An Interview with The Arsonist’s Chloe Hooper

Interview by Samuel Elliott

Chloe Hooper’s Explosive new True Crime book, The Arsonist, is founded upon the seemingly straight-forward question – what kind of person would deliberately start a fire? Told in Hooper’s inimitable, lyrical style, she seeks to answer such a question through the lens of the Black Saturday tragedy, a firestorm that devastated swathes of rural Victoria in 2009. Largely depicted from the investigation of the Arson Squad and chronicling from the immediate wake of the blaze through to the apprehension of local outcast, Brendan Sokaluk and to the trial’s conclusion. Hooper never shies away from wholly conveying the unvarnished truth, by balancing the prosecution’s perspective with tracing Sokaluk’s own tragic provenance and life, ensuring a complete and completely immersive story.

Chloe Hooper garnered acclaim for her first true-crime book, The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island, a title that netted her a slew of prestigious awards, including the Queensland, Victoria, West Australian and NSW Premier Literary Awards respectively. It also took out the Ned Kelly aware for Crime Writing. In addition to her creative non-fiction work, Hooper has also penned two novels – The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

The first few pages of The Arsonist detail the actual fire itself. How did you go about maintaining some semblance of order in describing something so innately chaotic and on such a grand scale?

I guess that’s what the Arson squad managed to do. They arrived on the Sunday after the fire and 30,000 hectares of plantation and state forest and private property had been burnt, yet they managed to walk through the fire zone and find these areas that are only about two to three square meters and I found that fascinating. Hearing about how they walked back through this uncannily expansive fire-zone to get to these very specific areas of origin, or the areas of confusion, as it turned out.

So, it’s hard to remember why you start a book in a particular place but that was the obvious place to me.

Obviously, it is quite confronting, including detailing people, real life victims, succumbing to the fire, and I understand that you might have talked to some of the victim’s families. How did you balance that?
That was difficult, that was very difficult. Because, on the one hand, you actually do want to show the horror that a fire like this can unleash. But, it’s such devastating and harrowing material. After a process of negotiation with Victoria Police, they agreed for me to have official permission to speak to the detectives in this case. And one of those officers reached out to a number of the victims’ families. There’s one man’s story, Rodney Latham, that’s told in far more detail. Rodney didn’t want to speak to me, but he was happy to use the witness statements and material he’d given to the police, which was really generous and brave to do.

I did speak with Shirley Gibson, who lost her children in the fire and we became close. I didn’t approach anybody. I left it to the police and I only followed those who gave permission. Otherwise I really tried to keep in some ways, the detail, to the minimum, of what was sort of already on the public record.

Did you always know, from the outset of writing the book, that it was always going to revolve around the Arson squad? Did you always know that you were going to try and depict the perpetrator as wholly as possible?

I guess I started with the go-ahead from the Arson squad. And then, it took actually quite a long time to negotiate with legal aid, and they only agreed to speak to me after they had the permission from Brendan’s family. They also went to see Brendan in gaol, and sent in, as well, an independent lawyer, to talk to him about this. When we gave that lawyer permission, they spoke. But that was kind of sometime afterwards. I always felt that there was something missing, I knew there was something missing, until I felt like I could tell Brendan’s story with a bit more dimension.

I believe that you had travelled to the area around the day after Brendan’s arrest. Was that what first drew you to wanting to write the book? Being on the ground when these, now historical events, were transpiring?

I think that, hundreds of fires were burning in Victoria that day. Of the five fires that were fatal, initially three of them appeared to be deliberately lit and I think that, for a lot of people, arson was a huge topic of conversation. So, like lots of people, I wondered, who lights fires? Why? That’s something that really has sustained my attention and then, it really wasn’t until about five years ago that I started writing this seriously.

Because we were living in the bush at the time, I can remember that we had an App on the phone, that would notify us of any outbreaks and on a really hot day and it was like fires broke out according to post-code.
And suddenly there’d be thirty grass-fires in one area and it does seem to be the case, that it seems hard to profile for who would light fires, but you can profile communities. And it often seems to be communities on the edge, where unemployment meets eucalyptus trees.

You’ve kept the book very trim, avoiding detailing too much about research into the autism spectrum. How’d you go about keeping it informative without inundating the reader too much?

It’s interesting that you say that. I tend to write triple the word length that you see in the finished book, and then just keep cutting back and back. I read everything I could. There are some fantastic books about neurodiversity, and there are some great memoirs, Don Williams, Temple Grandin, she also quotes a lot of other people. I suppose that I do think this person, Brendan, was profoundly misunderstood, in the real sense of the word.

When you read some of those descriptions of the sensory havoc that can occur. You’re almost in a parallel universe slightly. There are so many issues about culpability in this. I’m not excusing him. I feel, without fulsomely looking at Brendan’s point of view, you’ve missed the story.

How do you go about approaching writing Brendan as a person within the narrative? Because that would also require a substantial amount of research.

There is an enormous amount of information within the brief of evidence including about Brendan’s kind of anti-social behaviour in the past and his eccentricities. That sounds polite, but he was a misfit who did a lot of really weird things and some of them were really antisocial.

But I guess, this is again, one thing that was striking to me was that the police and the lawyers, were both fantastic group of people, they were passionate, they were forensically diligent, they brought a lot of skill and intelligence to their jobs – but they hated each other. They were incredibly adversarial. They had completely different opinions about who they were dealing with, who the man was at the centre of this case was. And so that was something that I really wrestled with – who is right here? Now I think they probably both were. I think Brendan was someone with serious impairments that received no support and he was horrendously bullied and his intentions may well have been and probably were malicious. But you read it how I was shooting for.

I got the impression of the balance there, showing from both the defense’s point of view, as well as the prosecution’s.

I guess, in a way, it’ll be horrendous to be falsely accused of arson. Brendan was arrested very early, he was, from a defence’s point of view, this could’ve been a classic case of an intellectually disabled person making a faulse confession, which is very common, unfortunately.

So, when I first met some of these defence barristers, who had worked with Brendan earlier, some of them did say he could still be innocent, I think that was an opinion that was narrow, to the point of not existing by the pointy end of the trial. But if you’re going to convict someone, look at their story, don’t just convict. I guess that’s what I tried to do.

Why the decision to omit yourself throughout the larger part of the book, but then include your own experience, or one of your experiences at the end?

That’s really interesting. I thought back as recently as last week about the choice to do that, and whether or not that was the right one to include. It was different to when I was writing The Tall Man. For that, I was actually a witness to the legal proceedings and some of the things that were going on, so it kind of felt natural at the time to write from first person. Whereas, The Arsonist was a recreation, and it was a painstaking one, I drove everybody involved nuts by asking them, over and over – “Can I just ask you one more question about some tiny moment?”

So, I guess, each book finds its own form, and it would’ve been weird, to have involved myself. It was nice not to be a character in this story.
But then, at the end, there were certain things that I felt strongly about which I didn’t feel it was appropriate to hit anybody else with. As a kind of pan back, on the valley and the power stations there and what some of the ideas of living in a fire age and ideas of climate change, which are my own. Some of the police officers I dealt with, I’m not entirely certain where they fall on the subject of climate science. Besides, they’re there to investigate this crime and support the victims and the same for the lawyers, it’s not for them to comment on things like that. So, I wanted to do a pan back and I had to wear that myself.

There’s still so much information in which you’ve had to sift through. I think you mentioned at one point that the court brief alone totalled over five thousand pages. What was your process there, how’d you sift through and find what was pertinent to the book you wanted to write?

It’s funny how you forget certain pains. Yeah, there was an enormous amount of information about this fire and the editor, when she was reading back, said she realised how much information I’d distilled. And that can be really a challenge, because some of that information, is very, very dry. So how do you do justice to it and actually make something of that people are going to want to keep reading? That’s always the balancing act. You think you’re asking yourself a simple question – why would somebody light this fire? And you find yourself complicated environmental, cultural, scientific terrain and just then, fight through it. I had to pare a mountain of information, about all kinds of aspects and I just made choices, instinctual, aesthetic, I’m not sure whatever else, to what do you really need, what’s essential. Because otherwise, it becomes an academic text. I didn’t want it to become some sort of thesis.

So what then was your writing process? Can you give a brief overview? Did you continue to write while you were sifting through all this research?

I did. And then I guess you’re just trying to see how it all hangs together at the end. I’m an absolutely chronic re-drafter, I’m not proud of that. I wish it was different. Because it’s a bit too obsessive I suppose. Holding the shape in your head, and every time you work on one aspect, it changes everything, all the way through. It’s like wresting control of some living being.

You mentioned in writing The Tall Man you were present and there for the majority of the events unfolding. So that’s the first major difference between the two books. Did you encounter any others, such as your actual writing process?

There’s a lot of things about writing that are difficult. But the good thing about writing, is that you can always get better at it. Because I wasn’t there for the events of The Arsonist, I really had to dig in harder in a way, but it’s also easier in others. If you’ve got a notebook in your hand and you turn up somewhere and you’re writing down what you see that’s actually confronting. I saw some things I found very difficult when writing The Tall Man, but when you’re by yourself in a room trying to recreate these events, such as what I did with The Arsonist, that’s another sort of writing which I think made me a better writer. There’s an element of detachment because you’re not there and there’s a power and an immediacy when you are there. You’re always working a new writing muscle when you’re doing that.
Speaking of the writing muscle then – what is it you find easier? As you’ve also written a couple of fictional novels too.

It’s just different But with The Arsonist put to bed, I’m kind of fooling around with fiction and non-fiction. I’ll see what comes to life first. I’ve got a couple of things going.

Do you have any influences? Whether longstanding or recently acquired during the writing on The Arsonist?

Cerdiwen Dovey’s book on Coetzee, [Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee, Black Inc books] who I absolutely love. There are all kinds of people who I read and admire. I guess I get asked about Helen Garner a lot. I was rereading some of her essays last year, in that beautiful text hardback of her collective works. She’s got an incredible eye and brain and heart, I really admire her. I’ve got lots of people in the pantheon. I don’t read a lot of crime but I am interested in the sociology of it, what it tells us about ourselves, what sort of snapshot it gives us about our culture and where we are living.

The Arsonist is available nationwide in all bookshops, or you can pick it up from Penguin Random House here: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-arsonist-9780670078189

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at:
www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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