Australian writer Chloe Hooper will join the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week in March, following a year of plaudits and prizes. Her latest book, The Tall Man, is a non-fiction work as haunting as her debut novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime. James Robertson speaks with her about telling dark tales in two genres.
Chloe Hooper is a writer whose talent seems unbound by genre. The 36-year-old Australian has written two books, a novel and a work of non-fiction, and both have met with international critical acclaim. So which form does she prefer? ‘I like books where people are trapped in spooky houses and trying to escape,’ she laughs over the phone from Melbourne. ‘I think, psychologically speaking, we’re all trying to do that.’ You might guess as much from her work, which, in both genres, provides compelling insight into the darker side of human psychology.
Hooper’s first book, A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002), was an erotic thriller narrated by Kate Byrne, a young primary school teacher having an affair with the father of one of her pupils. Kate believes herself to be at the centre of a murderous intrigue with eerie parallels to a popular local true crime book – one that happens to have been written by her lover’s wife.
The novel delves into the nature of truth (and true crime), and the minds of the protagonist’s nine-year-old pupils play a key role. Hooper, who wrote the novel in New York after studying at Columbia University, drew inspiration for the book from her part-time job. ‘I was interested in crimes of passion and I had started reading true crime at the same time as I was doing a lot of babysitting. I guess I saw a strange possibility for a literary marriage.’
The marriage proved a success. Hooper signed with the infamous London literary agent Andrew Wylie; and her book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. This soon put a stop to the babysitting, and would set Hooper on a path toward writing her own first-hand account of a shocking crime.
In November 2004, Cameron Doomadgee died from internal bleeding on the floor of his prison cell in Palm Island, one of Australia’s biggest remote Aboriginal communities. He had been arrested after insulting a police officer and sustained massive injuries soon after arriving at jail. His liver was split in two – the kind of damage that usually follows a severe car or plane crash. An official autopsy concluded that Doomadgee’s injuries were sustained during a fall from the court-house steps. The island’s indigenous community found the explanation inadequate. They believed the account of a prisoner witness: the injuries were caused by a beating administered by Doomadgee’s arresting officer, the two-metre-tall Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. In a massive ensuing riot Palm Island’s police station and court-house were burnt down. Before reinforcements arrived via helicopter, police were preparing to leave the island and cede territory to Australia’s Aborigines for the first time in more than 200 years of white rule.
Hooper got involved in the case a few months later, as an inquest into Doomadgee’s death was being convened. She met Andrew Boe, a criminal defence lawyer who was representing Palm Island’s Aboriginal community pro bono, at a Melbourne party and he invited her to cover the case.
For Hooper, a self-declared suburbanite with only limited prior contact with Aboriginal people, arriving in an indigenous community rife with substance abuse and domestic violence was confronting. ‘The fact that you can travel 15 minutes from the mainland and really be in a Third World part of the country is really shocking. You can actually feel physically sick sometimes because, even though you read about these things, it’s different seeing them for yourself.’
Hooper followed the Doomadgee case for more than two years; what began as a magazine story burgeoned into The Tall Man (2008). She gained rare insight into life in Palm Island’s indigenous community by developing a close relationship with the late Cameron Doomadgee’s family.
‘I wanted this book to go beyond the news story and to be about people; to find what was universal about this case, be it the desire for justice, or for revenge, or people’s grief or rage.’
The same logic compelled Hooper to try to understand the man accused of killing Doomadgee. While she was never granted access to Hurley, Hooper gleaned insight into his motivations at his supporters’ meetings. She was exposed to some odious racism in the process, but Hooper did not leave without changing her opinion of the accused. ‘At the beginning he seemed like a cartoonish North Australian copper; I guess we all desire fairy stories where everybody’s good and bad and, literally, black and white. But this was a much more complicated story.’ Hurley had been decorated for bravery during his past work in indigenous communities and was also widely perceived as a popular and genial figure. Hooper’s portrayal of his motivations is vividly detailed, and even flecked with empathy. ‘You are confronted, day in day out, with extraordinary violence. It can make one wonder, “Who would not crack up?”’ she says.
Hurley was ultimately acquitted by an all-white jury; a verdict Hooper says she had come to expect. The trial serves as the book’s denouement – and Hooper lays many of its defects bare – but the book reaches beyond the Doomadgee case and highlights the connection between Aboriginal Australia’s tortured history and its present malaise.
Hooper’s book reanimated public concern over the treatment of Aborigines by the judicial system, an issue that has long been obscured in a country desperately insecure about the plight of its Aboriginal population. Her reporting won a Walkley Award, the highest honour in Australian journalism. The book has received a further swag of national literary awards and been published to critical praise around the world. Hooper has clearly been surprised by the level of interest in a story about indigenous Australia. ‘This isn’t the sort of book that people naturally rush to pick up. And, yet strangely, when people read it they have a very visceral reaction.’
It’s tempting to attribute Hooper’s recent success, at least partially, to her novelistic experience with true-crime writing but she notes the two differ greatly in scope and purpose. ‘The Tall Man was a bigger brief than true crime. It’s a story of historical crimes and about the literal collision of black and white Australia; these two men of the same age; and all of the forces that brought them together. The classic true crime question is, “Did he do it?” I wanted this book to be more of a moral puzzle and for another question to emerge: “Could I have done it?”’
James Robertson is an Australian journalist. The 2010 New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, runs in Wellington from 9–14 March. Visit www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz for details of Chloe Hooper’s appearances
This article first appeared in the New Zealand Book Council’s Booknotes
Alison McCulloch’s New York Times review of Death of Doomadgee.