We had a chat with Helen Blackhurst about her debut novel, Swimming on Dry Land.
Helen lives in rural Ireland and works as a drama therapist. Her first novel, Swimming on Dry Land, was born out of a period of residency in Australia. Helen’s passion for the Australian landscape has inspired her writing ever since. Her second novel, A Time of Rainfish, is set in a fictional town in Arnhemland, Northern Territory, where Helen has made several research trips, at one point working on a short project with a group of Aboriginal women. Helen has facilitated a range of writer-in-community projects, exploring writing from various perspectives, including sound, image, movement, and voice. Site to Sound (2009) and Forgetmenot (2008), both community arts projects, were supported by the Arts Council of Ireland.
Set in a small fictional mining town in south-west Australia, Monica Harvey, a twelve-year-old English girl, is looking for her younger sister, Georgie. The Harvey family has recently moved to Akarula, having been persuaded to set out in search of a new life by their rich Uncle Eddie, who owns the town. Monica discovers Georgie down one of the disused mine shafts but when she returns later that day with her father and Uncle Eddie, Georgie has disappeared.
It becomes clear that Georgie’s is not the first disappearance in the town. Eddie, a self-made money-man – a dreamer whose main concern is to save his beloved town – has thus far concealed the disappearances from his brother, Michael. But as the search for Georgie widens, the pressure intensifies and Eddie’s dream-like vision of his town gradually implodes. Mr M, the only aborigine left in Akarula, sees it all from his seat under the town’s single tree, giving rise to local superstition and fears.
As the history of the land unfolds new possibilities and answers to the mysterious disappearances slowly suggest themselves.
Both Swimming on Dry Land and your second novel, A Time of Rainfish, are heavily influenced by the time you spent living in Australia. What is it about Australia that so captivates you?
The landscape – the vast emptiness you get from driving through the middle, the beauty of the country as a whole, all those amazing creatures. And being on the food chain really puts you in your place. I love that; it gives you a sense of awe which is hard to come by in Europe. I’m also fascinated by Australian history.
The town Swimming on Dry Land is set in is fictional. Why did you decide to use a fictional setting rather than a real one?
Akarula is a patchwork of places I passed through or spent time in whilst in Australia. Fictionalising the setting gave me the freedom to create what I needed for the town without being constrained by the reality of a real one.
You get into the heads of several characters throughout Swimming on Dry Land. Which character did you find the most difficult to write? Which character was the easiest?
Monica came to me first. I considered writing the whole story from her perspective. In some ways, she was the easiest. I think Caroline probably took me the longest to get to know.
Are there any other countries you’d like to explore in your fiction? Have you ever considered writing a novel set in Ireland, for example?
There are many countries I’d like to explore, but for the moment I seem locked into Australia. I suspect that if I moved to Australia, I’d start writing about Ireland. There is something in the distance – time, space, culture – that allows for that outside eye, a sharpening of the senses, a feeling that anything is possible. Familiarity seems to flatten all that for me. Of course I am still a foreigner in Ireland, though it feels like home.
Finally, what’s the best book you’ve so far read this year?
I’ve read many great books this year. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I’ve just finished, was really hard to put down – always a good sign.