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Interview: Kate Lyons talks about The Far-Back Country

Kate Lyons was born in 1965 in outback New South Wales. She has had her short fiction and poetry published in a range of Australian literary journals. Her first novel, The Water Underneath, was shortlisted in the 1999 The Australian/Vogel's Literary Award and was published by Allen & Unwin in 2001. Her second novel The Corner of Your Eye was published by Allen & Unwin in 2006. The Water Underneath was shortlisted for the Nita B. Kibble Literary Award (Dobbie Award) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Melbourne University Press Literature Award, and was a notable book in the 2001 Pan Pacific Kiriyama Prize. She holds a Doctor of Creative Arts degree from the University of Technology Sydney and was the New South Wales Ministry of the Arts Writing Fellow in 2006. Kate lives in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales.

Tell us a little about The Far-Back Country.

The Far-Back Country is my third novel and my second set in the far west of NSW. It is the story of Ray McCullough, who ran away from his home on a NSW sheep station in the 1970s, aged 14. Now 40, Ray is working as an itinerant cook and labourer across the remote outback. A self-schooled, self-contained man, he believes solitariness is all that saves him from the violence he carries inside himself. It is also the story of Ursula, the woman who has been looking for Ray over thirty years. It is a novel about family, memory, masculinity, mistaken identity, and how the stories we tell, believe and hear make us who we are.

What inspired you to write this book?

As with my first two novels, this book started with landscape, specifically with the desert landscape near Broken Hill NSW, where I was born. I come from a family of miners and farmers, on both sides of the tree. I have a fascination and affinity with that desert landscape, its austerity and grim beauty, and with the way it resists romanticism or easy description. I had an image in my head of a man alone in that place and I wondered what he was doing there? The novel proceeded from finding Ray’s voice.

At the same time, I had family stories circling in my head about country boys who had left home in their teens to go labouring or shearing or to join the circus and just never came home. It seemed to be an accepted rite of passage, part of becoming a “real” Australian man – stoic, adventurous, emotionally withdrawn. I was also reading lots of reports about the mental health crisis in the bush for men in Australia. These strands came together over a number of drafts. Overall, I was trying to answer the question of how much agency we have in changing our story about ourselves.

What research was involved?

I did quite a lot of book and online research, both at the beginning and throughout the drafting process, on everything from desert vegetation and the history of drought in Australia, to farm life, rural mental health, sheep husbandry and how to build a fence. I also went on multiple road trips with my husband, to Bourke, Broken Hill, Tibooburra, the Corner Country and beyond, camping in the desert and staying on remote sheep stations out there. We met some great people and had quite a few adventures, including being stranded by bad roads, fires and floods.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

This book has taken over a decade to write, with a break in the middle while I did my doctoral degree. I tend to research and write in tandem, as I don’t want research to overwhelm the freshness of the work or the voice. When I reach a hole in knowledge, I return to research, and when I feel too much knowledge is making the writing top heavy, I go back to find the story. I also tend to write parts over and over rather than go to a full-steam ahead draft, at least at the beginning – working and refining something until I feel you have the necessary voice and confidence to string a rope over the chasm of what I don’t know. Apart from that, I just drafted and drafted, rewrote and rewrote, edited, tore my hair out, then wrote again.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Powderfinger’s These Days and The Go Betweens’ Cattle and Cane. Listened to both these artists while travelling outback, with intermittent doses of Paul Kelly…All good driving songs.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Wow, difficult. Ray is so particular in my head. Viggo Mortenson? He would look good in an Akubra. Tom Hardy would be good with the brooding, meaningful silence. Ursula in my mind is a sort of cross between Judy Davis and Frances McDormand. I guess Mick resembles Rupert Grint, but not sure he would handle the accent.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

The outback travelling, staying on sheep stations and desert camping, early mornings out there. Writing about the landscape, finding that almost perfect description for a small thing, a change in light, a moment. Inhabiting both the characters as they grew and spoke and changed was always a pleasure. Having two narrators provided relief from one point of view and one was an antidote to the other during the writing process – Ray is sensitive, often anguished, quite interior, while Ursula’s caustic wit hides a tender heart.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

This book was much celebrated by myself and my husband, as it took quite a while from go to whoa –we celebrated finishing the book, then celebrated getting it accepted by the publisher, then finishing the edit et al. Nearly always involved a glass of prosecco and good cheese. My usual personal celebration is binge watching something on TV totally unrelated, a murder mystery set somewhere snowy, preferably with subtitles.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I devoured it in a day. I love Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as it takes me back to childhood reading such as Lord of the Rings, but both the trilogy and this latest are so elegantly and simply written, so masterfully plotted. He never shies away from difficult or dark questions, whether he is seen to be writing for children or not.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

My fourth novel, currently in research, is an historical fiction set in the late 1800s in the Barrier Ranges of NSW. It is based loosely on the life a female pioneer and the real life case of a missing child on a remote sheep station. It is part colonial murder mystery, part exploration of women’s lives in that place and time.


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