Well, I could say the locusts have taken over the attic this week: David Allan-Petale has come in to talk about his book, Locust Summer, and his metamorphosis from journalist to author. On the face of it, the two seem similar – both are writing, both tell stories – but, as David explains, there are significant differences. Read on to discover:
David Allan-Petale is a writer living between bush and sea north of Perth, Western Australia. He worked for many years as a journalist in WA with the ABC and internationally with BBC World.
Written while travelling the globe over five years, Locust Summer was shortlisted for the The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award (2017) and was developed through a fellowship at Varuna, the National Writers’ House.
From Fact to Fiction:
How I broke free from journalism to write my first novel
I was 22 when I saw dead bodies for the first time. A car had smashed head on with a road train. The truck ploughed over the top of the car and pushed it back what looked like a hundred metres.
I was at the scene as a journalist, bearing witness to a terrible sight made blue and red by the lights of the emergency services. Though I wrote a report as best I could, it put a splinter into my soul – because a journalist describes what they see, not what they feel.
And through fifteen years of working as a journalist, that splinter dug itself deeper and deeper.
Hiding feelings behind the facts
On the first page of my début novel Locust Summer the protagonist Rowan Brockman – a journo too – recalls the advice of his newspaper’s editor when he witnesses a bashing in Perth.
He would say, ‘Deal in facts. Only facts. Use short sentences. Direct language shorn of sentiment. Anything else is literature. And that has no place in a newspaper.’
Locust Summer is the story of Rowan’s difficult homecoming to his family’s farm in the Wheatbelt where his father is dying, and his mother is preparing the property for sale. He has a final chance to make peace before this part of his world disappears forever, and to bring in a harvest that will test every prejudice and assumption he’s let fester.
Throughout the book, Rowan struggles to find the right language to express himself. To write an article for his newspaper. To speak honestly with his mother. Connect with what’s left of his father. Make amends with his old girlfriend Alison. Even see his dead brother Albert for what he was, rather than what Rowan needs him to be.
His training as a journalist to ‘deal in facts’ grinds against his need to express much more than that. It kindles the frustration of family and friends as they try to get him to see beyond his own selfish frame.
And as Rowan finally finds those words, the language of the book shifts, and real understanding starts to grow.
When fiction tells a better kind of truth
‘With all due respect.’
‘Per my last email.’
‘I’m fine …’
So much of the language we use in our daily lives hides what we really think and feel.
Collared and cuffed by the need for politeness and professionalism, we can indulge the argot of our jobs and cliques or let the waffle of a politician pass us by like water in a gutter. Rarely do we say what we really mean.
Writing Locust Summer was a catharsis for me in so many ways, but what struck me the most was the privilege of finally writing something that expressed exactly how I felt and what I really meant.
I was a journo for 15 years where precision with language is as vital as ensuring the veracity of facts and sources. But as Holt says, there is no place for anything else – or at least very little space.
The process of writing Locust Summer forced me to unlearn my reporting ways, and like the scaling of a fish, expose the most vulnerable, tender parts of myself to find the right words rather than the correct ones.
Embracing the feeling of truth
It’s vital that journalism is defined by and devoted to facts, but that can come with a price for its practitioners. I consider myself lucky to have found words that have helped dislodge that splinter in my soul.
One of the many writers I admire, Lawrence Durrell, said that when he wrote his novel The Black Book, ‘I first heard the sound of my own voice … This is an experience no artist ever forgets — the birth cry of a newly born baby of letters, the genuine article.’
Whenever I pick up Locust Summer and read a page, I hear my own voice too. And that’s empowering – being able to exhale breaths that have been held inside for too long.
David has kindly donated a copy of Locust Summer to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of the social media posts about David’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 16 September, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.