Jo Case talks to Jennifer Mills about her novel Gone.
You’ve said, ‘My life has been research for this novel’ (though it’s in no way veiled autobiography). How have aspects of your lived experience fed into and inspired the book?
I have been a no-budget traveller in many parts of Australia and the world, and hitched rides with a lot of people over the last fifteen years. Some of them have formed the basis for characters in Gone. Hitchhiking is getting harder, but it’s still a great way to meet people and collect stories. I’ve also been homeless for periods and that definitely informed the writing of this book.
Another hitch-hiker Frank encounters says, ‘People say no one travels like us anymore … But there are heaps of us, only they don’t see us.’ Do you think that’s true? Why do you think hitch-hikers have become invisible? Were you interested in making one of these characters visible?
I didn’t set out to write a book about an issue, but my politics does tend to find its way into things. Invisibility … like I said, it is getting harder, so you see less hitchhikers around. But poor people are becoming less visible too. There is a dangerous assumption in Australia that we are all successful economic participants, that we aced the GFC, and that times are good – so people who are struggling are in that position because they have somehow failed. That is frankly a bunch of bullshit. There is a serious underclass in this country and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Homelessness and poverty are much more prevalent than we like to admit. There’s a growing selfishness and fear of strangers which stops people from helping each other out. The experience of invisibility is part of being hard up. That same character effects a kind of tactical invisibility as a way of dodging harm. I guess the sense of being invisible is also symbolic of Frank’s wavering alliance with the world around him.
Frank ‘wonders if murder and suicide and scars just come up like this all the time, in everyone’s conversation, or if it’s a highway thing’. He encounters families with murdered loved ones, missing people, brawling brothers, sisters with a father in jail, a drug runner. Yet he also encounters extraordinary kindness. Did you deliberately thread this contrasting experience of human nature through his travels?
Because Frank is such a reserved character, he needed to encounter a range of other people for the reader to get a sense of who he really was. The whole journey is a kind of test for Frank as he tries out his few survival skills in the outside world. When you are down on your luck sometimes accepting generosity can be more painful than accepting meanness.
In my experience, everyone likes to talk about their ‘deep’ stuff on the road - there is a real confessional quality to the encounter of hitchhiking. You can catch people at a turning point in their lives driving long distances. A lot of people end up in the Territory and in the desert because of the mistakes they have made, looking for forgiveness maybe. The book as a whole is a way to engage with the prevalence of violence and harm in all our histories, to look at how we remember.
Frank observes, early in his journey, ‘The fringe of life on the coast is embarrassingly thin, a kind of joke.’ As someone who lives in Australia’s centre – Alice Springs – is this something you observe? And do you think this is reflected in our national psyche?
The desert looms large in our national psyche, and has a mythical quality – we are a very urbanised society but we all come here for spiritual sustenance, or at least invoke the place. I wanted to examine that symbolic weight close up. Because Frank is an outsider in the ‘real’ urban world, he tries to get away from it as quickly as he can. It’s more of an analogy for his own veneer of respectability.
Many of his observations come from that perspective of someone who is outside of society, a foreigner in his own culture. I think this is a common experience for people coming out of prison, who have a form of post-traumatic stress and experience a kind of culture shock.
The characters Frank meets along his journey from Sydney to Western Australia project a variety of meanings onto the desert he crosses: freedom, a blank slate, danger. At one point, he observes, ‘There is so much it refuses to mean’. What is it about this landscape that invites these projected meanings? And what appeal did that have for you, as a writer?
It was a heavy mess to wrestle with, writing about the desert and trying to come to terms with the mythology of the place. We throw a lot of our shit at the landscape in this country, partly because it is still contested, and partly because it can be so extreme and inhospitable that it challenges imported European notions of God-given dominance over nature. Either way, it becomes a receptacle for all of our fears, hostilities, desires for peace and spiritual healing, belonging, history, shame – and I wanted to go through this with someone, through the dream and the disillusionment and out the other side. But I also wanted to pick apart that tendency to weight the landscape with our own meanings, which is after all a part of colonisation. So the landscape in the book spirals away from the real.
Frank seems a natural loner – he often resists conversation and company and he’s obviously lived his life very much alone. Was it a challenge to create a book where the reader is so closely welded to such a solitary character?
I hope that he is sympathetic to readers. I tried to make Frank more vocal, but he wouldn’t let me put words in his mouth - he’s pretty stubborn. He says very little and reacts a lot rather than acts, because he’s basically pretty lost and unsure what to do most of the time.
I had to radically change my register to write him. To get inside his experience I had to shut down a lot of my own analytical, ‘insider’ way of thinking and try and put myself in his shoes. I was homeless while I was writing the first draft of Gone, living in my car in Alice, and that experience certainly fed in to his point of view. He’s preoccupied with his basic needs a lot, such as food, shelter, and safety.
Because of his particular mental disturbance about the past and his identity, what he sees and hears become a part of him in a much deeper way than they would for any other character, so I had to be very careful about every detail. But he can also manage to be quite funny and make some pretty wise observations about the state of the world as he sees it.
This is a highly suspenseful novel. The reader is accompanied by a sense of dread as they read – about what Frank has done, and what he might do. We have slivers of information about his past (he’s been in jail, he’s haunted by something terrible that happened in his remote childhood home) and access flashes of disturbing thoughts in the present, though he’s mostly a sympathetic character. How did you create this atmosphere, and how important was it to keep the reader guessing and piecing the story together?
The story is necessarily built up piece by piece as he travels. If you read carefully, you can see the narrative as a puzzle which fits together over time, and read Frank’s story as being made up of the fragments of others. The tension partly derives from Frank’s risk in going to face his past, and partly from his sense of pursuit. But as well as this, his history-myth is very fragile. Coming of age in the Howard years, and living in the Centre, most of what I write is in some way about memory and justice. I wanted readers to be so close to Frank that they would feel complicit in his story. It was hard at times to go there. I remember when I sent the manuscript to my publisher I apologised to her, saying it was ‘a bit creepy’ – I don’t think I intended to write a psychological thriller!
What are some of your favourite books and writers? Are there any that particularly inspired you while writing this book?
For this book I read a lot about our relationship with and responsibility to the past: WG Sebold, Bernhard Schlink, Anne Michaels. Gone is pretty much an existentialist novel. Although I wouldn’t say I was that kind of writer, I drew on those modernist ideas. Patrick White is a favourite; I re-read Voss while I was writing Gone. I also listened to a lot of early Springsteen and old blues.