Chloe Hooper is a highly-awarded writer of fiction and non-fiction.
She received a Walkley Award for articles in The Monthly on the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island. These articles became the basis for The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008), which won the Victorian, New South Wales, West Australian and Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing and a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing.
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire (2018) was punished to similar acclaim.
Chloe is also the author of two novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Literature in the United Kingdom and The Engagement (2014).
Astrid: Chloe Hooper, welcome to The Garret.
Chloe: Thank you for having me.
Astrid: Your career fascinates me, weaving between fiction and non-fiction. Your first work of fiction, A Child's Book of True Crime, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Literature in the U.K. You then received a Walkley Award for a series of articles you wrote for The Monthly exploring Aboriginal deaths in custody on Palm Island, which then led you to your first non-fiction work, The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island. I have to say, that is a highly awarded work, Chloe, receiving I think almost every prize for non-fiction there is in Australia, including the New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia Premier’s Prizes for Literature, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing. You then went back to fiction with The Engagement, and you've just released The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which is an extraordinary work of non-fiction about the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. There is so much to unpack there, Chloe.
Chloe: Thank you. Thank you. Let’s unpack it.
Astrid: Well, I'd like to start with your non-fiction. In The Tall Man, you explore the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island. And in The Arsonist, you attempt to understand Brendan Sokaluk, who was convicted of starting the Black Saturday fires. Why?
Chloe: One fire.
Astrid: One fire. Why pick these stories?
Chloe: Well, I suppose that there's not necessarily… I think that probably the choice is from instinct rather than any intellectual calculation. I actually wanted to write about Aboriginal art, and that was a great interest and passion of mine. But it's difficult to turn up to an Indigenous community and… Obviously it's a great honour for anyone to tell you their story, but certainly for Aboriginal Australians, there is a lot of layers around who it's appropriate to talk to.
I happened to meet a lawyer, Andrew Boe, who was travelling to Palm Island to work pro bono for the community, and he was looking for someone to come along and document that, and this inquest process that was about to begin concerning Cameron Doomadgee's death in custody. And he'd actually approached some mainstream, highly awarded journalists who were less interested in the kind of, I guess, documentary with words that he wanted someone to produce. And I had never written anything like this before, but I could see the opportunity and I put my hand up. And when I went to Palm Island, I also saw, in my own ignorance could sort of fill a book, and it did. So, I guess I was also… wondered whether or not… I guess I'm a great admirer of Helen Garner, and I know that… I wondered whether or not… I think Joe Cinque’s Consolation had come out and I wanted to see if people would have the same outrage about this horrible death. And with this complicated… against this backdrop that may be some people tended to look away from.
On Black Saturday, I think I was interested… initially although hundreds of fires had broken out that day around the state, five of the fatal fires appeared to have been deliberately lit. We now know that actually only two of those fires were the result of fire setters. Actually, the majority of deaths tragically occurred due to failings in our electrical grid. But I think I asked myself – which I'm sure most people were saying – why would somebody go out in those conditions and basically set a fire storm? So that was something that intrigued me. I mean fire, of course, we're wired to be fascinated by fire, and slowly it took … I returned to the idea of asking this question or trying to find an answer to it maybe five years after Black Saturday, when the Victoria Police Arson Squad agreed to talk with me.
And I'm not sure I've been rambling on. It's not necessarily a very good answer, but I think that as a writer, what you're looking for is some – I mean, excuse this metaphor when I've written about fire – but you're looking for heat and light, and you're looking for something that you have a strong intuitive feeling about, which also you're prepared… you can be prepared to live with for a long time. And that has some depth to it I suppose, and obviously both of these stories had those things.
Astrid: Can you explain what you mean by ‘prepared to live with it for a long time’?
Chloe: Yes. I mean, non-fiction, certainly the kind that I'm attracted to, can take years of your life. And so, you have to pick a topic which we will be sustaining, that will sustain your passion.
Astrid: What draws you to long form non-fiction?
Chloe: I think that there's a chance to look in greater depth at some of the issues that preoccupy us today and to explore nuances that the quick sweep of the media… Unfortunately, it's a function of the genre they're working in that they can't do that. So, this gives us a chance to look more closely at the world we inhabit now.
Astrid: Can you tell me about your research process for both books, including exploring how long it took and how you actually go about collating these stories?
Chloe: I’m probably… The Tall Man was published 10 years ago, so I can probably talk with more accuracy about The Arsonist. But I do remember the feeling with The Tall Man of just having absolutely mountains of paper, that the administrative task of this non-fiction writing was really quite burdensome. I mean, I'm not a terribly organised person, but I just had folders and folders of information. Certainly if something's been through the court system, there is just such a deep paper trail, which offers extraordinary possibilities for a writer, and that's also the case with The Arsonist. I mean, if you have access to the police brief of evidence, that's sounds macabre, but it can be a trove of extraordinary detail to draw on. And I'm reading for the nuggets that will make us understand something deeper about another person's life. And you can sometimes just, even in a sentence or two sentences, there'll be one detail that will explode open your own expectations or just show you something extraordinary. So, I'm always looking for those details.
Astrid: You are telling the stories of people that you don't know personally. So, it's very much research non-fiction.
Astrid: When you have access to this extraordinary depth of information, as you say in the police briefs and the legal documents, how do you… is there a moral or an ethical choice that you have about what you include or what you choose to highlight?
Chloe: There is a story in The Arsonist which is very confronting about a man who… and this is a difficulty, because I wanted to show the true horror of what the fire can do, and in a way, you can't really write about arson without showing that. So, there's a terrible story in this book about the Churchill fire and a man who didn't realise that the fire was coming towards him or his family. He and his wife tried to leave, they didn't manage to get away. And his wife, he watched her engulfed in flames and couldn't save her. That's a story which he didn't want to speak to me, this gentleman, but he was prepared to let me use whatever was on record and the police statements, which is a very brave and generous thing to do.
And I also spoke with another woman who had survived the fire and had lost two children. So, I tried very hard, I suppose, to only use information about other people who had suffered these kinds of losses that was actually already on the public record, and not details that were sort of tucked away in police documents. And I tried also to... There's a lot of information about what people found the fire to be like. I mean, that the actual heat and noise, and some of those descriptions are really astonishing, but I've sort of disaggregated them, if you like. I mean, there are no names attached, and I've run sentences that were striking together to sort of create a picture.
Yes. The ethics of this are really complicated. On the one hand, this is a very painful document to those who have survived this fire. And on the other hand, it's a chance for us to understand our own history and the causal factors behind a fatal inferno with better depth. I don't know that I can judge… I can't call whether or not… I get tongue tied because it's really complicated.
Astrid: It is very complicated. Chloe, I teach writing at RMIT and this morning we actually workshopped the first chapter in your book. And one of the discussions that the students that I had was how you use factual language to create emotion, which is an extraordinary achievement. Well done. I guess I have to say…
Chloe: I was waiting for what this student had had said and I was wondering whether or not we should have them booted out of the class, but they can stay. [Laughter]
Astrid: So, Chloe, how personally draining is this type of research?
Chloe: Well, this is the thing, if you asked yourself this question about who becomes an arsonist and why, you find yourself in this true crime genre without… I mean, I don't think of this as a true crime book, but I know that's where it is being placed in some bookshops. And crime in Australia actually tends be about dysfunction and disadvantage. So certainly I was led into areas that I didn't necessarily from the outset plan to travel through, and it is heavy. This is heavy material, and working out the how much of it to put on the page and actually still create something that a reader will pick up and keep turning the pages of is a challenge. And there are moments where suddenly I wish I had just written about beekeeping or something… And I might do that, I might do that next time. But I have a nice life and turn the computer off and go and read kids' stories and do all of the bourgeois things that make for a nice life.
Astrid: What did you learn from…
Chloe: I read the children's stories to my children.
Astrid: It's okay. No judgement. I'm a woman of a certain age who still reads YA, so no judgement at all.
Chloe: Thank you.
Astrid: What did you learn from writing and publishing The Tall Man that helped or directed The Arsonist?
Chloe: Oh, I wish I could say that I've learned things. I don't know. I mean, I think that I don't... The great thing about writing compared to a lot of other jobs is that you can actually get better at it. It's not like you're a sports star who the hamstring goes and that's it. You have the chance to keep evolving and improving and developing. And I'm sure that… I suppose I think that this book is a better book just because I've become a better writer, and that's through the experiences that you pick up actually on the ground doing this.
Astrid: I'm interested in your editing process for both fiction and non-fiction, but is there an extra layer for non-fiction of this type? Fact checking, that kind of thing?
Chloe: Yes. And I probably have written… I mean, I'm sure that I wrote… I think this book may be 60,000 words and I'm sure I've written 120 or 180 and cut. I mean it's a very live thing, and maybe at end points I've had to sort of add back, because I tend to cut it to the bone. But there is… it really does sometimes feel like every sentence in especially in The Arsonist had to be fact checked because there is a lot of information wedged in there.
Astrid: I'm interested in the language that you use in The Arsonist to describe the fire itself. It's very factual work, but also there are times where I feel that the fire is alive and is a presence in the work, almost poetic. How did you approach those sections?
Chloe: Well, as I mentioned, there was extraordinary descriptions of the fire in the primary documents that I had access to, which really painted it as being this sort of this presence that was alive. And I think it's interesting… We have a very scientific understanding now of fire, but fire is also of course… every culture has myths and stories of fire as this embodied presence, as a tricks to spirit or a beast. And there is something of those archetypal stories which does capture the power and sort of morphing qualities of fire. So, I wanted to have, I guess the scientific and the poetic building on each other to give a sense of this creature which actually kind of keeps on burning after it's put out, and actually is… we now are living in a warming climate and these feral fires a breaking out globally and will continue. And so, a sort of a waiting presence to I suppose.
Astrid: As a writer, was there anything that you wanted your audience to feel?
Chloe: It's hard. I think that again, there's so much that happens that's just about instinct, as you're going through… as you're writing the story. I know that there are sort of countless decisions being made all the time with a choice of word or were you… how you weight a paragraph, how you structure it. So, there are lots of little things that are constantly happening, levers being pulled, but I'm not conscious necessarily from moment to moment that that's what's happening.
I guess I want the reader to feel the things I'm feeling, and I mean often that's confusion at a… Certainly this man's culpability, and horror at what he's done, and also sympathy for him on another sort of strange level. I don't know how much you can consciously try to make those things happen on the page. I think you just… if it's genuine then your own curiosity and empathy, then that hopefully will read true to the reader.
Astrid: You mentioned before that you cut your work back to the bone.
Astrid: How do you approach critiquing and editing your own work?
Chloe: I think that as you develop as a writer you probably also develop as an editor, but I've been fortunate to work with some terrific editors. I don't tend to… this book, I didn't show anybody. I hadn't shown it to anybody for years, and I worked on it by myself, because I wanted it to be… I wanted to have got it right before I had anyone else's voice in my head. Then the first person I showed it to was my partner, and I mean luckily he is a pretty good writer too. [Laughter]
Astrid: He's not bad with words.
Chloe: Yeah, Don Watson. That can be bracing, because there were moments where he would say, ‘Are these just notes you've written here?’ or ‘This will be good’. And that's that was good actually to have a really kind of unvarnished opinion, and to look back and say, ‘Oh yeah. Sorry, that actually is a page of notes, and I thought it was sort of further developed than it than it was’.
And then once I've sort of tied it up sufficiently it went to the editors, and then there are all kinds of astonishing insights that are really good editors bring, and thank God, there are all kinds of little infelicities that they've picked up. And that's a very active process. Some people don't like being edited but I really love it. I love that sort of tangled up… and we were making it together and I mean, that is, that's a great luxury.
Astrid: At what stage did you pitch The Arsonist?
Chloe: Very early actually. And that's the commercial reality. In some ways wish I hadn't signed a contract… you wish you didn't have to sign a contract at all, but you know, these are the sort of how do you pay the bills kind of questions. And this book was very late to be delivered, and that was probably a function of having a baby in the middle of a … after signing that contract unexpectedly. But yes.
Astrid: So, how long did the arsonist take all up from-?
Chloe: You know what? I feel really embarrassed when I answer this question, because I was interested in the story immediately. I drove to Churchill, where Brandon Sokaluk, the convicted arsonist lived to look around. After I'd heard he'd been arrested I wanted to see where he came from. I didn't really seriously start writing at this book, or even I should say, there was a process of actually persuading anyone to speak to me. And I mean, it took very, very long time for Victoria police to have the Arson Squad detectives to actually have official permission to talk to me. It took very long time to persuade legal aid to talk to me. So, those are real and necessary roadblocks that slows the process down. And I also have small children and that's… I'm doing an in conversation with Anna Krien tonight. And I know that she has told me writing a Quarterly Essay that she actually had to leave home and check into a motel to actually get any work done. [Laughter] Which I wasn't, I knew I would never be able to do that, but that… There were long periods where I was not working on this anywhere close to full time or even part time.
Chloe: So, it's about four or five years.
Astrid: I'm interested in… So, what is your ideal place to write, and in an ideal world when there aren't bills to pay and there aren't children who would like there your attention, what is a writing day for you?
Chloe: So, we have an old sort of big shed in our garden, and Don has one half of it and I have the other. There's a wall in between us, but I can hear him typing through the wall, which has led me to wear ear plugs. [Laughter] I don't want to hear it. He's a terrific gardener. So, he has a window that looks out onto the plants. I did not want a window, because I don't want to have to see my children in the garden. [Laughter] I like to have earplugs in. I don't want to know that there's anyone around. I like to lock the door. It's quiet. I've got a real bunker mentality, and in a perfect world I would get up and have a cup of coffee and not speak to anyone, which is what I remember reading Alice Munro, likes to do and just get straight to work. That's no longer possible, but once I've dropped my children at school and childcare, then I tend to be quite ruthless about sort of trying to get back to work. If I can get in a couple of really good hours in the morning, or even better… work until I've got to pick them up, I will do that.
At the end of a book you've got to call a lot of your closest friends and say, ‘Sorry, I haven't seen you for the last few years’. Because I then after they've gone to bed, I would often, if I had had a good day, I would go back and work after they were asleep, and it's funny how in the hours you're away from the work, you can go back and find that some idea is crystallised or you've got the answer to a problem, and then sort of start again the next day in the same sort of way. It's one thing I've got better at with experience is realising when I'm not of seeing the problem clearly anymore and actually doing more damage on the page than actually… I've become part of the problem.
Astrid: And what do you do, when you realise that?
Chloe: I get away. Yeah.
Astrid: How do you move between fiction and non-fiction?
Chloe: Well, that's, I'll have to tell you, if I get back to writing a novel now. I've got an idea for a novel that I'd like to write and a non-fiction book that I would like to write now. And so, this is a really nice time, when the publicity of a book is over, being able to pack up all of the files and sort of let a new set of obsessions in.
Astrid: I noticed from your publishing history that it has been fiction than non-fiction fiction and non-fiction. That was just fate, just a coincidence?
Chloe: Yeah. And I'm not sure. I mean sometimes the novel can be almost a palate cleanser, I suppose. You know, you're not dealing with reams of information and a cast of real life characters who are… I've met brilliant people writing this book, but there's always a negotiation. Some of them are quite life affirming and extraordinary, but also can be painful and difficult and you're the person asking these hard questions. So, that was that way fictional characters can be… You're glad.
Astrid: You're glad to know this?
Chloe: You're glad not to have to… they’re difficult questions that you're asking them. You sort of asking yourself, I guess.
Astrid: So does your writing process differ? Or is it simply still the matter of getting the time by yourself?
Chloe: I think it's just getting the time and sort of fighting for that, at this point in my life anyway.
Astrid: Is fiction easier to write for you?
Chloe: I've found with the kids, I've found fiction was harder, because I could only really describe what was right in front of me, like hold up your hand and there are five fingers. And so, I needed the kind of factual. I had no time to daydream.
Astrid: When you talk about good books, what are some that stand out for you?
Chloe: Well, I'm always reading The New Yorker. But I've loved Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner this year. I've just started reading a Ceridwen Dovey’s...
Astrid: In the Garden of the Fugitives?
Chloe: Actually, know her work On Coetzee.
Astrid: Oh yes.
Chloe: Yeah. And I love Coetzee’s work. I think that Ceridwen is such an astonishing writer as well. So, my tastes change, but you also find books at the right time and that's a joy.
Astrid: Reading is a great joy.
Chloe: And it makes you better as a writer.
Astrid: My final question for you, Chloe. What advice would you give a new writer or a young student who is interested in publishing both fiction and non-fiction?
Chloe: Well, I actually think, I heard somebody talk recently about having different projects on the go as a way almost of sort of making sure they didn't dry up. And I thought that was such a clever idea not to sort of sink everything into one project. I mean, I've found to be honest though, to make a work that's have a quality that I wanted it to be I didn't need it to be kind of all consuming. But even the fabulous Spanish film director, Pedro Almodóvar, will apparently work on a couple of different projects until one of them he feels, he feels that one of them has sort of come alive more than the others and then that's the one he pursues. So, I think there's a lot of merit in working with different genres and having kind of different things in different drawers that you can pull out, and if one thing isn't working, you try another.
Astrid: Chloe, thank you so much for your time.
Chloe: Thank you.