Today I am delighted to welcome Karen Viggers to Behind the Pen. Her latest release, The Orchardist’s Daughter, is a beautiful story about the intersection between nature and humanity. I loved it and I’m so pleased to be able to feature it again through this interview.
What provided the initial inspiration for The Orchardist’s Daughter?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when the idea for a novel begins. Over time, the thoughts and ideas that evolve into a narrative weave together and it’s hard to remember the triggers. For ‘The Orchardist’s Daughter’, the initial inspiration probably came from both character and place. I love the forests and mountains of southern Tasmania, having hiked there at various times over the past 20 years; setting a novel there had simmered in the back of my mind for a long time. The actual stimulus to begin the book came from the character of Leon, who emerged spontaneously and unplanned in ‘The Lightkeeper’s Wife’. A colourful and interesting character, he emerged fully formed with a voice of his own, later become insistent about me telling his story. I was also deeply moved after meeting some friends who had home-schooled their children. Those children were in their teens, and I could sense in them significant resentment about their isolation and a great longing to engage with the world. This was the inspiration for Miki, and from there ‘The Orchardist’s Daughter’ was born.
How would you describe The Orchardist’s Daughter if you could only use 5 words?
Belonging. Friendship. Trees. Secrets. Freedom.
Your knowledge of the Tasmanian forests and wildlife seems intuitive. Is this a result of research or life experience?
I’m a wildlife veterinarian as well as a domestic animal vet, and I completed my PhD on wildlife health in the tall wet eucalypt forests of Victoria. Over many years, I have worked in those forests with my husband: lugging traps through the understorey, plucking off leeches, trudging through the mud and the rain. So I know what it feels like to stand beneath trees so large and old that you feel humble and small. I know what it’s like to battle through the undergrowth, slipping on mossy logs and tripping over sticks. I know the wildlife and forest birds too – their calls and behaviour.
I’ve also spent time in southern Tasmania absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. Several times, I’ve stood on the elevated platform of the Tahune Airwalk, watching the dark Huon River sweep past below. I’m sad that much of that country has burned in the recent Tasmanian fires. Having direct experience with fires when my parents’ property burned in the Black Saturday fires of 2009, I know the difficult path to recovery. And I’m hoping my novel will encourage people to continue to visit those areas damaged by bushfires, to support local businesses and observe the resilience of the forest as it regrows. I know ‘The Lightkeeper’s Wife’ had a positive influence on tourism to Bruny Island, and it would be wonderful if the ‘The Orchardist’s Daughter’ had a useful impact too.
Does your career as a Veterinarian influence what you write?
My veterinary career has had a far-reaching and deep impact on my writing, not only in terms of my observations of the human-animal bond (with both domestic and wild animals), but also in the themes I write about. Grief and loss are issues I deal with every day as a vet in small animal practice, and I often ask myself questions. How do we recover from loss and death? How can we begin to see death as a part of life rather than separate from it? How do we make choices at the end of life? Can death be positive in some ways? How does hurt cripple us, and in what ways are we resilient? These are topics I explore in my novels.
I am also interested in human-animal interactions. The ways animals read us. The ways they offer support and friendship. How they create pathways for us to connect with other people. How they assist in healing after death, loss, trauma, isolation. My passion for wildlife in natural landscapes is also a recurrent theme in my novels. We have such unique and incredible wildlife in Australia, and through my writing I seek to inform people about these creatures and their associated conservation issues. In ‘The Orchardist’s Daughter’ this focus is on Tasmanian Devils and the impacts of devil facial tumour disease, as well as the plight of the endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
I draw my inspiration from nature. Perhaps it’s overly ambitious, but through writing I try to remind people of the beautiful wild places we are so lucky to have in Australia. It’s my hope that in remembering those places, people will care about them, visit them and maybe even fight to save them. In our increasingly urbanised world dominated by technology and social media, we tend to have a very inward focus and it’s possible to forget about the natural world and our dependence on it. Through my narratives, I try to show people nature’s value in terms of peace, solace and healing.
For me, ‘place’ is the origin of character and story. I feel most myself when I’m out in the fresh air, in the bushland behind my home, or by the sea or up in the mountains. This is where I refill my creativity well. Outside, I have space to breathe and relax, away from the busyness of ordinary life, and that is where ideas germinate: in the wind and the sky.
Is there any one particular season of the year that you find more creatively inspirational than the others?
I love autumn and winter. These seasons are good for writing because my brain is fresh and clear. I like to visit the coast in winter, when there’s nobody else on the beach and it’s easier to slip into solitude and link with my creative self. There’s something uplifting about the boom and crash of waves on the beach, and the feeling of wind on your face. Autumn is wonderful because I re-energise after the heat of summer and school holidays. I always hope to write prolifically over summer, but with family at home, somehow the days disappear and I don’t seem to get anything done.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
Cows were my best friends when I was a child. My family had a property at Emerald in the Dandenong Ranges, and I spent hours in the paddocks with the cows. I would lie in the long grass with arms and legs out-stretched, while the cows grazed around me and snuffled close to lick my fingers and gumboots. Lying on my back was also a good position from which to watch clouds. Once I had befriended the cows, I would go up to my favourites (the most tolerant ones) and give them a good rub under the brisket (chest). This left my hands oily and dirty, but I loved the sweet smell of their breath, and the rough touch of their tongues, their dark docile eyes, the peace of just being among them.
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
I would like to meet Charlotte and Emily Bronte and talk about how the moors of northern England influenced their writing, and how they used landscape and weather to reflect the emotional journeys of their characters. Rather than sitting down, we would walk across the moors. I think we would have a lot in common. I imagine there would be stretches of time where no questions or words would be necessary, because the moors and the Brontes’ presence would speak for themselves.
In The Orchardist’s Daughter, Miki loves reading and evaluating the books she reads within the context of her own life. What authors and types of books do you love the most? Which ones have stood the test of time for you? Are you more of a print, e-book, or audio book fan?
My favourite books of all time are many, but I will choose just a few:
‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme for the beautiful, creative, unique prose. Also for the intense portrayal of character and emotion, and the devastating impact of watching beautiful relationships fall apart under pressure.
‘Dirt Music’ and ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton for the evocative portrayal and intertwining of landscape and character. Place is central in Tim Winton’s work and I admire his skill in taking me inside the skin of his characters.
‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway is a book I read time and again to remind myself of the artistry of spare, incisive prose. So much packed into just 100 pages. Character, place, life, symbolism. Everything.
‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’, a poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is also a favourite. I love Neruda’s raw passion and the sense of journey and enlightenment in this poem, as well as the strong sense of place and history and emotion. I wish I could read (and understand) it in Spanish to fully understand the music of Neruda’s words.
‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose portrays a different landscape – the landscape of the soul. I love the way Rose weaves together fictional and non-fictional characters. The way she reflects upon art, creativity and the muse.
I am definitely a hard copy gal, because I like to keep and share books. I’ve only ever read one book in digital format, and that was in order to interview another author – his publisher couldn’t get the physical books to me in time for the event.
The Orchardist’s Daughter
A story of freedom, forgiveness and finding the strength to break free. International bestselling writer Karen Viggers returns to remote Tasmania, the setting of her most popular novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife.
Sixteen-year-old Mikaela has grown up isolated and home-schooled on an apple orchard in south-eastern Tasmania, until an unexpected event shatters her family. Eighteen months later, she and her older brother Kurt are running a small business in a timber town. Miki longs to make connections and spend more time in her beloved forest, but she is kept a virtual prisoner by Kurt, who leads a secret life of his own.
When Miki meets Leon, another outsider, things slowly begin to change. But the power to stand up for yourself must come from within. And Miki has to fight to uncover the truth of her past and discover her strength and spirit.
Set in the old-growth eucalypt forests and vast rugged mountains of southern Tasmania, The Orchardist’s Daughter is an uplifting story about friendship, resilience and finding the courage to break free.
Published by Allen and Unwin
Released February 2019
More about Karen:
Born in Melbourne and raised in the Dandenong Ranges riding horses and writing stories, Karen went on to study veterinary science at Melbourne University before working in practice for several years. She completed a PhD in wildlife health, and since then she has worked on a wide range of Australian native animals, including kangaroos. Karen loves landscapes, wild places, people and animals. She is the author of three novels: The Stranding (2008) and the bestselling, The Lightkeeper’s Wife (2011) and The Grass Castle (2014). She lives in Canberra with her husband and two children.