“I’m sure I gave a moment of concern for the well armoured Feds as I…
When Canberra journalist Marion Frith made a name for herself in the 1980s and 90s, it was for her empathy in telling the human impact of government policy—dissecting how the political becomes personal.
Her first novel, Here in the After, sees Marion takes that same compassionate touch to her main characters. Anna is a 62-year-old mother and grandmother, whose sense of self is shattered in a random act of terrorism on a Sydney street one day.
Nat is a 35-year old Army veteran who witnesses the incomprehensible during service in Afghanistan.
Following the terrorist attack, in which Anna is the sole survivor of 12 innocent people, the pair become linked in an unlikely co-dependency. The story is deeply disturbing in parts, hopeful in others and traverses the minutia of ordinary life crossed with graphic psychological and physical trauma.
We asked Marion for an insight into producing such a powerful first novel and how she managed to plump the depths of such darkness.
What sparked the seed of these characters and circumstances?
Life. The news. Here in the After is about the everyday–and unseen—experience of so many people in trying to overcome the legacy of extreme trauma, in working out how to even begin to reassemble life after the one they knew is taken. The book was released the same week as the last foreign troops pulled out of Afghanistan and we watched helplessly as the news cameras panning the faces of the terrified. But what happens to those people next? What happens to all the people whose faces stare into our news screens as the cameras moves on, day after day: an endless montage of misery. How do they even begin to start over? I wanted to explore this … to look at the devastation and struggle to find a road back from the individual perspective.
Tell us more about Anna.
Within that I wanted to write about an older woman who was not just the foil to other people’s courage, a secondary a character, but who was strong and brave and complex, and whose maturity gave her certain qualities that perhaps her younger self might not have had. The other main character is Nat, an Army veteran. Hischaracter was born of my long interest in the legacy of war on those on the frontline. As a reporter for The Canberra Times I covered the shockingly belated welcome home parade for Vietnam vets in 1987, I was there in 1993 at the Australian War Memorial when the then Prime Minister gave his stirring speech as our unknown soldier was brought home. I’ve walked Kokoda, visited Gallipoli. For most Australians today, our experience of war has only ever been as a distant thing ‘over there’ … but it’s actually here, too, in the hearts and souls and psychological wounds of those who fought.
How long did it take you to write it?
Every journalist thinks about writing a novel, don’t they? It’s certainly something I’d thought about for a long time … I realised I was always gathering little vignettes in my mind, noticing things going on around me and not wanting to lose the image, trying to analyse and express my response to those things in imagined sentences. So I guess in some ways I was already forming the mind of a fiction writer before I decided to become one. But I was busy with work and family life and it seemed an extravagance to hole myself up and declare myself a novelist. One day, I thought.
And then a couple of years ago I suddenly had this lightbulb moment of “Oh, I see if you want to write a novel … you actually have to sit down write a novel!” It wasn’t going to be something I’d done unless I did it. I’d been procrastinating, intimidated by all the fabulous books already out there, and finding reasons not to test myself. But, that said, within that procrastinating I had formed the story I wanted to tell, and imagined the characters I wanted to tell it. So one day became today and I finally showed up the page, as they say, and committed myself to the task.
It’s hard to say how exactly long it took. So much went on in my head before I got to work. But the Covid lockdown of 2020 was when I really became very disciplined around my writing schedule and broke the back of it and from then to final edit was about a year. That make the process sound quite quick; it wasn’t.
How difficult was it to get right into the depths of such distressing detail?
I made the decision at the outset I would not do one-on-one interviews. I’ve been a journalist all my life, so this was a real anathema to my instincts and training… which is to go straight to the primary source… but I didn’t want the responsibility of asking people to give me their personal and painful stories and then play around with them, amalgamate and distil them, to turn them into a work of fiction. I felt that wouldn’t be fair and was potentially disrespectful. So I chose to take an arm’s length and instead immersed myself in already-done interviews, and biographies and first-hand accounts, video vision and the like. Once I understood not only what PTSD was, but also had a sense of how it might feel, I let myself collapse into it. I worked to pull up a semblance of those feelings others had described within myself, sat with them, let them gnaw at my gut and wrote from there.
I also spoke to numerous psychologists, medical professionals and other experts. I think it is fair to say I did the best I could to sit in the rubble of imagined destruction.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
It was doing the subject matter justice. This a book about trauma and PTSD and hope and growth and in deciding to delve into a trauma that is not mine, of which I have no personal experience, there was a huge responsibility to treat the themes with respect and unfailing empathy. I worked so hard to put myself into my characters’ minds, to lose myself in their thoughts and feelings. And that was another challenge… making sure the tragedies that were the set-ups for my characters did not become so bleak they felt insurmountable to a reader but that the light and hope always shone in, illuminating their way.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing this book?
Undoubtedly, it was coming to the understandings I needed to paint my characters. To learn that you can say a lot with very little. I spent so much time exploring the lives of survivors. And when I got to the point I knew I absolutely understood my characters, Anna and Nat, that all the voices I had listened to, had come together and morphed into the these two people I had created, I was so chuffed.
Oh, that … and finally finishing it!
Here in the After by Marion Frith is published by Harper Collins and can be purchased in good book shops or ordered online here.