The Motive – Scrublands
Chris Hammer talks about the inspiration for SCRUBLANDS - his Australian-bestselling, powerful and compelling debut crime novel.
Posted on November 5, 2018 in The Motive
Tags: Chris Hammer, Inspiration, Motive, Scrublands
Twenty years ago, in a small town in East Texas, three white supremacists seized an African-American man named James Byrd Junior, tied him to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him to his death along an asphalt road. The crime shocked America and the world.
A few months later, I spent ten days in that town, Jasper, filming a report for Australian television. I wasn’t reporting on the murder as such, but on a racially-divided community and how it was coping in the aftermath of this most barbaric of crimes.
And so was planted – I’m now inclined to believe – one small seed of what was to become my Australian crime novel, Scrublands.
But let’s be clear: this was a very small seed indeed – there is no such crime in Scrublands, and the small town in my book, Riversend, bears no resemblance at all to Jasper, Texas. None. There is just that one element in common: the idea of a journalist assigned to profile a remote town traumatised by murder. That’s how my protagonist, journalist Martin Scarsden, comes to be in Riversend.
Yet there are other aspects of the book where even such a tenuous link doesn’t come easily to mind.
It should be an easy enough request, don’t you think? My publishers thought so: write a few hundred words on the inspiration for Scrublands. How hard could it be? The trouble is, I really can’t say where large parts of my book came from, what experiences, learnt or experienced, filled the well I was tapping.
And so I find myself sitting here, like some literary archaeologist, digging down into my own work trying to discover where it sprang from: that plot, those characters, that setting. It’s harder than you might imagine; I’m a like biographer who’s missing half the story, who lacks documentary evidence. Yet this is my own work.
At least the setting for Scrublands is easy enough; I know where that came from.
The novel is set in an isolated town in the New South Wales Riverina at the height of a crippling drought. In 2008, as the Millennial Drought reached its savage climax, I travelled the length of the Murray-Darling Basin, researching my non-fiction book The River, published in 2010. I spent close to a week in a small town in the same region, Wakool, where the land was flat and the river was empty. The authorities had shut the river off at its source, desperate to keep the larger, more important Murray flowing. Riversend is just such a town, its river gone. But again, those are the only characteristics the real-life Wakool shares with the fictional Riversend. Another small seed.
And I can point to others, elements that do come from my own experience. Martin recalls being in Gaza, being driven in a beaten up Mercedes. At one point I reported from Gaza, not long after Hamas took control, and my driver drove an old Mercedes.
But the origins of most of the events in Scrublands elude me. For example, Scrublands begins with an awful crime. (Relax, this is not a spoiler; it unfolds in the first two pages). The local priest shoots dead five of his parishioners before he himself is killed. A year later, Martin arrives to cover the anniversary of the killing, to write about how the town is coping. What was the inspiration for this homicidal priest? I have no idea. I know of no such killing, here or abroad.
The book is filled with events, characters and scenes that have welled up from my imagination, sourced from who knows where, suggested by who knows what. Which is a bit embarrassing. There is one scene, for example, where a character is caught in a compromising situation. More than one person has requested I regale them with the real-life inspiration, expecting some entertaining anecdote. But no: it never happened. I just made it up; me and my perverse sense of humour.
And that’s the truth for most of the book: I just made it up. I have never narrowly escaped death in a bushfire, I have never saved anyone from asphyxiation, I have never stared down the barrel of a loaded shotgun. It’s make believe.
And yet, in a most peculiar way, there were times when it felt like more than make believe. For there were occasions, rare and magical, when the writing took over, when the characters suggested their own paths and vetoed others, where scenes sprang to mind fully formed, so that I felt more like I was transcribing than creating, the conduit and not the creator. Those moments were few and far between, but exhilarating when they came. At such times the manuscript became fluid, a living thing, ebbing and flowing, changing course. It had a life of its own. Only my poor editors know just how much it ebbed and flowed!
And at the end of it, when the book was finished, when the last corrections were made and the type was set, when the characters could no longer voice an opinion and their fates were sealed in perpetuity, when there could no longer be any ebb and flow, I reread the book in much the same way as any first-time reader might, and I too wondered: where the hell did that come from?