Interview: Maralinga, Judy Nunn

| 24 January , 2010 | Reply

Guest Editor, Paula Grunseit

Paula Grunseit chats with Judy Nunn about acting, writing historical fiction and her new novel Maralinga.

Featuring a gutsy female investigative journalist, Maralinga is a compelling story of romance, power and espionage set during the 1950s when the British government conducted an extensive series of nuclear tests in the desert of South Australia, an area inhabited and traditionally owned by Indigenous Australians. Very little was known about these events at the time and it wasn\’t until 1985 when the findings of the McClelland Royal Commission were made public that some of the shocking facts were revealed to the Australian public.

Why this story in particular and why tell it in fictional format rather than non-fiction?

I really think Maralinga was an inspiration to me as a novelist and as an Australian. I wanted to find out about it and then I wanted to set my fictitious work in it giving out enough historical data to really enhance my story and to tease people with the truth of what went on.

I\’m not a historian and I don\’t pretend to be at all. Indeed I don\’t even think this novel is in any way the definitive story of Maralinga. There\’s a lot of truth in the book because I did a lot of research but what I would hope is not to teach people all about Maralinga because I don\’t know all about it and as a matter of fact I defy anybody to really say that they do because information was made available on such a ‘need to know\’ basis and nobody really knew the whole scheme of what was going on.

I would prefer to think of my novel as something that would create a real interest, unearth enough facts to really interest people so that if they want to find out more they research it themselves.

What did you know about Maralinga before you began your research?

I knew virtually nothing. I only knew the name ‘Maralinga\’. I certainly didn\’t know what it meant and indeed it\’s an Aboriginal word meaning ‘Fields of Thunder\’. I was originally going to base a book around the vast area of Woomera (the long range rocket facility) about which I knew more. Maralinga is within the Woomera range. I started doing a bit of vague research on Woomera and bumped into Maralinga and then I started researching it and the moment I did, I decided ‘the book is going to be about Maralinga specifically.\’

How shocked were you when you found out more?

Appalled. I was shocked. I expected to be shocked but I didn\’t expect to be quite as appalled by the facts as I was. A girlfriend of mine, one of the very few people who reads my book as I go along (I email her the chapters as I go and I only do that with three people), said: ‘I think I\’m starting to glean which parts are fact and which parts are fiction. The stuff that I can see that is most likely fact is far more shocking than the fiction.\’ And that\’s true.

What is fact and what is fiction? Were the characters based on real people?

Writing historically based fiction involves real people is always a bit dicey. You\’ve got to be careful. Your publishers don\’t want libel suits; they\’re very scared about all of that. I did check up that the scientists involved in the book are all dead. But their families are alive and you want to be careful not to ‘raise the ire\’.

There are about five major players in the scientific area in the book that are real people and I\’ve got to check my sources to make sure they really said the things I\’ve got them saying, particularly if they\’re detrimental things. With my fictional characters, I take them through the real times. It\’s a balance that I find very exciting.

Did your research involve a trip to Maralinga?

Yes. My husband Bruce (actor-author Bruce Venables) always comes with me on research trips. We get inspired together and we help each other a great deal with our work. We flew to Adelaide and got a 4 wheel drive and drove out into the desert. We needed permission both from the Indigenous people who now own the land, the Maralinga Tjarutja, and we needed government permission because at that stage what they call ‘Section 400\’ — the specific area where the village was situated, where ground zero is, where the bombs were actually exploded — was still in government hands with a big fence around it saying ‘this area is subject to radioactivity, trespassers will be prosecuted and so on.\’ Section 400 was actually returned to the Maralinga Tjarutja on December 18 2009.

The land has been returned but how do we know it\’s not still contaminated?

It will be contaminated to a degree for thousands of years but not to the point where simply walking in there will get you irradiated. There was a big cleanup in 2000. The government spent $108 million to try and decontaminate the land. The British left the site in 1962 and the Australians continued to use it until 1967. There were little mockup type cleanup procedures which were useless. They just literally buried irradiated vehicles in the sand. They chucked a whole lot of gear into the swimming pool and covered it over and that\’s the way they cleaned up radioactive material. It was outrageously laughable. The big cleanup in 2000 supposedly annihilated the actual risk of instant contamination. I wouldn\’t sink a well and drink the water; put it that way.

Do we have an estimate of how many Aboriginal people may have died?

No estimate whatsoever and no one will admit to anything along those lines. As a matter of fact, they won\’t admit to any deaths. It\’s really absolutely shocking. There\’s definite proof of stillborns, blinded Indigenous people. For example Aboriginal activist Yami Lester was blinded at the age of ten. In 1984 the McClelland Royal Commission was held and its findings made public in 1985. [Lester was instrumental in pushing for the Commission to be held]. That was the only material available that I could source. If it hadn\’t been for that Commission, I wouldn\’t have been able to write the book because men are bound by the official secrets act and nobody is going to break their oath of silence. With the Royal Commission, that doesn\’t hold any water and they\’re allowed to say. There were veterans who said not only had they seen dead bodies, but they\’d been threatened with court marshal if they spoke and that was only mentioned in the Royal Commission. Nobody has been brought to task. Nobody will admit to any of that. I\’m allowed to write it because I write it as a work of fiction.

Were you able to consult with local, Indigenous communities?

Oak Valley which is the Aboriginal community established as close to Maralinga as one would wish to be, was not established until the 90s. I went to the Maralinga Tjarutja offices and spoke with one of the elders there. It\’s 50 years after events and memories are very selective. It\’s the same with the veterans many of whom have since died. I actually found that I could really access more reliable material from the books that have been published and papers from the Internet and from the Royal Commission because there were stories from Indigenous people and veterans at the Royal Commission. The Indigenous story which was consistent everywhere (which I include in the book) was the one about the family living a completely traditional lifestyle, as basic as it can be, who walked with their dogs through the entire area. They were irradiated, picked up by truck (they had never been in a truck in their lives before of course), were taken to the decontamination unit, put through the showers and scrubbed until they were raw. Their dogs were shot. The people were then clothed and dropped miles from where they lived. This story was recorded at the Royal Commission and was witnessed by the family and veterans. Then there are varying reports about the possibility about a family that camped in a crater formed by one of the exploded bombs.

All these things are possible &

I think they\’re more than possible. I think they\’re highly probable. There is a veil of secrecy but the same thing happens today in military all over the world where men take an oath of silence and the official secrets act is in place in top secret, covert operations. The general public and the press are kept blind about so many things.

Speaking of journalists, the novel\’s investigative reporter, Elizabeth is very feisty – is there a bit of you in her?

There\’s a little bit of myself I love to think in all of those feisty women I write but I don\’t think I\’m quite as noble. The reason I made her so feisty is that she had to be feisty to do what she does in a man\’s world in the 50s. But I also didn\’t want her to be a militant feminist with another agenda. I had enough political comment there already, even unspoken comment about the British and Australian governments so I didn\’t want her to have some big political agenda which is why I took a lot of time and trouble in painting the eccentricity of her parents. Parents in those days bred their daughters to marry the right person and have babies so she would have had to have had eccentric parents!

How does your background as an actor in theatre and later in TV inform your writing?

I think if you\’re an actor, in general, you\’re half way there already by the time you decide to take up the pen to write a work of fiction or scripts. Working in theatre, you\’re working with the great playwrights: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen. It\’s like doing constant university degrees in drama in general and studying characters and so on. In TV you\’ve got the structure of cliffhangers and that works with the writing of commercial fiction. If actors wish to write, I think they make bloody good writers because they\’ve constantly worked with the written word itself and they\’ve worked very much with studying relationships and characters.

Do you miss anything about the acting life?

I\’m still available! I\’ve knocked back a few things, mainly theatre. Theatre was always my first love before TV claimed me. I still continue to do theatre work in and out of the tele stuff. I\’m probably a bit past that in the way that the theatre is bloody hard work and so very time consuming and it would mean not writing. My books are the most important thing to me now. This is my career now. There\’s always a role you see and think ‘that\’s irresistible\’. You can\’t help it. Old actors don\’t die; they just don\’t learn their lines as well perhaps.

Your husband is also a writer. Do you swap stories and help each other?

We\’re the envy of most of our writer friends because we can keep our minds also in the other person\’s book. If you\’re having a bit of trouble with a character, you can discuss it with each other and they\’ll know who you\’re talking about and what the setup is. And that\’s a rare commodity. Writing fiction is a very lonely experience as opposed to writing scripts. Usually if you\’re writing for television or film, it\’s quite collaborative. You\’re planning with directors or story liners but when you\’re sitting down and writing a book, it\’s a pretty lonely process so we\’re very enviable in that way.

Are you disciplined as a writer with a strict schedule?

I\’d like to be able ‘yes\’ but I\’ve got lots of other things that I do. I\’m on several charity boards and Bruce and I both have other work that takes us to the city. My main thing is that once I\’ve started, I try not to take my head out of the book for more than a couple of days at a time unless I have to. I never leave myself between a rock and a hard place. I go into upper case and simply write where I could go to next so that when I come back to the computer I\’m not stuck. I think ‘O God, I can\’t wait to get back to work.\’

So what\’s next? There is a new novel in the pipeline with research beginning soon but fans will have to be patient as Nunn\’s not giving away any official secrets 🙂

Visit Judy’s website for further information.

Available now:  Random House RRP$32.99


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