CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Author Jock
Serong’s latest book takes a new slant on the traditional crime novel
It’s a crime to be stuck in a particular genre after your first book, especially when your subsequent three novels all move away from it. Although most of Jock Serong’s books feature crimes, they are everyday ones, committed by individuals, politicians, the media, and colonialists on the make. Serong, a former lawyer, won the Ned Kelly prize for best debut crime novel in 2015 for his book Quota. It was followed by The Rules of Backyard Cricket (2016), On the Java Ridge (2017) and newly released Preservation.
The latest is set in 1797 and follows a group making its way from the wreck of the trading ship Sydney Cove on what is now Preservation Island, part of the Furneaux Group, in a bid to get to the new settlement at Sydney. Based on a true story, Serong has filled in the historical record with his own musings.
An interesting notion in On the Java Ridge and Preservation is that of boundaries and borders and where they are drawn. In the case of the ocean, there is nothing obvious to show you have moved into Australian waters, and shipwrecked sailors have no way of knowing how far an Aboriginal group’s influence extends.
“Perhaps the thing I’m discovering across those two books is that humans are at their most interesting when they’re on the move,” Serong says. “There is so much great fiction that comes out of any sort of odyssey. It drives good drama, I think.”
The motivation that saw Preservation floated as an idea for a novel were Serong’s visits to Flinders Island since his early 20s. He found the island’s small community had a rich sense of storytelling, and the story of the Sydney Cove, wrecked just south of the island, is one often told.
“It’s very much of the tapestry down there,” he says. “So I’d heard that story many times going down to Flinders Island and it always intrigued me because it’s a shipwreck story on the one hand but it’s also a first-contact story, which is such an important part of it. It really triggered the discovery of Bass Strait, it triggered the emergence of the sealing industry and the walkers [survivors] found coal on the beach. So many things came from this strange episode.”
The long walk, after the survivors are wrecked again on the Victorian coast, is seen from the view of three men, all with different views of British colonialism — one innocent and observant, one with a commercial mind, forever looking for ways that will make the land pay, and the “genuinely malevolent human”.
“I think there are elements of all three approaches in the way Europeans spread themselves across the continent,” Serong says.
There is also the character of Charlotte, an officer’s wife, one of the many women rendered invisible by history.
“I thought with Charlotte there was a real way to explore the kind of pressures an officer’s wife would have been under to conform and to be a certain type of person, where inside she may have been screaming, ‘This is really not my scene, I don’t want to live this way’,” Serong says. “And the bush, rather than being a thing of terror, was in fact very appealing to her. I think that’s a realistic way of thinking about a person in those circumstances. It’s just that you can’t see it in the history books.”
While much research went into Preservation, it is worn lightly in the narrative, but not without discipline from the author and his editor. The story flows easily, the background blends seamlessly into what is essentially an adventure story, yet the moral perspective of first contact — and the missed chances of learning from the original inhabitants — is also explored.
“Ideally, you want to have a great mass of stuff in the back of your head and just be plucking highlights from that to go into the book,” Serong says. “And indeed a good editor knows immediately when you start writing things down because you looked them up. You have to be aware that everything is serving the story.”
The novel is part of Serong’s PhD, researching the difficulty of looking back at lost landscapes.
“All the river mouths they crossed would have been different because rivers were flowing differently because there was no irrigation, the climate was different, land use was different,” he says. “Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu talks a lot about that [introduced species], and the friability of soil, and the things that could grow because the soil wasn’t compacted. So it’s really an interesting challenge to try to picture a landscape that’s eradicated. We can’t have it back.”
Serong grew up in Melbourne and studied law at the University of Melbourne before going into commercial law and then moving to WA to work on native title, as a courtroom solicitor in Port Fairy and then as a barrister for six years.
“I did a lot of native title and asylum seeker work, but the backbone of it was probably crime, prosecuting and defending,” Serong says. “When my wife and I decided to have a family, we wanted to leave the city for good, and back down the coast was the obvious place to go, because surfing is a big part of my life, both of our lives. We’ve been in Port Fairy for about 14 years now.”
Serong decided to give up law and focus on writing when he had written a novel and a script, and friends had asked him to become the editor of Great Ocean, a high-quality quarterly magazine.
“At one point, I was able to juggle those things out of hours, but I was using up all my nights, all my weekends and all my leave and I sort of looked at the situation and felt at the time that was enough of a launching pad to leave law and move full-time into writing,” he says.
The 2015 Ned Kelly award vindicated his decision, but also saw him labelled as a crime writer.
“That’s fine with me, but it’s interesting how far you can push it and still be considered to be writing crime,” Serong says. “The prize was a huge shock. It was not at all how I expected things to turn out, but it was a measure of affirmation of the work, but also that there was a hell of a lot more to do. I think if you spend a lot of time in a profession that is quite deconstructive, it’s a huge release and it’s a huge pleasure to see yourself as a creative person, because every instinct tells you you’re not.”
Preservation, Jock Serong, Text Publishing, $30