of the time, of course, it was always a geographically distant war, so it is weird how vivid in the imagination it remains.
How did the character of Sadie evolve through your drafting and editing process? Did you always intend for her to be so ambiguous?
I originally conceived of Sadie as a boy. It was only when I was flicking through an art magazine and saw a reproduction of a painting of a girl wearing a muslin dress lying down (Asleep? Dead?) facing away from the viewer that I realized, quite suddenly, that my little boy (who was, at that time, unnamed) was actually a girl. Once I had written her introductory chapter – where she meets Quinn for the first time – Sadie really came to life for me in quite a startling way. I always intended her character to be ethereal and ambiguous but her fondness for magical trinkets and so on developed in the process of writing, as the themes of the novel expanded and became more defined.
You paint quite a damning picture of small-town Australia in that time -murderous, incestuous, drunk: and that’s just the Sheriffs. Did the remoteness of these places really give the local authority figure carte blanche to behave in such way?
I think it’s important to note that Flint is a fictional place and I wasn’t seeking to provide any sort of social comment in the writing of ‘Bereft’. Any resemblance to people living or dead etc etc, you know. Having said that, I suspect that isolation can provide people with a sense of being able to operate outside not only the law but outside conventional moral codes. But you’re right – small-town Australia doesn’t come off too well in the novel; I tend not to go there very frequently.
Your work has been compared with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens, Beckett and Cormac McCarthy among others. Which would you choose?
Hmm, I still have quite a fondness for Charles Dickens. He can be very sentimental and a tendency to waffle on a bit but, overall, his character are just so vivid and funny and memorable. Plus, his books still sell many years after his death and what author wouldn’t want that? Not that I plan on dying for a while…
Be they druggy doctors or sociopathic Sheriffs, you seem attracted to society’s underbelly. Can we expect more of the same in your future work?
Ha! It’s true, I do love a nutcase – they are just so interesting and much more fun to work with than plain old healthy and happy folk. So, the answer is Yes, you can expect a few more of them to pop up in the future. I have recently started work on a new novel which, at this stage, features a couple of junkies involved in a global art forgery scam that, you never know, might just go horribly wrong…