Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Author interview – Pip Fioretti

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Aedeen Cremin, ARR.News
Aedeen Cremin, ARR.News
Dr Aedeen Cremin is an archaeologist, who has done field work in Ireland, Portugal and Cambodia as well as in rural NSW. On retiring from the University of Sydney she moved to Yass, NSW and briefly ran a small bookshop there. She is an ardent reader as well as the author of several textbooks and encyclopedia entries.

Having read Pip Fioretti‘s Bone Lands in a sitting and finding it an “extraordinary work”, Australian Rural & Regional News contributor, Aedeen Cremin was keen to find out more about this “cracker of a book”, its origins and its author.

Read Aedeen Cremin’s review of Bone Lands

ARR.News: The book is set in 1911, at a time when there were harsh divisions between rich and poor. Do you think these divisions still exist?

Pip Fioretti: I think, in Australia, there are still definitely divisions between rich and poor, but our overall standard of living materially has risen since 1911, so housing may be better, welfare payments are better, but medical and education services for the bush are still lagging behind the cities, social services are lagging and there are still pockets of poverty, probably more than we like to think.

ARR.News: The book suggests that the harsh landscape encourages harsh behaviour? Was that your intention?

Pip Fioretti: No, not the harsh landscape, rather the way it was worked by European settlers. The notion of ‘improving the land’ dominated and that meant killing most native animals who were considered to be vermin. Leasehold land was given out on the proviso that the land be improved, and that meant removing native vegetation too. But for me, it was the harshness of the killing of native wildlife to the point where these populations have never recovered and the cruelty of the wool growing practices. Treating animals with cruelty, day after day after day, desensitises people to pain and gets them used to inflicting pain. But let me emphasise that these were historical practices that are not around today. Most farmers today understand how to manage their land and their stock in cruelty free, sustainable ways. But it has taken a hundred or more years to get to this point.

Wool had a profound economic impact on Australia, but it came at a cost.

ARR.News: I was very moved by the poor selectors, with their kids wearing cut-down flourbags. Is that a realistic description?

Pip Fioretti: Yes, I’m afraid it is. The family portrayed are itinerant workers, not selectors, with the man pushing the poison cart and the woman raising a family in a tin shed and living off handouts from the property owner or being paid in mutton and flour. Cutting down a flourbag to use as tea towel was something I’ve seen older rural women do. It’s good strong cotton, why would you waste it! Clothes then, unlike now, were expensive as they were only just beginning to be made in factories, and made of natural fibres, and people made do. Self-reliance and making-do is how these people lived.

About fifty per cent of Australians lived in rural areas in that time, working as maids, stockmen fencers, well diggers, rabbiters and doggers and shearers, and life was tough. The age pension was ten shillings a week, when the average wage was around 2 pounds and 2 shillings a week. Women were paid far less than men and only employed in strictly female occupations. There was little contraception, and the man was in charge of his wife and children. Corporal punishment was in all schools and domestic violence was common and tolerated. Scurvy was common in all areas of Australia, (vitamins were not understood then). Infectious and parasitic diseases caused around 10 per cent of all deaths, antibiotics were not available, and sanitation, housing and water supplies were all below modern standards.

ARR.News: The plot is quite scary. I presume it is imaginary, not based on fact.

Pip Fioretti: The murders of a brother and two sisters, are very loosely based on the unsolved murders called the Gatton murders which happened in Queensland in 1898. I began by reading what is known about these murders and then read some of the theories as to who was guilty and what the motive was.

The story is dark but I was in Gus’s head most of the time as he struggles to find the killers. I tried to see the world as he sees it and from that point of view there is nothing else but his drive for justice.

ARR.News: Were you at all influenced by other authors?

Pip Fioretti: The book is written as a crime/thriller with all the craft requirements the genre has. I am influenced by books like The North Water (about whaling) and The Abstainer by Ian MacGuire, also The Wolf and the Watchman by the Swedish writer Niklas Natt Och Dag — historical crime fiction that portrays similar milieus around a similar time in history. I have been and always will be influenced by Patrick White’s novels.

For research I read Henry Lawson’s Bulletin pieces and poems. I also read C.E.W Bean’s On the Wool Track, published in 1911. He was the journalist who was embedded in Gallipoli and is credited with starting the ANZAC mythology. He travelled around the Western Division of NSW in 1911, noting the people who lived and worked there, and actually commenting on the damage done to the land by overstocking and land clearing.

ARR.News: Have you had any local reactions yet?

Pip Fioretti: Yes, mostly positive. I hope I don’t upset anyone. It’s important to remember that the narrator, Gus, is a traumatised man as well as being a police trooper. He’s going to notice the troublemakers, and so that comes through in the text. But he also has a deep appreciation of the beauty of the place.

The facts of harsh wool-growing practices would be acknowledged by anyone in the industry, because they’ve made huge strides to get rid of it. And the notion that land was improved by clearing and killing is also being acknowledged as not sustainable and not how we think today. I have enormous respect for rural people and organisations like Landcare. Pastoralists and farmers today are different to those of the past, but they still live by resilience, community, and self-reliance, born of harsh conditions and traditions stretching way back beyond 1911.

ARR.News: Do you have any personal connections with that world?

Pip Fioretti: My great-great grandfather was a bushman, born at Boree Creek in 1836, he went on to be an overseer on a wool property owned by W.C Wentworth and died in Forbes in 1918. His obituary describes him as ‘a daring and capable horseman and for a time followed the occupation of horse breaker.’ He had five sons and all of them took up the life of a bushman, doing manual work – fencing, shooting, stockwork, and so on. When I write about the bushmen in the book, I think of my ancestors with pride. In fact, the character of the overseer on Gowrie Station, is called Henry Payton in honour of my great-great grandfather.

This interview is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Related story: Review – Bone Lands


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