Q&A with Kath Engebretson

We caught up with author, Dr Kath Engebretson and found out the story behind her novel, Red Dirt Odyssey.


Q:  Red Dirt Odyssey has a wonderful cast of characters and amazing Australian scenery. How close is this novel to your heart?

A: The novel came out of a period when I spent almost a year in the Kimberley, and I came to love it, not just for its indescribable scenery but for its characters and easy going lifestyle. So yes, it is very close to my heart. I have always loved the Australian bush and have had the opportunity to travel to many of Australia’s remote areas, but the Kimberley is the place I will always go back to.

Q: Does your protagonist Alice have a fair bit of you in her?

A: Yes and no. Alice is an ex-academic as I am, but she doesn’t discover her sense of adventure until after Will, her husband, dies suddenly. Then she finds herself doing things she would never have imagined. I have always travelled around Australia, first with my parents and brothers and sisters. Mum and Dad were always taking us camping.  Then my husband David shared the same interest, and when our children were young we took them camping to all kinds of places. A favorite was at Cape Otway in Victoria where the Aire River meets the ocean. We spent many summers there, and the children learned to ski on that wide, clear river. When they became independent, David and I continued travelling ourselves in our motorhome, and that’s when we discovered the Kimberley. However, I think Alice has elements of my personality. She is interested in people and social issues as I am, and she’s intuitive. She is practical and competent and she likes cooking as I do. I grew to like her quite a lot as I wrote the story.

Q: Are any of your other friends, family members or acquaintances making ‘guest’ appearances in your novel?

A: Yes my son Michael is the model for Alice’s son, Sid, although many details are different. Both of my daughters appear incidentally. Maybe there is a story one of them told me, or one of their voices comes through a conversation. Our beloved Jack Russell dog, Chester, who was sixteen years old, died this year. He had accompanied us on every journey, and we still miss him.  He is Matey in the novel. If you know Jack Russells, you know they are endlessly entertaining, excitable, mischievous, and loving, all of the traits I’ve given Matey in the story. I really admire the indigenous MP Josie Farrer who is the member for the Kimberley in the Western Australian parliament. I met her in Kununurra. She is passionate for her peoples’ welfare, and a brave politician. There is a lot of her in the character Joan Farrington, whom Alice and Simon interview as they travel through Halls Creek.

Q: Did you set out to write a book specific to the Boomers or was it just a story you wanted to tell?

A: No I didn’t decide to write a book specific to the Boomers, I just wanted to write a book that I would like to read. I wanted to set it in outback Western Australia because I had experienced the beauty and wildness of that part of the country, and wanted to share it. Nevertheless, there is quite a lot of myself in the book, and I am a baby boomer, so it’s not surprising that it’s being described as Boomer literature. I hope younger people will also enjoy it.

Q: What is it like to write a creative fiction novel after a career of writing academic books and student textbooks? Was it particularly challenging?

A: Yes and no. I have always wanted to write fiction, since I was a teenager really. However, my life took me into teaching and then into academia, and it just wasn’t possible, especially when there were also four children to be cared for. I began the novel after I retired from the University, and it was exhilarating, freeing, exciting. There is a line or two in the first chapter of the novel where Alice describes the process of academic writing as pulling out hair, or squelching through mud. That’s how it was for me in the last few years. Although I kept producing and being published, my heart wasn’t in it. When I could finally write fiction it was like a clean wind blowing all that away. I didn’t write the story thinking it would be published; I just wanted to write it. I can honestly say that I write because it makes me happy. I’m glad now that I can leave the academic writing behind.

Q: So what’s next for your writing goals?

A: I have begun another novel, quite different in its themes, but I am also considering a sequel to Red Dirt Odyssey if there is enough interest in the book.

Q: For any budding writers out there, can you share some tips about your writing and publishing journey?

A: Definitely.

  • The first piece of advice is – if you want to write, just write. Forget the excuses, just sit down and do it. Set yourself a goal, say 600 words a day. On a typical day I write three pages of A4 size in handwriting. Later I re-write it onto my computer editing as I go. The writing may be related to a story I’m telling, or it may be just three pages of thoughts and observations.  Some of my characters in the novel came from my descriptions of people I saw in the street, or met at caravan parks, or watched in shops and restaurants. So that’s the first thing, write every day. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write.
  • The second is to find people who will give you feedback, in a kind but honest way. I belong to a writers’ group where we share our writing and critique each other’s work. I love those meetings. I had a mentor throughout the writing of Red Dirt Odyssey who read it chapter by chapter and gave me feedback. The book owes a lot to her. Put your writing out there. Criticism can be hard, as we are all so attached to our work, but the writing will be better for it.
  • Another piece of advice is – if you are unsure of how to use correct grammar or structure sentences well, there are lots of good online courses you can do to help with this. It is a really important skill. When you have a full manuscript, send it to a manuscript appraisal agency, or have a manuscript reviewer read it and give you feedback. Find a book about writing that helps you, and dip into it often.
  • Finally, believe in your work and don’t give up.

Q: Where are you planning to travel next? (Remembering the book will be used after 1 Dec).

A: In 2017 I am walking the 800 kilometre Camino del Santiago pilgrimage across the top of Spain. It may provide material for another chapter in Alice’s life.

Q: Who is one of your favourite authors and do you have a favourite book?

A: I love Australian novels and I read anything by Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey, Tom Kenneally, Christopher Koch, Sonia Hartnett, Eva Sallis, Charlotte Wood, and many others. I love everything Helen Garner writes including her non-fiction. I am always watching for new Australia novelists. I read most of Patrick White’s novels when I was young, and now I find myself going back to them.

From among this array of talented authors it is hard to select one book I love, but I read Ruth Park’s Harp in the South when I was at school and it has stayed with me. I must have read it five times by now. Christopher Koch’s wonderful book, The Year of Living Dangerously features my favourite literary character, the photojournalist Billie Kwan who is a dwarf. To some extent he has influenced my portrayal of Simon in the novel, although I don’t want to overstate that. Simon is unique.

Red Dirt Odyssey releasing 1 December 2016.