The Tall Man, and what it’s like to discover the heart of darkness in your own country.
Sam Ruddock: First up, can you tell us a bit about The Tall Man?
Chloe Hooper: One morning, in the Far-north Queensland Aboriginal community of Palm Island, a local man called Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at a white policeman, and forty minutes later lay dead in the island’s police station with injuries of the kind sustained in a car or plane crash. The officer, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, claimed his prisoner had tripped over a step. The Tall Man tells the story of Palm Island, of the enigmatic Hurley– and of the struggle to bring him to trial.
SR: What was your inspiration for writing The Tall Man? Was there a moment when the need to write it struck you?
CH: From the first day I arrived on the island I knew the dimensions of this case would only fit a book: the collision between Hurley and Doomadgee told a much bigger tale about Aboriginal history, religion, cosmology; the destructive forces of white settlement; and the state of racial reconciliation in early twenty-first century Australia. Right from the start the story was under my skin, and I wanted to know what had really happened between those two men in the Palm Island police station.
SR: Your first novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime, was a convincing fiction of hatred and death. But it was still fiction. In The Tall Man that hatred and death becomes chillingly real. What, to you, were the big differences between writing the two books? Is there a clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction or do they blend into each other?
CH: My first novel was a parody of a true-crime book, so I couldn’t miss the irony when I found myself writing a real one. In non-fiction, it’s useful to think as a novelist might about the best ways to confront and arrange material, but you have to paint within the borders of fact. That is not to say necessarily that those boundaries limit the writer’s canvas—on the contrary, what I saw on Palm Island, and what happened in this case, was often beyond the reach of my imagination.
SR: Most islands off the Queensland coast host tourists visiting the Barrier Reef. Palm Island is different. Formally an Aboriginal reserve it is today the home to around 2,500 inhabitants, 90 per cent of whom are unemployed. Alcoholism and violence are common. Could you say something of the factors that have led to such cataclysmic social breakdown?
CH: Palm is a stunningly beautiful tropical island—a tourist brochure paradise like the others, but with a hellish history it can’t escape. In the 1920s it was settled as an open air jail for Aboriginal people from over forty different tribes around Queensland. (By the early twentieth century all “full blood” Aborigines and “half- caste” women and children were required by law to live on one of the mostly mission-run settlements throughout the state, under government control.) If an Aborigine ‘misbehaved’ on a regular reserve— for instance, he asked about his wages, or was caught speaking a traditional language—he was sent, often in leg irons, to Palm Island, or Punishment Island as it was known. In its isolation the settlement became increasingly authoritarian: a kind of tropical gulag. Even in the early 1970s it was still completely segregated. After decades of failed government policy, it’s now a place with terrible health, life-expectancy, education, and economic prospects.
SR: For research you spent a long time living amongst Aboriginal women. What experiences and impressions have you retained from that time?
CH: I didn’t actually spend a long time living amongst Aboriginal women, but when I did travel to Palm Island or other Indigenous communities, I formed strong relationships with many women, including Cameron Doomadgee’s sister, Elizabeth. There’s a scene in The Tall Man where I go to a prayer meeting with Elizabeth and hear a group of older women singing Amazing Grace: I’ve certainly retained a sense of how graceful people can be in the midst of grief, or rage, or ongoing hardship.
CH: When I first started researching this case, Hurley struck me as almost a cartoon “Deep North” copper. His story of tripping through the doorway sounded straight out of Jim Crow Alabama, but slowly I realised he was far more complicated. As a young officer, Hurley had been posted to the Indigenous community of Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, where, according to the Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner, who was later his friend, Hurley realised he was a racist and decided to change his ways. He set up a sports club for local kids. And he continued serving in remote Aboriginal communities, along the way doing more volunteer work. I travelled to some of the places Hurley worked, around Cape York and the Gulf Country, and I spoke to many people who genuinely adored him; old people who found him respectful; kids who he’d taken camping and given driving lessons in the police van. My question then became how had a young, idealistic cop transformed from his brother’s keeper into his brother’s killer?
SR: And what of the victim, Cameron Doomadgee?
CH: Cameron Doomadgee was born with a terrible legacy: his grandparents were survivors of frontier violence in far-north Queensland; his parents were the survivors of Australia’s Stolen Generation. Cameron was by all accounts a peaceful, “happy-go-lucky” man who loved his family and never looked for a fight–but he was also an alcoholic. He and Hurley were the same age the morning they met: thirty-six. The terrible statistical truth is that Cameron had another decade to live according to the odds whereas Hurley had half his life ahead of him.
SR: How difficult and how important is it for an author to remain neutral in a case that excites such passions as this?
CH: In non-fiction, it’s important for the reader to feel they can trust the authorial voice—if they smell ideology or a political agenda the trust is blown.
SR: This case, like that of OJ Simpson in the US, seems to have grown to embody all of the hurt and guilt and prejudice at the heart of relations between native and white Australia. Is that a fair statement, and could you say a little about what has happened since the book was published?
CH: Perhaps less like Simpson than Rodney King…but I’ve often thought the Palm Island case takes Australians back to the nation’s original sin: a white man killing a black man; to a moment, as you say, full of hurt and guilt and prejudice. Certainly, the legal fight between Hurley and the Palm Island community is one neither side can give up. In 2006, a coroner found Hurley had fatally assaulted Cameron Doomadgee, but the following year he was acquitted of manslaughter. Most recently, Hurley has applied to have the coroner’s findings against him overturned. As a result, the inquest into the death in custody has been reopened. At the time of writing, a new coroner has just reheard the evidence as to what happened the morning of Doomadgee’s death, and we are waiting to see what findings he delivers.
SR: In February 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the Aboriginal population for the Stolen Generations and “laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.” What do you think this apology meant to Australians? What do you think the future holds for the Aboriginal population?
CH: I think the apology was a very important moment for Australians—full of hope and marking a national shift in consciousness. Unfortunately, however, the economic and social gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is as wide as ever.
SR: The last line of the book is: “I had wanted to know more about my country and now I did – now I knew more than I wanted to.” Do you still feel the same in retrospect and which elements of knowledge made you feel so strongly at the time?
CH: I hadn’t truly understood the depth of racism in Australia – now and in the past – and how it corrupts everything it touches. I don’t regret having a keener awareness of this, although it can still viscerally shock me.
SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
CH: This does seem to have been a delusion that’s stuck…
SR: Do you have a specific place in which you write?
CH: I usually work in my study at home.
SR: How do you structure your day as a writer?
CH: I try to get to work soon after getting up. (I’ve read somewhere that Alice Munro won’t even talk to her husband in the morning before going to the desk!) Then the battle against procrastination begins…
SR: What do you write on/with?
CH: I tend to make a lot of notes, put them on the computer and then do most of the serious work on my printed drafts.
SR: You seem to choose to write about difficult topics. How do you separate work from your personal life?
CH: You can’t separate completely, but writing this book was a very rich experience. There was also a lot of poetry and beauty in the story—which I hope in some way I capture.
SR: Are there any other ‘True Crime’ books you would urge us to read?
CH: I count Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer as a sort of meta-true crime book, about crime and the ethics and psychology of crime-reporting, which I would recommend to anyone.
SR: What do you think the appeal of True Crime books is? Is it the reportage aspect, or something murkier?
CH: Probably something murkier…I think people find true crime fascinating in part because it reveals the limits of human behaviour. There can also be a Hitchcockian element to the stories – a sort of “it could happen to you” element: people wake up, like Hurley probably did that morning, and think the day will be just like any other to find, however, that their lives will slip off their carefully laid tracks and they’ll be out of control.
SR: Which writers do you admire?
CH: Alice Munro, JM Coetzee, Charlotte Bronte…
SR: Are there any up and coming writers you are particularly excited about?
CH: It’s terrible, but I tend to read writers who are more established, partly to see if they have any tricks I can steal!
SR: What are your five favourite books?
CH: The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm; Disgrace, JM Coetzee; As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner; Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer
SR: Finally, are there any questions we should have asked but didn’t? Is there anything more you would like to say but haven’t had a chance to?
CH: I don’t think so, but thank you for asking.
SR: Chloe Hooper, thanks for giving us this fascinating insight into The Tall Man.
This interview was conducted by Sam on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich as part of the Summer Reads programme launching in June. For more information, please see www.summerreads.org.uk