Heather Rose crosses the political span – by Stephen Romei

Heather Rose – Bruny Island 07/06/2019 Hobart Tasmania photography Peter Mathew

A profile by Stephen Romei at The Australian



  • 1:00AM OCTOBER 3, 2019

You are a UN conflict resolution expert based in New York. Your brother is the Tasmanian premier. Your sister is the Tasmanian opposition leader. Your mother has cancer and your father is sliding into dementia and speaks only in Shakespearean quotes.

Someone blows up part of an almost-completed $2bn bridge joining Tasmania to its offshoot Bruny Island. You, dispatched to the scene, spot a bloke who looks as if he’d know how to handle explosives, but on the plus side he resembles Chris Hemsworth.

Welcome to the weird, wonderful, sad, nervous, bold and hilarious interconnected world of 56-year-old Astrid Coleman, the lead character in Heather Rose’s new novel Bruny, named after the 362sq km island at its centre, permanent population about 600.

“The whole book was the most amazing amount of fun I’ve ever had writing in my life,” the author says. “I laughed and laughed.”

Rose’s family has lived in Tasmania for six generations and Bruny Island, accessible only by boat, has been important to her throughout her life. It was a place of fun and games for Rose as a kid and it has been a place of peace and quiet for her as a writer. A lot of that laughing during the writing of the novel, which is part thriller, part political satire, part romance, was due to Astrid’s formidable presence in Rose’s life.

Some writers treat their characters as galley slaves. They tell them when to row, where to go and when to stop. Others live with their characters, have conversations with them, are guided by them. Rose is in the latter camp. “Yes, my children think that is strange,” she admits.

Astrid, better known as Ace because as a child she cheated at cards, even came to her in a dream and suggested — perhaps demanded is a better word — an important development in the plot.

“That night she wiped me out with something so shocking it left me sitting up in bed,” Rose says.

Rose used to argue with her characters and sometimes try to say no to them, but she has stopped doing that now and is more comfortable with the relationship as a result.

“I think that’s the trick, isn’t it? I’m so grateful that Astrid only came at this point (Bruny is Rose’s fifth novel for adults). I might have tried to push her around if she’d come earlier, but this time I just let her have her head, and I was shocked by her so many times.

“She’s quite an outrageous character and she says things about life, men, politics, ideology, everything, really, and I would type it all out, look at it and think, ‘I can’t say that. That’s terrible. And then I’d think, ‘Oh, well, Astrid said it.’ ”

Here’s a good example, when Astrid, who has two grown children, is thinking back on her failed marriage: “Everyone should have to get divorced from the person they’re married to, just to see who that person really is.”

Bruny is Rose’s first novel since The Museum of Modern Love, centred on Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, which won the 2016 Stella prize. It is also the first one she has been able to write full time, thanks to the Stella cheque and an Australia Council grant. Rose, 55, dabbled in modelling and acting when she was young but has earned her living as an advertising copywriter, then as co-founder of an award-winning advertising firm, Coo’ee Tasmania. She has three grown children.

“The Museum of Modern Love took me 11 years. It was a very long process. I wrote four other novels in the meantime, and it was a tedious novel in so many ways. Sorry.

“There was a gruesomeness to writing it. It was arduous. It took everything, that novel. And then, it had all the success, which was such a surprise. Then on the back of that, the Australia Council, for the first time after 10 applications over 23 years, gave me a grant to work on this novel.

“I had already been coming up with a few thoughts about it and writing scenes and all of that. But there was something so brilliant about being able to knuckle down with this idea that the Australia Council had funded me to write a political satire about Australian government.”

After that explosive set-up, Bruny unfolds as a power and passion drama about family, loyalty, home, place, politics, foreign investment and love. It is in part a love letter to the author’s home state.

Yet Tasmania is a familiar but estranged place for Astrid, who has lived most of her adult life in New York. She returns to help her twin brother, John, the Liberal premier, known in the family as JC, a man who can walk on water, who is set to go to the polls in four months. He has asked her to bring together the opposing sides in the bridge debate, the established Tasmanians and the greenies versus the newcomers, the developers and the Chinese investors, so the bridge can be fixed and opened before the election.

The opposition leader, Maxine, is their older sister. She is the one who has continued the family tradition as she is the Labor leader. Their father, Angus, was a state Labor MP for decades. JC switched sides.

“If this book is a love story, it is a love story for my fellow Tasmanians,” Rose says. “There’s no way I could do justice to this community without talking about the spectacular visual beauty we live in every day and how much that colours our life.

“But I also can’t help but observe Tasmania and what we’re seeing in terms of visitor numbers and consider what that means in the next five years, in the next 10 years, in the next 20 years.

“And when I was writing the book, I was immersed in current affairs, to everything that was coming out of the US, the UK and here in Australia. I do think it’s important we have better conversations about our national security planning, about our long-term economic planning … and about what on earth are we doing about protecting ourselves from the climate emergency.

“Clearly we do not have leadership on any of those fronts. One of the things that I enjoyed doing was looking into the nature of democracy.”

The novel is set in the near future, which turns it into a delightful guessing game for readers. Who is the prime minister? (Hint: I think it’s a comeback.) Who is the king of England? Who is the American president? Who is the bestselling writer-public intellectual greenie camped on Bruny Island? (Hint: I don’t think it’s Richard Flanagan.)

I’m not going to spoil the fun for readers, so I’ll leave the possible name out in this example. When I say to Rose that the federal minister for natural protection Aiden Abbott, better known as Aid-n-Abet, is obviously … she laughs and nods. A friend of Rose sitting with us chips in. “You’ve been very naughty,” she tells the author, who laughs some more.

As well as the name game, other tantalising questions linger from the outset. Who blew up the bridge? Why? Is it an act of terrorism? Is the brother-sister political opposition just a front that allows one family — Coleman Inc — to control the state? Does China have Australia’s interests at heart or are we just part of its “chequebook colonialism”?

And is Astrid working for someone else other than the Premier? Early on she notes “I have to hide the truth, that’s always been my speciality”, and wonders: ‘‘Would I ever kill for an ideal?” A reader’s impression of what that ideal may be will shift as the novel goes on.

The Shakespearean quotes from Angus are not just there for fun. This novel has Shakespearean undertones. Readers will think of Lear, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and especially Hamlet, where one can “smile, and smile, and be a villain”. No one is exactly who they seem to be.

“It’s beautiful as a writer to be part of a lineage,” Rose says. “I think as a writer it’s very hard to ignore the influence of great writing, especially what’s been given to us in the dramatic realm. And of course Shakespeare is so political.”

The political intrigue at the centre of this novel is the result of a lot of research. Rose spoke to friends and contacts who worked in, or had connections to, political parties, security agencies, government authorities and the UN.

She was particularly nervous about the scenes where the bridge is blown up, worried that readers in the know would tell her she didn’t understand the nuts and bolts of it.

So she made contact with explosives experts, people similar to her fictional former paratrooper now bridge foreman who looks like Hemsworth.

“They did come back to me,” she says, “and were willing to advise me, but on one provision. They said: ‘This is for a work of fiction, right?’ ”

Bruny, by Heather Rose, is published by Allen & Unwin (424pp, $32.99).



LITERARY EDITOR Stephen Romei is The Australian’s literary editor. He blogs at A Pair of Ragged Claws and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook. @PairRaggedClaws

The tour that was Bruny

Dymocks Sydney – George Street – Bruny their October Book of the Month

My first book tour is over. Bruny has been launched across Australia. Thank you to all the bookstores that so graciously and delightfully welcomed me and Bruny to author events across the country. It was such a pleasure to meet readers everywhere, brilliant booksellers, and to discover so many beautiful bookstores! Apart from the events below, there were also so many signings at independent bookstores and Dymocks stores in every city. Thank you all!

My thanks to the very dedicated and brilliant publicist from Allen & Unwin – Christine Farmer – who made all this happen … and visited endless shopping centres with me for signings. Also to Ange Stannard and Maria Tsiakopoulos in WA and Victoria who chaperoned me in those states. Also to the awesome Allen & Unwin team who designed all the Bruny collateral that decks windows and bookstores across Australia. So wonderful to have this kind of support for a novel.

Events were held at:

Hobart Sunday Sept 29 3.30pm Fullers Bookshop In Conversation with Literary Editor of the Australian, Stephen Romei

Hobart Tuesday Oct 1 6pm Official Bruny Launch Hobart RACV Hotel 6pm with Premier Will Hodgman and supported by Dymocks – SOLD OUT

Sydney Wednesday Oct 2nd 6.30pm Better Read than Dead In Conversation with Editor of The Guardian, Lenore Taylor

Wollongong Friday Oct 4th 6pm Wollongong Art Gallery In Conversation with author and journalist Caro Baum

Perth Sun Oct 6th 4.30pm National Hotel Fremantle with New Edition Bookstore In Conversation with ABC Perth’s Gillian O’Shaughnessy

Perth Mon Oct 7th 6.15 for 6.30pm Beaufort Street Books In Conversation with Jane Seaton

Brisbane Tuesday Oct 8th 6.15 for 6.30pm Riverbend Books In Conversation with Suzy Wilson

Brisbane Wednesday Oct 9th 6 for 6.30pm Avid Reader In Conversation with award-winning author Rohan Wilson

Adelaide (Stirling) – Thursday Oct 10th 6.30 for 7pm Matilda’s Bookshop In Conversation with Gavin Williams

Melbourne Friday Oct 11th 6.45pm for 7pm  – PLEASE NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE: Avenue Bookstore, 127 Dundas Place, Albert Park In Conversation with James Ley – SOLD OUT

Sorrento Saturday Oct 12th evening event The Antipodes Bookshop – details to come

Melbourne Sunday Oct 13th 4pm Fairfield Bookshop In Conversation with Heather Dyer

Death, fashion and politics – an interview with Benjamin Law

I forgot to post this at the time – so here it is. I’d still say the same things … so this is what happened when Ben rolled the dice 

‘What I’ve seen of death, someone – or something – comes to get us’

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we’re told to keep private by getting them to roll a dice. The numbers they land on are the topics they’re given.

The Hobart-based author won both the Stella and Christina Stead prizes in 2017 for her seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love.

Heather Rose.


How would you describe yourself politically?

I’d say I’m a Blue Green.

What’s a Blue Green?

Green is someone who cares passionately about the environment, social justice and for the long-term good of humanity and the planet. Blue is for the old-fashioned liberal values of egalitarianism, economic growth – not, however, at the expense of the quality of human life.

What party represents those values?

There isn’t one. I always find myself appalled by how we seem to have arrived in the 21st century with a world that is so deeply unjust to the great majority.

Does it make it hard for you as a voter?

Completely, but I always vote Green. You have to vote for the planet and human rights.

Where do you think you get your politics from?

My father is a Labor voter and my mother is a Liberal voter. Bizarrely, I grew up in Hobart equidistant between neighbours who’ve gone on to both become senators: one in the Greens, one in the Liberal Party. I’ve ended up in a world where I’m much closer to my Green colleagues, but I’m not a pure socialist: I think everybody deserves to benefit from personal endeavour.

Could you date someone with fundamentally different politics to yours?

[Laughs.] Maybe not.


Was money a fraught thing for you, growing up?

Both my parents worked to put my sister and I through private school. No one in my family had ever got a degree, so education was really important. However, it was tight. My parents were really smart about caring for money. We didn’t go on holidays – we didn’t have that kind of income – so we lived very simply. My grandparents built a shack for us on the Tasman Peninsula, so we spent holidays there. Other than that, we went camping. Camping is my idea of money well spent.

Do you feel like you’ve been good with money?

I’m good at making money and making a business profitable. [As well as penning seven novels, Rose has run advertising agencies, sat on arts and corporate boards in her home state and founded a luxury accommodation business in Hobart.] In my personal life, I’m very good at saving. But I’m also very good at spending; I really love beautiful clothes.

What do you consider a waste of money?

Nights you never remember! A lot of designer stuff to me is excess, in a world where we need to have better priorities. There’s a gluttony to the world of the designer that I find really abhorrent.

What constitutes the “beautiful clothes” you like, then?

Beautifully designed, beautiful fabrics. It doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. I have one designer I absolutely love: Alistair Trung. He’s my absolute go-to. His designs are magnificent, his fabrics beautiful.

You have three children. Have you ever sat down with them and said, “This is how you save money”?

I’ve given each of them a copy of George S. Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon. It’s all about being respectful of your money, making sure some of it is saved, some of it is put away for everything you need to live on. So with my kids, when they got pocket money, I would say, “Even if you’re getting $10, $1 of that you have to save.” Great: you’re teaching them fractions at the same time. Indeed!


You’re 53. How would you like to die?

I want to die very old, in a really warm chair, with a good blanket. My hair is white. My children …

You’ve thought about this!

I have! I saw it recently: my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are somewhere about. I’m in a house with glass windows and the sun’s coming in. Someone in the house really loves me, especially, particularly and deeply. It’s afternoon, and we’ve just had some beautiful celebration. Possibly my 104th birthday. And I close my eyes.

And that’s it.

Yep. That’s a pretty great death.

Do you fear death?

Not at all.

Why not?

I’ve nearly died several times.

Really? How?

Heart problems. And I’ve been quite reckless as well, in my life, when I was younger.

In what ways? Or, in what ways can you share?

It’s going in the memoir. [Laughs.]

What happens to us when we die?

I think we go on. My sense is we have a soul. I know Christopher Hitchens would be cross with me for that.

Does that matter?

Yes! I feel like he’s still out there.

Well, if what you’re saying is true, he is.

I feel there is some mystery that is absolutely evident to all of us on this planet. It’s either that we get recycled and we come back in another life. Or that we live all these lives at once because time is completely an illusion, like physicists remind us. Or we get reabsorbed into the magnificence. I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen of death, someone – or something – comes to get us. And if something comes to get us, then there’s something beyond.

Benjamin Law
Benjamin Law

Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.


The New York Times profiles Heather Rose

An Artist Who Explores Emotional Pain Inspires a Novel That Does the Same

Heather Rose’s novel, “The Museum of Modern Love,” is a part-fact, part-fiction tale of art, love, grief and convergence.

By Tacey Rychter

Nov. 26, 2018

Credit Joe Wigdahl for The New York Times

SYDNEY, Australia — Heather Rose checked into the Chelsea Hotel after a long-haul flight from Hobart, Australia, flung her bag in her room and sped to the Museum of Modern Art.

This was the spring of 2010, and Rose had a mission: to stare into the eyes of Marina Abramovic, the Serbian-born performance artist, in the atrium of the gallery.

“I thought I could just walk up and be the next person,” said Rose, the novelist whose new book, “The Museum of Modern Love,” will be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, in the United States on Nov. 27.

“I’d never seen people running for art,” said Rose, 54, who remembers people racing to get to the front of the line.

Rose was one of 850,000 people who attended Abramovic’s 75-day performance, “The Artist Is Present,” in which visitors waited for hours to take a chair opposite the then 63-year-old artist and share a meditative gaze with her for any length of time. People described transformative experiences. Many wept through their mute encounters.

Marina Abramovic’s art performance, “The Artist Is Present,” is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive.

Marina Abramovic’s art performance, “The Artist Is Present,” is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive.

Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“It was as if they were seen in a way they’re not normally seen,” Rose said. She returned every day for three weeks. She watched the crowds and saw others came back, too.

This atrium and this exhibition, with the silent Abramovic at its heart, is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive. Just as Rose was, they are inexplicably drawn to this refuge of unspoken, intimate connection and stillness in Midtown Manhattan.

This part-fact, part-fiction tale of art, love, grief and convergence is Rose’s fourth adult novel (she is also a co-author of the “Tuesday McGillicuddy” children’s series under the pen name Angelica Banks) and won Australia’s Stella Prize in 2017.

The characters — including Arky Levin, a film composer who hasn’t visited his ill wife in months; a widow taking the vacation she and her husband always meant to take together; and a grieving art critic finding solace in an affair with a married man — move through New York yearning to be seen.

In one desolate moment, Arky believes his estranged wife has left her toothbrush on the sink and searches high and low for his own, realizing days later it was his toothbrush he had seen and that he “only recognized it in relation to Lydia’s.”

Questions of loss appear throughout the book, but Rose doesn’t feel the need to resolve them. “It’s not trying to be definitive,” Professor Brenda Walker, the chairwoman of the 2017 Stella Prize judging panel, told me. “It’s trying to be open and thoughtful.”

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

The book is narrated by an unnamed artist’s “muse,” an incorporeal angel-like being that’s assigned to watch over artists. Different muses have visited Rose for each of her books, she told me recently over dinner at a Sydney restaurant. This one was patient, thankfully, as the novel took her 11 years to write. (Other times, she said, it’s a little old woman with a bamboo stick whacking her on the back, saying: “Write harder! Write longer!”)

She had become used to writing “around the edges of the days,” juggling family and running an advertising agency she co-founded in 1999. Thanks to various book prizes and a grant from the Australia Council in 2017, Rose is now writing full time.

As a proud sixth-generation Tasmanian, Rose orders the Tasmanian pinot noir with our meal, and effuses to me about the landscape: “We have the best clouds in the world!”

This novel is her first not set in Tasmania, but she spies unlikely connections between Manhattan — another island, she points out — and her home state.

Island culture “gives us a sense of identity, and maybe that makes us more robust in our creative output,” she said. “Big Apple, little apple,” she affectionately calls Manhattan and Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.

The spark of the book came five years before “The Artist Is Present.” Rose had never heard of Abramovic until she encountered photographs of the artist’s previous performance works at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, in 2005. She saw images from the 1988 work, “The Lovers,” in which Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, each walked more than a thousand miles from different ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and end their relationship.

Heather Rose was deeply moved by Marina Abramovic’s 1988 work, “The Lovers,” in which Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, each walked more that a thousand miles from different ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and end their relationship.CreditThe Marina Abramovic Archives

“Instantly I thought, there’s a character for a novel,” Rose said. How could someone be so brave and courageous, she wondered, yet so vulnerable and romantic?

She tinkered with the idea for years (she published her third novel, “The River Wife,” in the meantime). But it wasn’t until she sat opposite Abramovic in MoMA that she realized she couldn’t fictionalize her.

“She’s too powerful, she’s too magnetic,” Rose said. “Nothing I could imagine would be more interesting than what she’s done with her life.”

Rose nervously wrote to the Sean Kelly Gallery, which represents Abramovic, and got the artist’s blessing. Rather than relief, it brought a fresh wave of anxiety for Rose. “I didn’t want to let her down in any way,” she said.

Abramovic was not let down. “I really loved the story,” she told me recently, and she wrote a glowing blurb that appears on the back of the book.

Rose never interviewed Abramovic for the book (“It’s a bit like breaking the fourth wall,” she said), but researched her life meticulously, thanks largely to the collection of materials belonging to David Walsh, the owner of the MONA gallery in Hobart.

While immersed in Abramovic’s four-decade career, Rose understood another reason she was drawn to the woman who had made an art out of enduring extreme pain.

Rose has had an inherited arthritic condition since childhood, which has, many times, left her unable to walk for weeks. She’s never talked about it publicly.

“So actually, writing is really painful for me,” she said. “And so pain is one of those things I’ve had to befriend. I think of it as a house guest that’s stayed way too long.”

She ponders how much of herself she poured into the book without even realizing it. Rose’s marriage ended six months before the novel’s release in Australia, yet she had instinctively populated her book with resilient female characters rising above grief, suffering and recurring illness.

“I feel in retrospect that what I was writing was a kind of blueprint for the sort of life I needed to live beyond the marriage, even though I had no idea the marriage was failing at the time.”

The book is launching with an event this week where it all began: at the atrium in the Museum of Modern Art, with Abramovic herself.

“I couldn’t quite believe that, honestly. I thought, she has a huge life, and this is just a little novel written by a Tasmanian,” Rose said.

“I’m still nervous to meet her,” she said, laughing. “I’m a huge fan. The funny thing is, I wasn’t a fan when I first started. I was just curious.”

Follow Tacey Rychter on Twitter: @taceyrychter.