When school teacher Natalie moves from the bustling city of Perth to a quiet country town in Western Australia it proves to be quite a bit of culture shock. When the school she is teaching at threatens to close she must fight for her little township. Gr. catches up with Fiona Palmer about her new book The Saddler Boys.
Who are the Saddler Boys? Why are they the title characters?
The Saddler boys are 26-year-old famer, Drew and his 8-year-old son, Billy. These boys become friends with Natalie when she moves to the small town of Lake Biddy to teach at the primary school, and ultimately they change her life.
Do aspects of yourself ever emerge in your characters?
Yes, I think they probably do. Not that I could spot it, though if you ask my mum I’m sure she could see those aspects better than I could.
What was your inspiration for the book? How does the closure of rural schools affect communities?
I drew inspiration from The Saddler Boys through my own experience of our primary school closing down back in 1998, then in 2005 the primary school where I worked as a teacher’s assistant also shut down. I always knew I wanted to put this into a story one day.
I love to use real life problems that are still current in our rural areas. Not many people who don’t live in a rural areas understand just how much losing a school can affect your community. Our town was split into three: our local shop suffered as locals shopped in nearby towns where their kids now go to school, sports suffer, and community social aspects suffer, as we used to come together to attend concerts, assemblies and school P&C committees. The school becomes the hub of a small community and it would tie everyone together. How do you get people to come live in your town when schooling is a long bus ride away? So, as you can see, it’s just one of many things that has affected me personally and many of my friends, and it’s great to be able to share this through my stories.
You deal with heavy themes, such as domestic violence and single parenting in the novel. Is it difficult to balance these themes with lighter aspects of the novel like humour and romance?
I don’t really think of that when I write my stories. I don’t want to skirt around issues just to keep things light. My books are often written about real events, real life experiences so why shouldn’t that include the real life heavy things like domestic violence? It’s something that affects people no matter where you live. Besides, there is always a happily ever after with my books. I like to be smiling by the last page.
What was the greatest difficulty in writing about the city/country divide?
Probably the fact that I don’t live in the city. I did live in Perth for six months and I regularly visit. I have family and friends who are city people but that doesn’t make it any easier to write about a city person who has never experienced the real country. I didn’t want to write in a way that segregated city and country people, nor did I want to make that divide any bigger. I try to use my books as a tool to help city people understand our way of life and let them experience it without having to leave their home. It doesn’t mean that I think our way of life is any better than city life, it’s just what I personally prefer, love and am so passionate about.
Do your biggest fans tend to be from the city or the country?
There is a real mixture of both. Men, women, elderly and even teenagers are reading my books. It’s a great genre that seems to touch a wide readership, to which I’m grateful.
While writing The Sunnyvale Girls, you travelled to Italy for research. Did you have to do much research for The Saddler Boys or did you draw mostly on your own experience?
I did have to do a bit of research into the school closure aspect, but I had friends who had been through it, which helped a lot, it always helps to have a primary source. Most of it was drawn from my own experiences with a little bit of research on the harder issues, like paternity testing and custody.
How important is the landscape of Western Australia in your writing?
The landscape of Western Australia is so important it’s almost a character in the books. The landscape is what inspires me in everyday life, whether it’s the golden wheat at harvest or the shimmering gum leaves in the summer heat. I draw amazing energy from our vast rural landscape and it’s also what inspired me to write in the first place. I just try to describe what I see every day as best I can. Mother Nature has done the rest.
What have been your last three favourite books?
I’ve been so busy lately with kids, sport, housework, my role on the Rural, Regional and Remote Women’s Network, community roles and commitments, touring, researching the next book and fitting in working at the farm in preparation for harvest that time to read books has been non-existent! But in saying that one must find time to ‘stop and smell the roses’, because if we don’t take time out for ourselves how can we keep giving to others, and so I found time to read my friend Rachael Johns’ new book, The Patterson Girls, and loved it.
Can you share with us a teaser paragraph or one of your favourite sentences from your new novel?
I love Doris, so here’s a paragraph on this big hearted woman:
Other people see a messy-looking ragbag old lady in a clapped-out ute. But by god does she make the world a better place. Heart bigger than the wheatbelt, that’s for sure,’ said Lauren.
Doris tooted her horn as she came towards the house. It was limp and sick-sounding, as if submerged in water. The ute was already coasting, Doris’s foot no doubt trying to find some sort of brakes. It pulled up just two metres past them. Doris was good at judging its roll-to-a-stop distance.
The kids came swarming back like bees to honey when they knew the coast was clear, each one giving Doris a hug as she got out. They came away with big slices of chocolate crackle, all of them wasting no time biting into them.
‘Hi, Doris,’ said Nat as they walked around the ute to greet her. Doris was wearing her Redback boots, brown trackpants with holes, some patched, some not, and a green flannel shirt with a torn pocket and there was a chook feather stuck in her grey messy hair.