Moonlight Downs, published originally as Diamond Dove in Australia and the UK, is a mystery set in the Northern Territory of Australia and is narrated by Emily Tempest, a mixed-race woman in her twenties who is returning home after years of wandering the world. Shortly after she arrives, the leader of the Moonlight mob, an Aboriginal group that Emily grew up with, is murdered. She feels compelled to find out what happened. The book offers a vivid view of Aboriginal life from the perspective of a strong-willed woman who has a foot in two cultures but doesn’t fully belong to either.
Author Adrian Hyland kindly agreed to answer questions generated by the class members of the Mysterious World First Term Seminar, who had been discussing his book. (Note: He was also recently interviewed by Stuart McBride at Shots Ezine – well worth a read.)
Was it difficult to write from a female point of view? Why did you choose a woman as your protagonist and narrator? Did you consider telling the story from a purely Aboriginal perspective – Hazel’s, for example?
I originally wrote the story from the perspective of a young whitefeller coming up from down south, discovering his roots, etc. However, whatever I did to it, it seemed too autobiographical – a roman a clef – and nothing could be more boring (especially to me) than me.
Emily was a relatively minor character, but one I liked – so when my protagonist disappeared, she kind of insinuated herself onto centre stage.
I think I chose a woman because so many Aboriginal women I’d known made a huge impression on me: I loved them for their power, their determination, their feistiness.
I might share with you a story. When I was working in the outback, I was working with a small remote community who had set up an outstation near a mine. They wanted their children to attend the mine school – to the horror of the parents of the white children already at the school. The whites called a community meeting to discuss this unwanted intrusion, and an Aboriginal woman I know asked me to come along with her. The atmosphere was very hostile when we entered the room, but she spoke to them in such a simple, friendly but forceful manner that by the end of the night she’d completely won them over, so much so that when an Education Department official mentioned that they planned to have a separate class for the Aboriginal kids, the parents objected, saying they wanted them all in together.
I saw hundreds of such little incidents in my time out back.
I think of the book as in some ways a tribute to those women.
Though the book is a mystery, there’s a lot of emphasis on Emily and the Moonlight community, less on who did it and how they’ll be caught. Why did you decide to tell this story in the genre of crime fiction rather than as a novel without a murder?
When I first wrote the book it wasn’t a murder mystery at all – as I mentioned above, it was more a young man’s coming of age story – a rambling, stream-of-consciousness type of thing: bigger than Moby Dick, but with less artistry than Enid Blyton. I showed the manuscript to various people who said – er – interesting in parts, but where’s the plot? It just wasn’t working, and I thought it was destined to moulder forever in my drawer.
It was only then that I had the idea of turning it into a crime novel – I’ve always loved the genre, and regard people such as Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and our own Peter Temple as great writers.
Basically I kept the original setting and many of the characters, and wove a plot around them.
The thing I love about the crime genre – the thing that saved me, really – was that it forced me to hammer my flights of fancy into a coherent piece with a recognizable form – a beginning and an end, no less!
What experiences have you had with Aboriginal communities and how did those experiences influence the book?
I spent ten years living in remote Aboriginal communities. I found there such beautiful honesty, joy and sense of place that everything else tends to seem shallow by comparison.
Before reading the book, our class watched the film Rabbit Proof Fence and read the Prime Minister’s speech of apology. He laid out a program for closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. What was the impact of that speech? Has there been progress since that speech was given?
It has had an enormous impact – one that I hope won’t diminish with time. I’ve a friend – an Aboriginal woman in jail – a member of ‘the stolen generation’ herself. She said on the day of the speech, all of the Aboriginal prisoners were gathered together in their dark little activities room to watch it. They were pretty cynical about politicians at the best of times, but she said it was like a beam of light had shone into the room – by the end of the speech most of them had tears in their eyes. (I’m sure many of you felt a similar feeling during Obama’s speech).
The US edition has a glossary of Australian and Aboriginal terms, but many word that are unfamiliar to American readers aren’t included. Did you have a hand in the glossary? Did your US publisher ask you to Americanize anything? Do you have any advice for readers who aren’t fluent in Strine?
The American publishers gave me a list of words that their readers could have trouble with, and I gave definitions of them. Some readers have told me (as seems to be the case with you folk) that they could have used a larger glossary (the only really bad review I’ve had in the world) was from a feller in some US magazine called – er January, I think – who was obviously puzzled by the language, and was mocking the publisher’s including a glossary. My immediate reaction was: what an idiot! I don’t mind being criticized, but to criticize a book because the language is too colloquial for you says more about the critic than the book. I read books from every corner of the globe, and the language is one of the things that delight me – American (crime) writers I admire include James Lee Burke, Leonard, Ellroy, Pelecanos and The Kinkster – all of them rich with slang. On the other hand, I find writers such as Patricia Cornwell or Jeffrey Deaver virtually unreadable – I try, but the predictability of the language puts me too sleep.
How have Aboriginal readers responded to the book? Has anyone raised issues with the negative light in which some community members are portrayed (especially those living in Bluebush)?
I’ve had some fantastic reactions from Aboriginal people down here in the cities (have also had some criticism from lefty types ((of which I’m one)) who feel it’s inappropriate for a whitefeller to write from a black perspective – my answer is that if Shakespeare had thought that way we wouldn’t have Othello – I reckon the whole world should be open to an author – anything other than that is political correctness gone mad.)
Re other reactions: the really traditional people, the ones about whom I was writing – no, I haven’t had much response there, but I never expected to. For most of those people, the written word plays a miniscule part in their lives at best. Few of the older people are literate, and even the young ones have more affinity with music, art and film.
What parts of the book do you feel happiest with? Are there parts that you would change?
My worry was that the book is almost an ‘anthology’ of some of the more interesting things that happened to me during my time in Central Oz. I suppose that may mean it lacks a strong narrative drive (although the critics seem to have said that the vignettes, asides, etc are its strongest element)
I suspect the book is a bit hard to categorize – traditional readers of crime may find it lacks pace, and more literary readers (whom I suspect would enjoy it most) may not even look at it because they consider crime infra dig.
What’s next for Emily Tempest?
Another one’s on the way! Hopefully I’ll have it finished in six months.
Many thanks to Adrian Hyland for taking the time to answer our questions. I, for one, am looking forward to hearing more from Emily Tempest. (Cross posted from the Mysterious World class blog.)