Today I welcome Deborah O'Brien to my chair. It is only a week until The Rarest Thing is released and I had the privilege or reading and reviewing an advance copy. (See my review at the end of the blog)
Deborah, welcome...what inspired ‘The Rarest Thing’?
Any writer of fiction will tell you that there are always ideas popping into her head which could be turned into a novel – far too many, in fact, to be used in any one lifetime! So it becomes a necessity to sort the really great ideas from the others. A few years ago I came across an article about mountain pygmy possums. What intrigued me was that, up until fifty years ago, scientists assumed they were extinct.
Then, one winter’s day in 1966, a living specimen was found running around the kitchen of a ski lodge at Mount Hotham. As luck would have it, one of the skiers happened to be a scientist and he realised the cute little creature wasn’t just a mouse or a rat. So he took it back to Melbourne where it was identified as a Burramys parvus, a unique species known only from tiny fossilised jawbones with distinctive snaggleteeth. And it wasn’t long before scientists began searching for a mate for the tiny marsupial which they had named ‘George’. Although they scoured locations across the High Country, not a single Burramys was captured. Eventually people began to wonder whether George was the only Burramys left in the world, the pygmy possum equivalent of ‘Benjamin’, the last known Tasmanian tiger held in captivity at Hobart Zoo in the 1930s.
As I pondered this series of real events, my novelist’s mind was racing. How could I use the discovery of the possum to create a work of fiction? Then it came to me. What if I sent two mismatched people on an expedition to search for the elusive possum in its habitat? A kind of African Queen meets the Victorian High Country! Or a reworking of the classic quest for the elusive Holy Grail.
From the outset I knew the male protagonist would be a photographer. I could even picture him as a tall, blond-haired Adonis, charming and self-confident – a combination of Chris Hemsworth and Dr Chris Brown. Someone so glamorous he would need a movie-star name – Scott King. I bet you’re thinking that Scott sounds too good to be true. Well, perhaps he is. And maybe a few demons could be lurking below that perfect exterior.
Meanwhile I pondered a name and occupation for my female protagonist. The name came easily enough – Katharine, as in Hepburn, an allusion to The African Queen. But what kind of job would enable her to accompany Scott on the High Country trek? A photographer’s assistant? A journalist? Just when I was about to decide on the latter (even though I knew it was a cliché), my lovely niece, who’s a zoologist, came to Sydney to measure ancient koala skulls at the museum as part of her research into koalas and climate change. I was so intrigued by her work that I decided Katharine would have to be a scientist. But what kind? A zoologist was the obvious choice, but in my imagination I was already forming a picture of Katharine as someone more comfortable with ancient bones than living things. That’s why I made her a palaeontologist.
I was so excited about the idea of a palaeontologist and a photographer setting off on a journey into the wild that I started writing the manuscript as if there was no tomorrow. I’m ashamed to confess I didn’t have a plan, apart from the basic premise and those sketchy portraits of the main characters. What helped me immensely was a quote from Oscar Wilde:
‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’
Whenever I felt I was losing my way. I went back to that quote and it kept me on track. And it also gave me the perfect title for my book.
Every so often you stumble upon a book that is quite different to what you expect. The title of Deborah O’Brien’s latest book caught my attention, and I picked it up, eager to read, after having enjoyed The Trivia Man so much.
The Rarest Thing rates up there with one of my favourite reads for the year. It is delightfully different and refreshing in many ways. The settings of the rugged Australian Alps and the campus of Sydney University when women were still perhaps regarded as inferior to their male counterparts were depicted so well, I felt as though I was there with the characters. The depiction of the time period—the sixties—resonated with me as the songs and the news headlines, and the magazine articles of the day were seamlessly woven into the story.
The development of Dr Katharine Wynter from a timid young girl into a confident woman is sensitively handled in the context of a ‘difficult’ circumstance with her university professor. The story touches on taboo issues, with both Katharine and Scott, and whilst their relationship is a gentle romance, the darker issues explored within the quest for the miniature marsupial reveal the true source of Katharine’s strength.
An uplifting story summed up beautifully by the Oscar Wilde quote in the book: ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
An outstanding book. This one goes on my ‘to keep’ shelf.
‘The Rarest Thing’ (signed gift edition paperback or ebook) is available from 1 November direct from Lomandra Press: www.lomandrapress.com.au