Thank you to Julian Leatherdale for this post about the importance of landscape and sense of place in his debut novel, Palace of Tears (reviewed here). Julian Leatherdale’s first love was theatre. On graduation, he wrote lyrics for four satirical cabarets and a two-act musical. He discovered a passion for popular history as a staff writer, researcher and photo editor for Time-Life’s Australians At War series. He later researched and co-wrote two Film Australia-ABC documentaries Return to Sandakan and The Forgotten Force and was an image researcher at the State Library of New South Wales. He was the public relations manager for a hotel school in the Blue Mountains, where he lives with his wife and two children. Palace of Tears is his first novel. You can read my interview with him here or follow him on Facebook here.
Last Wednesday morning, I was on my daily walk when I saw the Jamison Valley in the distance, submerged in mist all the way to the horizon. I headed to the nearest lookout and stood for some time listening to bellbirds and lyrebirds in the valley, each note of their song ringing with startling clarity in the stillness.
I could not help thinking of Lisa, a character in my novel who contemplates a similar view when we first meet her: Out of the sea of white mist, she could hear the delicate chimes of bellbirds pinging in the distance and, much closer, the screech of yellow-tailed black cockatoos, invisible but unmistakeable, as they launched themselves into the cotton-wool-filled valley below. (p.27)
Having lived in the Blue Mountains for over 25 years, one of my most interesting challenges – but also joys – writing Palace of Tears was seeing my home with fresh eyes. Familiarity leads to blindness. I tried not take anything for granted, researching plants and animals for specific locations and times of year, taking photos and notes. Despite years of weekend bushwalks, I found a new trail, Asgard Plateau near Mount Victoria, which became a setting for a later chapter.
What soon became obvious was that the landscape itself was a major theme of the novel. How could it not be? Like the ambitious entrepreneur Mark Foy who opened his grand spa hotel, the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath, in 1904, my main character Adam Fox builds his opulent hotel, the Palace, on a clifftop to take advantage of the sweeping views and bracing air. But the landscape of the Blue Mountains wears another face. The Palace, like the Hydro, is forced to import spa water from overseas when the local spring on the escarpment dries up. It also faces destruction when bushfires rage in the valley in summer. Locals call this grand hotel, modelled on a famous resort in the green and lovely British countryside, “Fox’s folly”. So which is it – absurd or admirable?
This question haunts my novel: what do we tell ourselves to make this alien place feel like home? It is a question that has faced us from settlement and it goes to the heart of how we feel connected to our country and see ourselves as Australian.
It is also a question that looms large for my characters. German romantic landscape artist Wolfgang von Gettner spends his last days in the cottage next door to the Palace, working on his final masterpiece of the valley below. His daughter Freya plants a native garden and paints delicate bush flowers and mountain vistas.
Adam Fox is consumed by passion for both von Gettners’ artworks. As an old man he reflects on “how his beloved mountains expressed the inner drama of his own soul.” (p. 487) His wife, Adelina, fears and hates the bush for good reason. Adam’s daughter Monika becomes a children’s author renowned for her comic native animal stories while secretly writing a dark European fairy story set in a gum forest “where silver-white trees flowed like forked lightning up to the sky”. (p.434)
And then there is Lisa, Adam’s grand-daughter, who takes photos. On a bushwalk, she reflects on how the Blue Mountains “offered too much beauty. Images beckoned from every side, tantalising glimpses of the sublime in .. every expressive sinew of gum branch or liquid dance of creek water or totemic rock face. Were she and her camera up to capturing even a fraction of it?” (p.356).
It has been wonderful to have readers acknowledge the “great sense of place” in Palace of Tears. As well as the natural landscape, I have also enjoyed writing about other familiar aspects of where I call home. I have a chapter, for example, set at Winter Magic, the popular winter solstice festival which packs Katoomba every year with thousands of costumed merry-makers. (Is this a literary first?)
While writing Palace of Tears, I read almost exclusively for research. With one deliberate exception. I took time out to reread Thomas Hardy’s famous Wessex novels: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Return of the Native, Far From The Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and, my personal favourite, The Woodlanders. Why? I knew I would be inspired by Hardy’s gift for evoking landscape. The towns, fields and wild places of Wessex go well beyond backdrop; they are the bedrock of his story-telling, the shaping force of his characters’ lives.
And so, emboldened and excited by the dramatic possibilities of landscape, I returned to Palace of Tears and the Blue Mountains with renewed hope that my own attempt to connect with my home through story, would be, in Lisa’s words, “up to capturing even a fraction of it.”