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The debut novel from Canberra’s own Irma Gold, The Breaking is sharply observed and richly vivid—an intensely moving story about the magnetic bond between two young women and the enduring cost of animal exploitation.
Ahead of her in conversation at Muse on May 23, we sat down with Irma to find out more about her inspiration for and writing of The Breaking.
Tell us a bit about the leap from your work as an editor and as a kids author, a short storyist and anthologist, to this, a debut novel for adults?
It feels more like a natural progression than a leap. Before The Breaking I wrote a ‘novel zero’ that got an agent and made it close with a couple of publishers, but ultimately never saw publication. So my debut is really my second novel, and I’m already about to embark on the third draft of my next novel.
Everything that I’ve learnt as both a writer and editor over the years has fed into the writing of The Breaking. It feels like it’s been a long time coming, which makes publication even sweeter. And then the reaction from readers has been beyond my wildest imaginings.
It’s difficult to put into words the overwhelming sense of gratitude that I feel for every person who has messaged me or posted on the socials about the impact the book has had on them.
The Breaking is a coming-of-age as well as issues-driven novel. We meet 20-something Hannah and Deven discovering each other and their love of travel, but also see inside the brutality of the elephant tourist trade. How did you balance the light and the dark?
It was really important to me that this book was enjoyable for the reader, that the book wasn’t in any way harrowing. I wanted to give the reader just enough to help them see the reality of the situation, but not too much that it overwhelmed them. So like life, there is dark and light, and I hope I have balanced the two. That’s what I’m hearing from readers, which is heartening.
I think it helped that I never set out to write about elephants. In fact, at first, I thought I was writing a short story. I had just returned from a trip to Thailand and Deven and Hannah arrived out of nowhere. Suddenly there they were on the page, fully formed.
So although the story is set against the landscape of elephant tourism, it is primarily the story of the two women and their complex, evolving relationship. That is the heart of the story, and what drives it.
You’ve traveled to Thailand (the setting of The Breaking) but what other research did you have to do? What was important in that process?
It was a real mix. During the writing process, I realised that I needed to return to Thailand to do more research. That research involved working with elephants in a tiny village called Bantaklang (which translates as ‘elephant village’) where I lived in the community in a very basic hut on stilts. It was the most incredible time, full of the brightest light and the darkest dark, as I went deeper behind the scenes of the tourism industry.
I learnt so much, and all of that became integral to the book. But I also spoke to many Thai people at length, read everything I could, and watched videos of the breaking process and so much else besides. With all of this I was noting the little details—the sights, smells, sounds.
While I was in Thailand I kept a journal that was full of these observations. I also took hours and hours of video footage—not the kind you’d share with friends or post online. I was interested in capturing the mundane, everyday details. When I was back in Australia, I would often watch a minute or two of one of these videos before I started a writing session. It immediately transported me into the heat and smells and feel of the place.
It’s been lovely to hear from readers that they have felt transported to Thailand through the book which, at this time when we can’t travel, is its own pleasure.
Once I had a complete first draft I consulted two Thai experts to ensure that I had the language and cultural details right, and I also spent a lot of time asking my Thai friends all sorts of pesky questions. I wanted to get it right, and really worked hard to ensure the book was culturally accurate.
You’re an ambassador for Save Elephant Foundation—why that cause and what does being an ambassador entail?
My love of elephants began when I was eight. My parents took me and my brother to a circus and I remember little about it except what happened afterwards.
We had our photograph taken with an elephant and standing beside her I felt both awe and fear. But then her trunk brushed against my cheek. It was the briefest of moments, but there was something wonderful about the roughness of her skin and the gentleness of her touch. I fell in love.
In my early 20s I witnessed elephants in the wild in Tanzania and Kenya, but it wasn’t until many years later that I began investigating a lifelong dream to go on an elephant trek and began to realise how elephants in the tourism industry were treated. That led to my work with the Save Elephant Foundation, volunteering with elephants in Chiang Mai, Kanchanburi and Surin.
Being an ambassador is really just about spreading awareness of the situation for Asian elephants in the tourism industries, not just in Thailand but around the world. So writing a book is surely the ultimate ambassador act!
What’s on your TBR pile?
I’m currently on a book tour down the east coast and visiting about 60 bookshops along the way. One of the dangers is that I end up buying too many books.
My TBR pile is always out of control but after this tour it will be at critical levels. I visited the lovely Cathy at Bookface in Port Macquarie on the day of the March4Justice rallies and she was raving about a feminist western called Outlawed.
I couldn’t leave without buying it. It’s not a book I would have picked up without a recommendation and I’m really loving it. That’s the wonderful thing about booksellers—they can lead you to books you would never have otherwise discovered.