Lately our wild WA coast has set become the setting for several new novels. Just last week, we interviewed British writer Lizzie Pook, whose new novel Moonlight And The Pearler’s Daughter is set in Broome.
This week, we talk to NSW author Emily Brugman, whose novel The Islands is set on the Abrolhos Islands, inspired by her family’s experiences living and working there from 1959 to 1972. (Robert Drewe calls her book, “Beautiful, fresh, wise and true – startlingly good.)
We have three copies of The Islands to give readers, details, below. Emily chats to The Starfish:
What’s it about?
The Islands is the sweeping story of the Saari family and the fishing families of Little Rat.
In the late 1950s, a young Finnish migrant named Onni sets up camp on the Abrolhos Islands, a remote archipelago 60km off the coast of Western Australia, where the crayfishing industry is in its infancy. The island of Little Rat attracts a small community of Finnish migrants, each attempting to build a future in their own way.
We follow the Saari’s for almost an entire lifetime – we meet Onni and Alva as young adults and follow them all the way through to old age – and chart their progress as they search for a sense of belonging in a place vastly different to the one they left behind. At its core, my book is about families, ambition and loss, and the pursuit of ‘the good life.’
It’s already had high praise. Robert Drew calls this book “startlingly good.” Wow! What are critics telling you they love about The Islands?
It has been such a pleasure to read some early reviews of the book. I am hearing that readers are connecting emotionally with the struggles of the characters, and are curious about the stories of this little known group of Australians. I was delighted to read the following comment in Bec Kavanagh’s early review on Books & Publishing: ‘Brugman writes with great compassion, and there is a stillness in the moments of bearing witness to the lives of her characters that recalls writers like Hannah Kent and Mirandi Riwoe. The Islands is an accomplished debut with a big heart.’
Tell us about your own family’s history with the Abrolhos?
My grandfather fished for crayfish on the Abrolhos from 1959 – 1972. My mother and her sisters were born in Geraldton, and spent the first decade of their lives visiting the islands. The family’s seasonal camp was on the island of Little Rat, which is why I decided to set the story here.
While not following their journey exactly, I like to think my book captures the essence of a migratory route taken by many Finns in the mid-twentieth century.
When did you visit them for the first time, and what was it about these remote islands that inspired you to want to write about them?
In 2016 I travelled to the Abrolhos on a 6-seater plane with my mother, who had not been back to the islands since she was nine years old. The islands are still home to a small community of seasonal fishers, with a limited number of tourists allowed on daytrips. Thanks to the generosity of an old family acquaintance, we had the opportunity to stay for five days in a fisherman’s shack on Little Rat, just a few doors down from where my family’s camp once was. I was captivated by the islands from the moment I arrived! The landscape there is incredibly unique, as is the way of life of the seasonal fishers, while the gothic history of the Batavia shipwreck adds yet another layer of intrigue. But it was the migrant stories of the Finnish crayfishers that really interested me. How did they end up here, so far away from everything they knew, in a landscape so completely alien to the one they had left behind? The week was spent exploring the island and others by boat, swimming, talking with crayfishers, writing, and eating fresh-caught fish for dinner. During my stay I wrote the outline of five short stories, which, in time, became the foundational chapters of The Islands.
In researching this book, what did you learn from your grandparents and others about their experiences there?
I learned a lot about the Finnish migrants who built camps on Little Rat. I was told many colourful stories of the old days on the islands, like that of the building of the stone camp (the kivi käämpa), the mischievous things the kids used to get up to, the experiences of the women, the tragedies that came to pass, including the loss of two Finn brothers who drowned while fishing for crays. But overall, I got the sense from my grandparents and other fishing families that the Abrolhos is an extraordinary place, and that once you’ve experienced its magic, it’s not easily forgotten.
Presumably your family have all read the book by now! Do they recognise themselves in some of the characters, and how did they react?
Both my grandparents have passed away now, but my mother and my aunties have each read the book in manuscript form. They have been instrumental in its development, offering up their memories for use as inspiration, as well as other insights on the era. While they’ve found the reading process emotional, and perhaps even confronting at times, I think the overall reaction has been one of delight and gladness that our family story has, in a way, been immortalised on the page.
Do you think most Australians know enough about the Abrolhos Islands? (When you’ve told people where your book is set, have you been met with some blank faces?)
I have been surprised by how many people tell me they have spent time there, actually. People who have done stints on fishing boats in the past, and their families, for example. But of course there are many people who have never heard of the islands. And I expect the locals like it that way.
You’ve been a keen surfer from a young age. How much has your love of the ocean influenced your writing?
Having lived close to the ocean for most of my life, and spending a lot of time in the water, I have developed a deep love of the sea and wild landscapes. This has certainly had an influence on the stories I choose to tell. I’m not sure that I would have been able to write this novel had I not been an avid surfer. While I have no experience of crayfishing, being a surfer means that I have a grasp, at least to some extent, of weather patterns and the movement of water. Luckily, I was able to call on a few friends who had experience in the crayfishing industry to look over the fishing scenes for authenticity and accuracy.
The Islands was runner-up for the Vogel Prize. Congratulations. Did that give you a certain confidence, knowing others appreciate your work, and open any doors?
Oh absolutely! Writing is a hard slog. You have to keep on going without ever really knowing whether your book will see the light of day. Being shortlisted for the Vogel showed me that I was on the right track, and this was a story that other people connected with. And it was as a result of the Vogel that I was offered my publishing deal with Allen & Unwin.
You currently have what sounds like the dream job for a writer, working at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. What does your job entail?
I have only recently moved into the position of Program Manager at Byron Writers Festival. Before this, I was the office admin. My new role involves programming writing workshops and organising author events throughout the year, as well as working with the Director to pull together the main Festival program.
Any favourite authors whose work has influenced or inspired you in some way?
There are two books I greatly admire and which have played a part in the making of The Islands. These are Olive Kitterageby Elizabeth Strout, and Drylandsby Thea Astley. Both books have inspired the ‘novel-in-stories’ structure I have used, with the setting providing the central, unifying thread between recurring characters. Both books also explore the inner-lives of ordinary people. Their characters are wonderfully complex, sometimes acting with compassion, other times with contempt and casual cruelty. Their stories often conjure the universal in the personal, and this is the kind of writing I love best.
You’ve been writing for years, mostly for magazines I understand. What made you decide to take on a novel?
I’ve always loved reading fiction above all else. Magazines offered an avenue to earn some income from writing, and was a good way to exercise the writing muscle on a regular basis, but in my heart, I always wanted to be a novelist. That said, I didn’t decide to embark on a novel from the outset. This project began as a collection of short stories, and as each story developed, they began to intersect in interesting ways. So was this a novel or a collection of stories, I wondered? I read the above titles – Drylandsand Olive Kitterage– at this moment of creative uncertainty (books seem to have a way of finding us at times like these), and they gave me the confidence to create a work I did – I see each chapter as an island in the wider archipelago of the novel.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
I often hear authors say that the second book is never any easier than the first, nor the third of fourth. Each time you embark on a novel, you have to relearn the craft of novel-writing. I found this to be true on a smaller scale – each time I finished a chapter/story, I would set out to begin the next one, and find that I had no idea how to proceed. With each chapter, I went through the same gruelling process: I would write a terrible draft, question my ability as a writer, feel I should give up, I would rework it and little by little it would start to take shape, until at last I was satisfied. Alas, I would sit down to write the next chapter and the whole cycle would begin again.
Lastly, where are you living at the moment, and are you already working on a new book?
I’m living in Mullumbimby. I haven’t had a chance to start working on another novel yet, but I certainly hope to write a second. I have a few ideas swirling around in my brain, so let’s see which of these persists.
To win a copy of The Islands, just email us telling us in a sentence why you’d like the book, and include your postal address. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org