We caught up with Australian writer Sarah Armstrong to talk about her new novel Promise. This powerful work of fiction comes at the right time, as the Australian community works to tackle domestic violence head on.
Has the attention that has been drawn to family violence following Rosie Batty’s incredible work in this area resulted in a noticeable change in the way the media reports on family violence?
I think so. Somehow Rosie Batty has galvanised the community, including the media, and helped propel a shift in thinking that I think was already underway. The public and the media seem ready to take family violence more seriously, to see it as real violence, a real crime.
How did weekly (or daily) news stories about family violence help inspire the story of Promise?
There was one particular story that inspired Promise - one story in a long line of stories about children killed in their homes by a parent or step parent. A two-year-old boy died, and his mother was charged with his murder. In one of the television stories, neighbours said they’d been concerned about him and had reported him to community services. I put myself in the shoes of those neighbours; they’d done their best to get him to the attention of authorities, they’d called several times, and yet, the boy died. I wondered – if I were them – if I might have wished that I’d just picked him up one day and put him in my car and driven away. That thought was what sparked the novel.
I think the reason the story captured my attention was because since my daughter was born in 2010, I have been so much more aware of the vulnerability of children. Creating a character who takes decisive action was perhaps a way for me to have a conversation with myself (and then, once published, with others) about how far our individual responsibility for other children extends, and about whether there are ever occasions when it is right to break the law.
How did having a much-longed for child late in life via IVF change the way you write and work?
Our daughter Amelia was born just before my 42nd birthday (thanks to IVF) but I had faced the real possibility that I might not become a mother. I feel so grateful every day to have been given that opportunity and I think that profound – even visceral – gratitude means that I don’t resent the time that mothering takes from my writing. And because my time to write is so limited (kindy hours, basically), I am much more efficient and never procrastinate about getting to the desk. Being a mother has also given me greater insight into the fundamental and (to me) fascinating relationship between mother and child. When I look back at my other two novels, (Salt Rain and His Other House) both of which were written before having Amelia, the parent-child relationship has long been a central theme for me.
How do you juggle the tension between writing, other paid work and parenting a small child?
I have a partner who works from home too, and Alan is a very engaged father. Well he’s a domestic god, really, and unsurprisingly, that helps enormously! When I am writing long hours, Al takes a greater load. And when he has a big job on, I do. Parenting inevitably takes from my time to write, but I love being a mother so much (even as I find it hard and challenging at times!), that it’s a price well worth paying.
What would you do if you knew for a fact that the child who lived next door to you was being abused, and your calls to community services didn’t seem to be helping?
I would call community services again and again (and you can call anonymously). Community services are so understaffed that just one report of a child being at risk is unlikely to prompt a caseworker to visit a family, anyway. It usually takes several, if not many, notifications.
If it was appropriate and safe, I’d offer support to the parent. Support for the parent is support for the child.
If the situation was immediately dangerous, I would call the police. I remember watching a panel discussion of family violence on the ABC and a senior NSW police officer said that if we see or hear any family violence then we should call the police. Just call the police. Violence is violence.
I am not advocating people abduct children who are at risk but I am very sympathetic to what my character Anna did, and if I was in her situation, I have to admit that I would certainly consider it, even though it’s breaking the law.
Should government funding to support victims of family violence be increased, and is there anything else we can explore to help halt the extremely high rates of family violence in Australia?
I’m by no means an expert on government policy and funding in the area of family violence and child protection, but I wish that we, as a community, pestered the politicians for more funding to support families, for child protection and for education around this issue. Just this week, the NSW government has reduced the numbers of staff working with children at risk of serious harm and supporting children in foster care.
The question that came to me as I wrote Promise is: how much individual responsibility do we have for the children around us? And I wonder whether that sense of responsibility reaches less far than it used to in, say, my parents’ generation. Perhaps there is room for us to step in more often, (in less acute cases, cases where community services wouldn’t ever remove children but where children might be suffering) to support parents and children, to offer practical support, respite, and a listening ear.
I am hopeful that a cultural shift is underway around the issue of family violence. But cultural shifts - almost by definition – take time. My hope is that more people will talk about the issue of gender inequality and be conscious of what we are teaching our children about gender, and make it clear that violence of any kind is never acceptable.
Sarah Armstrong's first novel, Salt Rain, was shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award, the Queensland Premier's Literary Prize and the Dobbie Literary Award. Her second novel, His Other House was published in 2015 to wide critical acclaim. Sarah grew up in a family with no television, which meant she was a voracious (if fairly indiscriminate) reader. She went on to study journalism, and joined ABC Radio Current Affairs where, in 1993, she won a Walkley Award. Later she became a researcher and field producer on ABC TV's 'Foreign Correspondent' program. She is married to the writer Alan Close and lives in northern NSW.
PROMISE by Sarah Armstrong
Available in book stores now.
Imprint: Macmillan Australia | RRP $32.99 | Paperback