The Unmourned, a murder mystery set in convict Australia, is a brilliant collaboration by Australian author Tom Keneally and his eldest daughter Meg. Hear more about their creative partnership and the gripping historical crime series, Monsarrat.
In association with Penguin Random House
Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (A), Louise Maher (L), Meg Keneally (M)
Location: National Library of Australia
Typist’s notes: inaudibles caused by diction
A: Hello everybody and you’ve all come out on the first of – oh well it’s not quite the first of a few cool nights. Who’s pulled out their winter coats so far? Yes, yes, me too, especially I’m finding the walks to and from the bus are a bit cold at the moment so anyway friends, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres and it’s my great privilege to be the Director General of the National Library of Australia.
Now as we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for the land that we are now privileged to call home.
I’m delighted that you’ve been able to join us this evening to hear from Meg and Tom Keneally as they offer insights into their creative partnership and their gripping historical crime series, Montserrat. Meg has worked as an editor, reporter and producer during her career combined with more than 10 years in corporate affairs and now this is great, a part-time SCUBA instructor. I haven’t got that on my CV, Meg. Tom’s been publishing books for 53 years, winning awards such as the Miles Franklin Award, the Booker Prize, the Royal Society of Literature Prize and many, many more. He has written over 50 novels with recurring themes of war, peace, colonial history and Australiana. Now Tom’s played a notable part in the Library’s public programs over the years in recognition and celebration of his contributions to Australian publishing. Tom has also donated many of his personal papers, photographs and portraits to the Library in the recent past.
And if I could just digress a moment and take you back about 10 years ago, I think to when Tom took me to the family’s storage shed in one of those sort of rental storage places so that I could have a look at the scope of the archive that needed to be transferred to the Library. It was scary. So this is an enormous archive that really does document the full breadth of Tom’s writing career, his correspondence and there’s a lot in there about his actual writing processes so I'm pleased to say that it’s more or less under control here at the National Library - the archive, not Tom.
So Meg and Tom are joined this evening by ABC Triple 6 Radio’s Louise Maher. Many of you know Louise through her love of telling true stories about real people so for tonight’s conversation please join me in welcoming Meg, Tom and Louise.
L: Thank you so much, Marie Louise, and thanks to you all for coming out tonight, it’s lovely to see such a big crowd here at my favourite place in Canberra, the National Library. And interesting what you say about the archives because Montserrat, The Gentleman Convict, has a job in this book of sorting out some archives of his own in the cellar of Government House at Parramatta but we will get to that. I think I’d really like to start by offering you a cup of tea, preferably made by the redoubtable Irish housekeeper, Hannah Mulrooney, because it sounds like the best tea ever and drinking tea is such a big relationship, big part of the relationship between Mrs Mulrooney and Hugh Montserrat so I’m kind of wondering was this series cooked up over multiple cups of tea?
M: The irony is we both drink coffee.
L: Oh no way.
M: But we both have known – when I was living in Dublin I met many, many people and Dad has known throughout his life many, many people, particularly women, who see tea as a social currency. And use it as such and the ceremonies around its preparation aren’t limited to Japan you know you have to get things just right in a range of cultures including you know Irish Australian so it just seemed a natural fit to slot in there.
L: Hugh Montserrat is a gentleman convict, Tom, and his crime if you boil it down really is to make use of his natural intelligence to reach above his station in life where he’s supposed to be.
L: How did this character come to you? Because you had a fair chunk of the first book, The Soldier’s Curse, written and tucked away in your back pocket somewhere before you came to Meg with the idea of the collaboration.
T: Yes, I was writing volume 1 of Australians and I’m now writing volume 4. Every time I get near the close someone using the excellent resources of this Library in many cases produces a new biography of someone crucial and even people who aren’t crucial like – well you wouldn’t – so Tony Abbott, so many biographies, so many books but in any case the – I was writing about gentleman convicts, gentleman convicts were in an invidious situation in that the high Tories colony thought that they had betrayed their class by being – becoming – mixing with the habitual and terminal criminals of the criminal class and you could tell they were members of the criminal class by studying their skulls which generally looked rather like mine, actually. And –
L: So the gentleman should have known better.
T: And gentlemen should have known better and I was writing about two gentleman convicts, Henry Savery who was a Van Diemen’s Land convict and he was in the sugar business and he began to create fake bills on the basis of which he got a bank advance. Now he’d be made Chairman of the Young Liberals but then he was transported. And you had the same thing happen with poor old Greenway, the architect.
L: Francis Greenway.
T: He forged an architectural contract, he took this contract to his bank and he said look, I’ve got this big contract, give me an advance on it. And to get 14 years for doing that seems extreme. James Tucker who was a convict at Port Macquarie was – he had accused his relative of child abuse and his uncle, it was and his uncle was a powerful man and sued him for criminal libel, that is the kind of libel – I believe it’s still on the statute books where you got – could get both a jail sentence and have to pay as well. And so James Tucker was the writer of one of our early novels, Ralph Rashly, and Savery in Van Diemen’s Land was a writer of another novel called Quintus Servinton and so I thought what if you got a convict who is in the lesser known convict stations, the ones that not everyone knows about and he has to go ‘round solving crimes and that’s where the idea came from. It was a crazy idea because until the age of 70, having attempted self-destruction by a number of means including the nearly sure-fire method of writing fiction I hadn’t managed it and I thought well why don’t I really go for broke and become a crime writer? I spoke to Meg about – Meg was a journalist. I’d always admired Meg’s phenomenal output, she gets up at 2:00 ever morning and produces a – many thousand word report for senior management –
L: Is this true, you get up at 2:00 every morning, Meg?
M: Coffee is my best friend, yeah. Hence the coffee that I mentioned earlier.
T: She produces a report for senior management at Big Corporation, a sort of engulf and devour corporation and I thought if you could put that to work you know child labour, the glories of child labour and so that’s what happened, Meg.
L: So Meg, what was your response when your dad came to you with this? Did you cover crime when you were a reporter?
M: Among other things, yeah. I also covered a giraffe’s birthday at the zoo once.
L: Lucky you.
M: I know, it was great fun. And everything in between, I was a general reporter so I got sent out to cover just about anything. But I was very excited, very flattered and extremely scared because obviously he’s written one or two books, he dabbles in this fiction thing and initially he showed me about 30,000 words and said look, it’s rough as guts but do with it what you want and of course even his rough as guts first drafts were sublime. We were initially –
T: Meg, it’s a little bit late to be a dutiful daughter.
M: I want to stay in the will.
T: My rough as guts is rough as guts.
L: You had something to work with.
M: I most certainly did, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And we were initially going to write alternating chapters but I tried to insert my own voice into what he’d written and sort of mould it into a more sort of two-person thing but I was very tentative, I kind of felt I didn’t have the right to change anything that he’d written given his you know vastly superior experience. We showed it to our agent and she said look, it’s got that very distinct Tom Keneally voice with something else just sort of humming away underneath but it’s neither one thing nor another so she suggested that I start from scratch and write the first couple of drafts and then get Dad to come in on the rewrites and sprinkle his magic Tommy dust over it. So ultimately, that’s what we did and I was in consultation with him every day. With all of these stories we work out the plots together, that seems to be the way that we best work it now, we go for long bush walks and work out the plots and then I go away and write the first draft or two while constantly bugging Dad and if you're going to write historical fiction by the way, I can highly recommend being born to someone who’s a walking filing cabinet of Australian history, it’s very, very useful.
T: Yeah, we share the research, basically, yeah.
M: And then Dad comes and makes these changes which seem minor but which add about 10 layers of nuance and depth with you know a paragraph or two and I still try to figure out how he does that. And makes more substantial changes as well so that’s how it’s – that’s the pattern that we’ve fallen into and that seems to be what works for us. And –
L: And you say you never argue?
M: We don’t, actually, we’re both far too passive aggressive and we’re very temperamentally similar so the danger for us is disappearing up our own armpits by saying I don’t want you to think that just because I changed this it means that I don’t appreciate that your perspective on you know we can still be there half an hour later.
T: All that stuff, yeah. We haven’t had a quarrel yet, actually, not about that.
M: No, there have been you know quarrels over the years about other things, of course like me wearing makeup when I was 15 and so on but not about books. We’ve had you know a few minor genial arm wrestles, Dad thinks I anthropomorphise too much, I tell him occasionally that he needs to learn to live with anthropomorphisation but you know that’s about –
T: You know turning objects into – particularly Mrs Mulrooney’s tea cups, they – in the fir – early drafts –
L: Yes. And utensils generally.
T: - of volume – of the first volume set in Port Macquarie, they nearly danced you know they were nearly – it was like Fantasia.
L: But that’s because of Mrs Mulrooney, you know?
M: Well you know interestingly what I was saying to you earlier about Dad with a couple of slashes of pen adding depths of nuance I wrote Mrs Mulrooney as having this you know tendency to get cranky at inanimate objects. If she was a contemporary character she would swear at her computer as I do and Dad on reading the first draft said why don’t you say that that tendency is a result of misdirected anger? Because she can’t get angry at the people that she should really be angry at ‘cause they could recriminalise her so she’s directing it at inanimate objects and that was the work of a few paragraphs to write but it immediately goes to the heart of who she is rather than being just a character quirk. So that’s you know that’s an example of how he’s able to you know tweak these things and just deepen them so much. A mark of a master of his craft is you know you can always tell when someone’s achieved mastery ‘cause they make it look easy and he makes it look easy.
L: It’s not the first time obviously that you’ve written about convicts and back in the mid-‘60s Bring Larks and Heroes, that was –
T: Yes, I’m a bit of a convict freak and then I found out we had a few in the family and then I found out that my wife had a couple of very interesting ones and –
L: And so Meg’s great-great-grandmother was actually –
T: In the female factory where this new book is set, in the female factory in Parramatta.
L: What was the female factory?
M: Well it was a number of things, they couldn’t figure out what they wanted it to be. They wanted to keep the women away from the men and they wanted them –
T: Because of the gender imbalance, huge gender imbalance.
M: Seven to two or something like that, yeah. And they wanted the place to pay for itself so you know they had –
L: Hence factory, they had to make things?
M: - weaving – yes, exactly. When we were talking to Genevieve this morning you would have heard a number of listeners called in and said you know it sounds like a place that makes females.
T: Where women were run up and so –
M: And it does but you know they thought that they might as well bung these women away behind some walls and get them weaving and spinning and so forth. It was a marriage bureau where people who were going bush, men who were going bush rocked up and did you know colonial speed dating, spoke to the woman of their choice for an hour or so and then they’d get married and –
L: She looked alright, yeah.
M: - off they – yeah, off they’d go.
T: Married at first sight, Georgian.
L: Style, yes.
M: Yes and it was an employment bureau and it was a place where women who misbehaved in the wider world were sent. They were sent there for infractions as minor as they’re – I’m quoting now, there was one woman who was sent there for overuse of her risible muscles to the annoyance of her mistress, she was smiling too much.
L: Smiling too much.
L: Well the murder victim in your first book, The Soldier’s Curse, was an innocent, someone who really didn’t deserve to die.
M: That’s right, yeah.
T: That’s right.
L: I’ve got to be really careful because I know that some of you would have read the first book and perhaps even the second book already but others of you may be about to embark on the wonderful journey that is these books so I’m going to be careful about the plot but anyway I can say that this is a person who didn’t deserve to die. But the evil, evil man who meets his grisly end in The Unmourned in the second book is just that, he is totally unmourned, in some quarters his killing is positively celebrated, as well it should be, and he was the superintendent of the female factory at Parramatta in your book, his name was Robert Church. Was he based on a real superintendent? Were any of them that dreadful?
T: Yeah oh – I’m sorry, Meg –
M: No, you’re allowed to talk too, Dad.
T: Well Bell was bad. There was also a matron who had a nephew who abused the women but the women were in a situation – when it comes to power they drastically lacked power. A superintendent could – this isn’t how it happened every time but if a woman rejected the advances of the superintendent she could end up in the third class women’s prison which was the lowest level, less freedom, less rations, a more debased form of clothing. And so – and greater security in locking up. And there were men like Church and the great problem was that half the community – this period of history is very interesting because you had the two strands of British thought, the high Tory thought that considered that there’s a criminal class irremediable and that criminals could never take part in a civilised society and then you had the Whig progressives like some of the governors including Macquarie and – but the Tories were very powerful at this stage, the Tories were in power in Britain, Castlereagh, Bathurst, Lord Liverpool, actually a pack of mongrels who make George Brandis look like the Christmas fairy. And half of our rivers are named after them but anyhow the – so there were – this conflict of belief about what the women were and the high Tory attitude was they were abandoned women and any protest they made, and they did have a riot in 1827, was simply part of their criminal and depraved natures. Nothing was expected of them and yet in fact if you look at the individual records they were negotiating their way out of the situation. Most of them became matr – Australian matriarchs, they weren’t expected to be but they became Australian matriarchs. When they did riot because the superintendent made them shave each other’s hair off and there were also rationing issues, when they did riot it was considered part of their depraved and criminal nature and they were worse than the men, you know. So –
L: And it wasn’t just the – it was the churchmen too or some of the churchmen who were around at the time, there’s an odious character called the Reverend Horace Bullmer who unfortunately makes a reappearance in the second book –
M: Oh yes.
L: - and anyone who knows a bit about that time of Australian history knows the name Samuel Marsden and Samuel Marsden referred to convicts at the time he was around as the invicible depravity of the convicts so that same idea again but that if you’re a convict or even the children of convicts there’s no hope for you, you're lost to civilised society.
T: You’re doomed to be an underclass.
M: And Samuel Marsden was on the management committee of the female factory so he was responsible for the spiritual welfare of these women while deploring them at every turn. In fact - I don’t know if anyone’s heard of the Prison Reform or Elizabeth Fry who <inaudible> 21:49 out of Newgate, one of her offsiders, a woman called Charlotte Anley came to Australia to visit the female factory as Marden’s guest and she found that a significant number of women had converted to Catholicism so that they didn’t have to go to Marsden’s Sunday lectures.
L: They walk a fine line, don’t they, the characters in your book? Hugh Montserrat is a gentleman convict but he’s committed a second offence which is why he ends up in the first book in Port Macquarie –
T: Like Tucker, the author of Ralph Rashly, his crime is borrowed from Tucker. He – Tucker had a girlfriend in Parramatta and he visited her from Windsor and for that he was sent for secondary punishment for some years at Port Macquarie.
L: Because he was out of his defined area?
T: He was out of his district. You know something that – you’d have to be very narky to come down upon - but they were – so Montserrat is in Port Macquarie and then he does the good work in Port Macquarie, he solves that mystery, he’s back with his ticket of leave but he’s – he knows he’s on a razor’s edge.
L: Yes, walking that fine line because if he does something wrong again, even though he has his ticket of leave he can be thrown back onto the chain gang where – on the road gang where he was before and where he’s decided that he would not survive if he was there again. But even someone like Mrs Mulrooney who is in all sense and purposes free there are things in her past which emerge wonderfully in the second book which she would well prefer to keep secret but there is an attempt at one stage to blackmail her so this line people are walking to try to make their way in this strange new society.
M: Yes, I mean it must have been very odd to wash up here and realise that you were essentially on Mars and then to come to psychological terms with that, even try to reinvent yourself and then as sometimes happened having a malignancy from the old world slide under the waves and join you at this remove must have been extraordinary, yeah.
L: When you write historical fiction obviously you know Tom’s been doing it for years, the research that you need to do but there is a danger that because you know so much you can pack so much in so then it starts to read like a history book rather than a novel, a page-turning novel. I mean you’ve managed to avoid that but I wonder how you do that because you know so much, how do you know what to put in but at times more importantly what to leave out?
M: I guess we always feel that if it doesn’t advance the story - you have to ask yourself whether it advances the story or not and if it doesn’t it doesn’t belong there.
T: And if it isn’t salient to a character, yeah, you’ve got to sacrifice it. But that relationship between the facts, the salient historical event and the characters, that becomes smoother after two or three rewrites. You just get your daughter, poor kid, to do two or three rewrites and the more she rewrites the more it slots in and becomes germane to the events.
L: There is a description of the women in The Unmourned when they riot which is taken from a fictional newspaper at the time but I understand, Meg, that it actually comes from a real newspaper account of the day. Can you tell us about that?
M: That’s right, yeah so that came from – a lot of the research that we did for this, when you’re researching historical fiction you’re not only focused on dates and so on, what is really gold is what people ate, what they wore, how they spoke, how they felt and that kind of thing you can frequently get from newspapers and journals. And if anybody is looking to do that kind of research go to Trove which is run by the National Library of Australia and you can type in whatever you are looking for and come up with newspaper articles and a variety of other sources on it and that’s how I did a lot of the research for this, through Trove.
And through Trove I found an article, a report on the 1827 riots where the women, as Dad said, due to head-shaving and restriction of rations decided that they’d had enough, they burst out of the factory gates. They had been so demonised in the press previously and another article that I got from Trove said that they were more determined in their vicious career than the men, they had been so demonised that the shopkeepers of Parramatta, according to this report on the riot, were so scared of the women coming into the shops that they were pelting their goods out onto the street so that the women would pick them up and leave them alone. And almost as good as overuse of the risible muscles is what the journalist reporting on the riot in this article called the women, he referred to them as Amazonian banditti.
L: That’s absolute gold so you had to put that in the book?
M: Naturally, yeah, absolutely, absolutely and there is a later article which relates to the murder as well which is obviously entirely fictional because it’s a report on the fictional events of the book but again I relied heavily on just going through newspaper reports from Trove just to get a sense of the language of the day and how that sort of thing would have been you know constructed.
L: How did you come up with the idea for the way in which the murder was carried out? And I'm talking in particular about the weapon. You’ll see on the front of the book it’s very small but it’s an ‘awl’, and an awl is a tool that is used in leatherwork to make holes. But it’s got a very sharp point on it and I did ask my partner whether we had one floating ‘round the garage so I could bring it in to show people because I’m quite obsessed with the idea of the awl. And we didn’t sadly but I found this picture so if you can see it like it’s horrible and this type of instrument is what ends up in the eye of the –
T: Yes, it’s like a screwdriver but with a point.
L: But very pointy, yeah, smaller and pointy. Ends up in the eye of the aforementioned superintendent, Robert Church.
M: Yes, who had it coming.
L: Who came up with that?
M: Who was it? That was one of our – I think that was probably you.
T: Oh I thought the psychopathic bits were you.
M: My husband suggested that we call it ‘It’s Awl In Your Head’, but for some reason the publishers didn’t go for that.
L: It’s all in your brain, yeah, exactly.
T: It’s astounding, the writers, when you get into that writing groove this inner psychopath does come out.
M: Yeah, it’s really quite scary.
T: And you're always looking for something more and more remarkable and of course I have to say Bell deserved to be murdered. The government was in an interesting situation in those days so the same situation that the commandant is in in Book 1. There’s a liberal commandant who is the husband of the murder victim in the first book in Port Macquarie and his second in command is –
T: - a high Tory –
L: Captain Diamond.
T: - a really quite monstrous person and I’m not saying all high Tories are quite monstrous although one look at Cory Bernardi and you think it has to be proved otherwise but anyhow it – the – you had this tension in the colony between those two classes of administrator. And if you had a liberalminded administrator and a subperson who was far more brutal you couldn’t send an email back to the depot and say please bring us someone a bit nicer, you were stuck with that person and the administration was stuck with the bloke who ran the female factory even though – and Meg can tell you a story which is in the book and is true about the woman –
M: The woman who died, yes.
T: - who was so misused.
L: Yeah, tell us that story, Meg.
M: Yeah well this really struck me when I first read about it, her real name was Marianne Hamilton, her story’s sort of recounted in there fictionally but the various superintendents were shaving off bits of the women’s rations and selling them so she was starving, she ate the feed for the geese because the geese ate better than the women and she ate weeds and in punishment for that she was put into solitary confinement, tethered to the ground with stakes and ropes. When she became wild she was put in a straitjacket and unsurprisingly died of starvation. There was an inquest into her death and the administrative response was to increase the rations of the superintendent, not the women but the superintendent so he’d be less tempted to steal so yeah.
L: It’s just appalling and also there’s a horrible case in The Unmourned too about psychological abuse by this horrible superintendent, Robert Church, of a woman whose – again we won’t go into details but something dreadful happened in her past which he constantly reminds her of and makes her feel guilty for so it’s appalling torture.
M: Well yeah and there is some evidence that they did psychologically abuse the women and why not? They were abusing them in every other way. The head-shaving incident that Dad mentioned earlier, it’s kind of hard to overstate how important these – in what high esteem they held their hair, it was the only thing they had, it was a mark of their femininity and to have –
L: And also we’re not talking about the kind of shaving that’s done for the world’s greatest shave where it’s done nicely, this was done brutally.
M: Yeah. So to have your head shaved in public was the worst of humiliations and one superintendent decided it would be a good idea just to shave everyone’s head and have friends do it to friends which is you know was just the last straw for a great many of them so you know I mean you mash a group of souls like this behind a tall wall and you demonise them in the press and you can do pretty much whatever you like.
T: Oh yes, it wouldn’t happen now, would it?
L: There is such a – there’s such great light and shade in these books, I think that’s why people are loving them so much and it’s not all horrible, it’s not all the darkest aspects of our history but before we move on I do want to dwell on a particularly dark moment in the first book and it’s the flogging. And you wrote about a dreadful flogging in the book I mentioned earlier that won you the Miles Franklin, Bring Larks and Heroes, yes.
T: Years ago when I had hair then.
L: And you know we hear – you hear about flogging, you grow up as a child, you know that convicts were flogged but the way in which that convict was flogged by a completely sadistic slightly crazed person who had authority over him is dreadful but there’s also the bit at the end where his wounds are spat on by the person who did the flogging and this ultimately leads to this man’s death because of the infection. And I hear that that was your idea, Meg, the –
T: It was.
M: I suppose the psychopathic bits really are mine and the weird thing is I wasn’t prepared for this when I started writing but Dad tells me it’s reasonably common, sometimes the characters just go off and do their own thing without any reference to you at all or it feels like they do and I didn’t know that Diamond was going to spit in the wound until I actually wrote the line and then I stepped back and went oh, you’re a psychopath, okay. He was supposed to be a little bit more ambiguous and then at that moment I realised he was actually quite a nasty character and I thought well we better go back and sprinkle some more psycho dust on you in the preceding chapters. And I sent that – I cut that scene out and sent it to Dad and said is this too extreme? And he said no, it’s a ripper as you know as much psychopathy as we can get, that’s all great.
L: I was very pleased to see the end of Captain Diamond as he sailed off on a ship and I hope he’s not going to turn up –
T: He is going to come back.
M: He is, he’ll be back, he’ll be back.
T: He’s not in the next book, the next book is –
M: He’s not in the next book, he’s –
L: We’re spared from him in The Unmourned but –
M: You are, you are but not forever. He’ll be back.
L: Thank you for that warning. Port Macquarie as a convict settlement, I didn’t Port Macquarie was a convict settlement –
M: Yeah, they’ve got very little built environment left.
L: Yeah but it’s interesting because when my dad read the book he said oh I knew that because a bloke he knows, used to drive an excavator, told him he was doing work up there some years ago and they uncovered some aspect of the early convict settlement down near the water where I think ships used to come ashore and we were both saying you know who knew? But you grew up at Kempsey, Tom, so did you know about –
T: Well started out at Kempsey. I can see my handsome cousin here, yeah, we were living in Wau - I remember my handsome cousin, Patchy’s, fifth birthday, we’re living in Wauchope, we’re all put in a bus and taken to the opening of the Catholic Church in Port Macquarie and Port Macquarie was very much a fishing – a small village and Wauchope was the Venice of the north and Kempsey was the Florence of the north. And so I was always interested in Port Macquarie and recently I wrote a thing in The Australian about a magical place called Crescent Head. Well there was an early track from 1830, there was a track from Port Macquarie convict settlement to Crescent Head and a lot of convicts settled there as fishermen and so on, it was a great place to hide out from authority.
L: So you always knew that Port Macquarie –
T: And so I was always kind of interested in –
L: - was a convict settlement?
T: - the idea of Port Macquarie as a – and you do – beneath the houses – a lot of high-rise - they’ve had to have an excavation done for archaeology and you do –
M: This might have happened when your dad was talking about.
T: Yes and you do come across the footings, the foundations of convict huts, drainage and so on and some of those foundations you can see with convict brick under the foundations under the entertainment centre –
M: The Glass House.
T: - yeah, the civic – the Glass House, the civic centre so –
M: The Glass House at Port Macquarie.
T: - it’s – and the next book is in Maria Island and a future book is going to be - Governor Darling thought that educated convicts were getting it too easily. He was a high Tory you know and he decided he’d found a special convict station for educated convicts to make sure that they went through the tough life and it was at Wellington and they called it – other convicts called it the ‘Valley of the Swells’, and we’re going to have a convict – one of the books is going to be in the ‘Valley of the Swells’, because it’s not a well-known place either.
L: No. And you’re planning 12 books in the series, aren’t you? Yeah so –
T: Well there are plenty of obscure – and we’re going to go to Norfolk Island too at some - or Meg is, the wonder child labourer.
M: Which may or may not be where Michael Diamond comes back.
L: I want to talk a bit – ‘cause in a few moments I’ll open up the floor to questions so if you’ve got a question saved up keep hold of it because you’ll have an opportunity soon but I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between Hugh Montserrat and Hannah Mulrooney, his housekeeper, his friend, the brains behind the operation, you could say and theirs is not a love interest, there’s a difference in age and there is a love – there are love interests in the book, we have Sophia in the first book and I’m getting the feeling that a love interest is developing in the second book so I’m very excited to see where that goes too. But tell me a bit more about this really special relationship between these two unlikely people who end up on the other side of the world together.
M: Well you created the characters, Dad, so you should –
L: Well Hugh is the educated convict who still thinks vainly at the core of his being that he’s quite clever. But he’s not as clever as Mrs Mulrooney ‘though she is illiterate, and attempts literacy classes in Book 2. [She can] go a certain distance but no further and I’ve always been fascinated about how literacy you know in places like Africa is not a measure of how intelligent people are. The – how powerful, the intuitive reasoning, lateral reasoning, how powerful myth and the oral tradition is with these people so I wanted to have a nonliterate person and a woman without whom Montserrat can – finds it very hard to solve these crimes. In Book 3, it gets harder and harder for him to solve the crime in Tasmania which is the next book without Mulrooney. And so, in Book 1 he’s a convict and she’s the housekeeper, she’s done her time, he’s still doing his time.
Now he’s got a ticket of leave in Book 2 and she’s his housekeeper in Parramatta. She is quite capable of interfering in any relationship with women of which – between Montserrat and women, which she disapproves of, and she disapproves of Sophia Stark, the woman of whom Hugh – the woman Hugh was visiting when he was caught and sent to Port Macquarie, the woman of whom Hugh – reunion Hugh dreams of. And of course reunion is never quite everything it’s cracked up to be. There may even be some people in the audience who remember the reunions at the end of World War Two, and how they were ambiguous because the wife had become a different person and the husband had become a different person when they came back from the war. And so Mrs Mulrooney is quite prepared to fish in troubled waters and to push icebergs around and to sink Titanics of affection if it’s required and she does so that’s the connection between the two.
She comes, as you find out, from an event in Ireland which produced a lot of Irish convicts to Australia to the point that Governor King said they’re all talking Irish and I’m surrounded by them and he got quite paranoid about it and –
L: Serves him right.
T: - that’s her origins. She was involved in a great social upheaval that produced a great number of convicts in early Australia, in the early 1800s. And so that’s the story of Mulrooney and of course like many a convict her drink is tea and she has a mastery as a – mastery is one of the words that haven’t succumbed to feminism because theirs is a – you can’t say mistressy over. There’s got to be a word that we can use but for the time being let’s say mastery over tea is extremely potent.
L: You’ve brought us really quite back full circle and I know that you love writing about Mrs Mulrooney, yes.
M: I do, she’s my favourite, she’s my favourite to write about.
L: Which is fantastic. And the relationship between them changes, the power shifts and so –
M: Yeah, that’s right.
L: - at the end of the book there, again which we won’t go into but –
M: An event happens that makes it shift again, yes, yeah.
T: I remember there was a woman we knew in Dublin - Meg worked there for quite a time and this is how we know the Mulrooneys of the world – this woman – Meg was renting a flat with a fellow called Tommy McDonnell and they weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend –
L: They were flatmates, yes.
T: - and so this woman decided she’d make sure that Tommy O’Donnell be - under no circumstances would presume anything. And she said Tommy, I’ve known you since you were a little boy and you’re always a sly gobshite so if there’s any slyness and if you get involved into – with this girl, you’ll have to answer to me.
L: The poor fellow.
T: You’re always a little gobshite and that’s Mrs Mulrooney.
M: That is Mrs Mulrooney.
L: And can we expect – as much as we love the books and we can’t wait for the series to unroll, there is talk of a possible television series?
M: Yeah, December Media who make the Dr Blake Mysteries who – which should never have been take you know it’s a shame that –
L: The ABC sometimes does some interesting things, yes.
M: Yeah sorry, I didn’t mean to –
L: It’s okay.
T: They did the right thing in employing you, though, Louise.
L: Oh Tom.
M: But yeah anyway they make the Dr Blake Mysteries at the moment and they are looking to make this into a series as well and to use the stories as jumping off point to a sort of more you know a longer, more episodic series. They’re looking at it as sort of like Dead Wood but without the swearing <inaudible> 46:06 Australia.
L: Well we look forward to that too and yeah and –
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