Interview: Rosalie Ham talks about The Year of the Farmer
Rosalie Ham is the author of three previous books, including her sensational bestseller The Dressmaker, now an award-winning film starring Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis and Hugo Weaving. Rosalie was born and raised in Jerilderie, New South Wales, where her family still farm, and now lives in Melbourne, Australia. She holds a master of arts in creative writing and teaches literature. She talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about your novel.
The Year of the Farmer is about survival, love and justice in a small rural community in the Riverina of NSW. Problems surrounding the issue of irrigation water fuel small fires between the characters over love, corruption, vermin and secrets. Employing satire and irony, The Year of the Farmer, focuses one primary producer, Mitchell Bishop, an irrigation farmer who is compromised on every front. He’s married to Mandy, who he doesn’t love, besieged by pests and wild dogs, the banks want money, he’s supporting debt on ancient, worn machinery and his crop has suffered because of dry seasons. To ease his dilemmas, Mitch can sell some of his water allocation but that will ruin his financial plan, but if he doesn’t sell, his financial crisis will ruin him anyway. Then the corrupt and Machiavellian irrigation authority announce they will seize water from the entire catchment area and this divides the community, pits the townies, farmers and river dwellers (the riparians) against each other. Into all of this comes Mitchell’s long lost love, Neralie, who returns to the town and buys the local pub. Neralie brings rain, and more ruin, but in the end, the town unites and a kind of justice is achieved.
What inspired you to write this book?
This novel is straight from the heart. I was born and raised in a small farming community in the southern Riverina. Irrigation and the issues to do with water are important to the people I grew up amongst, and so I’ve used humour and irony to convey some of the dilemmas facing farmers and to highlight the role of primary production. The story dictates the setting, and the characters dictate the story. The subject of water fuels the small fires that burn between the characters in the story – there is love, corruption, justice, death, a pub and secrets. We are a dry continent and our water is precious, and the scarcity of water made the characters in The Year of the Farmer act in unusual ways.
What research was involved?
A lot! But some of that research ran to an email to my family. My brothers and nephews run the family farm, but I’ve read a lot about water regulation and the politics around water. The trick was to make all that information, vital to Mitch’s dilemma, absorbing.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
In terms of inspiration, The Year of the Farmer wasn’t a hard story to tell. Once I knew exactly what I wanted to say, I created characters that would carry the themes and be vivid on that uncluttered landscape. I tried to imagine the characters and their story arcs and the dramatic structure of the plot. Then of course, as all writers’ know, you just sit down and write until you have a draft, and then you spend years trying to craft a well structure story that encompasses a whole world, enlightens, entertains and, hopefully, changes readers in some small way. My rule is never to leave the page for the day until you know what will happen next.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
There’s a song by Fall Out Boy called "Champagne For My Real Friends, Real Pain For My Sham Friends." I’d like to have that song re interpreted, much slower and more tragic. But for the rest, I’d just hand it all over to Nick Cave.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
Definitely Liam Hemsworth as Mitch, and Mia Wasikowska as Neralie. Mandy is a bit harder to find, but I thought Sara Snook did a wonderful job in The Dressmaker and Predesrination.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
Writing the landscape. I’ve made the irrigation plains beautiful, as I see them. And I tried to create the space and distance to the horizon as a place for Mitch’s imagination and ponderings to reach for. The Dethridge wheels, the sound of birds and wind and water flooding into an irrigation bay are sounds that evoke empathy, I hope. A setting that features nature is a joy to write about, and the characters are not diluted by a cluttered landscape and so appear vivid on it. By putting Mitch and his friends and enemies in that landscape I was also able to convey that rural areas are a place of innovation and progress, experiment and achievement, and hugely productive. The people in The Year of the Farmer are varied, resilient, cultured, tolerant and progressive in many ways. They run businesses and achieve and contribute to a community that depend on each other, all the while, conserving the landscape they farm and adapting to its vagaries.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I only think a book’s finished when I get the first copies from the publisher. This time I opened a lovely bottle of Lindauer Classic Brut Cuvèe. I’m married to a New Zealander and so is my brother, so we’re visitors to New Zealand, and fans.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I have many favourites, but the one that’s stayed with me so far this year is A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John. It’s about infidelity, which is a delicious vehicle to ponders right and wrong, faith and the existence of God, and the transitory nature of living. St John’s dialogue tells us everything, there’s scant description, and this means readers must pay attention. We have to listen to the conversations and this in turn promotes greater empathy with the characters and their situations. And there’s that wily literary device, dramatic irony. It makes readers collaborators and keeps us in the story and even better, it also allows us to know the writer, St John’s shrewd cunning, her sarcasm and her clever eye.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
The next novel, what ever it turns out to be. I have ideas, even words on pages, but I’m too distracted at the moment to focus. That said, it’ll be humorous and ironic because that’s the way it comes out. And I’ll try very hard to keep my readers turning the page.