The science journalist (Bachelor of Arts ’93 / Bachelor of Science (Honours) '96) was writing about illegal fishing and conservation efforts related to the sub-Antarctic fish when it occurred to her that there was a human story to be told.
“I was interested in the story of an infamous Uruguayan poaching ship, which was fishing illegally for Patagonian toothfish in the waters off Antarctica,” Johnson said.
“An Australian patrol boat had pursued the poachers for many weeks – the longest sea chase in history – and I was intrigued by the human story behind it.
“I had always enjoyed creative writing, but that was the moment I was drawn to writing a full-length novel.”
That moment led to Johnson’s first book Pescador’s Wake, a gripping adaptation of the dramatic sea chase told through the stories of the crew on board the boats and the families they left on shore.
Johnson received The University of Tasmania Prize and the People’s Choice Award (Tasmanian Literary Prizes) in 2013 for The Better Son, and the book was longlisted for the Australian Indie Book Awards and the Tasmania Book Prize (Premier’s Literary Prizes) in 2017.
Johnson, who grew up in Brisbane before moving to Hobart in Tasmania, returned to UQ’s St Lucia campus in December 2018 to speak at the Unsettling Australia conference, hosted by UQ’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.
Contact caught up with Johnson to discuss her career progression from science journalist to novelist.
Welcome back to UQ! Is this the first time you’ve visited UQ since graduating?
I’ve been back to Brisbane since I moved to Tasmania in 1997, but I don’t think I’ve walked around the campus since I finished my degree. It’s just such an amazing and vibrant university, and St Lucia is such a large campus. It’s quite overwhelming and wonderful being back.
What were some of the highlights from your time at UQ, and why did you pursue a combined Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degree?
I enjoyed the diversity of studying humanities and creative-based subjects alongside science subjects. And I particularly enjoyed the science field trips to Heron Island.
I couldn’t choose between science and arts after leaving high school, and I might have been among the first students to combine science and journalism subjects. It was exciting. I wanted to be a science journalist, so I trained specifically for that. If I was doing a journalism assignment, I would often try to combine it with a science project.
But I found the language of science could be excluding and I thought it was important to find a way of making scientific findings more accessible.
I ended up working as a science journalist for 13 years. I certainly didn’t pursue my degrees with a goal of becoming a novelist, but what I did learn at university and as a science journalist filters into my writing.
What area of science were you particularly interested in as a student?
Biology. I was very interested in rainforest ecology, marine sciences, botony, and zoology. That broad grounding has been valuable and is largely what I draw on in my fiction writing.
The main character in your latest novel Matryoshka is a scientist, like characters in your other books. Describe the book and what inspired the story?
That’s right. The main character, Sara, is a geneticist. My Honours year at UQ was in genetics. Things have moved on since – they move so fast in fields like that – but I do draw on that time of my life. ‘Matryoshka’ is the Russian word for nesting dolls, and the type of doll reminds me of layers of history and the lines of inheritance passed down through generations.
Matryoshka was published in October 2018 and the story follows Sara Rose, a geneticist who returns to live in her recently deceased grandmother’s Tasmanian cottage. Sara’s grandmother, a Russian post-war immigrant, raised Sara in the cottage but never explained why Sara’s own mother abandoned her as a baby.
Now estranged from her husband, Sara raises her daughter with a wish to spare her the feelings of abandonment that she experienced as a child.
When Sara meets an Afghani refugee separated from his family, she decides to try to repair relations with her mother. But a lie told to her by her grandmother years before begins to unravel a dark truth.
I started writing the novel after both my grandmothers had died, and it occurred to me that the layers of love of our mothers and grandmothers is there – even when they no longer are. This idea, and the notion that this doll arrived from eastern Europe just as many post-war migrants did, sparked my interest in what it was like for those early migrants to Australia. Then, when I met a young Afghani man in 2013, it occurred to me that there were lessons from the earlier wave of migration that could be applied today. It has been said that if we don't learn from our histories, we remain forever children.
Do you have a process for developing ideas for novels?
“Ideas seem to come naturally, and I have too many of them to make them all into books. But when I have a kernel of an idea that resonates, I literally get goosebumps when I think about turning it into a book. You need to have intrigue and passion to sustain you because it can take several years to write, edit and publish a novel.”
What are you working on now?
“I’m working on another novel called Paris Savages, which will be published in October 2019 by Ventura Press. It’s based on a true story of three young Indigenous Australians, who were taken to Europe to perform for mass entertainment. With support from Arts Tasmania, I spoke about this novel at the Unsettling Australia conference at UQ.”
Katherine Johnson is an example of a UQ graduate who has successfully transitioned into a new career, using skills she developed while at UQ. Learn how UQ can help you go further in every possible future.
Video credit: © Getty Images/shironosov