Freedom Ride has been a confronting and emotional book to write, but rewarding on so many levels. And if I hadn't visited the Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling vessels, moored in Williamstown for the winter, the book may never have been written.
When I was younger, I marched in Anti-Nuclear protests, wrote articles about the proposed damming of the Franklin River, railed against apartheid in South Africa and supported the Save the Whale campaign. Basically, I wanted to change the world. These days I'm less militant, but certainly as aware and passionate. So, when I was asked to present as session at the Williamstown Writers' Festival, I took the opportunity to tour the Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker. The crew's passion and commitment were inspiring.
When I arrived at the festival, I told (raved at) my publisher, Maryann, about the crew and their story. She asked me to write a nonfiction book examining the role of protests and civil rights in shaping Australia. Being a protester from way back, I jumped at the chance.
It was while researching this nonfiction book that I came across the Australian 1965 Freedom Ride. I was dumbfounded. How had such a monumental event escaped my attention? I knew about Charles Perkins, Gary Foley and Vincent Lingiari. I knew about The Tent Embassy, Mabo and Maralinga, yet this was the first I'd read about the 1965 Freedom Ride. I couldn't understand how I had missed this important part of our history.
In my defence, I was two when it took place, but that doesn't explain why it had escaped my attention, especially when I was so appalled by apartheid conditions in South Africa.
Filled with horror at my ignorance and at the apartheid by another name that existed in Australia (referred to as the 'colour bar') I set about tracking down everything - newspaper articles, books, web pages, documentaries and actual footage - about the 1965 Freedom Ride. As I read and learned, and my understanding grew, I knew I had to write about it. But I had started another novel...
Fortunately, when I told Maryann that the 'Freedom Ride won't leave me alone' she was enthusiastic and encouraged me to write what is now Freedom Ride.
So I guess that is the inspiration behind the story. I wanted to explore how a teenager living in a town where discrimination was the norm, would respond. Would he have the courage to stand up for what he believed was right? Or would he keep quiet to avoid a fuss? And how would he see these students arriving to highlight the injustices?
I hope I'd have been as brave and strong as those students, and as my characters Robbie, Micky and Barry.
I guess my motivation can be summed up in philosopher George Santayana's quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We need to know about our past and remember it, so we can ensure that treatment and behaviour never occurs again. And we must remember the courage and passion of not only those students on the Freedom Ride, but others who have taken a stand when staying quieter would have been easier.
And if we know our past, we have a better understanding of the present - the importance of Reconciliation, the Stolen Generation and land rights. For me, Freedom Ride is about fostering empathy and starting a conversation.
Sue Lawson is a popular Australian young adult author. Her books include Pan's Whisper, Finding Darcy, Allie McGregor's True Colours, and the Diva series. Her latest novel, Freedom Ride (Walker Books), is a work of historical fiction set in the mid sixties in regional Australia. Visit Sue's website and Facebook page for more information about her books, workshops and author events.