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D M Cameron

In D M CAMERON’s Beneath the Mother Tree, squashed mosquitoes serve as paragraph breaks, a dark mystery is afoot on an island off the coast of Queensland, and two ancient mythologies from opposite sides of the globe interweave.

D M Cameron has worked as an actor, dramatist, screenwriter and playwright, and Beneath the Mother Tree is her first novel. In the interview below, she tells us about researching the brutal history of colonisation in the Quandamooka region, working with a local Elder to create her story, and how The Secret Garden changed her life.

ABOUT THE BOOK

A spine-chilling mystery and contemporary love story, Beneath the Mother Tree plays out in a unique and wild Australian setting, interweaving Indigenous history and Irish mythology.

On a small island, something sinister is at play. Resident alcoholic Grappa believes it’s the Far Dorocha, dark servant of the Faery queen, whose seductive music lures you into their abyss. His granddaughter Ayla has other ideas, especially once she meets the mysterious flute player she heard on the beach.

Riley and his mother have moved to the island to escape their grief. But when the tight-knit community is beset by a series of strange deaths, the enigmatic newcomers quickly garner the ire of the locals. Can Ayla uncover the mystery at the heart of the island’s darkness before it is too late?

AUTHOR Q&A

The natural landscape features prominently in Beneath the Mother Tree; indeed the novel begins with your character, Ayla, releasing an injuredcormorant back into the wild. What significance has the landscape or natural aspects of Australia had in your life?

One of my earliest memories is playing under my favourite tree in our back yard– a weeping willow, which I would pretend was my house, for hours on end. The drooping tendrils of the willow became the walls of my house. I was quite a sick, asthmatic child who spent time in hospital with a collapsed lung when I was 10 years old.

It was during this prolonged stay that my grandmother sent me The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a story about a pair of sickly children who form a friendship and become healthy by spending time outside and hanging out with a local village lad who is at one with nature. That book affected me on quite a profound level. Not only did it turn me on to reading, it solidified a belief in me that being out in nature, among the trees and plants and birds and creatures, is healing on many levels. A sense of this deep love of nature is captured in Beneath the Mother Tree.

Your novel interweaves Indigenous Australian and Irish mythologies. How do these disparate belief systems collide in your book?

A comment I am continually hearing from readers is how they have never read anything like Beneath the Mother Tree. I think this comes down to the combination of Irish mythology with the recent sad, often hidden history of what happened to our Indigenous population during colonisation. I didn’t set out to do this. I started the book as a fictional exploration of a question that has subconsciously been haunting me most of my life – how do I connect to this country, the only home I have known, when my ancestry is from a country on the opposite side of the world?

I am fourth and fifth generation Australian of mainly Irish descent, but I love this ‘bright scraggly’ landscape I grew up in, even though I wasn’t taught the myths that sprang from this landscape – the Aboriginal myths. I was taught to look for faeries in the trees and when the stone curlew cried its blood curdling scream in the middle of the night I wondered if it was the banshee wailing.

I thought I would write a story exploring both Indigenous and Irish myths and somehow bring them together within this landscape, but when I started researching and yarning with some of the local mob on Minjerribah, the book took a whole new direction. Here I was, in my forties, hearing these awful facts for the first time – stories of the massacres and terrible atrocities that had occurred in this area. I suddenly saw that for the Ngugi, Noonuccal and Gorenpul people of the Quandamooka, their connection to country was overlaid with this relatively new tragic history. This took my contemporary tale into a much darker direction.

What insights did Ngugi Elder, Uncle Bob Anderson, provide to you during the writing of Beneath the Mother Tree, and why were those insights necessary to your story?

As a non-Aboriginal person, I didn’t want to go near any kind of Aboriginal content in my book without the guidance of a respected community member, so I was delighted when Uncle Bob agreed to come on board. He was very interested in what I was trying to explore, in fact he embodies it, being Aboriginal on his mother’s side and Scottish on his father’s side. The Aboriginal characters in Beneath the Mother Tree are only ever seen through the gaze of the non-Indigenous characters, so I only wrote from my perspective, which Uncle was very comfortable with.

"Although it is quite beautiful and whimsical in parts, Beneath the Mother Tree  is, in fact, a tale of murder."

The insight I received from this beautiful, wise man is too complex and involved to describe here but one thing that shocked me was learning how ‘white’ I was in my expectations, on many levels. To put into words the journey I had with Uncle Bob would take too long to describe in this answer, so I hope I am invited to talk about this experience in depth at a writer’s festival or on some platform one day because I think it is a story many non-Indigenous writers would find helpful. I am fortunate growing up in an area where I naturally had Aboriginal people in my life, so those connections were already there. I have heard from other Non-Indigenous writers who have tried to form those relationships with the intent of writing from a place of respect have found it difficult and sometimes impossible.

Has your understanding of the Australian landscape changed over the course of writing Beneath the Mother Tree?

Without a doubt, particularly in regards to the Quandamooka region. I had no inkling of the secret violent history of the area. Headlands, beaches, waterholes I have known most of my life, I now realise are death spots for the local mob – and for me too now. The Australian landscape is dotted with these unmarked sites.

I feel for us to move forward together as a nation, formal acknowledgment in the form of signage is essential, not only of massacre sites, but of the sacred sites and artefacts. That is simply respect. My understanding of myth in relationship to the landscape has evolved also. It was Uncle Bob who answered my question in the end. He turned to me one day and said ‘You know, it doesn’t matter about the name, faeries, rainbow serpents, whatever, it is about respect for the spirit of the land. All these myths are teaching us the same thing – respect for the spirit of the land.’

Paragraph breaks are denoted by mosquitoes in your book – what significance do these blood-suckers have in your story?

Unless you have experienced a summer on one of the islands in the Quandamooka area, all of which are peppered with mangrove swamps and tea tree wet lands – wonderful breeding habitats for the mosquito – then you can’t begin to imagination the ferocity of these two-winged female killers. I say killers because pregnant female mosquitos are the biggest killers of humans on this planet due to the diseases they are able to carry, diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

With this in mind, I knew the mosquito was the perfect creature to allow me to explore the darker aspects of my story. Although it is quite beautiful and whimsical in parts, Beneath the Mother Tree is, in fact, a tale of murder, and I have noticed in some book stores it is being shelved in the crime fiction section.

Why are your characters Riley and Ayla drawn to each other?

The more I think about this question, the more I realise it is because they both share a love for the natural world. Ayla isn’t your typical 20-year-old who is obsessed with taking selfies, partying and socialising. She is a deep thinker who is worried about the state of the world’s oceans, the fact that species are dying out every day, climate change. Riley is like no one she has met before. Because of his isolated upbringing he is quite innocent on many levels, but he also is a deep thinker and well educated in scientific facts. He is very taken by her ability to trust and think the best of people, which he is not accustomed to in women. And then of course there is the obvious physical attraction, which becomes achingly unbearable at times.

Have you always been fascinated with myth? Which legends or stories did you grow up on?

I became fascinated with myth when, as a 14-year-old, I rejected my catholic upbringing. Maybe reject is too strong a word. I suddenly saw it for what it is – the Bible and all the stories about Christ etc were a series of stories which an individual can use, if read on a symbolic level, as guidance on how to live a life. This then drew me to the work of Joseph Campbell and the concept of comparative mythology.

Once I had worked my way through Campbell’s body of work, I was hooked, and ended up doing a research masters on translating ancient myths into a contemporary setting. Myths hold universal truths which are still relevant today, so I get a buzz out of the challenge of placing them into a contemporary setting.

Beneath the Mother Tree by D M Cameron us published by MidnightSun, rrp $32.99.