Josh Kemp and Australian Gothic fiction

Josh Kemp writes Australian gothic fiction. Banjawarn, joint winner of the 2021 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, is his stunning debut novel. His short stories have been published by Kill Your DarlingsOverlandSeizureTincture and Breach. He’s previously been shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and longlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award.

Josh Kemp and Australian Gothic fiction


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Josh Kemp. I stayed up late last night and I have just finished reading your debut, Banjawarn. Now, did I say that correctly?

JOSH: That's how I say it, but since the novel's come out, I've heard 15 different pronunciations, but I tend to say Banjawarn.

ASTRID: Congratulations. This is haunting. Now, you have already written many short stories before, but this is your first debut by novel. This is about 450 pages of I'm not quite sure what. You really surprised me. Every single page was a surprise. And to be honest, that doesn't always happen. Congratulations, Josh. How do you feel to have it out in the world?

JOSH: It's still so surreal, to be honest. Even at the Dorothy Hewett Award announcement last year, I'm still levitating a metre in the air, not entirely sure what was going on. I guess now, in the past month, what's been so great is getting the feedback. I just love hearing from readers like yourself and talking about the unpredictability makes me especially happy. Yeah, I guess that's the space I'm in now, just getting the reader response. I'm just really enjoying that at the moment.

ASTRID: Now, we do need to talk about the Dorothy Hewett Award. Last year in 2021, you were the inaugural recipient of the Dorothy Hewett Award which is for an unpublished manuscript. This, of course, is an award from UWA publishing, and you are based in Western Australia. For complete transparency, I have to admit that I am the external judge for the 2022 Dorothy Hewett Award.

JOSH: Right. That's fantastic.

ASTRID: It is an incredibly pleasurable judging experience. Basically, everybody is looking to find a work as utterly overwhelming as Banjawarn. Let's get into it, Josh. What is the origin story of this novel? Where on earth did you find the story?

JOSH: I suppose it's quite a long story. I came up with the character of Hoyle a few years ago, back in 2016. I was, at the time, planning on writing a crime novel, something a bit more traditional like The Dry or The Broken Shore, but I didn't want the detective or the hero to be the archetype Australian crime detective who... As much as I love those novels, the detective is quite often a useless father, useless husband, but he's a great detective. And I just, for some reason, I had this idea of, what if you had someone who was pretty useless at everything? And then, I think the drug use element came in, which just elevated it to a new level, a new fascinating level. I had this character, but I couldn't make that novel happen.

For some reason, it just wasn't coming together. And now, I look back at Banjawarn, I think possibly it was because I hadn't found Luna yet. The novel is two voices. It's Hoyle and then Luna. I think the original idea was just Hoyle. And it just, for some reason, wasn't gelling. I mean, this novel really came from my love of breakaway country. Having read the book, you probably understand why I might be so fascinated with it. I'm a big bush walker. Back in 2020, I was looking for a new place to go hiking to explore, and I read about this place called the The Terraces, which features quite prominently in the novel. Whenever I visit an area, I like to read about frontier history before I go out there because number one, I'm really interested in it. But number two, I think it explains so much about why a place is like the way it is.

And so, I started researching the history of Gold Fields and the Northern Gold Fields. I just really couldn't believe that I was finding. It was just so intense and deeply confronting at times. And then to actually go do the trip physically, and you're standing in these places that you've read about, these terrible things have happened, it's like an extra weight to these places. The novel then essentially within that... I think it was about a three-week trip. I went up to Kalgoorlie, Leonora, lived out of my car for that amount of time. And by the end of the trip, the book was just there. It was just ready to be written.

ASTRID: Where did Luna come from? And no spoilers, but for those listening, Hoyle is a man who does use drugs, and Luna is a younger girl. She's not an adult. And yet, her voice is so strong and she does take up the other half of the novel. Without putting too fine a point on it, you are not a young girl. Where did her voice come from?

JOSH: She actually came from a failed novel many, many years ago. That novel was dealing with very similar themes, drug use and the under belly of... Actually, it was set in the East Kimberley. There was a scene where a character broke into a house and it turned out to be a drug house, and there was a child in the lounge room. And in that story, the child was much, much younger, I think. Maybe five or so. It was just a throwaway scene. It didn't even have much to do with the plot, but years and years later, I kept thinking about this child and I was like, imagine what was his life like? He'd be seven now or he'd be eight now, he'd be 10 now. What would've his... What troubles would've he gone through?

And then once I started thinking along those lines, Luna was just there. In terms of writing from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl, after I finished the first draught, I think it was the day after actually, I had a mild freak out because I was like... I sat there and I was like, I've written half this novel from the perspective of a girl and I have no idea about 10 year old girls. Luckily, the first few readers were all female and I was anxiously awaiting their reactions, but I seem to have got it. The feedback I got was positive and they said I got most things right. There was a few tweaks needed here and there, but I mean... Yeah, I'm not entirely sure. That voice just came to me so strongly. And when you get a character's voice like that, it's best not to waste it, just go with it.

ASTRID: It is a very convincing voice.

JOSH: Thank God.

ASTRID: This is just my experience as a reader, but in terms of... Not the strength of the voice, maybe the power of the character, if that makes sense, which is obviously a very subjective thing to say, Josh, I felt like Hoyle took me through the first half. And as he was undergoing his particular experiences, Luna grew up in front of my eyes, even though only a few days past. This is not a over a long period of time, and she becomes the keeper of the story, so to speak. We mentioned drug use quite a bit, and you've also mentioned the weight of history in the story and in these very real areas that are in Western Australia. I wanted to ask how, because many writers listen to this podcast, how the use of drugs and the hallucinations and the new realities that that creates for some of the characters, how that butts up against history and what you can bring into the prose that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do?

JOSH: That's an interesting question. I think one of the things in the novel I wanted to explore was how personal trauma and a greater sense of national trauma become entwined. The novel is about that link between personal trauma and drug use. So much of the novel is about showing people who are in a very, very hard place when it comes to... Particularly what we're talking about is very hard drug use. I think we should... Yeah, there's a character called Karen. It's not Hoyle who has a massive drug problem. There's two other characters as well, Karen and Jordy. I wanted to show how people might end up in this place. I think there's a lot of judgement about very heavy drug users in our society. Even the term junkie to me is interesting.

It's like a... I worked at a supermarket, and it's a term that's bandied around so freely just on an everyday basis, and I've always found it so... There's just something so judgmental about it. It's almost like you're saying the person is... Obviously, the term junk is referring the substance itself. But then when you apply that term to a person, it's almost like you're saying they're beyond salvation or they're beyond help. We just know that's not the case. Focusing on why people end up in this place was really important to me. But then to talk about that personal trauma and juxtapose that against this huge, almost unfathomable national trauma, and although it's used... Particularly very focused on Western Australia, I think it applies to the country as a whole.

In terms of the drug use scenes, it allowed me to talk about these things in a more... Hoyle is searching these things out. Even though he's hallucinating, he wants these tactile experiences with the memory of the land or with the history of the land. I guess it allowed me to talk about these things in a more tactile way than to just say, ‘This happened back in 1883’. Even though I do say that a couple of times, it was certainly an interesting way to write about these subjects.

ASTRID: Look, you had me going in all different areas in the first five pages. I'm like, ‘This reminds me of Claire Coleman's Terra Nullius, there are aliens’. Then I'm like, ‘No way, Astrid. You totally misunderstood. There are drugs’. That's one of my favourite novels by the way, so I mean that as a very...

JOSH: Such a good novel.

ASTRID: Yeah, it's such a good novel.

JOSH: It's a great novel.

ASTRID: I want to make clear for our listeners that although there is a great deal of drug use, it's not glamourised even though the hero of the story is drug dependent and facing the stigma and the trauma and pain that comes from that, very real consequences.

JOSH: I also tried very hard not to show things like preparing. I mean, injecting is quite clearly shown in the novel, but the process of preparing it, I didn't want it to be instructional at all.

ASTRID: No, it's not at all.

JOSH: Fantastic.

ASTRID: In addition to... We've mentioned Hoyle and we've mentioned Luna, but this is also, I guess, an exploration of family, both the family that you're born into, but also the family that you choose and gather around you, and the family that you leave or abandon, or the family that you try to save. You also obviously are making a comment, although that seems too light a phrase to use, about the foster system in Australia and the removal of children, and how it basically fails everybody involved in the system even though there are no great alternatives. You've mentioned the word trauma. There is trauma of all types with all the characters, and also the national trauma and the weight of history behind everything. But even with that quite depressing list, Josh, it's also a book about love and the ties that bind. When you sat down to tell this story, what was the story you thought you were telling?

JOSH: I think it was always a love story when I started writing, figuring out where I started, how to end up in a place where it was not overwhelmingly depressing, but yeah, it was always a love story. I love odd couple stories, which this is certainly one of those. It allows you to go through some pretty dark places, but still end up in a place that is redemptive to some extent or hopeful. I think... Some of those issues you raised, I think that's the great power for, in particular Australian Gothic fiction, especially when our society's having a reckoning with a lot of these issues, a big one being family violence, violence against women, obviously. Grace Tame, last year's Australian of the Year, and Rosie Batty a number of years before that.

We're having this reckoning with these things now. And this form of fiction, I think, allows us to engage with these issues in a safe space. These issues aren't always... Heavy drug use, for example, it's not always something you'd feel very comfortable discussing with friends and family around the dinner table. A novel allows you to step into these things and engage with them, and hopefully really get a good understanding of them without you ever being in any danger. I think a novel released last year was The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart, which dealt with family violence.

That's an incredibly difficult novel to read at times. And yet, you're in a safe space. You're still able to engage with the issue in a safe way. But yeah, the story was always going to be a love story. It's also a love letter to that area, which I love so much. It's a love letter to the landscapes It's got the dual… It’s like a dual love story.

ASTRID: You just described this as Australian Gothic fiction. Can you articulate what does the Gothic bring to fiction that readers might not be expecting?

JOSH: I mean, it's always been throughout Australian literature ever since colonial writing, but I think it's really starting to gain pace, particularly in the last 10 years, like novels like Taboo by Kim Scott, which is one of my favourites. I guess it interrogates the darker side of the Australian experience. Most of the time, it's from a non-Indigenous perspective. We've got this great deal of Indigenous writers who are now using the mode fiction to explore stories from their perspectives, which is amazing. Again, I think it allows us to talk about things that we wouldn't necessarily be comfortable talking about. And our society is... Australia is not always great about, in particular, talking about frontier history. That's obviously a big thing that features in the novel. A lot of the time, it's not even taught in the curriculum, which is I think something that needs to be addressed. But yeah, I think it allows us to talk about the things we might find ourselves avoiding. Quite often, those things that we avoid talking about are the things we need to talk about.

ASTRID: We've mentioned the weight of history, and it is violent in the area where the novels are set, but there is also recent history that is also really confronting. I admit, I have spent quite a bit of my morning googling. You set the novel on an outback station, a real outback station, called Banjawarn that was actually used by the doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, and I have probably said that incorrectly, who experimented...

JOSH: No, no, you've got it right.

ASTRID: Who experimented with sarin gas and used to kill flocks of sheep there. I mean, I was not expecting this.

JOSH: Yeah. I mean, that popped up in my research. And like I said, I was mainly engaged with frontier history and that was confronting enough. And then, I came across this and I was like, what? It's like, if it was in a film, there's just no way you would ever believe it. You would say this is ridiculous.

So, Aum Shinrikyo was a Doomsday death cult, which started as a yoga group, if you can believe it. They had a bizarre ideology about... It was a mesh of things, but there was a big belief that by essentially killing people, you were saving their soul. The organisation got interested in trying to develop chemical weapons, and that they decided bizarrely this very isolated sheep station near Leonora would be the perfect place to test their chemical weapons.

And so, this was 1993 when they purchased the station. They brought some of their materials in through the Perth airport, which is just unfathomable, post-9/11. Yeah, they were out there for I think about a year, and then returned to Japan. There were a number of terrorists attacks they were involved in, but obviously, the big one is the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. And of course, the authorities had no idea this was happening. And then after the Tokyo subway attack, there was actually a big UN investigation out of Banjawarn. And to this day, a lot of the areas on the station are very dangerous to go near because the sarin is still present in the top soil layer. It was obviously such a bizarre story, but it also spoke to, again, that thing about how bad we are about talking about our own history and understanding our history. I felt like I had a pretty good idea about WA's history and yet I had no idea about this. It just fit perfectly with the themes I was interested in.

ASTRID: Your reader can't escape you by the time they get to that part of the novel, Josh. They will just stay up and keep reading. Now, the central character that we have mentioned so frequently, Hoyle, Garreth Hoyle, he's actually a novelist. In the novel that I've just read, the central character also wrote a novel. In his case, ‘Banjawarn Sky’, and it did pretty well. The people in his life are really upset with the book that he wrote. Now, I can't help but ask, is this a metaphor for what writers do to the people in their lives?

JOSH: It's interesting because in the past, I have based characters off real people. And then, you're in that writer zone and you don't necessarily think about what you've written. I guess the idea in the book is you're depicting someone only from your point of view, and there's just so much more to people than what you are seeing. That's, in a way, a lot of what the book is talking about. I mean, Hoyle himself, like you say, he's written this book and he's been relatively successful, and people have an idea of who he is. And yet in reality, when the reader meets him and when they're spending time with him, he's just vastly different to people's perceptions of what a writer might be. Yeah, I think there's a responsibility as a writer if you're going to base characters off real people. I think you need to load it with a heavy dose of fiction.

This is a lesson that I've learned, I hope. In this novel, I was determined that all these characters are just completely fictional. I wasn't ever going to make that mistake again. But yeah, it's also a comment about the storyteller and the power of the storyteller. It is a responsibility. And sometimes you get it wrong, and that can have some pretty... That can have real world consequences that can really affect people's lives. This also leads into later on in the novel, there's a lot of discussion about who gets to tell stories in a historical context. When I was growing up and I learned about a little bit about the history of the area I lived in, it was all heroic white people, cutting down trees to build their houses. There was nothing about dispossession and the horrors of Colonisation. Again, I guess it's that melding, that enmeshing, of the personal and the historical.

ASTRID: I can only imagine that this was quite a difficult book to write. I'm not referring to the subject matter, I'm referring to the technical way that you had to weave these stories together and make it make sense for the reader while still always feeling slightly beyond the reader. Or at least that was my feeling. It was a very good feeling. It was an exciting feeling to have as a reader. Technically, how did you all make it hang to together?

JOSH: I hate admitting this, especially when I know writers will be watching this, but it was much easier than it looks. It just... The structure came to me so clearly, but also, I'm really fascinated with structure. I love stories that, it sounds like a weird thing to say, but change as they go on, but change quite dramatically. One of the big inspirations for the novel was The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, which is... Every time I think about it, I don't know how he did it, but it's a novel that starts off about something, and then it becomes about something else. And then, it becomes about something else again. And then, it wraps everything up in that last quarter and makes it all makes sense. Yeah, I don't know how he did that, but I love stories like that and I wanted to write a novel like that.

And although Banjawarn doesn't make those dramatic leaps that McCarthy does, structurally, it always felt interesting and really complex. In all honesty, I didn't do any... I didn't make any structural notes. I didn't have a board where... I think something like this, you might usually, but so much of the novel developed in my mind while I was hiking. Hiking is... bush walking is sometimes like meditation. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but it's like your mind is very clear. I was just able to put the book together structurally in a way that by the time I got home, it was just so clear. I literally started... I got home at seven o'clock at night, and I didn't unpack the car. I sat down and started writing because it was just so clear, I wanted to get it done.

ASTRID: That is a great story, and you are making me want to go and dig through my books and find the book on writers who walk to see if I can learn anything from that book.

JOSH: It does help. It absolutely does help.

ASTRID: I find myself quite stuck for words, having listened to that explanation, Josh, because as a reader, I really didn't know where you're going to take me. Although you said you didn't do what Cormac McCarthy did, you kind of do because I wasn't sure which thread you were going to pick up and take further and use to weave into the greater story that really brings all the threads with you. Nothing is abandoned at the end. Everything does come together in one way, shape or form. It's just not the normal way that I am so used to reading fiction to get me there. It was a beautiful reading experience and I really recommend everybody dive in to Banjawarn.

JOSH: Thank you so much. Yeah. I think it's the characters that hold it together. And even though there are these big structural motions within the book, I mean, it's the people that carry you through the whole thing. And these two people were so clear, and I loved spending time with them so much, which the reader might think is odd considering some of the things that happened in the book. But I don't know, I guess I believed in these people. I believed they could get to a certain place. I think that, probably more than anything, allowed me to bring it all together in the end because it's them who bring it all together.

ASTRID: So very well said, Josh. Congratulations. Thank you for coming to The Garret.

JOSH: No, thank you very much. Fantastic.