Setting a novel in Tasmania

Written by

The story behind Vanishing Falls William Morrow, Harper Collins, August 2020

A stranger, seeing Tasmania for the first time, might not immediately be struck by the beauty of the island. They might see a bleak landscape, dotted with sheep as parched in colour as the pasture, vast tracts of dry eucalypt forests, tea-tree stained lagoons, powerful ocean crashing on rugged headlands and bright-white beaches. It can take time for a person to appreciate Tasmania’s magnificent yet fragile, raw beauty.

This contradiction is one of the reasons why I like writing about Tasmania. As most writers do, I have a box of unpublished novels, poems and screenplays. All of mine are studies of different landscapes on the island, from the ski fields to the farmlands and undulating poppy fields. Tasmania has a strange beauty: a dangerous terrain gilded with delicate flora, impossibly high waterfalls that vanish into subterranean creeks, ancient forests and deceptively beguiling oceans. Best of all, are the wide range of diverse people who call the island home.

This novel, Vanishing Falls, is set in a fictional garrison town in the rainforest beneath the Gog Range, somewhere between Mole Creek and the Mersey River valley. I thought often of Westbury, an old garrison village, as I was writing about Vanishing Falls village. Many years ago, I was intrigued by a sad story I read in the newspaper about a young girl who was caught up in a horrible crime. It wasn’t her fault; she was young and from a disadvantaged background. The price she paid for witnessing this crime was the community’s, and her family’s, rejection of her. I felt immense sympathy for this girl and the woman she would become. I had the idea to write her a happy ending, where she ends up surrounded by people who accept and love her. That’s where the character Brian comes in: a beautiful man who wanted to look after Joelle and keep her safe. Joelle brings him a deep happiness. To me, they exemplify what happens when people are genuine and kind to each other. Exuberant and joyful, Joelle is different to most people – she can’t think as quickly, she struggles to read social situations well. My character is not based on any one I know, although there have been special people in my life who faced similar struggles to Joelle.

I was born in Tasmania and grew up on a small farm near Launceston. The river city is bursting with well-preserved Georgian buildings and elegant parks. The surrounding countryside is dotted with historic villages, inns, churches, homesteads, and convict-built roads and bridges. One of the prominent heritage-listed homes is Mona Vale, in Ross, which is a privately-owned home sometimes called the calendar house. There are many beautiful homesteads in Tasmania and it’s easy to become enchanted by these grand old homes. These homes are also a reminder of Tasmania’s dark colonial history, in which Tasmanian Aboriginal people had their land stolen, their families murdered, and endured terrible abuse. In my novel, this is referred to in the various ways characters respond to the artwork of John Glover, an English artist who lived in northern Tasmania from 1831. As the granddaughter of a man who wondered about his indigenous ancestry, I was thinking about questions of belonging.

Apple-growing in Tasmania has a romantic history. Festivals used to be held to bless the blossoming apple trees in spring, and again in autumn to celebrate the harvest. There were float parades, balls, apple queens were crowned, and competitions held to showcase the skills of the orchardist. These festivals are currently being reborn in the Huon Valley and Spreyton in the north, for tourism reasons.

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