For most of us, a book is the first voyage we ever undertake. While TV and film can offer glimpses of foreign climes, it takes a book to sink your feet in strange sand or to waft the spiced scents of a market beneath your nose. Maybe this is why I was never very interested in reading books set where I was growing up. I knew what Australia was like. I’d spent a year travelling across and around it before I started school. (For those curious: it’s hot, dusty and very, very big.) Instead, I sought out books set in cold, crowded places. There was exoticism in snow and soot and underwashed masses.
It wasn’t until I left Perth that I started reading about it. As a leaving present, a friend gave me a copy of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet — a book I’d had shoved in my direction for years. I was probably ungrateful. But, travelling around Europe, I became consumed by that book. I loved its crudeness, its poetry and, yes, its strong sense of place. Growing up, I had always felt that Perth wasn’t really part of the world. The world was over the horizon — that place ships and planes disappeared to, that place where adventures happened. Cloudstreet showed me that you could write about my small, isolated city with the same intensity and detail as you could London, New York, Hong Kong.
As a writer, that book was a turning point. Writing about Perth for Dumbo Feather, I said “Seeing my abstracted, forgotten town in the pages of a Penguin novel shrank that vast space between the world and my street.” I learned that stories — real, big, proper stories — could happen there, on those same hot pavements I grew up on. When it came to writing (Text-Prize-winning-onsale-now-novel) Fire In The Sea, I wanted to jam a big Hollywood-style narrative into those small streets. Because I felt those sort of stories didn’t have to always happen in the US.
Some years ago, I was warned by an American agent against setting stories in Australia. There was a perceived notion that Australian-based stories don’t sell. Being a contrary sod, I was determined to prove her wrong. But, in some ways, I wonder now if I took less risks with Fire in the Sea’s narrative because setting it in Perth already seemed like such a big risk. It’s certainly the most traditionally-structured story I’ve ever tried to write. I wanted its narrative to be big enough, strong enough, perhaps even familiar enough, to reassure a reader that Australia wasn’t an alien world. They knew this story, they knew these people, they could come to know this place.
There was also a great sense of excitement for me in writing about places I knew well. Places that few people had ever written about. Capturing Cottesloe in print, in a big, impossible story about mythological battles and exiled demigods, felt like a special sort of achievement. It was as if, by fictionalising these places, I had somehow made them a little more real. (Which tells you a little about how my brain works. The unreal is always more real.)
For that reason, I haven’t cheated much with the geography. I’ve used real street names and addresses, for the same reason you wouldn’t rename Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly Circus. The only real exception to this is Jacob’s house on Ocean Street. While the house is absolutely based on a house that stood derelict while I was growing up (it’s since been refurbished), I changed the name of the street. Everywhere else is where it should be. At times, I’ve described Perth as it was when I was 16. At other times, I’ve acknowledged recent changes. Sadie’s world is probably something of a compromise between reality and memory.
Two weeks ago, I popped back to Perth to visit family and thought I’d make the most of the opportunity to document the places of the book. For the rest of the week, I’ll be posting a guided tour of Fire In The Sea, in which I’ll revisit a few key scenes and, maybe, explain why they happen where they do. And, being my blog, I’ll probably throw in a few anecdotes and then draw a tenuous link to relevance.