What’s the story behind the story for Joy Rhoades’s latest novel, The Burnt Country? She tells us below, but first, here’s a taste: the book trailer from Penguin.
The story behind The Burnt Country started long ago in 1906, the year my grandmother, Gladys Wyndham Mueller-Chateau, was born. She lived almost all of her 103 years on her family’s property on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. This was then and is now mostly sheep-growing country, although climate change is challenging the viability of that life.
It was my grandmother’s life on the land that inspired both The Burnt Country, and my first book, The Woolgrower’s Companion. She was a wonderful woman, a fascinating mix of kindness and reserve, with a sharp sense of humour and an eye for the ridiculous. But it was not just her personality that drew me to her, but the land. While I grew up in Roma, in western Queensland, we’d often visit my grandmother on the northern tablelands. And after the flat dry plans of western Queensland, the soft hills and running creeks of the tableland seemed gentle and welcoming. Maybe too, it was because the place was exotic, so different from the bottle trees and bauhinia of western Queensland, that this area imprinted itself so strongly on my imagination. It’s not what we know that we remember best, but what we see for the first time.
My grandmother’s life too, seemed interesting and varied, out of keeping with the very respectable and reserved self that she presented. She’d been divorced, it was said in the family when I was small, in hushed tones, the same hushed tones that would be used for a family member who’d done time. She came from a family and a district where standing was everything and a person’s bloodline could be recounted almost as easily as the pedigree for the latest ram purchased to improve the flock on her property.
So when I began to write, it was stories of the bush, stories about women like my grandmother, of communities like the New England tableland, that found themselves on paper.
I was fascinated by this place that was so bound by the past, yet such a daily fight for survival, against drought, or disease, or commodity prices, or bush fire. How could it be possible to be so moribund, when life on the land seemed so precarious? And how could a woman manage to survive on her own in such a tight knit and traditional community? How easily could she be scapegoated for a calamity that befell the district? That’s what The Burnt Country became: one woman’s fight to clear her name after a catastrophic bushfire.
Joy Rhoades grew up in a small town in the bush in Queensland, Australia. She spent her time with her head in a book, or outdoors – climbing trees, playing in dry creek beds, or fishing for yabbies in the railway dam under the big sky. Some of her favourite memories are visiting her grandmother’s sheep farm in rural New South Wales where her father had grown up. Her grandmother was a fifth0generation grazier, a lover of history, and a great and gentle teller of stories. Joy’s childhood gave her two passions: a love of the Australian landscape and a fascination with words and stories.
She left the bush at 13 when she went to boarding school in Brisbane, then stayed on to study law and literature at the University of Queensland. After, her work as a lawyer took her first to Sydney and then all over the world, to London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, and New York. But she always carried in her head a strong sense of her childhood: the people, the history, the light, and the landscape.
Joy currently lives in London with her husband and their two young children. But she misses the Australian sky.