Interview: Di Morrissey talks about Arcadia
Di Morrissey is one of the most successful and prolific authors Australia has ever produced. She trained as a journalist, working in newspapers, magazines, television, film, theatre and advertising around the world. Her fascination with different countries – their terrain, their cultural, political and environmental issues – has been the catalyst for her novels which are all inspired by a particular landscape. In 2017, in recognition of her achievements, Di was inducted into the Australian Book Industry Awards Hall of Fame with the Lloyd O'Neil Award. Di lives with her partner, Boris Janjic, in the Manning Valley, NSW. Di talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about your new novel, Arcadia.
This is the hardest part…to summarise a big novel that’s taken months and months if not years of mulling before its birth, and reduce all that pain and passion to a paragraph or two!
It always starts with a place… some specific location grabs me and I have learned to trust that instinct. For, by the time the book is published, that “place” will be in the eye of the universe. Well, in our local media, press, and awareness, for whatever reason. My publisher has never figured out how I manage this timing. Nor have I. But I assume it’s that innate antennae that journalists have for reading the signs, hearing the whispers in the grass, keeping tuned to what’s happening close by or in the world, and what people are talking about. So, timing is everything as they say. Arcadia is set in Tasmania… now flavour of the month for gourmets, small scale, and experimental food producers. It also explores changing lifestyles, the movement to the south by growers and vignerons because of climate change. I raise the important issues of protecting old growth forests, and the future of mycology – the study of fungi – and how its secrets are being revealed. And it is about friendship and family. Two girls who grew up together reunite in their thirties, and decide to take a road trip in Tassie.
What starts as a fun adventure turns into something far more sinister.
Writers are magpies, they steal stories when you’re not watching – overheard on a bus, in a pub, the sharing while on a long flight. Or someone simply opened up because you asked and were interested, and told them you’re a writer. Then everyone wants to tell you a story. So I don’t steal, but filch fragments from many sources, sometimes unbeknownst to even myself.
And then it suddenly seems terribly important I tell this particular story. It knows when its time is right and this place and theme leaps to the fore, when in fact I was intending to write something quite different. But I’ve learned to trust that gut instinct and drop whatever plans I had and follow the path to where this book leads me.
What inspired you to write Arcadia?
Firstly, I tried to ignore the thrusting of Tasmania into my daily consciousness. Friends visiting and moving there, the food movement, the passion of people like Bob Brown, and more and more, the environmental issues, a trivial joke (close to the bone actually) about the Yanks moving there (New Zealand you’re next!) to escape Trump and his looming apocalypse.
Further previously unknown fascinations drop independently and unconnected into my awareness – the endangered Tasmanian Masked Owl, the diaries of explorer Flinders, impassioned researchers and field workers associated with the Bookend Trust, a chance enquiry to Tasmanian Professor Alastair Richardson became an email buddy sharing insights, the works of unrecognised lady botanical artists – and I am led into the magical deep old forests… to the world of the mycologists. And then I know I must go there. And I know – this is the next book.
What research was involved?
So late in the year, Boris and I set off for several weeks to just drive around Tassie… following a whim, meeting strangers and friends who make another suggestion and so off we go.
I still discover new stories/subjects/history and people when I return home. It’s also a journey down the rabbit hole. Which means a sifting of the riches as I start my own trip sitting at my desk.
Once the main characters arrive, I follow them around imagined Tasmania, and so the adventure begins. I have no idea where we’re going or how this story will end. I have learned to trust, that somehow, it will all come together. A combination of spinning, knitting, braiding and following one’s nose. Then suddenly, it’s done. The fears and angst and fun and tears has somehow clung together to become a beginning a middle and an end!
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I am an early riser (possibly because of years of working in breakfast TV!) ready to go once I’ve had a cup of tea. I sit at my desk, dressed, household chores done, by 7am. I work mostly seven days a week, for 7 months. Allowing time out for family and friends here and there. I can sometimes not leave my two acres overlooking the river for weeks at a time.
Boris is a huge help running the household and doing chores like shopping and making lunch. I stop work at sunset and we share a glass of wine before dinner. I love to cook, and sometimes during the day I might take a break while “mulling” and cook or make marmalade or chutney or passata depending on the garden’s supply. When friends or grandkids visit that’s “time out.”
If a soundtrack was made to accompany Arcadia, name a song or two you would include.
I rarely play music when writing, but I did think of music for this book. What would two young women play while on a road trip? Sally’s mother gives them one of her favourite CDs, a 1980s-90s compilation. So we end up with Missy Higgins, Celine Dion, Paul Simon and the theme music for the film Out of Africa.
If Arcadia was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters? What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
Actually, the screenplay of Arcadia is being written now. For the two female leads, I have a wish list… Isla Fisher, Margot Robbie, Rachel Taylor, Mia Wasikowska, Teresa Palmer, Abbie Cornish, Bella Heathcote. But two in particular stand out to me.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
Once the book was finished and got a tick and a tear from my editors, Bernadette and Georgia, Boris and I shared a bottle of bubbly sent by my lovely Publisher, Ross Gibb.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
While I’m writing I have little time to read for pleasure. But when researching the endangered Tasmanian Masked Owl, Professor Richardson told me his daughter loved the non-fiction book, Wesley the Owl by American biologist, Stacey O’Brien, who raised a 4-day-old owl for research, but Wesley became her beloved companion for 19 years. It’s an extraordinary book of their relationship.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I am still researching my next book. Plus co-producing a TV drama series of my Broome novel Tears of the Moon with David Jowsey, who produced Mystery Road for ABC TV. I also publish/edit/write a community newspaper each month – The Manning Community News which is distributed along the mid-north coast of NSW and is online at www.manningcommunitynews.com.