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Q&A with Joy Rhoades

I’m so excited that today, I have the lovely Joy Rhoades on the blog chatting with me about her latest novel, The Burnt Country, an enthralling story of integrity, resilience and resistance, from the author of the bestselling The Woolgrower’s Companion.

Joy was born in Roma in western Queensland, with an early memory of flat country and a broad sky. Growing up, she loved two things best: reading and the bush, whether playing in creek beds and paddocks, or climbing a tree to sit with a book. Her family would visit her grandmother, a fifth generation grazier and a gentle teller of stories of her life on her family’s sheep farm.

At 13, Joy left Roma for Brisbane, first for school and then to study law at university. After graduating, she worked all over: first Sydney, then London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and New York. It was in New York that she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the New School University, and wrote much of The Woolgrower’s Companion, a novel inspired in part by snippets of her grandmother’s life and times.

She now lives in London with her husband and their two young children, but she misses the Australian sky.

HE: Where did your inspiration for The Woolgrower’s Companion, Amiens and Longhope originally come from? Are there any real-life places in Australia you used as a model or guide. 

JR: Amiens and Longhope are very much based on places in the northern end of the New England tableland, an area I visited often as I was growing up. My grandmother lived much of her 103 years (yes – 103 !) on her family’s sheep property outside Inverell. A fifth-generation grazier, she loved the bush and was the most wonderful story-teller. Her love of the land she passed on to her children and grandchildren, like me. And it’s that beautiful district —and her wonderful stories— that find their way into my writing. 

HE: Bushfires have always been synonymous with the Australian landscape, and are still today a big part of our summers. It was interesting to learn through The Burnt Country that the attitudes towards volunteer fire brigades and back burning has changed so much over the last sixty odd years. In The Burnt Country, fire plays both a physical and symbolic role – what made you decide to centre the story on this? 

JR: Fire is also, as you’ve pointed out, a powerful symbol: characters can be forged through heat; lives remade and reborn. The idea to use bushfire came in a roundabout way. I always aim to write a gripping story. In The Woolgrower’s Companion, WWII hovers in the background like a spectre, providing some of the life-and-death tension. But how could I get that same tension after the war?  I looked at that era: from 1946 to about 1950, seeking a hook.  Ironically, the spark 😉 for fire, came in the form of rain. Because there were ‘good seasons,’ as bush people say, for several years from 1946, when a big drought broke. Those reliable rains produced pastures, long lush grasses, wonderful for stock. As the rains tapered off, the grasses began to dry out and lie, dry and mostly dead, and bushfire risk grew. That’s when it hit me: I’d shape Kate’s next story around bushfire. 

HE: A lot of Daisy’s story line can be quite confronting to the reader, and many may not be aware of the history that Indigenous Australians faced in the 1940s where families were often split apart. How important was it to you to shed light on these atrocities, and what message do you hope readers take away from it?

JR: It’s especially important for me that I approach story aspects involving Aboriginal people with sensitivity and respect. And I was shocked by my research. 1948 is very recent history, and to learn about the brutal policies of the Aborigines Welfare Board (NSW) was heartbreaking. So it was essential that I include accurate details of what really happened, especially about the ‘exemption certificates.’ A certificate could be granted by the Board to an Aboriginal person exempting them from the draconian impact of the Board’s policies. But the conditions were harsh, splitting families with terrible implications for the generations to follow. I was very fortunate to be guided by Aunty Judi Wickes, an Elder and academic. She generously shared both her research and her personal insights into her own family’s history with me, and the terrible impact of certificates of exemption. 

I deliberately don’t try to decide a reader’s mind about aspects of history. I aim to present a historically accurate fictionalisation and let the reader draw their own conclusions. 

HE: The Burnt Country can be read as a standalone story, but is still intertwined heavily with the narrative from The Woolgrower’s Companion. Did you know that you always know that there was more to Kate’s story?

JR: As soon as I finished the first draft of The Woolgrower’s Companion I felt I wanted to write more about Kate, Daisy, Harry and all in the Longhope district. I knew they had more to say. So while I didn’t plan at the start of the first book, to write a second book, these characters made pretty clear it should be done.  And wonderfully, Penguin soon commissioned another book from me, as The Woolgrower’s Companion sold well. So The Burnt Country came into being. It is very much a stand-alone book: you don’t need to have read The Woolgrower’s Companion to love (I hope!) The Burnt Country. I did that deliberately, and the second book is crafted to be appreciated on its own. 

HE: Since moving to London, is there anything in particular you miss about Australia?

JR: So many things! I miss the light, of course, that harsh bold brightness that is our Australian sun. I miss the bush, too, especially the birds. I had sort of guessed that there were many fewer birds in the UK so wasn’t entirely surprised to find Australia just has more birds

I miss the silence too.  You can truly add easily find/put yourself far from most other people in Oz and, living in the much more densely populated UK, I miss that. Some silence can be so good for the soul (but that may just be the mother in me talking 😉

How wonderful is Joy?! Outback/rural historical fiction is one of my favourites – there’s something about the wide open skies we have here that are positively beautiful. Keep an eye out in the coming days for my review of THE BURNT COUNTRY, which I loved!

A scandalous secret. A deadly fire. An agonizing choice.

Australia 1948. As a young woman running Amiens, a sizeable sheep station in New South Wales, Kate Dowd knows she’s expected to fail. And her grazier neighbour is doing his best to ensure she does, attacking her method of burning off to repel a bushfire.

But fire risk is just one of her problems. Kate cannot lose Amiens, or give in to her estranged husband Jack’s demands to sell: the farm is her livelihood and the only protection she can offer her half-sister Pearl, as the Aborigines Welfare Board threatens to take her away.

Ostracised by the local community for even acknowledging Pearl, Kate cannot risk another scandal. Which means turning her back on her wartime lover, Luca Canali…

Then Jack drops a bombshell. He wants a divorce. He’ll protect what’s left of Kate’s reputation, and keep Luca out of it – but for an extortionate price. Soon Kate is putting out fires on all fronts to save her farm, keep her family together and protect the man she loves. Then a catastrophic real fire threatens everything . . . GOODREADS

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