Ep 275 What you need on your author website. And Peg Fraser, author of ‘Black Saturday: Not the End of the Story’

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In Episode 275 of So you want to be a writer: What you need on your author website. Meet Peg Fraser, author of Black Saturday: Not the End of the Story. Learn how to supercharge your fiction writing. Our new online course Fiction Essentials: Dialogue has launched. Plus, we have 3 copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, The Department of Sensitive Crimes to give away.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

6 YA website tips for young adult authors with examples

9 essential tips to supercharge your fiction writing

Writer in Residence

Peg Fraser

Peg Fraser has a PhD in History from Monash University. She is a writer and oral historian, and helped to develop the Victorian Bushfires Collection at Museum Victoria.

In Black Saturday: Not the End of the Story, Peg Fraser, explores the complex narratives and experiences.

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(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Peg Fraser, thank you so much for joining us today.

Peg

Thank you for having me.

Valerie

Now you have written this book, Black Saturday: Not the end of the story. I’ll let you tell listeners, in case they haven’t read the book, what it’s about.

Peg

It’s really about the aftermath of Black Saturday, over a period of years, for a group of people who all came from the same little settlement, you can’t even call it a village it’s so little, northeast of Melbourne called Strathewen, and Strathewen was particularly hard hit on Black Saturday. It’s where the wind changed.

And so they endured a fire front for an extended period of time. 10% of the people in Strathewen were killed, 80% of the homes destroyed. And I spent a few years after the fire interviewing – maybe three years – interviewing people, talking about not only their experiences on the day. But what I was really interested in was their lives afterwards and how the fire had changed those lives.

Valerie

Why? How did you get involved in this? Why did you want to interview all of these people in the wake of Black Saturday? Which of course was a horrendous, horrendous bushfire in Victoria in February 2009. And 173 people lost their lives. So why?

Peg

Look, that’s actually a really good question. Because when you interview people about such a horrendous day, you’re asking them basically to relive the worst day in their whole lives. And just going back and talking and remembering it can be extremely distressing for many people.

The way I got into it was that I was working as a historian at Museum Victoria for a few years before Black Saturday. And shortly after Black Saturday, within a few months, the museum set up a collection. The Victorian bushfires collection. And they started a major collecting project where we had three curators going out into the field, collecting objects, but also collecting oral histories. And I was one of those three.

And at the end of that collecting project which ran for a full year, I realised that I just had so much to learn. I’d gone in with some misconceptions about what it was like to survive an event like that. And it was really that I wanted to find out more.

The collecting project was finished and I was moving on to other things, but I decided at that point to do a PhD. So I enrolled in a PhD at Monash so I could continue the research.

And so the book comes out of the PhD.

Valerie

Yes. So what were some of the misconceptions? And what was then reality?

Peg

Look, a lot of it was, I think, a fairly romantic view of what it would be like to survive a day like that. There was a lot in the media about community togetherness, how people… Having experienced something like that would have stronger community bonds, that they would feel grateful to be alive, that it would be in the end quite a positive experience for them. And I did find many people, I did talk to many people for whom that was true. But I also talked to many people for whom the opposite was true. That community divisions became even bigger, that they didn’t see any positives coming out of Black Saturday.

So to me the big realisation was that, even for people who experience the same thing on the same day in the same place, it was an incredibly complicated response and everybody was different.

Valerie

So presumably when you did your PhD, you did your thesis. Is this your thesis turned into a book? Or did you take material from your thesis and rework it into a book?

Peg

No, you know, I guess because of my museum background, I’ve always written for a general audience. And so to me the difficulty was not taking a thesis and turning it into a book, it was actually doing the thesis in the first place. And at one point, halfway through the process, somebody turned to me and said, you’re not writing a thesis. And I thought, oh no, what am I doing then? Two years in and what’s the point of all this? And he said, you’re not writing a thesis, you’re writing a book. And I thought, okay, so I’m writing a book.

So my thesis is actually quite unconventional. Because I talk about myself in it quite a lot. I use the first person. It’s a very… I hope it’s a very accessible style of writing. So converting it into a book was actually a pleasure because I was able to really focus on the things that I enjoyed writing about in a style I enjoy writing in.

Valerie

So you spend a year collecting stories, objects, things when you’re at Museum Victoria. And then you think I’m going to do a PhD in this and explore it further. What then was your process of research? What did you decide that you were going to do? Did you think I’m going to interview X number of people? Or I’m going to concentrate on this one little small town? What was the structure that you gave to your research process?

Peg

I decided to focus on Strathewen partly because that was one of the first areas that I really noticed when I started doing the collecting. I didn’t have a set number of people I wanted to interview because as you can imagine it’s a really difficult process for people. So I put out a general invitation. I had a few interviews already in Strathewen. I talked to those people. I sometimes went back and reinterviewed them three years after the fire. I also was introduced to other people.

There were people who said they did not want to be part of this, which was fine with me. There were other people who I spent two or three years having coffee and chats and trying to get to know them a little better. And in the end, after three years, they said, okay, yes, I will do an interview with you.

Valerie

Right. And what was the hard part about gathering information? The hardest part?

Peg

I think the hardest part was not passing judgement on people. And trying to understand –

Valerie

What kind of judgement would you pass?!

Peg

Look, well as I said, there was a lot of community division. So perhaps not passing judgement, not taking sides would be a better way to say it.

So some people were very angry and upset and were expressing that anger. And I had to let them express it because it’s a very natural and authentic reaction to an event like this. But I had to do that without taking sides, as I say.

Valerie

Hm. And did you have a process in your interviewing? Did you think, I’m going to allocate, on average, this amount of time? Did you have a set set of questions? How did you actually go about the chat?

Peg

I use what they call open ended interviewing in oral history. So I had a set of topics that I was interested in exploring. But I really let the narrators set the whole path of the interviews, partly because there were some people who simply didn’t want to talk about certain things. There were some people who said I cannot talk about that day. I just am not going to go back and relive it. There were other people who wanted to talk about nothing else.

And so it was, as I say, open ended questions. Tell me about yourself. It’s called the whole life process, as well. So I didn’t want to know about their lives only from the 7th of February on. I wanted to know where they grew up, what they did, what their outlook on life was. Because that fed into the book about understanding people’s background.

Because as many psychologists will tell you, an event like this doesn’t stand in isolation in a person’s life. It can bring up things from the past. It gets worked into your understanding of the present and your plans for the future. So I tried to get to know people.

The interviews went for hours. I never interviewed for more than two hours at a time, because that’s about the limit that people can do before they’re just exhausted.

Valerie

Yes.

Peg

And I’m exhausted. But I did multiple interviews with some people. I would go back a year later and say, can we pick this topic up again? What’s happened since then? And I really let people set the course.

Valerie

How many people did you interview?

Peg

About 25 all up. All of them with a connection of Strathewen. So some people who were former residents who lost family members in Strathewen. A couple of people who were relief workers and were very involved with people in Strathewen. And quite a number of people who actually survived the fire. Some people evacuated, some people were there at the time.

Valerie

So how long after February 2009 did you go visit Strathewen?

Peg

The last interview I did was in October 2013. But I’ve been back since then…

Valerie

No, no. How long after the original fire was your first visit?

Peg

Oh my first visit? About a year. About a year.

Valerie

Right, okay. And a year later, after 80% of homes are destroyed, and 10% of the town died, what was it like? What did you see? Were things being rebuilt? Or was it a ghost town?

Peg

Well, it wasn’t either. There were… So much had been destroyed. There were a lot of empty sites, because by that time most of the house sites had been cleared. There were some temporary buildings up. So one of the first things they did was bring in a portable building to act as a community centre. Because they had lost the hall and the school, which had been their centres of community life.

There were people there, but even 18 months later there were still trucks coming in and out with loads of rubble that were being taken. So the house sites had been cleared but there was still an awful lot of cleaning up that still had to be done.

It looked very grim. And I knew Strathewen from before the fire. I had driven through it once or twice. And it was this absolutely wonderful little hidden valley with tall trees and hills on all sides and a couple of creeks running through it. It was idyllic. And afterwards, even a year later, it was still shocking.

Valerie

Yeah. I remember, because we had a house in the Yarra Valley, which was not touched by the fire, and my partner was there during Black Saturday. And he evacuated the dogs, we had a couple of dogs, they went into the city to be with friends, and he decided to stay with the house. And it’s a day that he will never forget. But about five months later we finally decided to take a drive to King Lake and to Marysville. And I was in shock. And I do not think that people who have not seen the aftermath actually fully comprehend the level of devastation.

Peg

Oh, it’s extraordinary.

Valerie

The town is decimated. It’s literally razed to the ground. It’s literally black, even five months later. And I don’t actually think people in other states, unless they’ve experienced a fire themselves, understand the complete, how profoundly decimated it is. How much destruction there is.

When you’re hearing these stories from these people, whether they’re one year later or three years later or whatever, did it affect you? Or were you able to be, not desensitised, but have some distance so that you could collect the information professionally and efficiently and accurately?

Peg

It wasn’t easy. But I guess I never lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t my story. And the only time I cried was interviewing the principal of Strathewen Primary. Black Saturday was a Saturday so there was nobody at the school. But if it had been a school day, they might well have been open and when you saw the ruins of the school there was nothing left except a bit of twisted play equipment. And that scared me. That one really…

And Jane Hayward, who is principal of Strathewen Primary, and still is, did an absolutely magnificent job. The story of the work she put in to hold the whole community together, not just the school community, is very, very moving. And I think that it was the closest I came to crying.

For the rest, I think partly it’s understanding your limitations. There were some stories that I could not do. And there were some that I was okay with. Partly because at home I had a really strong support for myself.

But you were talking about seeing King Lake. Although I didn’t see Strathewen, it was Easter after Black Saturday, we had friends in St Andrews who did not lose their house but they were surrounded by fire, so we went to see them. And then we said, we need to see what this is like. So we drove from Strathewen up to King Lake and then back down into Healesville. And we had our grown up kids in the car. And once we left St Andrews and were driving up the hill to King Lake, it was dead silence in the car for the next hour and a half.

Valerie

Yes.

Peg

We were just… We were shocked. We were speechless.

Valerie

Yes. That’s exactly what I experienced. It’s such a sombre and sobering experience, because you cannot actually believe what you’re seeing. You cannot actually believe that 173 people lost their lives. And obviously many more were injured and scarred forever.

Peg

You actually can’t believe that anybody survived.

Valerie

You can’t. Because when you look at it it’s complete destruction. I actually could not believe that people did, in some cases, not many people, but that anybody could survive. You’re right.

What was the most uplifting or inspiring or positive thing about the experience? Let’s steer away from that.

Peg

Look, personally, to me the most uplifting thing was the generosity of all of these people who were struggling. Even three, four, five years later, were still struggling on a daily basis with the impact of this fire. And they were kind to me. And they made time for me. And I ate innumerable bowls of pumpkin soup. People were living in temporary accommodation but they opened their houses to me and invited me in. And then proceeded to tell me about this day and what it meant to them. So I just found that humbling, really.

Valerie

So you’ve done this for your PhD, which is a PhD in history. Are you now going to become the bushfire historian? Or have you moved on to a different topic?

Peg

Oh, I don’t know. First of all, I have to say that the role of bushfire historian is well and truly filled by Tom Griffiths at ANU, who is a wonderful, wonderful writer and thinker and really has been a star for me in this process.

I think I will move on to another topic in terms of official work. But I don’t think that you can ever let go of this once something happens.

We had the book launch in November and I invited everybody who I had interviewed and local people and we held it out in Eltham, which is half way between the city and Strathewen. And 70 people came and it was like a family reunion. So it’s not just a job. I can’t just say to somebody well, I’m sorry, but I’ve interviewed you, I’ve written about you, that’s the end of our relationship. I will always have this relationship with the survivors from Strathewen.

Valerie

And finally what has been the biggest impact on you? This experience of writing, researching, everything, putting it together, what has been the biggest impact on you from that experience?

Peg

I would say it’s understanding the multiple ways in which people make sense of things. It was one of the most challenging bits but also one of the most rewarding, to listen to people’s interviews. And I have to say, a lot of people transcribe and then read an interview. But I always work from the recording. So I always record, I always work from the recording, because I want to hear tones of voice and hesitations, and how people, how the emotion comes through in what they’re saying.

So what I learned most was to listen for those and to think about the different ways in which people can interpret their experience and then incorporate that into their lives.

Valerie

Well, obviously very well researched. And one of the things you do is open with a series of quotes from different people about their impression of the day. Or really about what they were doing on the day. And my partner read that section and was saying that it just hit him. Because that’s exactly all the things he was thinking and feeling as well. So well done on what will no doubt be a very important historical document as well.

Peg

Well, thank you.

Valerie

And thank you so much for your time today, Peg.

Peg

Well, thank you very much for inviting me, Valerie. I’ve enjoyed it.


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