SUSAN DUNCAN has had a 25-year career spanning radio, newspapers and magazines. After her brother and first husband died, however, she quit journalism and eventually wrote the bestselling memoir Salvation Creek, which explores grief and loss and finding a place to belong. She eventually branched out to fiction with her novels The Briny Café and its follow-up Gone Fishing.
Her latest novel, Sleepless in Stringybark Bay returns to the same world as her other novels. It’s a page-turning mystery filled with vibrant characters and settings. AKINA HANSEN writes.
Former journalist-turned-author, Susan Duncan, alternates her time between boats on Pittwater and raising cattle at Wherrol Flat with her husband, Bob. Life on a farm is hard work. So, naturally, Susan shares that she and Bob began discussing what life might look like for them in retirement.
‘After 13 years of dealing with droughts, bushfires, floods, wild dogs killing our newborn calves, our own dogs being bitten by snakes (Bob said it would be cheaper if I was bitten next time), two tractor accidents (two broken discs) and every other little curve ball rural life throws at you, it seemed wise to explore options,’ she tells me.
‘Then I met a group of people who’d pooled their resources to live their dream. What a great idea, I thought.’
Indeed, it was this idea that acted as the catalyst for Susan’s latest novel Sleepless in Stringybark Bay, which follows five elderly couples who pool their resources to live in a house in an offshore community.
If you’re a fan of Susan’s previous novels – The Briny Café and its follow-up Gone Fishing – you’ll be happy to learn that we return to the same world of Cook’s Basin. But this time, the small and tight-knit community of Cook’s Basin are in for a shock.
‘Everything I write is drawn from my life but twisted, embellished, redrawn and thrown into a melting pot until it comes out completely re-shaped,’ shares Susan.
Interestingly, the setting of Cook’s Basin was inspired by Pittwater where she spent time ‘just watching seasons change, light on water, listening to the sound of birds, eavesdropping on conversations on the ferry, [and] talking to the larrikins that make up the community.’
Described as a boat lovers paradise, it’s located about 40 kilometres north of Sydney in New South Wales, and it’s a tidal estuary that is often considered to be a bay or harbour.
‘My heart will always belong to the offshore community of Pittwater which translates into the quirky, fictional Cook’s Basin. The off-beat location allows for off-beat characters who have a unique way of seeing the world but are always well meaning and good-hearted. Inevitably, that sometimes leads to disaster,’ Susan says.
When the five elderly couples arrive in Cook’s Basin, we quickly learn that this adventure has been a long thought-out dream. The funny and eccentric bunch who refer to themselves as ‘GeriEcstacy’ are lifelong friends who went to university together and some even married each other.
Sometimes a throwaway line in a casual conversation will ignite an idea for a character. Sometimes, I go back in family history to build layers to a person.
Despite this, we learn early on that they are a varied group of individuals. There’s Rob and Daisy who are former cattle farmers, Brian and Cameron who are former antique dealers, stiletto-wearing Sheila and her partner, Gavin, who were in the retail shoe business, former cheesemakers Sally and David, and finally Mike and his partner, Donna, who is a retired actress with a terrible attitude.
Susan shares that when it comes to her characters, they are an amalgamation of her many and varied observations and interactions with people – anyone she sees or meets at a shopping centre to a cattle yard sale can inspire her.
‘Sometimes a throwaway line in a casual conversation will ignite an idea for a character. Sometimes, I go back in family history to build layers to a person.’
Even smaller characters, such as Cliffy, who features in the novel, has been inspired by someone real. ‘[He] is a dead ringer for my fabulous 96-year-old Uncle Frank, although he once farmed peaches, not dairy cows. I’m not sure this makes sense, but there is a part of me in all of them.
‘Exaggerated little niches locked away in my psyche. I hope that doesn’t make me sound nutty,’ Susan says.
As the story progresses, we begin to notice certain tensions within the group. And when former journalist-turned-café owner Kate Jackson begins to look into the retirees, a thrilling and page-turning mystery unfolds.
Interestingly, Susan’s own work as a former journalist – she had a long and successful career in radio, newspaper and magazine journalism – helped her prepare and shape this novel, and even some of its characters.
‘In years of researching the backgrounds of people I was about to interview, it was almost always a throwaway line in an earlier interview that opened a window into ferreting out a strong angle. And, of course, I have spent many hours in newspaper libraries going through old files. As for Kate? I have deliberately made her a financial journalist instead of a women’s magazine feature writer but there are similarities,’ she says.
Susan does an excellent job at creating a tense atmosphere through the setting of the bay. The elderly household is isolated and locked away on an island that is only accessible by boat. As Kate begins to question why such an elderly group of individuals would choose to move to such an inaccessible and remote area, I found myself beginning to question if there was something more sinister going on as well.
Sleepless in Stringybark Bay is a charming novel filled with vibrant characters and a beautiful setting that highlights the importance of community and environment. And even more importantly, ‘How even the smallest acts of kindness can lead to wonderful outcomes. How people who don’t fit the norm (whatever that might be) have much to offer and should be celebrated.’
Susan is currently working on the final novel in the series. ‘I will be sad to say goodbye to the characters, but I am not sure I can entirely let go of the bush, boats and the landscape that I love with such a passion.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Duncan enjoyed a 25-year career spanning radio, newspaper and magazine journalism, including editing two of Australia’s top selling women’s magazines, The Australian Women’s Weekly and New Idea. Susan has published two bestselling memoirs, Salvation Creek and its sequel, The House at Salvation Creek, and two novels, The Briny Café and Gone Fishing.