When I was six years old, my family moved to Papua New Guinea. My father was a charter pilot, like Julie's father in New Guinea Moon, and there was plenty of work for pilots in PNG. It's such a mountainous and rugged country that there are few serviceable roads, even now, and Port Moresby remains one of the few — perhaps the only! — capital city not connected by road to any other major centre. That meant that in the Highlands, in the centre of the country, almost everything had to be flown in and out: cattle, coffins, coffee beans, corpses, Coca Cola.
We lived in PNG for five years. It was the 1970s, and I have many vivid memories of that time. I remember going to the weekly market and seeing locals in traditional dress, the men with fur and feather headdresses, and wide belts with bunches of leaves at the back, called as-gras in Tok Pisin, which is a wonderfully descriptive language! I remember violent thunderstorms and frequent earth tremors. I remember women chewing betel, and spitting out the orange slime. Lots of these memories have found their way into the book.
In 1975, during the time my family was living in PNG, the country gained its independence from Australian rule. For most Papua New Guineans, it was a time of great excitement and optimism about the future, but many members of the expatriate community were quite fearful. They were scared that law and order would break down, and that their livelihoods were threatened, even that they might be expelled from the country. Around the time of Independence quite a few expatriates packed up and left. Some remained, and a few showed their faith in the future by becoming PNG citizens, but that was the exception rather than the rule. New Guinea Moon is set in the summer of 1974-5, just on the eve of Independence, because I wanted to write about that unsettled, exciting time, which was both a beginning and an ending.
Because I was quite young when we lived in PNG, I didn't want to rely on just my own memories while I was writing the book. So I did a lot of reading and research, and I also talked to my parents about their experiences and discovered quite a few stories I hadn't heard before! My father loved his time there. He found the flying really exhilarating, in spite of the fact that it was so dangerous — or perhaps because of it! He would still love to go back and revisit PNG, and especially all the tiny mountain airstrips he used to fly in and out of.
But my mother feels quite differently. She recalls it as a very social time, with lots of dinners and drinks and parties, and a friendly, close-knit community. But there were also times when she felt quite unsafe and isolated, and a long way from home, and she was very relieved to get back to Australia. That was an interesting perspective to explore, and it helped me when I was writing the adult characters in New Guinea Moon.
One of the most difficult parts of writing this book was the need to think myself inside the head of my main character, Julie, who is sixteen and visiting PNG for the first time. There were so many aspects of our life there — like segregated schools, having house servants, the missionary activities of my friends' parents — that I just accepted without question. But Julie is troubled by many of these things, and learning enough to answer her questions was one of the big rewards of researching and writing.
The working title of this book was actually Independence, because I was interested in exploring the parallels between PNG as a nation on the verge of attaining independence from colonial rule, and Julie's journey toward personal independence, the freedoms and responsibilities of growing up. Because in the end, this isn't just the story of a fascinating place or an intriguing moment in history: it's the story of one young woman discovering first love, and family secrets, and an inner steel she never knew she possessed.
New Guinea Moon is published by Allen & Unwin. It was released in late February 2013 and is available at all good bookstores. You can read our review of New Guinea Moon here and you can visit Kate's website to find out more about New Guinea Moon and her other books.