A CLOSE-knit rural community once again provides the backdrop to Rosalie Ham’s new novel. But this time The Dressmaker author has swapped frocks and feuds for drought and drama in The Year of the Farmer.
Her fourth novel, just like her first, is full of her trademark black humour and dark sub-plots as farmer Mitchell Bishop battles with encroaching threats, from the landscape to his love life.
It’s a rollicking read, a rural romp that equally entertains and shocks with a cracker of a plot twist. In this week’s Sunday Book Club Rosalie, 63, talks about her inspirations.
You grew up on a farm in Jerilderie, New South Wales. How has this influenced your work?
“We had an irrigation farm and my dad would give us The Talk about the primary producer who against all logic is put upon to make more sacrifices, so that everyone can live. Basically, this book is an homage to The Talk, to my upbringing, listening to my father speaking about the state of the world.”
How do you think farming has changed?
“It’s changed in that technology has impinged and only made it worse. Technology, though it improves efficiency, doesn’t improve anything for the farmers. It just makes them produce more with less and be responsible for more. Their whole lives got more complicated by the demands of technology, but at the same time they have to be very in touch with the weather and nature and the way animals are on the landscape.”
When you were younger did you ever think you’d be a novelist?
“No, it never entered my mind, but the rural landscape meant there was so much room for my imagination. We filled that landscape with cowboys and Indians and heroines and villains. Being a novelist was organic, it just evolved and was a wonderful thing. I am enormously grateful.”
You were 45 when The Dressmaker was published. How did you feel getting success later in life?
“I was elated, I could not have been happier. Before the film came out I had written two more books so I had established my voice and I was grown up enough to really enjoy it for what it was without getting carried away.”
In The Year of the Farmer, villain Mandy is stuck somewhere she hates. Unlike Tilly in The Dressmaker, she never leaves. Why not?
“Lack of imagination, confidence, opportunity, that one chance. It didn’t happen for Mandy and she had an unfortunate upbringing that just set the tone of her life. There are those people who rub up against you that are very irritating, they never agree with anything. Mandy goes against the grain and the greater good — she is not working for the unity of the community.”
She becomes like a cornered fox. Didn’t you feel a little sorry for her?
“I had to make some parts of her likeable because I wanted people to be engaged with her but I had to make her mean enough so what happens to her is somewhat just. She’s a lovely character to write — I enjoy those dastardly characters that set off firecrackers in people’s memories. It’s quite satisfying in the end when they get their comeuppance.”
The language you use is very evocative, punctuated with dark details.
“It’s very rural. Anyone trying to make a living in nature know it all goes along nicely for a time but never lasts, something changes it in an instant, that’s just the way it is. They never let you get your hopes up if you are a farmer.
“That’s been my life experience, what moulded me. You have tragedy met with comedy that produces irony. That is what lets people cope with tragedy, to make light of it, to say don’t let this destroy us, there is tomorrow, we have to carry on. That kind of humour is a release to let the tension out.”
The women in this book seem to have all the power. Is that your experience?
“Everyone knows in a rural community that it’s equal, it’s a partnership. In literature it’s always blokes in the bush battling, but I wanted to show the women are strong, they do drive the tractors, they do the harvest, they are entrepreneurial — you have to be if you live in the country.”
How many more novels do you think you’ll write?
“I am half way through a rough draft of my next one and I know by the time I get to the end I will have thought of the next. I think I will write a couple more. I don’t know what else to do.”
What do you think makes a great Australian novel?
“A strong story that takes you through the gamut of emotions. The landscape dominates in this country because it’s so empty and mysterious. I like a novel that is surprising, like life is in this vast dry continent.”