Becoming a best-selling author was a considerable shock to Sally Warriner, but she’s got nobody to blame but herself.
When Sally sat down to write Not Just the Wife of the General Manager, about her life on one of Australia’s biggest cattle stations, she wanted to record a time that’s now passing and tell the truth about it, warts and all.
Newcastle Waters, where her husband was the aforementioned GM (and head of Kerry Packer’s pastoral operations) is an Outback legend. Sally, one of the headline authors at this weekend’s Jugiong Writers Festival, knew she was onto a winner when the flood of messages from readers began arriving.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t hear from someone connected with the station,” she says. “I’ve had people come up to me with lists of ringers in the Brunette Downs stock camp 40 years ago.
“It’s mainly people from the bush, older women in particular who recognise that life and its challenges; but also city people who say they simply didn’t know that world had even existed.”
It was a tumultuous time that included no less than eight light plane crashes, regular 400 km drives to catch up with the nearest neighbours, snakes, life-threatening accidents and helping to wrangle “KP”, a generous but somewhat quixotic boss.
“I realised pretty quickly that if I wanted the book to sell, I’d have to flog it,” Sally says. And it’s worked – she’s sold a remarkable 9000 copies to date, with a further 1000 e-books.
“I’m shameless, I zoom into people’s book clubs, I drop in wherever I’m asked and I have absolutely loved it. I was determined to write a book that nobody could say was bullshit. I ran the technical details past my sons to make sure I got all the facts right – and I think people have responded to that truth, those big stories of what’s now the olden days.”
Internationally renowned crime writer Michael Robotham also loves the bush. The son of a country town schoolteacher, he was born in Casino, grew up in Gundagai and is delighted about returning to Jugiong for the festival.
Canberra is also familiar territory, the destination for an annual trip to buy school shoes and see the sights. Michael has vivid memories of being car sick on the way, forcing him to tour Old Parliament House in a pair of budgie smugglers because there were no other clean clothes.
His first novel The Suspect was a global best seller, the subject of a bidding war between publishers, and was turned into a television series. A dozen more novels have followed.
For him, there’s always been value in being an outsider, an observer.
“When I started as a cadet on the old Sydney Sun, I didn’t know cities at all. It was the same when I moved to London to work on the Mail on Sunday. It meant I could see things through a different lens.”
The bush didn’t make its way into his global best-selling crime stories, but mostly because his was a classic, happy country childhood of fishing for yabbies, swimming holes along the Murrumbidgee and roaming with friends until it was time to go home for tea. “Mark Twain had already taken all the best plots,” he says.
“Even now, I live in Avalon where it’s like a country town. Everyone knows you at the post office. My wife, who is a dedicated city dweller, finds isolation in the bush quite frightening while for me walking down a dark city street is much scarier. That sort of detail, what frightens you and why, has always interested me.”
British publishers told him Australia – and certainly rural Australia – was off limits as a setting because it’d never succeed, but he’s full of admiration for writers such as Jane Harper, whose book The Dry and subsequent thrillers set in the bush have made a huge international impact.
Canberra writer and podcaster Karen Viggers is also on the festival lineup, joining Murrumbateman’s Robyn Cadwallader, whose new novel The Fire and the Rose looks set to repeat the success of her beautifully crafted first novel, The Anchoress.
Batlow-based Sulari Gentil, renowned for her finely crafted historical detective stories will be part of a panel on crime writing with Robert Gott and there are remarkable stories of life at iconic local properties Bundarbo and Nanangroe.