May 2009

Fran Cusworth

Three years ago, Melbourne journalist Fran Cusworth moved across the country with her geologist husband and two sons to a remote coastal town in Western Australia called Hopetoun. Her experiences as the town got caught up in the mining boom inspired her second novel, Hopetoun Wives, which is released this month. She is now back living in Melbourne and the nickel mine that brought hundreds of mining families to town has since closed.

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  1. 1. What inspired you to write Hopetoun Wives?

    Living in Hopetoun, I became intrigued by the mining boom, and the mining culture, and how it affected women. I wanted to capture the chaos, excitement and money-lust of a tiny town being overrun by a global mining company. It felt like a microcosm of the goldrush that was gripping all of WA; a perfect portal into a crazy world.

  2. 2. How did you end up living in the town?

    My husband, me and our two boys aged 5 and 2 were there from late 2006 to early 2008, about 18 months in total. I had had a career as a journalist (politics and features) in daily newspapers and newswire in Melbourne for the 12 years before, and with the publication of my first novel, The Love Child, I was ready to take the plunge, quit work and have a go at a second novel. My geologist husband was sick of his city-based job and was keen to get outback to a mine. He applied for a job ad at this town we'd never heard of, and within a shockingly short amount of time, it was a done deal. Within four weeks, we packed up our home, our children and our lives and we were on our way out west.

  3. 3. How do you think your journalistic experience helped you write the true-to-life account?

    I think my journalist background gives me a respect for history-in-the-making, and that was how I saw Hopetoun. It was intriguing for anyone interested in current affairs, in mining, in the social history of our country. The commodity prices, labour shortage, wages were all at historic highs, and when these things happen to such a degree, it starts affecting society in interesting ways. People take on fly-in-fly-out work as the norm, smart kids drop out of university, working-class people start buying boats, people accept many sorts of strangenesses as a routine way of life. All of which is fascinating to a journalist.

  4. 4. What were your impressions on first arriving in the town?

    "What town?" would have been my first question, then on arriving, "Where's the rest of it?" My first impression was that most of it must have gone missing somewhere, leaving just the general store and the pub. Then I peered around a few corners and realised that that was it. There was no more; it really was that small. It was very quaint and classically Australian. Stunningly beautiful beaches, and you could see or hear the sea from almost everywhere. But I walked in that general store and felt horrendously foreign. I knew exactly how much of an outsider I was from the moment I set foot in the place.

  5. 5. Which of the three main characters are you most like?

    Brigid's maternal feelings for her children are probably closest to mine, and her toddler son is modelled on my own. Miranda's claustrophobia within a small company town, where everyone knows everyone else's business was something I felt, and like me, she was disturbed by the indigenous history. Jasmine is a city girl doing country and feeling like a complete fish out of water - that was me too.

  6. What was your reaction when you heard at the start of the year that the nickel project was suspended?

    I cried. It sounds silly but I felt the sort of grief you feel when a friend dies. I was numb for weeks. Not just because some mine had closed, of course, but because of what it meant for everyone living there. Because we had all worked so hard to create a community in difficult circumstances, and it had begun to succeed. Because we all lived with a dream in our heads of how Hopetoun at its best could have been, and that was suddenly ripped away. Because it felt like so much effort had been wasted.

  7. 6. How would Jasmine, Miranda and Brigid have reacted to the mine closure?

    Hmmm ... Jasmine is a cynic and she always felt a little suspicious of the mine's power in the town, so she might harbour secret feelings of satisfaction! Miranda's very caring, and would just be upset and concerned for people. Brigid would not be sentimental; she'd be out and on to where the money was next to be made. Or she'd make money out of the chaos of the departures in some way.

  8. 7. What message do you hope readers will take from your book?

    I hope people who lived through the incredible resources boom of the years leading up to 2008 realise that they were part of something historic, amazing and momentous. Mining towns, those frontier places where so much of Australia's wealth is made, are neglected by our writers and artists, but they're full of truths about who we are as a nation.

  9. 10. How do you get national and international readers interested in a story set around a remote WA town?

    Good question! But I hope the themes of friendship through difficult times are fairly universal. And I think the issues my three women are dealing with - parenthood, infertility, failing marriages, new friendships - are ones that will reach people, wherever they live.

  10. 11. Was the storyline of your first novel The Love Child also derived from real life experiences?

    Some of the children's lines, the precious and frustrating things they did, were captured from my everyday life of taking them to swimming lessons, to the zoo, trying to do yoga with them around. I shared moments of Ana's fear of intimacy, Serena's exhaustion and despair with caring for babies and toddlers, but also her acute sense of the breathtaking beauty and dearness of your own young children, and of how devastatingly quickly they grow up. Like Ana, I had been a journalist with a daily newspaper and had both loved and railed against those pressures. Serena was a geologist, like my husband. (My next novel, it has been pledged to him, will not include a SINGLE character from the mining industry). But the driving incidents of that story; the death of Finn's parents and the consequences of one key infidelity, came more from "what if" ruminations in my imagination.

  11. 12. What are you working on now?

    Another novel, this one set in Melbourne and around themes of risk - how we balance our need for safety, security, marriage, the mortgage, with our risky desires to fulfil our potential and live out our dreams.

  12. 13. Do you think you could write about parenting issues without being a mother yourself?

    For me, no. I just can't imagine being able to.

  13. 14. How do you find time to write novels with two children?

    It's a challenge. The Love Child was a bit of a miracle of juggling part-time newspaper work, births, breastfeeding and naps. I can't recommend it, the pressure really didn't do much for my post-natal mental health at the time! My boys were good afternoon nappers, and I wrote at these times. I also took to getting up and writing from 5-7am. If anything, the arrival of children made me much more focused with my time. By the time we moved to Hopetoun, I had quit my job and the plan was that I would have a couple of whole days to myself every week to write the second novel. Unfortunately, the lack of formal childcare in a tiny rural town created a whole new tranche of difficulties. I did eventually find fantastic women prepared to work as childcarers a few mornings a week to my little one, and that was when I wrote. These days, I write three days a week, in school hours, and my four-year-old goes to creche on these days. It's much easier than the baby/toddler days were, and I really enjoy the routine of it. On these days I work mostly from home, I shut the study door, and I ignore the housework.

  14. 15. Which books have you most enjoyed reading this year?

    The Duchess, by Amanda Foreman ... much better than the film. Theft, by Peter Carey ... loved his self-obsessed, egotistical artist character. What is the What, by Dave Eggers . . . true life story of a Sudanese refugee, amazing perspective on a long conflict and also on Western society as seen by a newcomer. The Rainy Season, by Myfanwy Jones . . . a beautiful debut novel about expat love in Vietnam, at an interesting political time. Handle With Care, by Jodie Picoult . . . am reading this now. She writes a book a year, all of them gripping, and I'd love to know how she does it.

  15. 16. What are three things you couldn't live without?

    People: My husband, my first son and my second son.
    Things: My garden, my computer and green tea.

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