Judy Nunn: Australian actress and author

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image-judynunn200Judy Nunn is an Australian author and actress, known by many of us for her role in Home and Away as Ailsa. Her latest books is Tiger Man, set in Tasmania in the 1850s when ambitious entrepreneurs rapidly built a thriving centre of industry at the expense of the state’s natural resources and environment.

Judy’s role on Home and Away finished in 2000 after 13 years and it wasn’t until then that she could concentrate on writing full time. Her first two books were published in the 1980s and were for younger readers. She switched to adult fiction in the early 1990s and her first three books –The Glitter Game, Centre Stage and Araluen – were instant bestsellers. She also published the epic, Beneath the Southern Cross, a history of Sydney and its inhabitants spanning 200 years.

Click play to listen. Running time: 34.48

Tiger Men

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Judy.

Judy
Thank you for having me along, Valerie.

Valerie
Judy, tell us about your latest book, Tiger Men.

Judy
Tell us about it, did you say?

Valerie
Yes, tell us about it. Where did the idea come from? But, also for the people that haven’t gotten a hold of one yet, tell us about the story.

Judy
Well, Tiger Men is based in Tasmania, and the period that it goes from is the 1850s, 1856 virtually, when Demon’s Land became Tasmania. And, it goes through to the end of World War I. It follows three families, two generations of three family, and then branching into the third generation to come. And the families sort of become interwoven with each other.

And, I mainly deal, actually, with an area that I think writers of fiction haven’t really dealt with before. Most books about Tazzie that you read are based around the very dark, brutal convict days. And, I decided that I wanted to concentrate on what I call the “golden era” of Tazzie, which is when men became extraordinarily wealthy, when the little island known as the Apple Isle actually also became known as the fruit bowl of Europe, with fruit product, by-product, jam, etc., selling all over the world, particularly to Europe around about the first world war, everything was so depleted. Also of course, of course there were things like Merino wool cutting, wool was considered the finest in the world. There were the Tazzie timbers, the shipbuilding, the hops industry, one of the first major breweries, Cascade.

There was an extraordinary industry, and a lot of very wealthy, early entrepreneurs, and that’s what the title really refers to, Tiger Men refers to those early barons of industry. And that was one of the periods that I though hadn’t really been looked into very much in Tazzie’s history.

Valerie
What sparked that interest? How did you come to know of this era, and what sparked your imagination about it?

Judy
Well, funnily enough a very, very simple little happening sparked my inspiration for this book, really that simple. I was simply being a tourist wandering around Constitution Dock at the Hobart docks. I’ve always loved Tazzie, and I specifically love Hobart — I always have, my husband’s Tasmanian and we go to Hobart a lot for family reasons.

I was wandering around  — this was a number of years ago, and I suddenly came upon these terrific plaques, sort of historical plaques, obviously placed there by the city council. And I thought, “These are new, I haven’t seen them before, or if I haven’t then maybe I just haven’t come upon them.” But, they did appear to be relatively new at that time — very new, actually. And I was reading up on them, and they were. They referred to the ruthless merchants of Hunter Street. Hunter Street was where all the merchants were. And, also Henry Jones of course, and his IXL jam factory, and Alexander McGregor and his fleet of ships. And, it suddenly struck me, and that’s when I though, “That era hasn’t been really touched upon.” Really, it was just plain tourist that it suddenly hit me. And then I went away and did all my research, of course, and I thought, “This is fascinating stuff.”

Valerie
And for that research, for Tiger Men, where did you go to get most of your information? Who did you speak to? What kind of archives did you delve into?

Judy
There’s a great deal of – there’s a wealth of material, if you wish to find it. Actually, because Tasmania’s history actually has been very well recorded. The Mercury itself is a very old newspaper, but I didn’t actually get much from archival material, from Mercury. I went to the library, of course, to Hobart library a great deal. I got a lot of stuff from there, but there are so many books. There’s books written specifically about Henry Jones. There’s a particular book that’s called IXL, actually, I put it all in my bibliography, you know with my sources of research material.

I could search the web, to a certain extend, but everything that I get from any website has to be verified because of course you can be so caught up. But, I read many books, it’s very accessible, the Tazzie history actually, as opposed to, for instance, the preceding book that I wrote, Maralinga, there was no information you could get anywhere about Maralinga that didn’t come out of the didn’t come out of the McClelland law commission. It had to be all commissioned before you could find any material, but there’s no secrets there, it’s all out there up front.

Valerie
With your books, often the sense of place is really prevalent in your books. You’ve made reference to Maralinga, you’ve had books set in the top end, in the Pacific. Do you go and travel to these places? What happens in terms of getting that real sense of place, and of course, researching it?

Judy
Yes, I always go, always go to where my book is centered, most certainly. The only time I had to tell a bit of a lie, that was when I was doing Heritage, and Heritage was based in the Snowy Mountains, which I had been to several times, and I went there specifically on a research trip, of course, for about a week. And when you are researching, of course, you see a place through different eyes. You’ve got these great receptors out there, I mean you’re seeing it in a different period and everything. It’s very exciting.

Sure, I can wander around Curver and Gingervine and everything, but it wasn’t the specific place that was as important as the people that came there, and from whence they came, and why they came. The book was actually, although it was about the — the reason that I chose that location was of course because of Snowy Mountain’s hydroelectric scheme in the 50s. But it was the first seeds sewn for multi-culturalism, when the Europeans in that area actually outnumbered the Australians.

It was a fascinating time, but I wanted to explore where all these people came from, and what had happened to them during the war or just post war. I deliberately chose some places that I’d been to, like I’ve been to Germany and the Italian Alps, and all of this. But, I hadn’t been, for reasons of the narrative, I wanted to go to Buenos Aires. I had never been to South America, per se, let alone Argentina. I was actually on vacation with my husband who was making a beer commercial, he’s an actor also like me, and Bruce was filming his beer commercial. It was being shot outside Alice Springs.

I was there with him in Alice Springs and I’m sitting there, looking out over the Todd river, and the Red River Gums, and the McDonald ranges, and all this extraordinary centralian backdrop. And as I’m looking across that dry river bed, and I’m actually in the tango halls of Buenos Aires. It’s so funny, every time I go to Alice Springs and I look at the dried Todd riverbed I think of Buenos Aires. So, I had to get that from books and from the net and everything, and that’s the only place — and the book wasn’t set there, so I didn’t feel — there were two very important chapters that were set there, and all the other places — I’ve been to Jerusalem and all of this, but I hadn’t been there. And it was so funny to actually be living there in my head and looking out over Alice Springs.

Valerie
Wow, and you managed to capture that on the pages as well?

Judy
And I love it, I love sections set in Argentina, you’d swear I really knew it, but that was a total cheat. It’s the only time I’ve done that.

Valerie
No one will ever know, until now!

Judy
Well, I’ve just broadcast it to the world now.

Valerie
Do you almost use your books as an excuse to go to some of these places? How do you determine some of the places and some of the destinations, or does the plot, in fact, or the characters, in fact, determine where those will be?

Judy
It’s a terrifically loaded question that one, actually, that one, because I might use, for instance, the excuse of travel as a reason for research when I’m not actually plotting anything. But I’m going to say, “Well, I’m on a research trip.” Just so that I can claim a certain amount of it in tax, which is helpful, but indeed, everywhere I travel, it is going to be fed in to that computerized part of the brain that says, “Wow, I could use this.” It may not be for a major plot in a story, but, yes, this is where my character could come from. This is the background of a character. Do you know what I mean?

So always, when I travel, it’s sort of, “Oh yeah, idea for a short story,” that’s out of The Seagull isn’t it? Chekhov, I think, whatever his name is, and he carries this notebook, and he sees this seagull lying on the beach, and he takes out his notebook, and he says, “Idea for a short story…” I think every author is like that, you’re a receptor for ideas.

But, very often, in the further part of your loaded question, very often it could be a specific place that is an inspiration, like in a book I wrote called Territory, Darwin itself was my inspiration. The actual township that was destroyed first by the bombs in 1942, the Japanese bombs and then by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, so within just 32 years you have the annihilation of a city. The history of that city itself was my inspiration. But then again, with Heritage, it wasn’t the Snowy Mountains townships that were my inspiration, it was the multi-cultural aspect. It was actually the happening, and sometimes, of course, it will be both.

Valerie
Out of that then, how do you then develop your plot? Do you let it sit there for a while and then it somehow comes to you and you plot it out, or do you let it emerge as you write?

Judy
I don’t sort of like freefall without a safety net, as it were. But scenes do unfold, and I am very, very character-led. My characters will take over. For instance, I will decide, usually, the period during which the novel will take place. Specifically, with Tiger Men, I knew I wanted to go from the time when Van Demon’s Land became Tasmania, because it made for a different mindset amongst the Tasmanian people. It made them think, “Right, now we will put the convicts thing behind us. We will move on.” Of course, they were still the people that they were, but they started thinking along different levels. And I wanted to go to the end of World War I, so I knew.

But, with some novels, for instance, the novel I wrote called Kal, which is based on Kalgoorlie, I knew when I was going to start it, virtually just after the first discovery of gold, when the Italians poured in because there was no work for them in Italy. And their prime minister actually said, “Look, migrate, get out.” They were actually told by this ridiculous government the Italians are so famous for, you know, “Go forth.” And they did, and many of them had been miners working on the railway systems through the Alps, etc, you know? And they came out and gold, was discovered and they came out. There was a big influx of Italian migrants.

So, I knew that I wanted to start that book, when Paddy Hannan discovered gold in the late 1890s, or 1893, I think. I was going to go right through to open cut mining, but then I stopped about two generations short, I got to the end of World War I, again, and I thought, “No, no, no, when the diggers came home from the war and the Italians had their jobs…” there were these race riots in Kalgoorlie. And, I finished with that, so I actually annihilated two further generations I was going to write about, but that was the natural culmination of the book.

Valerie
Your books must be so research-heavy, because – well, for obvious reasons. Do you do that research all beforehand and then start writing after you’ve compiled everything, or do you research as you go?

Judy
I do both, I definitely do both. I research voraciously for about three months. I usually have all of the material I’m going to research from in front of me by that time. I’ve read most of it, I do terrible brutal things that I never used to do to books, but research books are different. I underline them. I add text to them. I mutilate them. I never throw them out, I have a whole room of mutilated books that are sort of my own history of the last 22 years.

I do all of that, but of course, I can’t keep it all in the brain, and I don’t – it would be writing another book to make all the notes, because as I go through writing my own novel, I might find, I don’t know to which depths my characters are going to be involved in some specific historical area. I am continuously researching and I think, “Oh yes, he’d get very tied up in that, now I know I read this here…” and I’ll look through my stickers and my notes and  find which I then have to research more thoroughly.

Valerie
You seem to have quite a systematic approach, and obviously after having written so many novels now, that’s not a surprise. Did you find that when you first started writing that you already had that kind of ordered mind towards the writing process?

Judy
No, not really, I started out actually with the KISS principle, which I don’t know if everybody else other than actors and writers, but the keep it simple, stupid principle. Yes, absolutely — good little phrase.

And I’ve stuck to what I know, and that was, I’ve been an actor for so many years that I’d set my first book in television and it was just a frothy little satire, which I loved. It was just two years in the making of this soap opera. And, it was a behind the scenes look at television, and it had a little bit of a thriller type aspect to it.

And then I set the next book in the theatre, but I wanted to broaden my horizons, and explore far more. So, I had two generations in that, and I developed a very, very black, dark side that I don’t know where it came from, a character who was absolutely obsessed with death, to the point that he actually wanted to watch death, he wanted to create death. It had a very black, very dark side. But, the actually area that other people might have had needed to research in, I didn’t because I’d been working in the theatre, I knew theatre.

And, then the third book was going to be about the movies. I’d promised my publisher that I wanted to broaden my horizons far more and learn more and raise the bar, etc. I brought my movie mogul’s ancestor out from England in 1850, and settled him in the Barrosa Valley making wine, sort of Penfolds. And so I had to do a lot of research about the period, the wineology, the making up wine, the culture, etc.

And, as I researched it I was daunted by that, I thought, “Judy, what have you done? You can’t just keep it simple stupid, here.” And I discovered a whole bunch of things that obviously, I hadn’t known. But, besides researching to get my facts right, I found it inspiring. From that moment on, that’s what lead me into writing historically-based fiction. Fiction-based in eras and times that I haven’t personally experienced. And that makes for a lot more hard work, but it’s also very, very inspiring.

Valerie
And it’s also a lot of hard work because you do have to get the facts so right. But, also when you read, and I assume when you write historical fiction, these characters become history, these characters become real. It must be very gratifying, you must feel that these people, these characters are a part of a real landscape.

Judy
Yes, absolutely, and I’ll tell you what makes — that particular aspect can become really harrowing, actually. When you’re dealing with really harrowing historical facts, and I mean this is the third book, actually, where the story has, by necessity, taken me to World War I. And under no circumstances do I ever pretend to be a historian, at all. I write works of fiction. But, when you’re going to write about things like a theatre of war, and particularly a war like the “war to end all wars”, you have to get your facts right and you can’t just take a short cut and say, you know?

It’s very harrowing, I find it immensely harrowing, and of course, I am taking my fictional characters, and I am placing them in these real situations, and they are living through these horrific circumstances. Some of them are going to die, some of them are going to be severely mutilated, wounded. And it’s very harrowing because I have grown to know these people, but it’s doubly harrowing because although they are fictional people, this is what was really happening. This is what was really going on. It’s quite a devastating experience to go through, actually.

Valerie
When did you first become interested in writing? Is that something that you liked from when you were a child, or did you discover this later in life while you were acting?

Judy
No, no, I wanted to be both. I’m one of those very lucky people who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they were nine going on ten. When I was nine I was going to be a writer, and I was writing my first book and everything like that. And then when I was ten, I changed my mind and thought, “No, I think I’ll be an actor.” I always wanted to do both, so yes, I’m very, very lucky.

Valerie
How did you hone your writing skills when you first started out?

Judy
Well, it’s a fairly natural progression for actors who’ve been acting for a very long time, and I did actually my first professional acting job when I was 12. So, by the time I was a teenager, I was pretty much experienced as an actor. And, I think when you’ve been acting for as long as I had, sort of like, come my thirties, it’s a fairly natural progression to go into script writing. I started writing scripts – I was writing some radio comedy scripts, I wrote a bit for, when I was in England during my twenties, actually, I was writing a bit of review for a reparatory company that I was working with, that sort of thing. And then I was writing a bit of – I wrote for a couple of soaps at one stage, in the early days of Neighbours, I wrote a number of episodes for Neighbours. And then another soap called Possession, I wrote on for about a year. I was actually, but the time I came to turn my hand to narrative, a lot of the skills were already there. Construction, you know a lot actually about construction, when you’re writing for Soaps, funnily enough, there are a lot of parameters placed around – Soap writers have very gymnastic minds. I’m glad I didn’t stay too long writing in that genre though because there is a superficiality to it, of course, but you learn a few tricks. Then of course, always, as an actor, you’re working with dialogue and characters. I think by the time I got into narrative, I was pretty okay with the various requirements of writing.

Valerie
Even though now you’re a household name in terms of being and author, and your books are constantly best-sellers, and you’ve been around for a long time as a writer, did you find that when you first made that transition that you had any resistance? Because people probably didn’t understand that logical progression of your writing skills.

Judy
Yes. Look, this is no complaint at all, it is simply an observation and a comment. We still do live in a tall poppy country. We’re not like the Americans where we’re like, “Good on you buddy. You did it, you did it.” We do say, “Ah, don’t get too big for your boots,” and stuff. “Let’s just cut you down to size.” We still do have that in our nature, I think it goes right back to our convict days and all of that – “I thumb my nose at authority.” I think there’s still a lot of that in us.

In any event, I don’t think I was really allowed to wear – be too successful with two hats, to start with. Being sort of a bit of a household face from soaps and from series and things, it was sort of, – first off, the first few books I was “that Soap actor who writes.” You know what I mean? “Let’s not take her seriously.” And now, of course, my books do very well, and I do get some good notice, and respect coming my way. I think it’s sort of like “Oh, we’d  better not cast her, she just writes.” No, that honestly I say as a joke, because there are very few parts that sit on the ground for actors of my age, particularly of the female variety. There is this Aussie thing, that, don’t be too good at too many things.

Valerie
You also have written books for young adults. Is that a very different process or do you find it the same process? Do you have to get into a different mindset?

Judy
It’s interesting writing for what they call the younger adult reader. Yes, from eight to twelve year olds or something, because they’re very mature at that age. I don’t write children’s books and novels anymore. Which I did, I loved doing them. But, no, now my mindset is on the adult fiction. But, I do think in the writing for that age of children the difference is probably that you have to grab them quickly. You can’t meander into a book, and I’m quite like to meandering into a book. I don’t need to be grabbed by page one. I just want to amble into it and I’m quite happy when a writer does that, and I do it myself. You get to know the characters, it’s not immediately bounding into action or heavy duty relationships or anything like that. You get to know these characters on the streets they’re walking and the times through which they are walking. You can’t really do that with kids, you have to grab their attention quickly. But you don’t talk down to them, you don’t try and use little words, if they’re big words, then they can either look it up, they can ask mom, or they’ll get the gist of it from. So you don’t write down to them, but you do need to garner their attention quickly.

Valerie
You described Beneath the Southern Cross as, “the biggest task I’d ever undertaken as a writer.” Why was that?

Judy
It simply, funnily enough, it’s another gymnastic novel. It goes from — well, actually prior to first European settlement, because it goes from when the young man committed the crime in England, for which he is then transported, but he languishes for seven years in Norwich jail, while America is no longer able to be the penal dumping ground for the British. And, so the British have to find somewhere else to dump their convicts. He’s in the first lot to be transported to the new colonies in the great Southland, as it were. It goes fro that period right through to the year 2000. That’s seven generations of a family. Which is a big ask, but funnily enough, I found the generational thing, going through the seven generations of one family, I found that easier than in Tiger Men, in Tiger Men for instance, there are three families. It’s only two generations, and then the third generation just being created at the end of the book. It’s only two generations, but of three families. So, you’ve got three families that you need to go through these two generations, and then at the end of that, you have these young men who go off to World War  and bond together. That was far more complex indeed.

But, with Beneath the Southern Cross, I found the generational thing not as difficult, because it all emanates from one family. But, to go through that period of our history, it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out. You can’t cover everything. Indeed, one of the effective things, methods, techniques I used which I felt rather pleased, I could see the holes in all of my books obviously, there are holes you can find in every which one, and the day I ever thought one was spot on and I’d perfected it was the day I should give up, obviously. But, one thing I am pleased with in Beneath the Southern Cross was I jumped from — and I had all these young people created there, you were interested in them, as young boys, as young girls, during World War I. And, then at the end of World War I, that was the war to end all wars as they said, And, then suddenly I jumped 20 years, and you have the beginning of World War II. And, these same young people that you were interested in as kids are suddenly soldiers, and they’re going off to fight in another war, and the women are saying goodbye to their husbands when they’d said goodbye to their fathers. Do you know what I mean? And so I was able to jump 20 years with the absolute ghastliness of people losing another generation.

Valerie
When you create those dynasties, and in fact just any of your characters, do you fully form them, like I assume that you might as an actor when you were thinking about the different characters that either you’re playing with. Do you fully form them before you start writing, or, again, do you let them emerge?

Judy
No, I definitely let them emerge – definitely. I know that each character that I write, is basically, look, just to simplify things you’re going to have a good guy. Say, in Tiger Men, for instance, you had an idealist, an American, Jefferson Brimsley Powell, a good man, a really good man. And then you had, frankly, a really bad man, a bloke called Reginald Stanford, who is absolutely really bad. What made him bad? I‘ve got to find out what made him bad. I mean nobody’s out and out evil. There is, well, you could name a few I suppose, Phol Pot and Hitler, but he’s not a sociopath, but he does these terrible things. And I think, why? So I ‘m going to explore that man and find out why. Jefferson Powell is an idealist, he’s not Jesus Christ, he’s actually rather naïve, and easily taken advantage of, you could get cross with him and think, “Come on, get your blinkers off, take a look, be smart.” I like to look at all shades of gray that a character has.

Valerie
Right, that’s interesting because I would have assumed with your background that you might have done the opposite, but you discovered them as you write.

Judy
Yes, yes I do, yeah. I mean I don’t embark upon them, I know that I’m going to discover them. I’m going to explore them. It’s not really that they lead me that completely by the nose, but I’m going to explore them and suddenly something is going to happen to them, something — connection with another person, some event in their lives, but it’s going to actually bring up — this actually happened very much with the Reginald character in Tiger Men. I suddenly, actually, a couple of times found myself feeling sorry for him when I didn’t think I would, which is rather interesting. I don’t think my readers will feel sorry for him, but I did. I actually thought, “I can understand that, yeah.”

Valerie
You obviously know him a bit more intimately, maybe.

What are you working on now?

Judy
Well, I’m out on tour, you know, with Tiger Men, which, again, it’s another career in itself actually, the promotional stuff. Which I find very exciting, because you’re coming out of the long and lonely road of creation and you’re actually talking about it and people are enthusing with you, which is very exciting. But it doesn’t really give you time to sit down and write.

Valerie
Have you got something that’s brewing in your head?

Judy
I haven’t the vaguest idea, and I won’t until I go on my research trip next January. I’m thinking of – well, at this stage it will be Queensland, and I’ll be going to a particular area in Queensland. And, that will either result in, “Yes, this is it,” and off I’ll go on the research trip. Or I’ll think, “No, I don’t think for me,” and I’ll have to really rethink, I don’t want to do that, so I’m looking forward to the Queensland trip.

Valerie
Wonderful. Finally, what’s your advice to people who haven’t even written, or haven’t even gotten their first novel published yet, what’s your advice to them on what they can do to improve their writing, but also to get published?

Judy
Oh dear, getting published is always – it’s a difficult question to answer. Don’t present a publisher, for starters, with a whopping great manuscript, present them with an opening chapter, and a break down of the idea of the book and that sort of thing, something that will grab them. Also it is best to see if you can, and the attack would be the same trying to get a literary agent. It is best to go via a literary agent, if you going directly to publishing houses.

I don’t know of any short cuts. There’s self-publishing, which I know nothing about, I’ve never self-published. But, I think the idea is – I mean don’t give up. There are too many writers that have proven that rejection is the end, in the scheme of things can amount to nothing. I mean look at how many, I mean I think wasn’t JK Rowlings, you know, and our own Matt Riley – he was rejected so many times he ended up self-publishing, and look at him? The most successful writer in Australia, really, as far as sales go, you know? It’s a sort of, “Don’t give up.”

Valerie
And, also to improve their writing?

Judy
Read, read other writers, you learn a lot from reading other writers. And, there are creative writing courses, of course, but I’d be very – I would want to be very wary about who was taking them. They’d have to be good ones, you know? But I know some people who have discovered great joy and great fulfillment through creative writing courses, but I would want to have the right tutor. But, certainly, read, and read, read; read good writers, it’s an excellent way to go.

Valerie
Absolutely, read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Judy
Yes, absolutely.

Valerie
And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Judy.

Judy
Thank you, Valerie, it was fun.


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