1. In writing Desire Lines, you’ve chosen such a broad canvas and time frame – from the early 1950s to the very recent past – 2012. If you were asked to describe Desire Lines in one sentence, though, what would you say is its essence?
Mid-way through Desire Lines, when Evie reflects, ‘What’s the point of saying you must go here, go there? …In the end the heart knows what it wants and it won’t be stopped’, she describes the core theme that underpins my novel. Desire Lines explores what happens when two people are compelled by the same destination, but they journey in utterly different ways: Evie driven by a yearning for openness, honesty and authenticity; Paddy, a shadow-dweller and a victim of his ambivalence and duplicity. My novel sets this conflict against the jarring intersection of truth and lies on Australia’s national stage as the country struggles to understand its own identity and to realise its desire lines. (Oops, three sentences – I’m better with words than numbers!)
2. Through the novel we see Canberra as it grows from a few buildings surrounded by paddocks to become a complex, sophisticated city – the nation’s capital. It almost seems to mirror the progress of the two main characters, Paddy and Evie. You take us to other places too – the privations of post-war London, a dusty farm school at Molong, the haven of the Blue Mountains, the majesty of Norway’s glacial Svalbard archipelago. Is a sense of place important for your writing?
A sense of place in any work of fiction is vital. To the same extent that I’m imaginatively present in the physical spaces occupied by my characters when I’m creating their worlds, I want readers there too. In Desire Lines, I want my readers’ fingers to numb from the sub-zero cold in Svalbard; I want my readers to smell the blue of a glacier, to choke on the dust billowing through the canvas flaps of a truck in Molong. I want them to be bathed in the green light of a Cambodian jungle, to listen to birdsong at dawn and be cheered, to wander Leura’s weekend markets with Evie, tempted by the scent of freshly-baked cakes, and to crouch with Paddy in the dank foundations of a farm school cottage, looking out on a vast expanse of stubble, and feel intimidated by the unending space.
It was immensely helpful in writing Desire Lines, to have the opportunity to travel to the Arctic Circle, Paddy’s Nazareth House at Hammersmith in London, the now derelict Fairbridge farm school in Molong, the Lyon Arboretum in Hawaii and architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s property, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. Grants from the Australia Council and artsACT (the ACT Government’s arts funding organisation) made this research possible and I’m deeply grateful for that assistance. Nothing beats seeing, smelling and listening to the voice of a place about which you are writing. A research trip brings serendipitous encounters, vignettes and unparalleled sense of place, all of which weave themselves into the work. Had I not travelled to Longyearbyen in the Arctic Circle, for example, I would not have understood its light or, on whim, hiked a glacier and descended into its caves, discovering the scene which set the tone and laid out the themes for the whole novel.
It’s only by being physically present with a book’s characters (by which I mean, having an intimate sense of the physicality of their environment), that we can know what it is to be them and be a true witness to their stories. My hope is that this in turn creates an intimate relationship with Paddy and Evie in Desire Lines, and makes the reading experience more evocative, authentic and moving.
Writing is a highly visual process for me. I watch the narrative unfold as I give it words, conscious of how a scene looks (and sounds, smells and feels). I’ve had readers comment that my narratives are ‘filmic’. This is a great compliment. I love the idea that when I find myself sitting in the darkened cinema of my imagination, watching the novel’s drama unfold on the screen of my mind, I’m joined by readers who see it clearly too and feel completely immersed in the world I’ve conjured.
3. How did you decide on the title, Desire Lines? What is its significance in the novel?
My writing experience – so far – has been that my novels and short stories have told me their names right from the start. Often the titles are a poetic, or metaphorical, encapsulation of the work’s DNA, from which the body of it grows. That was the case with Desire Lines.
Desire Lines shares its title with a school of architectural practice where pathways around a construction are only fixed after repeated use has made clear the preferences of those who walk the land. The phrase is commonly attributed to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in its French iteration chemins de désir. By way of example, over many years the paths through Central Park in New York were reconstructed to reflect visitors’ desire lines as they wandered through the grounds. In my novel, the title is a nod to the underlying theme that whatever paths may be laid before it, the heart knows where it actually wants to travel and it won’t be deviated from its course.
I began writing Desire Lines when I finished the publication draft of my debut novel Lightning. By the time, several years later, that I came back to the paltry few thousand words I had written, I ditched all bar the title and one sentence. There was nothing wrong with the rest, it was just that my sense of the book, and Paddy and Evie, had moved on during the years they spent fermenting in some recess of the brain, the heart. The bare-bones that were the storyline remained. And the title remained firmly entrenched in my thinking as the defining metaphor for the book.
For Paddy, an architect and Evie, a landscape architect, desire lines feature in their professional practice and explain what they construct of their lives. From their first meeting in 1962, over matchstick models and pots of yam daisies at country markets in Leura, they recognise each other as a desire line. But the paths they weave towards and away from each other over five decades are carved as much by their compulsive love as by their competing impulses: to honesty in Evie’s case and to the protection offered by lies in Paddy’s, habits of being they have learned from childhood.
In addition, both follow compelling professional passions. Against familial expectation, Evie leaves the law to pursue a career with plants and Paddy transcends poverty and trauma to become an awarded architect.
4. Paddy and Evie’s love affair spans decades and undergoes several shifts and phases. Yet each moment of intimacy and heartbreak feels fresh and real. As a writer, how do you manage to get inside a relationship like this and sustain the momentum over what is essentially a lifetime for Paddy and Evie?
I spent several years in a complicated relationship that ended painfully. I began to write Desire Lines in the aftermath, but perhaps knew I wasn’t ready for it, and life was busy. So I stopped. Time passed. When I returned to writing Paddy and Evie’s story, it came from that place of knowledge of the way a deep and compelling love can lead you to make compromises and allowances that would ordinarily be unacceptable and even intolerable. But it also came from a place of compassion and grace.
I suspect many people experience such a love at some point in their living. Equally, most would bow out of the circumstances in which Evie found herself, well before Evie did. So I suppose, early in the writing and regularly on the way through, I found myself with Evie in the glacial cave where she was trapped at the close of the first chapter, asking her the question that is the starting point for every writer and every story: why?
Why did you love Paddy so much? Why were you prepared to put up with it all, and for so long? And why did you decide to let it go?
And when done with Evie, I gently interrogated Paddy, too.
They didn’t always give themselves up readily. It was only in the writing that I came to know and understand them. Perhaps that’s why each moment of intimacy and heartbreak feels fresh and real – because I was hearing it for the first time as the story unfolded. And because, in the writing, I grew to care deeply for both Paddy and Evie, their beauty and their flaws. I hoped that readers would care, and wish the best, for them too.
You’re right, it is a challenge to trace sixty years in the lives of two protagonists, and fifty years of a love affair, without sacrificing the reader’s sense of having a sustained intimate encounter with those characters. But I have countered this by giving alternate chapters to Evie and Paddy, so that we hear both their voices and live in both their heads. And in setting Evie and Paddy’s story against Australia’s coming of age and milestones in its social and political history, I have marked the passage of years and maintained momentum. The scale of this backdrop – war, foreign policy, politics, gender relations, Indigenous affairs – allows Desire Lines to ask important questions about the interplay of truth and lies in both the quiet arena of human relationship and on the broad stage of public life.
5. How important is telling the truth for the characters in Desire Lines?
Paddy’s and Evie’s opposing relationships to truth-telling are set very early in Desire Lines when they are introduced to us as children.
Paddy’s world is a shadowy place where his father’s philandering and abuse is kept hidden. ‘When you lie to protect other people, it’s a good lie,’ his mother tells him. In particular, secrets and lies become Paddy’s modus operandi to protect himself: from the damage that is inflicted on him, the injury he witnesses to the people he loves and the damage he does to others. He lies to himself and those around him to survive. By the time he encounters Evie, his world is effectively compartmentalised, enabling him to keep his traumas at a bearable distance from himself and all who cross his path. The deepest of the wounds he has carried from his childhood relates to the choice inflicted on him by his father immediately after his seventh birthday in 1952 – to determine whether Paddy or his baby brother would be abandoned, ‘orphaned’ into institutional care.
Conversely, a pivotal moment in the same year in Evie’s childhood sees her steal the money her grandmother has set aside to pay the ice-deliverer. Evie’s ‘practical joke’ spawns lies and a harsh life lesson, which is softened by her grandmother’s wisdom, ‘The important thing is to know what your own truth is … and follow it. But make it a good truth.’
From these foundations, it’s inevitable that, despite their profound love for each other, Paddy and Evie are destined to live in conflict; Evie determinedly pursuing the truth and her authentic self in her personal and professional life; Paddy, trapped in his seven-year-old self, paralysed by ambivalence, ducking for cover from his own and other’s betrayals, preferring shadows. And the endpoint of that conflict is Evie’s bitter annual message: ‘Are you still a liar?’
But what Desire Lines proposes, ultimately, is that even living with lies can be a truth of sorts for someone like Paddy; in a perverse way, he is being as true as possible to his damaged self. Compounding traumas explain his path of equivocation, self-deception and dishonesty. And the novel’s overarching message of grace and compassion is present in Evie’s reflection as she looks across Longyearbyen’s snowy valley towards the end of the novel, recalling her father’s words ‘Who can tell what’s right or wrong?’ and herself concluding, ‘Things always find their way home … Even the truth. And perhaps that was all a lie really was, just a truth that took a wrong turn and lost its way.’
6. Paddy and Evie each draw sustenance from their creative lives as architects of both buildings and landscapes. As a writer, what creative inspirations have you drawn upon: other writers, artists, architects, musicians …?
One of the loveliest aspects of occupying the world of a writing project is the way the universe often conspires to bring bowerbird treasures for your use. For Desire Lines, the sources ranged from creative to pedestrian, but they were all immensely valuable: Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, the papers of Colin Madigan and other architects involved in the construction of major public works, features on Radio National, a trip down internet rabbit holes, curators’ notes on Arctic literature at the Svalbard Museum in Norway, interviews on Gardening Australia or Grand Designs, movies and more. Because family and friends knew I was writing a book titled Desire Lines that began at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, for a while I regularly found news reports on the vault or obscure articles on urban design appearing in my email account from helpful benefactors.
Something magical happens in the creative process where, at times, it’s as if the whole world is offering up titbits to weave into the narrative. The best way I can describe that experience is by reference to one of Paddy’s reflections when, as a teenager, he first fell in love with Evie and his world was suddenly filled with her; because the creative energy of a new love is rather like the creative energy of a new work. ‘Wherever he looked he found vestiges of her. Some might call it coincidence; he thought it was a peculiar energy he was sending out into the world like a magnet, pulling filings of her towards him.’ Over the nine months that I wrote the first draft of Desire Lines, I had the sense that I was living in the warm fog of the work – everything was about it and everything fed into it.
Of course, what I write is built on the sturdy foundations of centuries of beautiful literature. The books that were read to me as a child by my English-teaching parents, both poets; the books I read at school and through the English literature major I completed at university; and the wonderful books I’ve discovered since. When I’m writing, I generally keep three or four novels that I greatly admire beside me. If I get stuck, I open them randomly and read a few paragraphs, using the cadence of another voice, the creative energy of a talented writer to set me on my way again. Alice Munro, Anne Michaels, Murray Bail and Richard Flanagan are regular company at the dining table on which I write. Mostly, I write in quiet. Music with lyrics is a distraction; even without lyrics it can mess with the mood of what I’m writing. If I need background sound, other than the diligent munching of our family bunnies in a nearby cage, I usually turn to a ‘Mozart for babies’ playlist – soothing, good for the brain and inspires creative endeavour. Or so I like to believe.
7. Finally, what kind of reader do you think will enjoy Desire Lines?
I hope Desire Lines will find a warm welcome with a broad church of readers. I imagine it will appeal to those who enjoy a moving love story, lovers of literary and historical fiction, readers who appreciate being introduced to new fields of study (architecture, landscape architecture and law in the case of this novel), who are interested in the cultural history of Australia’s built and natural environments; those who welcome an intimate encounter with characters who are complicated and multi-faceted, readers who value age-old wisdoms and lovers of carefully crafted language, who have an ear for its poetry.
Above all, in these especially troubled times, I hope Desire Lines will be a welcome reminder to many readers of our human capacity for grace and forgiveness, and the importance of approaching each other with compassion and tenderness.
Brand Manager and Head of the Realm at Hachette Australia Books. Mutant power: Aggressive humour. Lifelong Trekkie (I don’t find that offensive) comic book reader and former proud bookseller. Likes: Literary, contemporary and speculative fiction. Dislikes: Haters. Ideal date: My birthday.