The Eccentricities of North Queenslanders

Karen Foxlee’s new novel is saturated with its gorgeous Australian setting. Here, she talks about the people – and the wild landscapes – that inspired THE MIDNIGHT DRESS.

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THE MIDNIGHT DRESS is about the disappearance of a teenage girl.  It’s about school girls, secrets and sewing.  Love, loss and letting go.  But it is also about a place.  A place that, all my life, has intrigued and moved me, and made me want to write.

I grew up in the Australian desert, one thousand kilometres from the sea.  A world of dry river beds and scorched earth and spinifex. But once a year my family made a pilgrimage UP NORTH to the Queensland coast.

We left in our station wagon before dawn and drove through the ochre hills. We hit the channel country by late morning; flat endless land, bleached of any colour, littered with sheep bones.  By afternoon we ascended into the Great Dividing Range, the mountainous spine that separates the interior from the coast.

On dusk the land began to change.  The air became wetter, we breathed deeply.  The first of the cane fields appeared, black boys, great granite boulders…we knew we were close to the sea. When we arrived, and tumbled dusty from the car, the night was filled with the ecstatic chorusing of frogs and the scent of mango trees.

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This was the world I wanted to recreate in THE MIDNIGHT DRESS.  The world of mosquito nets and elephant beetles, mirror flat sea, the endless, insufferable heat.

I was intrigued as a child, by what lay up in the rainforest, what lay beyond the neatly ordered streets and cane fields.  What could be hidden “up there” in the wild, fascinated me. We visited places, as children, mountain places so quiet and still they terrified me.  These places, I sensed, were filled with a strange power.  Each time we went I felt we trespassed.

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And the people! I wanted to capture some of the eccentricities of North Queenslanders.

In the town we visited annually, we were lucky enough to bask in the love of a pantheon of strange, tall, great-aunts.  Some lived in neat little houses and wore crimplene.  Others lived in wild rambling houses, answered their doors in petticoats, waved at themselves with paper fans.

Their houses were mysteriously dark and damp and mildew speckled.  There floorboards creaked and the over grown gardens scraped their fingernails along the tin roof.  When you read THE MIDNIGHT DRESS and visit Edie Baker’s house, you’ll know which aunts captivated me.

I wanted to recreate the heat of my childhood holidays in that place.  My mother staggering room to room, wet tea towels draped across her shoulders, our bottoms sticking the vinyl couch with sweat.  The way the sound of rain, the night rain, made something relax in you, open up, as though you were more plant yourself than human being!

This is the landscape I wanted to bring to life in THE MIDNIGHT DRESS.  Rose Lovell arrives in a small North Queensland town; an angry young girl, lonely, terribly hurt.  And I wanted all these things; the heat and the storms, the rainforest and sewing in a huge, dark rambling house, to somehow change her……. I hope I have succeeded.

*black boys = xanthorrhoea, a native plant.

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