#LoveOzYA with Cameron Nunn about Echo in the Memory
Cameron Nunn is an English and History teacher in Western Sydney, where he lives with his wife Belinda. He has a PhD from Macquarie University in child convicts and was awarded the NSW Premier’s History teacher’s scholarship to research child convicts in the archives in London.
Cameron chatted with #LoveOzYA’s Alexandra Patrikios about the resulting book, ECHO IN THE MEMORY.
Congratulations on the release of ECHO IN THE MEMORY. Broadly, can you tell us what the novel is about?
ECHO IN THE MEMORY tells two parallel stories; one set in the 1820s and another in contemporary times. The two stories are linked by place and shared memories. The contemporary protagonist must discover why he and his grandfather both have these same shared memories.
It’s an evocative journey into Australia’s dark past involving convicts, brutality and genocide. But my hope is that it’s also a story of friendship, hope and the power of the individual to rise above adversity.
My hope is that the convict voice might evoke a desire to go back a reconsider the wonder of Australian history.
Where did the idea for this story first come from? Was there a particular experience, or insight, that sparked the process of writing it?
The story came about when I saw my son’s name on a convict list of a particular ship (Marquis of Hastings). I began to wonder whether that person would have been surprised to think that he shared his name with someone nearly 200 years later. Names create our identity so does that mean there is some link between people who have never met but share the same name?
You received the NSW Premier’s History teacher’s scholarship to research child convicts, and inform the creation of ECHO IN THE MEMORY. What was the most challenging thing about doing that research? What were some of the specific highlights or discoveries?
I’m not a good researcher. I get bored easily. Much of my research in the archives in London involved transcribing handwritten interview notes from the 1830s. Some days I’d have to read hundreds of pages of original documents without a single reference to child convicts.
It’s a bit like digging for gold. You have to shift a lot of dirt to find the occasional nugget. Those days that I spent digging without finding anything were incredibly frustrating. My best day was when I came across a boy called Samuel Holmes. Samuel had been in and out of prison before finally being sent to Point Puer in Tasmania. Samuel described for the interviewer how he was taken in and taught to pickpocket as part of a gang. He describes the hideout in some detail including the trapdoor beneath the kitchen table where the valuables were stored. The similarity to Fagin’s lair was too close to be coincidental. When I re-read Oliver Twist some of it was nearly verbatim.
My first thought was that the boy knew the story and was having a lend of the interviewer, but careful cross-checking of the dates when the interview must have taken place showed that it was recorded in the year before the publication of Oliver Twist.
Some more detective work put Samuel Holmes in Newgate Prison exactly when Dickens was at the prison, collecting information for Sketches by Boz. I’d stumbled upon the inspiration for Dicken’s Artful Dodger buried deep in the archives and previously unknown.
Why did you want to explore this topic of historical interest through the prism of fiction – and in particular, fiction aimed at young readers (though open to being read by all, of course)? Did you ever consider writing it as non-fiction, and if so, what changed your mind?
The novel came before the research. When my publisher questioned the authenticity of the convict voice, I began to do research. That research became a seven-year PhD. I’d already withdrawn the novel and I then rewrote it, this time with a much deeper understanding of history and a really strong grasp on the ways that the boys spoke.
During the course of the PhD, I’d written six published articles on child convicts and a 100, 000 word thesis. I was therefore eager to get back into telling story. I’m firstly an English teacher with a love of the power of literature to expand our worlds.
Can you tell us a bit about why you chose the T.S. Eliot excerpt at the front of the book, for inclusion there, and also as the book’s title?
I love Eliot as a poet and really enjoy the power of his language in Four Quartets. The poem begins with a discussion of the nature of time and the interconnection with past and present. I really like the image of ‘Footfalls echo in the memory’ towards an end that is not necessarily our own. This abstraction of time becomes critical to the text. Even the image of corridors and doors features significantly at key moments in the novel.
Both timelines within the book namely take place in Byemedura. How did you go about exploring the notions of place and history, and how they interrelate?
Location forms some of the important elements in the story, particularly concerning the landscape. There’s a strong juxtaposition between the landscape of London and that of Australia.
Landscape is also a time traveller. The mountain ranges and caves existed before either protagonist arrived and they continue unchanged through generations.
What was the hardest part of writing this story? How did you overcome it?
The hardest part was doing justice to the Indigenous component. The colonial characters are reflections of their time. They are unconsciously racist and this leads them to ultimately justify murder. The novel is therefore full of ignorance.
There is always a desire to not say such ugly things but the danger in trying to be less vulgar would have been a sanitising of history. I therefore had to decide how far I would push the protagonist’s realisation of the shared humanity. The imagery around hands provided that link. I also had to decide whether I would include an Aboriginal voice.
After discussing this with the members of my family who are Wiradjuri people, I decided that I couldn’t do it authentically and not slide into caricature.
What are some of your favourite Australian YA stories?
My favourite writers are those who build characters with nuanced sensitivity. Anything that Ursula Dubosarsky writes is gold.
While not specifically YA Tim Winton’s eye for character and voice is unparalleled. He is the Mark Twain of Australian literature.
I love those who tell history well. Jacqui French manages to balance the need to tell a good story with rich and uncompromising history as does Kirsty Murray.