Good Reading : May 2005
goodreading 9 first timer Writing a novel is inescapably hard work, but the research can be pure joy. Last August, 32-year-old Queensland writer Nerida Newton flew to Tonga to swim with humpback whales and their calves for her second novel, centred around the whaling industry in Byron Bay in the 1970s. ‘When you’re in the water and five metres away from a humpback whale and her calf it almost feels like a divine moment,’ says Newton, whose first novel The Lambing Flat was universally admired. ‘It’s almost as if you’re witnessing something ordinary mortals shouldn’t see. I forgot to breathe. I wanted to understand what whalers would face coming up against that. One of my characters, a whaler, has a revelatory moment.’ This is not Newton’s first extraordinary adventure. She inherited the wandering instinct from her father, who ran Jetset Travel at one stage, and her mother, who left school at 15 and educated herself by travelling: ‘I grew up know- ing the world was a bigger place than suburban Brisbane.’ In Newton’s many years of travelling, including three living in the UK, she has trekked for hours with a machete through the jungle in Africa’s Mountains of the Moon to find herself within metres of gorillas, bungy jumped, parachuted, swum with two-metre reef sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, and patted leopards and played with lion cubs in South Africa, where she spent a year living with four very different white families as an exchange student after school. Her father was also an aerobatics pilot who flew gliders and helicopters and took his three children gliding with him from a place near Toowoomba: ‘Loop, loop, stall and drop,’ Newton remembers. ‘It gave me a taste of adventure and taught me not to be scared.’ Newton needed all her courage to tackle the subject matter of her first novel – a relationship between a young Chinese man and a white girl during the Gold Rush – as she had no direct experience of Chinese culture. All she had behind her was her MA thesis on the representation of Chinese characters in three modern Australian novels.Yet her portrayal of Chinese characters was so authentic that The Lambing Flat was short-listed for the Vogel Award, won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Writer and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (First Novel). Newton was also chosen as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. ‘With the second novel, I didn’t set out to experiment but the way the book evolved is very different from the first,’ says Newton. ‘I didn’t really know what was going to happen to the characters or how it would end. But with this novel the whole story arrived in one hit. It was like sitting down and taking dictation. I think that must happen fairly rarely.’ Newton was familiar with Byron Bay – she spent holidays there as a teenager and kept returning – but it was only about six years ago that she learnt of the whaling industry with its meatworks right near the beach that was operating up until the 1970s. ‘The whaling station was owned by the local butcher and the blood and offal would flow into the ocean.There are still sharks that remember where the blood would come.’ After whaling was stopped, the fate of the little fishing and farming town that ‘stank like offal’ looked grim. ‘It had nowhere to go.They had primary-industried all their resources until they were bankrupt.’ But then came the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in the early 1970s and a whole new alternative cul- ture eventually moved to that beautiful bay, which re-invented itself as an internationally popular artistic community. While writing this book, Newton was pregnant with her first child and wondering how motherhood would combine with her passion for writing. ‘It’s something that male authors never have to think about – how having a child, especially before school when your days are taken up with childcare, will affect things. It does concer n me. But I have a very sup- portive husband.’ She is already thinking of setting her next novel overseas. But though travelling remains a passion, Brisbane suits her for many reasons: it is cheaper to live in than the bigger capitals, it’s more peaceful, and standing in a paddock not far from her Indooroopilly house is her beloved young gelding. She has ridden horses since she was eight, and competes in rigorous dressage events. ‘It’s a big part of my life.With horse-riding, all you can think about is your connection with that animal.’ from lambing to whaling With one award-winning novel under her belt, NERIDA NEWTON girded her loins for some intrepid research for her second. She is no stranger to travel and adventure, as she tells ANNA KING MURDOCH.