notes on writing The Divine Wind

The Divine Wind has been a best-selling novel for me, winning awards and being studied widely in schools.

I'm often approached for help by students writing essays.

 

Here are a few notes on how and why I wrote the novel, my viewpoint on its themes, etc etc.

But feel free to disagree with my take on the novel.  A good teacher should respect firm opinions backed up by evidence.

 

My interest in World War 2

        Both of my parents were in the war of 1939-1945.  My father was
        a soldier, fighting the Japanese in Borneo and New Guinea to the
        north of Australia.  My mother worked in a munitions factory in
        Adelaide, making bombs and bullets.  All of my aunts and uncles,
        and all of my parents’ friends, were similarly involved in the
        war.  So it’s no wonder I grew up hearing stories, and seeing
        evidence (a family friend who had lost a leg when a landmine
        exploded; photographs of my father in uniform, courting my
        mother; my father’s Army photographs, including a photo of a
        Dutch woman dead on a beach in the islands; a bayonet, army cap
        and ID papers souvenired from a dead Japanese soldier).

                    Later I learned how to do historical research when I
        did a Masters degree in Australian History at Monash University,
        in the state of Victoria.  My thesis examined popular ideas
        about remote Australia in the 1930s, as expressed in a series of
        best-selling travel books of the time.  After graduation, and
        spending a year studying creative writing in America, I was
        commissioned by Oxford University Press in Melbourne to write
        history textbooks for schools.  One of these was a history of
        the Australian home front during World War 2.

                    And so I had a great deal of useful research
        material at my fingertips.  I first used it in The Stencil
        Man, a novel about a German-Australian man interned as a
        security risk in World War 2, inspired by the bewilderment and
        heartache I found in the letters and diaries of the more naïve
        internees, who admired Germany in the 1930s but still believed
        they were loyal Australians.

                    I also drew on it when writing an early version of a
        novel later published as Past the Headlands.  At first, The
        Divine Wind was part of this book, but something went wrong and
        I split it off as a stand-alone novel.

        


    What went wrong?

        First, the background to Past the Headlands.

                    I can start writing about an idea immediately, but
        in many cases I wait years before I’m ready, waiting for the
        idea to mature, or make sense, or have a shape, or be
        rounded-out by another idea.  I found the two initiating ideas
        for this book in 1983, and didn’t start the novel until 1996
        (finishing it in 2000).

        Both ideas were powerful documents that I’d found during my
        library, archival and War Memorial research.  The first was a
        letter written by a woman on a lonely cattle station north of
        Broome, on the far north west coast of Australia, in February
        1942.  Malaya and Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, and the
        Dutch business people, settlers and colonial officials of
        Indonesia were fleeing to Australia in airliners and seaplanes
        ahead of the Japanese advance.  One day she found herself having
        to help one such planeload of Dutch refugees, who had been
        attacked by Japanese fighter planes off the coast (the Japanese
        made dozens of bombing and strafing raids on northern Australia
        in 1942-1943, a fact covered up by the Government to avoid
        panic.  The best-known are the raids on Darwin, and the raid on
        Broome – as seen in the last part of The Divine Wind.

                    I wondered what it would be like to be her, on an
        isolated property with scared civilians to look after, all her
        menfolk away at the war, and Japanese planes lurking along the
        coast.

                    The second document was written by an Australian
        Army surgeon who had escaped from Singapore ahead of the
        Japanese, and found himself on Sumatra, looking after others who
        had fled from the Japanese (including Australian Army
        deserters).  His diary suggests that his best friend was looking
        for a way (by ship or plane) to get them both to Australia.
        Then the friend left without telling him, and the surgeon was
        taken prisoner by the Japanese.

                    It was a powerful betrayal.  I’d never been
        impressed by Australians’ fond notions of the national character
        (we like to think we’re brave, resourceful, loyal to our mates,
        democratic, egalitarian, etc), and here was a betrayal of mateship.

                    I thought about the woman and the surgeon for years
        until I found a way of joining their stories.  But after a year
        of writing, it went wrong.  Novels should have a sense of
        forward movement (for writer and reader) but mine was spreading
        sideways instead, as more and more subplots emerged.  One in
        particular – a young white Australian falls in love with a
        Japanese girl in Broome at the start of the war in the Pacific –
        didn’t really belong in a novel about a man in Singapore who
        flees ahead of the Japanese to be with a woman he loves in
        Australia.

                    And so I split it off, worked out where the story
        would go and who the main character would be, and told it in a
        different viewpoint (first-person narration instead of third).

        


   The research

        I used particular aspects of my thesis and the history textbook
        to create Broome in the late 1930s and early war years.  My
        thesis gave me material on what Broome was like (smells, sounds,
        sights etc), and I used some of the travel books I’d studied to
        dream my way into old photographs.  For example, in Ion
        Idriess’s Forty Fathoms Deep is a photo of a pearl diver: as
        soon as I saw it, I saw Mitsy’s father.  The ‘populate or
        perish’ notions of the magistrate, Mr Kilian, also come from
        that research.

                    I drew on the more factual historical research for
        the bombing raid and the internment of the Japanese.

        


 Why Broome?

        Why not Darwin, which also had Japanese pearl divers and was
        bombed by the Japanese?

                    Broome appealed to me because it was smaller, more
        remote, and was the first stopover for many of the refugee
        planes flying down to Perth and Fremantle, bringing Europeans to
        safety.  Also, it’s had a dramatic frontier history, owing to
        the big money to be made in the pearling industry.  All types of
        characters washed up in Broome, and there were murders,
        robberies and cyclones.  And there was an interesting racial
        mix: white Europeans, Japanese families, Aborigines, Indonesians
        and Malays, and Koepangers and other Pacific islanders.

        


  The times they lived in

        The people of central and northern Australia were not only
        geographically but also culturally isolated.  They felt ignored
        and misunderstood by the urban south (an old and on-going theme
        in Australia) and resented interference from the federal
        government.  They feared invasion from ‘the Asian hordes’ to the
        north, and argued that Australia would perish if the north and
        the centre were not populated and developed.  Racism was
        intrinsic, with the Aborigines seen either as treacherous and
        lazy or as childlike and in need of protection.

        


Themes in The Divine Wind

        I never think about themes when I write a book.  Often it’s not
        until it’s published that I can see them clearly.  At other
        times I might sit down and try to identify the theme if I suffer
        from writer’s block, to get me back on track.

                    I think most fiction is driven by this theme: The
        search for a true home.  This true home might be the arms of a
        loved one; peace of mind; a creed, belief or philosophy that
        makes sense of everything; or simply a place.  Perhaps you might
        like to think of the main character, Hart, in terms of his
        search for a true home.

                    Friendship and love is another theme – more
        particularly, friendship and love under strain.  The
        relationship between Hart and Mitsy is placed under strain by
        these three factors: their friendship becomes a sexual
        relationship (has that ever happened to you, different rights,
        responsibilities and pressures emerge – not all of them good –
        when a friendship becomes sexual?), the war (Mitsy is seen as
        the enemy now) and race (despite his best intentions, Hart seems
        to see Mitsy as somehow different).

                    Another theme is young people forced to grow up quickly.

                    Intolerance, obviously.

                    Finally, guilt: Hart and his father both feel that
        they could have done more, been stronger, for the people they love.

                    But what mattered to me as a writer was to tell a
        non-soppy love story against a backdrop of dramatic events, not
        beat you over the head with themes and messages.

        


 Hart’s character

        I’m the first to admit that he’s not always likeable.  He can be
        fearful, suspicious, jealous, easily swayed, easily hurt.

                    Yet he is a hero, redeemed at the end.  A heroic
        action isn’t necessarily rescuing a baby from a burning
        building; it can be a brave thing to atone for the past and find
        in yourself a measure of courage and self-respect, as Hart
        does.  He understands himself a little better, and can
        acknowledge his weaknesses.  To me, this is a measure of
        strength (and many people go through life unable to do that).

                    Step out of your own skin for a moment, and into
        Hart’s.  Try to feel the pressures he’s under – extraordinary
        pressures compared to yours, probably.  First, his crippled
        leg.  He feels self-conscious about it – the way it looks, the
        way he walks now, his restricted abilities.  Mitsy doesn’t mind
        it, even makes it part of their lovemaking, but at one level
        deep inside he’s always going to ask himself: Am I ugly?  Will
        anyone want me?

                     Second, he can’t take an active part in the war effort because
        of his leg.  All around him, young men his age are doing heroic
        things, joining the armed services, being treated as heroes, but
        Hart feels useless.  This uselessness breeds paranoia, suspicion
        and a sense of grievance.  But, at the same time, he becomes a
        thinker and a philosopher (the whole book is one long thinking
        and philosophising session) and the reader his mother had always
        wanted.

                    Third, he has troubled relationships with his
        parents.  Neither is there for him.  His mother shuts herself
        off emotionally, then later is removed physically when she goes
        to England and is killed by the German bombing of London.  His
        father is hopeless at domestic life and wants only to be at
        sea.  In fact, you could argue that his single-mindedness is the
        engine that drives the whole book.  If he hadn’t been so
        stubborn and impatient, sending the pearling luggers to sea when
        conditions weren’t safe, then Hart wouldn’t have been hurt in
        the cyclone and Mitsy wouldn’t have lost her father.

                    Fourth, he’s worried about his sister.  He thinks
        she could be dead.

        


  The name ‘Hart’

        It’s been suggested that it’s deliberately symbolic of the
        heart, appropriate because the heart is the locus of love, hate,
        pity, compassion, etc, some of the themes of the book.

                    Maybe, but it’s simply a name that I thought the
        reader would remember (a name like John Wilson slides off the
        page), and a name of the period (my father knew two Hartleys).

        


 Mitsy: hard and unforgiving?

        Some high school girls I’ve spoken to hate Mitsy (too hard, a
        bitch, etc).

                    If you think that, step outside of your skin and
        into hers, and consider the pressures she’s under.

                    First, the loss of her father.  There will always be
        a part of her that thinks: Is he still alive on some distant
        beach?  There’s no body, and so no closure for her.  Yes, they
        have a Japanese burial ceremony, but that’s not the same as
        knowing for sure that he’s dead.

                    Second, she belongs to a racial minority.  She’s
        made to feel that acutely as stories of Japanese actions in
        China and southeast Asia filter through, and when Japan bombs
        the American port of Pearl Harbour, and finally when all of the
        Japanese living in Australia are interned as a security risk.

                    Third, people who were once friendly now treat her
        as the enemy.

                    Fourth, she’s not the social equal of her friends,
        Hart and Alice.  Her father is a mere employee of the big boss,
        Hart’s father.

                    Fifth, these things are brought home to her
        powerfully in the scene when she and the others are taking the
        drunken man home from the cinema, and encounter Hart’s mother in
        the street.  She’s very dismissive of Mitsy, treats her as a
        nobody, and perhaps a corner of Mitsy asks: Are Hart and Alice
        like their mother, underneath?

        So all she has left is her ‘Japaneseness’ – her growing interest
        in her Japanese language, cultural heritage and customs.  She
        was born in Australia, thinks of herself as Australian, until
        public opinion forces her to think otherwise, to think of
        herself as Japanese.  The same thing happens to people of Muslim
        backgrounds whenever there’s a terrorist bombing, for example
        when young, Australian-born Muslims are assaulted, thrown off
        trams, called terrorists and told to go back where they came from.

        


 Hart’s father

        As I said above, his impatience sets everything in motion.  He’s
        genial and ineffectual early in the novel, but ultimately stands
        up for what he thinks is right (the court case and the treatment
        of Mitsy and her mother).  Does Hart measure himself against his
        father, maybe?

        


Hart’s mother

        She’s a refined Englishwoman who finds herself in hell: a hot,
        remote, anti-intellectual, masculine world.  Rather than adapt,
        or accept her children’s friendship with Mitsy, she withdraws,
        hides with a book.  No one can understand her.  They all spin
        stories about a secret lover.

        


 The title

        I think it’s the best title, on several levels.

                    The strict meaning is this: ‘the divine wind’
        relates to the Japanese word kamikaze, which means an act of
        deliberate self-destruction in pursuit of a cause (does this
        explain Hart?).  Kamikaze pilots saw themselves on a divine
        mission, a suicide mission, to fly their planes into enemy
        warships (for example, American) on an act of suicide for
        Emperor and nation.

                    Also, winds of change blow through the story,
        bringing change, destruction and renewal.

                    And the wind refers to the cyclone that so damages
        Hart’s leg and changes his personality.

             And the wind is the air raid on the harbour.

        


  The tone

        The whole novel is there in the first paragraph, which took me 2
        or 3 weeks to get right (I needed to close the gap between the
        book I was ‘dreaming’ and the graceless sentences on the page).
        We have who, where, when, why, the main issue, and the tone or
        feeling or ‘personality’ of the book.The overall tone is
        reflective, the deliberations of a young man who has been forced
        to grow up quickly, who has seen terrible things, witnessed
        great losses, learnt hard lessons about himself and the people
        around him, and been forced to be his own guardian.  It’s the
        tone of a young man who has put some terrible things to rest,
        including a sense that he betrayed Mitsy’s love, and could have
        been stronger and less afraid, and now he’s waiting.  He’s
        waiting for Mitsy to come back, waiting to show her that he’ll
        not let her down again, that he’s found self-respect, courage
        and self-knowledge.  He’s not going to back away.  It’s not a
        dramatic or heroic reversal, but quietly hopeful.  He says, ‘We
        may not make it,’ meaning he knows the terrible pressures he
        faces now, in post-war Australia, but is willing to give it a go.

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