Garry Disher

crime, literary, children's/YA novelist
   Home      Writing "The Divine Wind"



My interest in World War 2

Both of my parents were in the war of 1939-1942.  My father was a soldier, fighting the Japanese in Borneo and New Guinea to the north of Australia.  My mother worked in a munitions factory in Adelaide, making bombs and bullets.  All of my aunts and uncles, and all of my parents’ friends, were similarly involved in the war.  So it’s no wonder I grew up hearing stories, and seeing evidence (a family friend who had lost a leg when a landmine exploded; photographs of my father in uniform, courting my mother; my father’s Army photographs, including a photo of a Dutch woman dead on a beach in the islands; a bayonet, army cap and ID papers souvenired from a dead Japanese soldier).

            Later I learned how to do historical research when I did a Masters degree in Australian History at Monash University, in the state of Victoria.  My thesis examined popular ideas about remote Australia in the 1930s, as expressed in a series of best-selling travel books of the time.  After graduation, and spending a year studying creative writing in America, I was commissioned by Oxford University Press in Melbourne to write history textbooks for schools.  One of these was a history of the Australian home front during World War 2.

            And so I had a great deal of useful research material at my fingertips.  I first used it in The Stencil Man, a novel about a German-Australian man interned as a security risk in World War 2, inspired by the bewilderment and heartache I found in the letters and diaries of the more naïve internees, who admired Germany in the 1930s but still believed they were loyal Australians.

            I also drew on it when writing an early version of a novel later published as Past the Headlands.  At first, The Divine Wind was part of this book, but something went wrong and I split it off as a stand-alone novel.


What went wrong?

First, the background to Past the Headlands.

            I can start writing about an idea immediately, but in many cases I wait years before I’m ready, waiting for the idea to mature, or make sense, or have a shape, or be rounded-out by another idea.  I found the two initiating ideas for this book in 1983, and didn’t start the novel until 1996 (finishing it in 2000).

Both ideas were powerful documents that I’d found during my library, archival and War Memorial research.  The first was a letter written by a woman on a lonely cattle station north of Broome, on the far north west coast of Australia, in February 1942.  Malaya and Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, and the Dutch business people, settlers and colonial officials of Indonesia were fleeing to Australia in airliners and seaplanes ahead of the Japanese advance.  One day she found herself having to help one such planeload of Dutch refugees, who had been attacked by Japanese fighter planes off the coast (the Japanese made dozens of bombing and strafing raids on northern Australia in 1942-1943, a fact covered up by the Government to avoid panic.  The best-known are the raids on Darwin, and the raid on Broome – as seen in the last part of The Divine Wind).

            I wondered what it would be like to be her, on an isolated property with scared civilians to look after, all her menfolk away at the war, and Japanese planes lurking along the coast.

            The second document was written by an Australian Army surgeon who had escaped from Singapore ahead of the Japanese, and found himself on Sumatra, looking after others who had fled from the Japanese (including Australian Army deserters).  His diary suggests that his best friend was looking for a way (by ship or plane) to get them both to Australia.  Then the friend left without telling him, and the surgeon was taken prisoner by the Japanese.

            It was a powerful betrayal.  I’d never been impressed by Australians’ fond notions of the national character (we like to think we’re brave, resourceful, loyal to our mates, democratic, egalitarian, etc), and here was a betrayal of mateship.

            I thought about the woman and the surgeon for years until I found a way of joining their stories.  But after a year of writing, it went wrong.  Novels should have a sense of forward movement (for writer and reader) but mine was spreading sideways instead, as more and more subplots emerged.  One in particular – a young white Australian falls in love with a Japanese girl in Broome at the start of the war in the Pacific – didn’t really belong in a novel about a man in Singapore who flees ahead of the Japanese to be with a woman he loves in Australia.

            And so I split it off, worked out where the story would go and who the main character would be, and told it in a different viewpoint (first-person narration instead of third).


The research

I used particular aspects of my thesis and the history textbook to create Broome in the late 1930s and early war years.  My thesis gave me material on what Broome was like (smells, sounds, sights etc), and I used some of the travel books I’d studied to dream my way into old photographs.  For example, in Ion Idriess’s Forty Fathoms Deep is a photo of a pearl diver: as soon as I saw it, I saw Mitsy’s father.  The ‘populate or perish’ notions of the magistrate, Mr Kilian, also come from that research.

            I drew on the more factual historical research for the bombing raid and the internment of the Japanese.


Why Broome?

Why not Darwin, which also had Japanese pearl divers and was bombed by the Japanese?

            Broome appealed to me because it was smaller, more remote, and was the first stopover for many of the refugee planes flying down to Perth and Fremantle, bringing Europeans to safety.  Also, it’s had a dramatic frontier history, owing to the big money to be made in the pearling industry.  All types of characters washed up in Broome, and there were murders, robberies and cyclones.  And there was an interesting racial mix: white Europeans, Japanese families, Aborigines, Indonesians and Malays, and Koepangers and other Pacific islanders.


The times they lived in

The people of central and northern Australia were not only geographically but also culturally isolated.  They felt ignored and misunderstood by the urban south (an old and on-going theme in Australia) and resented interference from the federal government.  They feared invasion from ‘the Asian hordes’ to the north, and argued that Australia would perish if the north and the centre were not populated and developed.  Racism was intrinsic, with the Aborigines seen either as treacherous and lazy or as childlike and in need of protection.


Themes in The Divine Wind

I never think about themes when I write a book.  Often it’s not until it’s published that I can see them clearly.  At other times I might sit down and try to identify the theme if I suffer from writer’s block, to get me back on track.

            I think most fiction is driven by this theme: The search for a true home.  This true home might be the arms of a loved one; peace of mind; a creed, belief or philosophy that makes sense of everything; or simply a place.  Perhaps you might like to think of the main character, Hart, in terms of his search for a true home.

            Friendship and love is another theme – more particularly, friendship and love under strain.  The relationship between Hart and Mitsy is placed under strain by these three factors: their friendship becomes a sexual relationship (has that ever happened to you, different rights, responsibilities and pressures emerge – not all of them good – when a friendship becomes sexual?), the war (Mitsy is seen as the enemy now) and race (despite his best intentions, Hart seems to see Mitsy as somehow different).

            Another theme is young people forced to grow up quickly.

            Intolerance, obviously.

            Finally, guilt: Hart and his father both feel that they could have done more, been stronger, for the people they love.

            But what mattered to me as a writer was to tell a non-soppy love story against a backdrop of dramatic events, not beat you over the head with themes and messages.


Hart’s character

I’m the first to admit that he’s not always likeable.  He can be fearful, suspicious, jealous, easily swayed, easily hurt.

            Yet he is a hero, redeemed at the end.  A heroic action isn’t necessarily rescuing a baby from a burning building; it can be a brave thing to atone for the past and find in yourself a measure of courage and self-respect, as Hart does.  He understands himself a little better, and can acknowledge his weaknesses.  To me, this is a measure of strength (and many people go through life unable to do that).

            Step out of your own skin for a moment, and into Hart’s.  Try to feel the pressures he’s under – extraordinary pressures compared to yours, probably.  First, his crippled leg.  He feels self-conscious about it – the way it looks, the way he walks now, his restricted abilities.  Mitsy doesn’t mind it, even makes it part of their lovemaking, but at one level deep inside he’s always going to ask himself: Am I ugly?  Will anyone want me?

Second, he can’t take an active part in the war effort because of his leg.  All around him, young men his age are doing heroic things, joining the armed services, being treated as heroes, but Hart feels useless.  This uselessness breeds paranoia, suspicion and a sense of grievance.  But, at the same time, he becomes a thinker and a philosopher (the whole book is one long thinking and philosophising session) and the reader his mother had always wanted.

            Third, he has troubled relationships with his parents.  Neither is there for him.  His mother shuts herself off emotionally, then later is removed physically when she goes to England and is killed by the German bombing of London.  His father is hopeless at domestic life and wants only to be at sea.  In fact, you could argue that his single-mindedness is the engine that drives the whole book.  If he hadn’t been so stubborn and impatient, sending the pearling luggers to sea when conditions weren’t safe, then Hart wouldn’t have been hurt in the cyclone and Mitsy wouldn’t have lost her father.

            Fourth, he’s worried about his sister.  He thinks she could be dead.


The name ‘Hart’

It’s been suggested that it’s deliberately symbolic of the heart, appropriate because the heart is the locus of love, hate, pity, compassion, etc, some of the themes of the book.

            Maybe, but it’s simply a name that I thought the reader would remember (a name like John Wilson slides off the page), and a name of the period (my father knew two Hartleys).


Mitsy: hard and unforgiving?

Some high school girls I’ve spoken to hate Mitsy (too hard, a bitch, etc).

            If you think that, step outside of your skin and into hers, and consider the pressures she’s under.

            First, the loss of her father.  There will always be a part of her that thinks: Is he still alive on some distant beach?  There’s no body, and so no closure for her.  Yes, they have a Japanese burial ceremony, but that’s not the same as knowing for sure that he’s dead.

            Second, she belongs to a racial minority.  She’s made to feel that acutely as stories of Japanese actions in China and southeast Asia filter through, and when Japan bombs the American port of Pearl Harbour, and finally when all of the Japanese living in Australia are interned as a security risk.

            Third, people who were once friendly now treat her as the enemy.

            Fourth, she’s not the social equal of her friends, Hart and Alice.  Her father is a mere employee of the big boss, Hart’s father.

            Fifth, these things are brought home to her powerfully in the scene when she and the others are taking the drunken man home from the cinema, and encounter Hart’s mother in the street.  She’s very dismissive of Mitsy, treats her as a nobody, and perhaps a corner of Mitsy asks: Are Hart and Alice like their mother, underneath?

So all she has left is her ‘Japaneseness’ – her growing interest in her Japanese language, cultural heritage and customs.  She was born in Australia, thinks of herself as Australian, until public opinion forces her to think otherwise, to think of herself as Japanese.  The same thing happens to people of Muslim backgrounds whenever there’s a terrorist bombing, for example when young, Australian-born Muslims are assaulted, thrown off trams, called terrorists and told to go back where they came from.


Hart’s father

As I said above, his impatience sets everything in motion.  He’s genial and ineffectual early in the novel, but ultimately stands up for what he thinks is right (the court case and the treatment of Mitsy and her mother).  Does Hart measure himself against his father, maybe?


Hart’s mother

She’s a refined Englishwoman who finds herself in hell: a hot, remote, anti-intellectual, masculine world.  Rather than adapt, or accept her children’s friendship with Mitsy, she withdraws, hides with a book.  No one can understand her.  They all spin stories about a secret lover.


The title

I think it’s the best title, on several levels.

            The strict meaning is this: ‘the divine wind’ relates to the Japanese word kamikaze, which means an act of deliberate self-destruction in pursuit of a cause (does this explain Hart?).  Kamikaze pilots saw themselves on a divine mission, a suicide mission, to fly their planes into enemy warships (for example, American) on an act of suicide for Emperor and nation.

            Also, winds of change blow through the story, bringing change, destruction and renewal.

            And the wind refers to the cyclone that so damages Hart’s leg and changes his personality.

 And the wind is the air raid on the harbour.


The tone

The whole novel is there in the first paragraph, which took me 2 or 3 weeks to get right (I needed to close the gap between the book I was ‘dreaming’ and the graceless sentences on the page).  We have who, where, when, why, the main issue, and the tone or feeling or ‘personality’ of the book. The overall tone is reflective, the deliberations of a young man who has been forced to grow up quickly, who has seen terrible things, witnessed great losses, learnt hard lessons about himself and the people around him, and been forced to be his own guardian.  It’s the tone of a young man who has put some terrible things to rest, including a sense that he betrayed Mitsy’s love, and could have been stronger and less afraid, and now he’s waiting.  He’s waiting for Mitsy to come back, waiting to show her that he’ll not let her down again, that he’s found self-respect, courage and self-knowledge.  He’s not going to back away.  It’s not a dramatic or heroic reversal, but quietly hopeful.  He says, ‘We may not make it,’ meaning he knows the terrible pressures he faces now, in post-war Australia, but is willing to give it a go.