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Five minutes with journalist and author Diana Plater

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We chatted with journalist and author Diana Plater about her new novel, Whale Rock, ahead of her in-conversation event at Muse.

Journalist Diana Plater was working in Nicaragua covering the Sandinista revolution in the mid-1980s when she heard a rumour about a military hospital using unusual methods to treat soldiers for what was then known as war neurosis.

The term PTSD hadn’t yet been universally adopted. This was to form the back story of her novel, Whale Rock, which also deals with Australia’s reckoning with Indigenous and refugee issues, as well as pregnancy loss.

We caught up with Diana ahead of her in-conversation event at Muse on Sunday 15 September.

For a chance to win a copy of Whale Rock, email editor@hercanberra.com.au with why you’d love to read Whale Rock in 250 words or less.

Whale Rock has a cast of strong characters. How did they come to you and how did you bring them into the story?

I used to go to a café in Tamarama in Sydney and thought something similar would be a good place to set the book, with the main character, Shannon, as the café owner.

It’s a place where a diverse range of people visit, including workers from the building site opposite. That brings in Rafael, a Nicaraguan, who has lived here for 30 years and Colin, the foreman and an Indigenous elder.

Then there’s Shannon’s separated husband, Tom, her son, Maxie, and the social worker, Amany. Vesna, the journalist, comes into the story via Tom and they share a cultural background. They arose from my life experiences, representing people who have suffered trauma in different ways.

Entering individually, their stories become intertwined as they become more and more involved with each other, in negative and positive ways.

Tell us about your time in Nicaragua in the 1980s and how that feeds into this book.

I have covered Indigenous and race issues since the beginning of my career including the time I worked in the Canberra Press Gallery for The Canberra Times and The Sydney Morning Herald.

In the mid-1980s at the time of the Sandinista-Contra war in Nicaragua in Central America, I interviewed a senior woman Sandinista commander, who was visiting Australia. Inspired, I packed my bags, learnt Spanish and went to Nicaragua to live for a year.

There was an economic embargo imposed by the US government, who didn’t like the idea of a leftist revolution in their own backyard. It was tough–but much more so for the locals than the journalists and “internationalistas”, who flocked there to pick coffee and help the revolution. Later it was revealed that then-President Ronald Reagan was illegally funding the Contras in their fight against the Sandinistas.

Towards the end of my time there, I heard an intriguing rumour about a military hospital using unusual and secret methods to treat soldiers for what was then known as war neurosis. The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) hadn’t yet been universally adopted.

I had met Nicaraguan cameramen, some of whom were former fighters and Rafael is inspired by them. Later, people who have suffered from PTSD described to me how their flashbacks are triggered, taking them right back to the scene of the trauma as if it was in the present.

So in Whale Rock, I use Rafael’s traumatic flashbacks to tell the back story of his search for the hospital with another character, an American journalist, Lana.

How do you go about tackling ‘the big issues’ in a novel format?

Through the characters. For example, Colin is a member of the Stolen Generations, and grew up at the Kinchela Boys Home in northern NSW.

I tell the story of his quest to find out what happened to his mother, Lily, who he believes spent some time at the Bomaderry Children’s Home. Shannon, a country girl, who grew up in a place I call the valley, says she will help him. This brings back memories of her childhood housekeeper, Ainslie, and the stories she told her about the cruelty she experienced during her own time in children’s homes.

In fiction as well as in journalism, I think the best way to tackle the big issues is through personal stories.

How have government policies affected people in a personal way? What do they really mean to people? How do hard-line immigration rules affect people on the ground?

I did a lot of research for this book but it’s also based on the stories of people I have met, interviewed or become close to over the years.

It’s also about the even bigger issues of love and friendship and, I guess, belonging.

You wrote a book on difficult pregnancies, Taking Control –how did this research/knowledge input into the character of Shannon?

Shannon is shattered by her grief after losing her baby daughter. Like Shannon I have also suffered from pregnancy loss – two stillbirths between my two children eight months apart.

I wrote Taking Control in the late 90s so it amazes me that stillbirth is still a taboo subject as was shown by the recent parliamentary inquiry. However, Shannon is not as pushy as I was in getting the answers as to why she lost the baby.

For Taking Control, I interviewed women – and men (whose voices are often not heard on this topic), and, despite our different backgrounds and so on, our often dark senses of humour united us.

Before writing Whale Rock, I wondered how a woman who has gone through that sort of experience could connect with somebody who has also experienced trauma, in this case, Rafael’s experience of torture and war.

I wondered, too, how people who come to Australia with this sort of background manage to survive in a society that often just doesn’t care. How do they keep those experiences to themselves?

I wanted to discover if a relationship between my characters could work. Funnily enough, what unites Shannon and Rafael – and to a certain extent, Colin – is their shared love of music and dancing. They believe the world is divided not by race and religion, but by rhythm.

Do you have a place of refuge, or somewhere that sustains you, like Whale Rock in the book?

Yes, when I lived near there I would often go to the whale rock at Tamarama, and observe the sea, birds and sometimes the whales.

I now live half the time on the south coast and love bushwalking in the rainforest. It’s a great place for solitude, listening to the birds–and writing.

What have you read lately that you’re raving about or what’s on your TBR pile?

I’m in the middle of the madness of Catch 22 (Joseph Heller) at the moment. And believe it or not I only just read The Catcher in the Rye this year and then JD Salinger’s short stories, For Esmé–with Love and Squalor. Totally brilliant descriptions of PTSD.

Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth is wonderful too and I recently really enjoyed an Australian novel, A Perfect Stone by SC Karakaltsas, about child refugees in the Greek civil war.

I’m very interested in colonial history too so on my TBR pile is Mrs M by Luke Slattery about Elizabeth Macquarie and, as the novel I’m now writing is a satirical romance, Unexpected Obsession by Barbara Strickland, an example of a good realistic romance.

the essentials 

What: Diana Plater in conversation with Jack Waterford
When: Sunday 15 September from 3-4 pm
Where: Muse, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston (inside East Hotel)
More information: musecanberra.com.au

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