After the atmospheric Half Moon Lake, Kirsten Alexander is back with Riptides, a novel that explores actions and consequences, and how personal deeds can have ramifications at a far greater level. Although this is her second published book, she actually wrote it first. In this interview, she shares the steps that led to its publication as well, insights to her writing process and thoughts about learning from the past.
Can you please share the blurb for Riptides?
One bad decision can tear your world apart …
December 1974. Abby Campbell and her brother Charlie are driving to their father’s farm on a dark country road when they swerve into the path of another car, forcing it into a tree. The pregnant driver is killed instantly.
In the heat of the moment, Abby and Charlie make a fateful decision. They flee, hoping heavy rain will erase the fact they were there. They both have too much to lose.
But they have no idea who they’ve just killed or how many lives will be affected by her death. Soon the truth is like a riptide they can’t escape, as their terrible secret pulls them down deeper by the day.
What are the main themes?
It’s about actions and reactions, the push and pull of life. The characters make bad decisions over and over, then have to deal with the consequences of their behavior, learning that every choice they make has wide-reaching impact.
Why Queensland in the 70s?
It was the first book I wrote, so I drew from the memory bank of my childhood in Queensland in the 70s. By contrast, Half Moon Lake was set in Louisiana in the 1910s, so I needed to do much more research.
Riptides’s story relied on the era, partly for technology, as mobile phones would have made my plot unworkable, but also for the broader historical context. Australia was in the grips of change with Whitlam’s prime-ministership reaching an end. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier of Queensland and corruption in the police force was rife. Veterans returned from the Vietnam War. Natural disasters occurred, including Cyclone Tracy and shocking floods.
As with my research for Half Moon Lake, I was surprised how much is still relevant today. There was a second wave of feminism, warfare, natural disasters. The warning signs that were sounding back then are coming home to roost today. Everything that happens in the past ripples into the future, so it feels like a wise choice to look back and see what was really going on.
Do you think we’ve progressed as a society? Is there hope for us?
Oh, that’s not for me to say. Each generation evolves a little. The way women and indigenous characters were shown in TV series from the 70s would not be tolerated today. But in the 60s and 70s, there were very strong environmental movements. People were aware of the impacts of human behaviour and there were campaigns to get companies to control their air pollution and waste, individuals were encouraged to use less water, eat organic, plant native species – they knew everything back then that we are saying now. In the late 1970s, naturalist Harry Butler had one of the most popular shows on TV.
During the 80s and 90s society took a wrong turn. We moved away from the environmental movement and became greedy and consumerist. We’re paying the price for that pivot now. But there are always people who care, and people can evolve. Every time someone learns from his or her experience, everyone benefits. I hope good wins out.
In our last interview, you mentioned that Riptides was previously rejected by publishers. What changed?
When I first pitched Riptides in 2014, it didn’t find a home. At the time, Australian stories weren’t as popular, nor was writing set in the Brisbane suburbs. Not that there weren’t a lot of incredible Brisbane writers and books – there were! And always have been. But they weren’t finding widespread popular readership, so publishers weren’t so keen on them. Trent Dalton (author of Boy Swallows Universe) opened people’s minds to accepting stories from Queensland. I’ve never met him, but I believe I owe him a debt of gratitude.
After Half Moon Lake was accepted for publication, Penguin Random House asked if I had anything else to offer. I showed them Riptides and they took it on. Both my publisher and editor wrote pages of notes and I went through an extensive editing process – everything from removing scenes, to making characters more meaty and tightening dialogue.
Do you think that being a published author gave you greater license to choose your topic and setting?
Definitely. Getting the first book published is a giant hurdle. I hope my story of rejection encourages other authors. Most authors don’t get their first book out there, but maybe it will find its place when the time is right.
Did you enjoy the editing process?
It was gold. Writing is isolating. Most days, it’s just me at my desk with the dogs on the floor. I’m very much an introvert. So, I loved the phone calls and emails to improve my books.
Do you work with other authors?
I’m not part of a writers group and I don’t attend many events. One of my good friends, who’s a screenwriter in LA, advised me to keep my material locked up in my head until I have a first draft on the page. He explained that the risk of talking about an unfinished story (or script) is that you get a rush from workshopping, networking, and speaking your story aloud when you haven’t actually done the work. You can feel great talking about what you’re doing, then come home and see there are hardly any words on the page. Better to sit down and do the writing!
When does Riptides launch?
February 4, 2020.
I’d like to invite Melbourne readers to a launch event at The Avenue Bookshop in Elsternwick at 6:00pm on Thursday February 6th. It will be very casual. Author Toni Jordan will do a greeting. She also grew up in Queensland, so she has a connection to the book. I’d love to see you there.
What next? Can you give us any hints about your next book, or are you keeping that locked up?
While Riptides is launching in Australia in February, Half Moon Lake is launching in the USA in March. The only thing I will say about my next book is that it’s set in Yorkshire, so my mind is wandering around green lush pastures.