The Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA), alongside ARA Group, recently announced the 2020 shortlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize. Shepherd by Catherine Jinks was one of the novels featured in the shortlist.
One of Australia’s most well-known writers for children and young adults, Catherine has written a riveting, fast-paced adult historical thriller that brings the brutality and courage of Australia’s colonial frontier vividly to life. Set in rural New South Wales in the convict era, the novel features a young boy hunted down in an ancient land by a brutal killer seeking revenge. Jinks was born in Brisbane, grew up in Papua New Guinea and studied medieval history at the University of Sydney.
Tom Clay, the 13-year-old poacher turned convict-shepherd who narrates Catherine Jinks’ novel, knew every plant and animal in his native Suffolk. Transported to New South Wales and assigned to an isolated sheep run in the bush, Clay laments his ignorance of the local flora and fauna: ‘How can anyone live well in a place without knowing it?’ he asks. In Tom’s clear, sharp voice, Shepherd explores the importance of listening to and respecting an ancient land, as well as surviving colonial injustices.
Taut and compelling, the narrative is breathlessly fast-paced and finely crafted. Shepherd is imbued with a depth of understanding of the natural world, and powerfully evokes, with unstoppable momentum, the brutality of desperate men.
An Interview with Catherine Jinks, Author of Shepherd
We chat with Catherine below about the inspiration for her novel and what she enjoyed most about researching her novel.
What was your inspiration for your novel?
‘Shepherd’ came about when I decided to try my hand at an original screenplay. I thought I’d start with a thriller, because the genre is fairly straightforward; I just needed to work out how someone might get stuck somewhere, in great danger, beyond all help. I thought to myself: I need my main character to be in the middle of nowhere. And then I realised that no one was more isolated than a colonial convict in a shepherd’s hut.
I first found out about shepherd’s huts years ago, when I first read about Alexander Pearce, the cannibal convict who staggered out of the Tasmanian bush in 1822 after escaping from Macquarie Harbour. He was taken in by a convict shepherd at the very edge of the wilderness, and the isolation of that shepherd always stayed with me. I decided that if I wanted my protagonist to be a vulnerable person completely on his own, then a child convict shepherd would be my best bet.
Since no one was interested in the screenplay, I decided to turn the story into a book instead.
Why did you feel the era of history about which you were writing needed to be told?
I don’t know that 1840s New South Wales needs to be explored more than any other era in history; I’ve always felt that the more history you’re familiar with, the better equipped you are to assess the challenges of the modern world. But I suppose I felt compelled to tell this particular story because it had such a strong, natural, driving narrative, and because I was fascinated by the idea of a poacher, trained to read the countryside in England, who’s thrown into a completely strange land where most of the plants and animals don’t even have an English (or Latin) name yet.
I do think it’s important for Australians to understand our convict history, because it’s still influencing our national character. In my opinion, there’s a vein of brutality in Australian culture, as well as a tendency to both blame authority and expect government support, which can be traced back to our convict ancestors.
What did you enjoy most about researching your novel?
Historical research is always fun. I’ve spent my life doing it, and it’s the most fiddly, absorbing, where-did-that-day-go occupation that you could possibly undertake. The fact that I’ve written several other books (novels and non-fiction) set in colonial Australia meant that I didn’t need to start my research from scratch; I already had a fairly deep understanding of the period. But I did enjoy trawling through Trove looking for stories about convict shepherds and aboriginal trackers.
It’s absolutely amazing what you can find on the internet these days. I discovered a nineteenth-century book about English country life which included an entire section about poachers and poaching. That was like panning for gold and finding a huge nugget. Digging up details about the assizes and gaol in Bury-St-Edmunds in the 1830s – that was a challenge. But I was able to do every last bit of it on the net.
What challenges have you faced in your writing career, and in particular, during COVID?
I’ve probably faced fewer challenges than most writers (especially since I decided to have only one child), but I do think it’s getting tougher. People generally aren’t reading as much, COVID notwithstanding; these days you’re either a runaway best seller or you don’t sell anything. I once made a decent living from my novels, but not anymore – and COVID has sunk my other income stream, which was school talks.
That’s why prize money is so welcome; it has a massive impact on a writer’s income.
For further information about each of the authors and their novels, please visit 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlist.
You can also read our first interview with Catherine, which was part of our series of interviews with all the longlisted authors.
The winner of the ARA Historical Novel Prize will be announced in Sydney by both video broadcast and live streamed via the HNSA Youtube channel at 7.30pm on the evening of Tuesday, 10 November 2020. Subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss out hearing the news.