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