Persist, persist, persist. And read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. That book really spoke to me about what it feels like to be a writer: being brave to take projects on, but wearing that challenge lightly. I haven’t mastered that last point yet. 😉
NLK: You used to be a CSIRO science journalist, what prompted you to write fiction?
KJ: My particular scientific interest is biology and it remains a fascination, but I’m also deeply interested in human stories, often set against natural landscapes. My first novel, Pescador’s Wake, came about after I had been writing articles about illegal fishing on the Southern Ocean. I wanted to know, or imagine, the story behind that story: the husbands and wives caught up in the sea chase of an illegal vessel ― what was at stake for them, both at home and at sea; what they felt; what mattered to them on a personal level. Fiction seemed the best way of exploring that. My next novel, The Better Son, is set in northern Tasmania’s incredible caves, and on the farmland and in the forests above. It explores themes such as love and loss, secrets and lies, the long reach of war, second chances, euthanasia and the liberating power of truth, all against a backdrop of an incredible subterranean world. Fiction allows writers and readers to delve into characters’ emotions and motivations, the things that make them tick. The reasons they do the things they do, and the consequences of those actions. This novel asks: What might make a child keep a secret or even lie? Is it ever too late to put the past right and have a second chance at life?
NLK: The Better Son features the Kubla Khan Cave and as part of your research for the book, you went caving? What were your first impressions of the Kubla Cave? Why are you fascinated by caves?
KJ: Kubla Khan cave is restricted to cavers with considerable caving experience because it takes three rope ‘pitches’ to descend through the narrow opening to the cave floor, and takes twelve hours to go from one end to the other. Instead, I visited the neighbouring cave, which used to be connected to Kubla Khan but is not technically demanding. This still required joining a caving group and being guided, which was a great experience. Being with only a small group in that cave, turning out the lights and listening to the deep silence profoundly impacted the writing of the novel.
NLK: Adult Kip in The Better Son is a scientist with a particular interest in insects, can you explain why you thought that was an important aspect of his character?
KJ: Cave creatures are fascinating, with many having evolved to live in total darkness. I wanted to explore that world but also to provide Kip with a connection to his boyhood. He loved collecting insects and other cave creatures as a boy, as did his brother, so continuing this into his adult life provided an important link in the novel between man and boy. During the writing, the insect motif kept repeating and finding ways of asserting itself in the novel, and I loved that.
NLK: Throughout The Better Son there is much heartbreak, how difficult was it write? Did it take an emotional toll on you? How did you cope?
KJ: I think loss and recovering from loss, resilience in other words, is part of life and that is what drove me in the writing. Not so much the loss, but the way people react to it, the way they get through and out to the other side. Not unlike the experience of going deep underground and re-emerging into the light, changed but strengthened.
NLK: I particularly loved how you touched on current themes of changing agricultural practices, euthanasia, war, family abuse, and conservation. How important is it you as a writer to include such themes in your fiction?
KJ: I am very pleased that those themes came through for you. This novel was a challenge in some respects in that it deals with quite a few themes, and is therefore difficult to summarise, but all these themes are highly relevant to the story, and, I think, to modern life. The preciousness of the natural world and the challenges faced in protecting it (fortunately the Mole Creek caves in Tasmania are well protected), the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder in returning veterans and the impact on families and communities, the yearning for love, the danger of secrets and lies, the way they compound and drown people ― these are the undercurrents that push and pull characters and which many people confront in daily life.
NLK: What advice would you give to newbie writers?
KJ: Read. Write. Observe. Enjoy the process. Get feedback from writers and readers, but perhaps not too many, and not until you are ready to show them. Persist, persist, persist. And read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. That book really spoke to me about what it feels like to be a writer: being brave to take projects on, but wearing that challenge lightly. I haven’t mastered that last point yet. 😉
NLK: What are currently working on?
KJ: I’m currently doing a creative writing PhD at the University of Tasmania. I’m writing an historical fiction novel this time. It’s still evolving and comes with another whole suite of challenges. This novel is requiring a lot of research, so doing it at university is enormously helpful.
About Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson’s first novel, Pescador’s Wake (Fourth Estate), won a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development. It is set on the Southern Ocean, in South America and Tasmania. Her second, The Better Son, features northern Tasmania’s vast caves and will be published by Ventura Press in October 2016. She is now completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Tasmania.
Author pic credit: Arts Tasmania
The Better Son, Ventura Press October 2016
1952. Tasmania. The green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.
For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, nine-year-old Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look at him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to set things right. To have a second chance. To be the father he never had.
The Better Son is a richly imaginative and universal story about the danger of secrets, the beauty in forgiveness and the enthralling power of Tasmania’s unique natural landscapes.