The Woolgrower’s Companion is a wonderful book written by Joy Rhoades, set in 1945 on a sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia. At a time when all the local able bodied men have enlisted, two Italian prisoners of war, Luca and Vittorio, are drafted in to help. It traces the fortunes of a young woman, Kate Dowd, as she struggles to keep her family farm going in the course of a dry desperate year.
“The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.”
The book combines beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape with compelling characters and has a wonderful page-turning quality. It has been shortlisted for two prizes this year, The Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize and The Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown. I loved it and was delighted to ask Joy some questions.
Q. I loved the character of Daisy, the Aboriginal girl, and was fascinated by the part of the book that dealt with the Stolen Generations. Could you tell me a little about the research you did and also about the other Aboriginal women who you acknowledge in the book?
A. It was essential, and very important to me personally, that I approach the Aboriginal characters and cultural aspects of The Woolgrower’s Companion with sensitivity and respect. While it would never occur to me to write a book from the perspective of an Aboriginal character, it would also never occur to me not to include the Aboriginal characters who would have been found in this time and this place: remote New South Wales in 1948. To exclude these characters would be disrespectful and dishonest.
I feel it one of the great blessings of my life to have come to know my Aboriginal cultural guide, activist and poet, Kerry Reed-Gilbert. Kerry, as well as a number of other extraordinary matriarchs in Aboriginal communities in Australia. They guided me on the manuscript. Kerry vetted drafts for me too to ensure I was dealing with cultural aspects appropriately. They have taught me so much and I continue to learn. It’s a lifelong process and I see it as my duty, as a white Australian, and as a writer.
Q. You teach – can you let people know how they can be taught by you?
A. I love teaching creative writing. To spend time, helping writers and would-be writers hone their skills? Best thing in the world. Mostly the classes are at libraries around London but I’ve also just begun a new account on Instagram, putting in one place writing exercises, posts on writing craft books, and of course, news of my next writing class. Follow at: https://www.instagram.com/start_write/ I plan to go live on Twitter and Facebook as well very soon, and post podcast interviews on writing craft as well.
Q. Was there always going to be a sequel? When can we expect it?
A. As I was writing The Woolgrower’s Companion, I didn’t consciously plan for there to be a sequel. But when I finished the book, there was still so much I wanted to explore with these characters. So almost immediately, I started work on the outline for what would become the sequel. Penguin (publisher of The Woolgrower’s Companion) has bought the rights and it will be out in 2019.
Q. One of the things you do wonderfully well is produce beautiful evocative descriptions of landscape. Does this come easily to you?
A. I’m laughing here because I’m thinking, does any writing ever come easily? Certainly, my desire to get down on paper the strong feeling I have for Australian bush, that’s always there. Readers tend to say two things: what happens next? And I felt like I was there. That makes me happy. I want my reader to be transported, wrapped in this world.
Q. I loved the quotes you use at the top of each chapter from ‘The Woolgrower’s Companion, 1906’ and in fact I only just realized it’s fictional and not an actual manual for sheep farmers from that time! Tell me a little about how you made the decision to do that and why?
A. I’m so glad you thought it was real! It came about because I love Victorian literature: that convoluted sentence structure and the formality of the vocabulary. And I’m also a big fan of The Shipping News, that wonderful novel by Annie Proulx. Annie prefaces each chapter with a quote from the (real) Book of Knots and the knot chosen illuminates what follows. So my chapter epigraphs in The Woolgrower’s Companion are a mishmash of homages to both these loves: Victorian literature and The Shipping News. I set about writing a faux guide for Australian sheep growers, as if it had been written in 1906. I was able in that guide to talk about breeding and race and weakness of lines and all manner of things to help show the thinking of the time, and so show how much we’ve moved on. I picked 1906 just because it’s the year of the birth of my grandmother, Gladys Chateau. The Woolgrower’s Companion is very loosely based on stories from her life and her family.
Q. You live in London now. How do you cope with the lack of open vistas!
A. London is flat! But that flatness of landscape is something I grew up with in western Queensland. In Roma, (the town where Joy was brought up) a hill, being so rare, gets a name: Orange Hill. Hospital Hill. But in Roma, once you get out of town, and absent a dust storm or a real storm (both rare) you can see for miles in any direction. I miss that very much and am still, even after the years I’ve lived in London, taken aback when I find myself at the top of a rise, and I can see. I love London, though. I miss Australia, absolutely. But the life and diversity and music and books and history of London: it’s intoxicating. I’m living in Charles Dickens’ city. And I’m not yet tired of life.
Thank you very much Joy! I should also add that the book has recipes (scones, cakes, biscuits …) and also an excellent series of Book Club questions.