A true ocean tale

Geelong Today Magazine , December 2014

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A critically-acclaimed Surf Coast author immersed herself in Antarctic exploration in the name of her latest book. She chats to MIRANDA LUBY

It's a tempting picture of a fiction writer: pajamas on, hunched over a heavy wooden desk stained with rings from mugs of tea, dreamily creating epic tales of non-existent worlds plucked purely from the depths of their own wild imaginations.
But not Torquay’s Favel Parrett.
When Favel decided to write a book about characters that brave the glacial high seas of the Southern Ocean and travel to a frozen continent at the furthest reaches of the planet on a hulking red-hulled Antarctic supply ship, she knew she would have to as well.
The Surf Coast novelist spent a month on the icebreaker Aurora Australis researching her recently published book. She worked as a crew member night and day, scrubbing floors, peeling potatoes and performing safety checks through freezing weather and rough conditions, glimpsing minke whales and emperor penguins through the portholes, all while mentally exploring themes of isolation and the environment for her writing.
“It was hard work and it was lonely but it was a life-changing and amazing experience,” she says. “I cried my eyes out when I had to leave.”
The result is When the Night Comes. Set in the 1980’s, it tells the story of the relationships between Isla, a young girl living in Tasmania, and Bo, a cook on Antarctica’s most famous supply ship, the Nella Dan.
Now warm and dry, eating breakfast Moby’s, her favourite cafe on Torquay’s esplanade, Favel has no doubts the lengths she went to for her book were necessary.
“Fiction is true,” she explains with endearing passion. “For fiction to work it has to have true emotions. The feelings have to be real and I knew I had to feel them on that ship to write them for my characters. The happiness, the loneliness, the camaraderie: I needed to feel those to write that book properly.”
And Favel’s method clearly works; When the Night Comes isn’t her first book.
It follows her debut novel, Past the Shallows, a tale - partly plucked from her childhood - of a young family living on the rugged south coast of Tasmania. It won the Australian Book Industry newcomer of the year award, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award and lead to comparisons with Australian literary royalty Tim Winton.
But interestingly, for someone with such clear talent and passion for her craft, the 40-year-old almost missed her calling in life.
“I did remedial English in school,” Favel laughs. “I was good at maths and science. But I always loved reading books.”
Favel grew up with her mother and brother in Battery Point on the coast of Tasmania, watching the very ships that would inspire her later novel come and go from her town’s port.
“All sorts of exotic Viking-like people used to come off those ships and on to shore and I remember thinking, Oh wow, here’s this way off this island,” says Favel, whose childhood in the then remote location was lonely and isolated. “As I kid I thought, 'The world is really big and if you’re a sailor, you can go anywhere'.”
But her mind was yet to register the ships’ literary significance and at 17, she left home for Melbourne to study science at university and then travel. She spent years moving between odd jobs — her favourite being a postman — before taking a chance creative writing course at 30.
Around this time she also bought a shack in Torquay and started surfing, which renewed her love affair with the ocean, sparking memories of her childhood on that rugged coast.
“I began writing short stories and noticed they were all centered around these themes of the coast,” says Favel. “I didn’t mean to write a novel. I didn’t think I could.”
But three years later her debut about life on the Tasmanian coast was published in Australia, the UK, America and Germany and received critical acclaim.
This success helped Favel win the government grant for the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship that gave her the chance to finally board one of the very vessels that fascinated her as a child.
It took three years for the writer to finish the novel and she admits the process was emotionally draining and a huge challenge but worth every moment.
For Favel, her six weeks on the Aurora Australis has become part of her daily life, not only through her novel’s characters but also through her own connection with the experience.
“Everything on that ship felt so right. I got to be a sailor for a month and live out a dream I’ve had my whole life,” she explains. “The crew became my family. I still really miss it.”
Looking back, Favel still finds it hard to believe she’s a published author but hopes it’s proof for budding writers that it’s possible if you’re willing to put in the work.
“The most important thing is persistence,” she says, recalling her many rejections and assuring there’d be more to come. “If you know it’s good, keep going and keep sending it out there and someone will recognise your talent.”
When the Night Comes is available in bookstores now.

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